Senor Ben goes up high into the Andean mountains (Ecuador)

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November 29th 2022
Published: November 30th 2022
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(Day 152 on the road) If one had secretly beamed me from Colombia into Ecuador, it would have taken me a while to realize that I am in a different country at all. The two neighbours are pretty similar to me as an ignorant foreigner - the language of course, the culture, the food (think fried chicken with rice), the beautiful Andean landscape, the aggressive street dogs, the car alarms going off 143 times day and night, the incredible friendliness of the people.

One thing that is different in Ecuador is the proficiency of the English language. A fair number of people here speak either pretty good or at least basic English, which is a very welcome change from Colombia, where literally nobody spoke any English. It might be related to the fact that a whopping 20%!o(MISSING)f the ~18 millions Ecuadorians live abroad (mostly in the USA and Spain), but a guy from Quito I spoke to told me that the school system is set up differently in the two countries. In any case: I liked it, as after four months in South America now, my Spanish is unfortunately far from being good enough for anything more than fairly basic conversations. It is also nice to visit museums which actually have English explanations, something that I almost never saw in Colombia.

Also, there are a lot more tourists here than there were in Colombia. Which surprised me a bit, since these days it seems everybody in Europe is either just coming back from their Colombia trip or is planning to go very soon. I have never heard anybody talk about Ecuador. But I assume the high density of attractions in a fairly small country does attract a good number of backpackers and even more (adventurous) holiday makers.

For me, the long days on the rough mountain roads in Colombia, the cold nights at the high altitudes and the lack of sleep took its toll, and I spent my first days in Ecuador with a bit of a sore throat and some coughing. After the painless border crossing at the international bridge Rumichaca, I thus decided to lay low for a few days in the city of Otavalo. I found a nice hostal as a good base to explore the city (including its amazing Saturday market) and its surroundings, especially the beautiful crater Laguna Cuicocha.

Up next was a week in vibrant Quito, a city which I took an instant liking to. With 2.8 millions people and situated at almost 3.000 metres, it is the highest capital city in the world (La Paz in Bolivia is higher, but interestingly not the capital - Sucre is). With my cosy guesthouse as a base (with even a small electrical heater for the chilly evenings), I explored various aspects of Quito, including the cool cable car TeleferiQo, which whisks you up to 4.000 meters, offering amazing views of Quito down below.

Unfortunately, the security situation for tourists is not much better here in Ecuador than in Colombia, especially in Quito. I heard many different stories of fellow travellers being robbed. The most common issues are (very skilled) pickpockets on buses, but I also heard of a guy who had his phone grabbed in broad daylight in downtown Quito. The worst I heard was the poor Canadian woman at my hostel in Riobamba, who had her entire backpack stolen: She got out of her taxi when the driver sped away before she could get her bag out. Literally everything she had was gone. Yikes.

After Quito, a visit to the Equator at La Mitad del Mundo just north of the city (no points for guessing where Ecuador gets its name from) and a few days in pretty Mindo were next on my itinerary. Then it was time to hit the back roads and move south, to the hot springs of Papallacta. I had definitely left the gringo trail on this part of travels - there were hundreds of Ecuadorian tourists at the enormous hot springs - and me. It was a great experience.

I also enjoyed the fact that hitching is a lot easier in Ecuador than in Colombia. With Colombia's history of its bloody civil war, people were mostly reluctant to take hitch hikers. Here in Ecuador, this is not an issue, and I was able to hitch-hike a lot, even a number of longer stretches of three to four hours. These hitches were the best: Where a bus would take 5 to 6h on those winding, mountainous roads (also stopping constantly to pick up or drop off passengers), the same journey would take just 2h in a car. Pretty nice. Also, the buses here in Ecuador are typically of much worse quality than their counterparts in Colombia. And they typically play bad movies at a simply incredible volume, which can be unbearable on longer journeys. Countless times I have asked drivers to please turn the volume, but it normally doesn't have much effect unfortunately. Very annoying indeed.

The next highlight was the famous town of Banos. As the name suggests, the city sports a couple of hot springs. They are open air and open late at night, and soaking in the hot waters (and enjoying a relaxing massage) was just perfect after a day of hiking in the mountains flanking the city. Banos lies at ~2.000 meres and located in a narrow valley, with mountains rising on both sides. And 2.000 metres might just be the perfect altitude when it comes to the Andes - days were just nice at around 20 degrees, and nights were pleasant as well.

In Banos, I also realized that the children I had seen working in restaurants or little shops in Ecuador were not the exception, but actually very common. Children, sometimes below 10 years of age, are frequently helping their parents out, often as waiters, but also as shop assistances. This is something I haven't seen much in Colombia, but is fairly prevalent here in Ecuador. One factor is surely that Ecuador was forced to give up its own currency in the past, now having the US Dollar as its official currency. This also translates into Ecuador actually being a fairly expensive country. Compared to Colombia, the GDP per person is lower, yet prices for many things are considerably higher (go figure what that means for the quality of life for the population). A coffee for instance at the popular and wide-spread chain Juan Valdez costs almost double here in Ecuador compared to Colombia.

