Ecuador, Part 2: Hiking, Hot Springs and Housesitting

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October 6th 2018
Published: October 6th 2018
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Cotopaxi National ParkCotopaxi National ParkCotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi is one of the highest peaks in Ecuador, at 5,897 metres (19,347 feet) above sea level. Fi climbed to the summit of it in January 2000.
Our last blog entry saw us in Quito, finishing off the sale of our Colorado home, which, we are pleased (and a little surprised) to report, went off without a hitch and officially made us homeless again! There was one moment of tension, when we were at the DHL office trying to send off the closing documents, which included the signed and notarized deed, to the title company in Colorado, and noticed that the employee assisting us had not entered the destination address in the correct US format, and had recorded the recipient's phone number without the area code on the mailing label. When I tactfully pointed this out, she assured me that that was the way it was always done in Ecuador. We went round and round this issue for a minute or two before I began to notice steam coming out of Ken's ears as he not so tactfully pointed out that he had lived in the US for nearly 50 years and knew how addresses and phone numbers had to be written! Needless to say, I had to use my diplomatic skills to strike a middle ground and eventually the employee agreed to make the changes and we all breathed a sigh of relief (the employee at knowing that Ken was almost out of the office for good!)

So to celebrate the house sale we packed up Tortuga and headed to Cotopaxi National Park, where we camped at 3700 metres (~12,000 feet) at an enormous free campground, which seemed more than big enough to accommodate the seven or eight small groups of campers that arrived during the afternoon. We meticulously chose our secluded spot, hundreds of metres away from the other groups (one of us has an aversion to being too close to other people!), and were congratulating ourselves on the clever choice of location, when just before dark a car load of young Ecuadorians rolled in and proceeded to pitch their tent literally about 5 metres from Tortuga! It's no exaggeration to say that this campground could easily have fit a small airport or a nine-hole golf course within its boundaries, and yet for some reason this group felt drawn to set up camp so close to us that we could hear every little rustle, sniffle and sneeze. To be fair, they were pretty considerate and not too noisy, and the freezing temperatures forced them into
Baños central plazaBaños central plazaBaños central plaza

We spent a few days in the tourist town of Baños, which we really enjoyed and were very happy to find some good international restaurants there.
their tiny tent by 11pm, but in the morning when we went for a hike up the mountain above the campground it was hilarious to see how close they actually were to us, with so much empty camping space radiating from our little nucleus in every direction! Anyway we enjoyed our time there, and managed a fairly taxing hike towards the summit of Ruminahui, making it to about 4300 metres (~14,000-ft.).

From Cotopaxi we made a small side trip south to Laguna Quilotoa, which was a bit of a washout because of the drizzly weather, but memorable for the wrong turn that Google Maps directed us to take: the result being a harrowing drive down a steep dirt road that became narrower and narrower until it was no more than an impassable goat track on a ridgeline, with steep drops on each side, forcing Ken to have to engage 4WD low and reverse all the way back up, with me directing him like an apron controller at an airport (a plight that has been repeated several times since, always thanks to Google Maps' misdirection!). The lake was pretty even in the dreary weather, but it wasn't worth doing the
Roasted guinea pigs (cuy)Roasted guinea pigs (cuy)Roasted guinea pigs (cuy)

This is an Andean specialty, not for those fond of domesticated animals!
5 hour hike around, so we packed up the next day and travelled on to the lovely little town of Baños, famous for its numerous thermal springs which are naturally heated by the active Tungurahua volcano nearby. The town is quite a bit lower down in altitude, at around 1800 metres (5,850 feet), so we enjoyed some warmer weather and the opportunity to eat at some good restaurants, as well as a hike up the mountain outside of town to watch a local downhill mountain bike race. We thought it would be a crime to not indulge in at least one hot springs soaking while we were there, so chose the new Termas de la Virgen complex, complete with saunas, steam rooms and - to Ken's delight - three waterslides! It was a weekend, so heaving with locals, but the volcanic-heated hot tubs were really nice and Ken had a great time perfecting his sliding technique (alongside hundreds of small Ecuadorian children!).

We dragged ourselves away from the town after a few nights and headed towards Cuenca, with an overnight stop in Alausi (and yet another harrowing wrong-turn mishap thanks to Google Maps!), where we camped at a small guest house along with a Swiss couple who were on their way north to Colombia. Alausi is one of the places where you can catch the famous Devil's Nose train, which winds through some stunning scenery and which used to let you sit up on the roof during the trip. But that is no longer allowed, and tickets were a little pricey, so we gave it a miss but still enjoyed the scenery on the drive down to Cuenca. Cuenca is regarded as the cultural capital of Ecuador and we liked it instantly. It's a favourite retirement destination for expats (mostly Americans) and it is obvious why: pleasant climate, very friendly people, clean and modern infrastructure, excellent healthcare, great restaurants, a lot of art and music, and surrounded by gorgeous mountains. The icing on the cake for us was Cajas National Park, just 40 minutes outside of Cuenca, giving access to some incredible hiking trails at elevations of over 4000 metres and full of lakes, forests and rugged peaks (it reminded me of parts of Snowdonia in North Wales). We camped up there for two nights at the visitor centre and did few great hikes before heading back to the city and renting an Airbnb apartment for a week.