On my next stop, in Quilotoa, I stumbled across a pretty amazing Quechua village wedding. I arrived around 14h on a minivan from Latacunga on a Saturday afternoon, and the celebrations were already in full swing. Quilotoa lies at roughly 4.000 meters, and the temperature was about 6 degrees, dropping steadily as the afternoon and evening progressed. Hundreds of guests from all surrounding villages had come to honour the bride and the groom, all dressed for the occasion. Alcohol was flowing freely, there were two stages with two bands, and next to the unpaved open air plaza, there was some serious bullfighting going on. Local youth dared their luck by enraging the poor bulls with their jackets or blankets, running away in panic and climbing the surrounding wooden fence when the bull would charge them. Most people made it to safety, but I also witnessed a too eager young man get hit by the bull full-on. It was very sad but also very fascinating to watch. All in all, it was a crazy event for sure; I enjoyed it immensely - and literally emptied the battery of my camera capturing the locals in their traditional wear.

Meanwhile, the party guests kept drinking and dancing, and by 16h I saw the first guest puking on their friends feet. By 18h, there were a considerable amount of people who could neither walk nor stand any more. But that didn’t stop them from drinking. The music would continue until early in the morning, and unluckily, my hospedaje was right next to the outdoor festive area. So I did the smart thing: If you can't beat them, join them. My salsa moves were a little rusty, but it’s not like I (or anybody else) cared a great deal, plus the dancing helped a lot with the freezing Andean temperatures.

The next day, I did a trailrun around the beautiful crater lake Quilotoa is famous for, and I can say that running up and down at just under 4.000 metres is truly challenging. After jogging up even small hills, I frequently had to resort to walking, as there simply was not enough oxygen, no matter how hard I breathed. A pretty interesting experience.

After 4.000 metres (and being really well acclimatized after a many weeks now spent at high altitudes), I had the urge to go yet a little higher. I had toyed with the idea of climbing the famous 5.897 metres Cotopaxi, a 2-day mini-expedition that is tough due to the altitude but doable if you are reasonably fit. Unfortunately, Cotopaxi is not a dormant volcano, and as it happened it became more active just two weeks prior. So the summit was closed by the authorities. However, it was possible to go up to the last refugio up the mountain, and together with a nice Canadian woman I enjoyed a very nice day trip. The best part was biking down the volcano at the end of the day, from about 4.800 metres all the way down to the Panamericana at 3.200 metres.

I did a similar thing a few days later at the highest mountain of Ecuador, the Chimborazo. Climbing this 6,263 metres volcano was not an option for me - you need proper mountaineering experience and money (think ice axes, ropes, crampons, steep climbing sections, plus 600 dollars). Although I did meet two people at my hostal in Riobamba who had attempted the ascent - and failed. I was very happy with another day trip, reaching an altitude of over 5.100 metres, the highest I have been in my life. The day trip culminated in another pure downhill mountainbike descent, this time even wilder and more spectacular than on Cotopaxi.

And then it was time to visit Cuenca, by many regarded as the most beautiful city of Ecuador. And its historic centre did not disappoint; it was a very nice mix of old colonial buildings, churches and museum, complete with cozy cafes serving great breakfast. It also sports it own version of Banos, where I spent a relaxing evening forever changing the colour of my green swim shorts by opting for the "Red Mud Therapy" special treatment they had on offer for Black Friday.

Hitting high altitudes one last time before leaving the Ecuadorian Andes for the hot and humid coast in Guayaquil, I spent a day hiking in the sublime Cajas National Park. Known for its many lakes and at altitudes ranging from 3.500 to 4.300 metres, it was a beautiful daytrip from Cuenca, before taking the bus down to Guayaquil the next day. Driving from 2.600 metres across a final 4.100 metre pass and then descending straight down to sea level at ~35 degrees and high humidity in less than 4h was a bit of a shock, but it sure felt nice to swap long pants and warm socks for shorts and sandals.

I had been a bit uneasy about Guayaquil, as violent gang fights have plagued the city for a good month now. It is a major transportation hub for drugs to the USA, and there are currently about four murders every day in the city. The Ecuadorian government responded with a state of emergency for the entire and a 21 o'clock curfew, and of course there were strict travel warnings from most governments for the city. But as Guayaquil is the jumping point for the flights to Galapagos, there was no practical way to avoid it. And in the end, it was fine. The neighbourhood of Las Penas and the area around the beautiful Malecon where I stayed seemed perfectly save. Police and private security presence was heavy, and although such a high concentration of security always makes me feel a bit uneasy, in this case it was reassuring to see them around.

And with that, I have left the mountainous area of Ecuador for good, planning to spend my remaining weeks in Ecuador on Galapagos (very excited!) and the pacific coastal region. Onwards.

My route in Ecuador (so far): Tulcan - Otavalo - Quito - Mindo - Papallacta - Tena - Rio Verde - Banos - Quilotoa - Latacunga - Cotopaxi - Salinas - Chimborazo - Riobamba - Alausi - Cuenca - Guayaquil.

Next stop: Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos Islands (Ecuador).

To view my photos, have a look at


1st December 2022

Ciao from the Netherlands
Hi Ben, What a pleasant surprise to receive an email in my mailbox with once more your travel stories. It has been a while, but look forward to read more of your stories. Your experiences in Ecuador sound wondeful, I might follow some of your route when I visit the country (wishing...).
12th December 2022

Exploring Andean Peaks and more
I always enjoy your blogs. We are doing Northern Chile and Ecuador next year so I enjoyed gathering information from your adventure. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on the Galapagos. Quilotoa Lake looks lovely.

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