During our stay we visited a few mountain bike shops and were excited to find out that there is a lot of really high-class biking around the area, and a well-established mountain bike culture, which is of course very important for us. The town itself has a very well-preserved colonial centre, with hundreds of lovely old churches, and a really nice river-walk trail running along much of the Tomebamba river right in the city. Nearly all tourists to Ecuador come to Cuenca, so we could see that there would be a lot of opportunities for us to start up some kind of business in the tourism industry (maybe bikepacking and/or hiking tours?...). Another treat was being able to meet up with two overlanding couples whom we had crossed paths with earlier in South America: Yasmin and Stefan from Switzerland/Germany, and Charles and Kim from Quebec. We had dinner at an Indian restaurant with Stefan and Yasmin, and a Thai meal out with Charles and Kim (so exciting to have some of our favourite foods again!), and it was great to catch up on everyone's travels and exchange a few amusing
Lunch at the Luna Runtun hotel, BañosLunch at the Luna Runtun hotel, BañosLunch at the Luna Runtun hotel, Baños

We hiked up a trail from town and were surprised to find ourselves at the luxury Luna Runtun hotel, which has a wonderful view of Baños. Luckily for us, the lunch menu was a lot more affordable than the rooms there!
travelers' tales. Most of our travelling friends are now well into Peru, as they are all heading down to the tip of Argentina and need to be down there by the end of the year to make sure they hit the better weather in Patagonia (never guaranteed, mind you!). Meanwhile us two slow-coaches are on a different mission, and have no intention of making it so far south!

Anyway after a week in Cuenca we were smitten with the place, but it was time to carry on south as we had a housesitting commitment to get to, starting at the beginning of October. And that brings us to where we are now, looking after a house in Vilcabamba, which is south of Cuenca and not too far from the Peruvian border. We were very fortunate to be chosen for this housesit, as the owners had about 30 other applicants and we had no previous housesitting experience. The owners are a lovely American couple from New York, who have returned to the States for a month and have entrusted their beautiful home and gorgeous little dog, Roxy, to us for the duration of their trip. Our duties include pool maintenance,
Rescue dog heroRescue dog heroRescue dog hero

This statue in Baños pays tribute to a little rescue dog who lost his life while helping to find people in the rubble of an earthquake a few years ago.
a lot of watering of plants and flowers, keeping the house secure, and of course caring for Roxy. Ken, whose duties include outdoor plant watering, is a little nervous about going outside since each time he's done so in order to water plants, he finds a couple dozen more! He started counting, but lost count after 200. The property is beautifully landscaped, so we're going to do our best to keep this botanical nursery alive and healthy until the homeowners return. I don't wish to intrude on their privacy by posting a bunch of photos of their home here, but will include just one of the pool area to give you a glimpse! It is really a treat to be living, albeit temporarily, in a real home (and such a beautiful one as this), on a mountaintop outside a relaxed Ecuadorian town, and getting to know the area more profoundly than we would if just passing through in Tortuga. And we love having a cute, furry four-legged critter to care for again! We will be at the house until 1st November, at which point we have to return to Cuenca to extend our tourist visas by another 90 days...
Gasoline: $1.48 per gallon!Gasoline: $1.48 per gallon!Gasoline: $1.48 per gallon!

It's cheaper than milk! But doesn't taste as good on cereal.

That's because we really like Cuenca, and Ecuador in general, and feel that this could be our future home! It has everything we were looking for and is by far the place we have most enjoyed on our 11-month trip in Tortuga. Our plan had been to keep travelling south into Peru and Chile, and while that is still a possibility, we think we might just give Cuenca a go and see if we can make a life here. We are currently looking into visa requirements for residency in Ecuador and it seems pretty straightforward, so we will keep you posted. At the moment, we intend to stay in Ecuador until at least the New Year, and may then ship Tortuga back to the US and fly ourselves back so that we can start applying for residency (this can take quite a few months to obtain). We're very excited about this prospect and will let you know what happens next!

For now, thanks for following our trip and be sure to take a look at the photos below, 22 in all!

~ Fi and Ken

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Our Airbnb in CuencaOur Airbnb in Cuenca
Our Airbnb in Cuenca

The apartment was not bad, and only $26 a night, but we timed our occupancy perfectly to coincide with major reconstruction work in the apartment constant hammering and drilling above our heads, coupled with what must have been the busiest street in Cuenca, made for a somewhat noisy stay!
Vilcabamba fire houseVilcabamba fire house
Vilcabamba fire house

...with a raging wildfire on the mountain right behind! There seemed to be no sense of urgency at the fire fact I think the firefighters were sitting around playing cards!!
Our housesit in VilcabambaOur housesit in Vilcabamba
Our housesit in Vilcabamba get the picture!

7th October 2018

Good to hear from you!
wow! It sounds like you may have found your new home! Good for you. So, if you closed on the house here in Pagosa, is it safe for me to stop checking your mailbox? From what I can see, that mailbox is still assigned to you. Just wondering if you closed your post office account here permanently. Things here are relatively the same. We have finally gotten some rain and I noticed this morning that the mountaintops had snow on them. The first snow of the year. And I am so grateful for the much-needed moisture! Other than that, nothing's really new. I may be traveling up to Aspen this coming week but my dad is in the hospital with some problem with his pacemaker and I might have to swap Aspen for New York. I should know by tonight. As always, it's so good to hear about your travels and I'm so happy that you may have found a place to live! And just remember, if you're coming through Pagosa you are always more than welcome to stay here with me. Paula

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