A funny thing happened to us in South America that hasn’t happened pretty much anywhere else we have been. We lost weight. A bunch of weight. To be completely honest, I don’t know how much weight yet since we have not weighed ourselves but we have both noticed a significant amount of weight being shed. I wouldn’t be surprised if I have lost 10 pounds over the past couple of months. Maybe more.
A short man in a light blue jean jacket stole my wallet. A successful pickpocket in Otavalo, Ecuador, the site of the world’s biggest Saturday outdoor market, is now the proud holder of a bright orange slightly used zipper wallet.
Every trip carries the risk of pickpocketing. And as every seasoned traveller will tell you, all you can do is minimize the pain when it happens to you. And it will happen to you – perhaps on your first trip or maybe it’ll be years into your travels. But inevitably, there is that day when someone takes something of yours when you least expect it, or in my case, in a situation ripe for the taking.
Border regions can often be zones of tension and hostilities. Our goal for travelling in South America was to start in Colombia and head south overland. This meant that we would be crossing a number of potentially interesting borders. The first on our list – overland from Colombia to Ecuador – was perhaps the most intimidating border we could have started with. According to the Canadian Foreign Affairs travel advisory for Colombia, the southern region between Popayán and the Colombia-Ecuador border should be a no-go zone. More specifically it states:
There are three possible land crossings from Ecuador to Peru: along the coast through Huaquillas, deep in the Amazon basin through Nuevo Rocafuerte, and along the southern sierra through Macará. As we were travelling down the highlands, the most convenient and easiest crossing was through Macará.
Despite having crossed many a land border with nary an incident, it is still one of my most hated parts of travel. Luckily this is one of those easy crossings where one bus will take you all the way through from Loja, Ecuador through the little border town of Macará to your final destination of Piura, Peru.
And so with all our best intentions, two days after arriving in Quito, Ecuador, sitting outside the Galapagos Islands Travel Operator, we negotiated our first major travel decision, and changed the course of our trip together.
Sue and Pete had a budget that we’d all agreed to. And I had a clock that had started ticking down. Rodrigo, our tour operator, had placed in front of us a deck of multiple last minute Galapagos tours. We now needed to find a “once in a lifetime” experience amongst the cards we were dealt.
When we did our planning for our round-the-world trip, we had very vague plans for our South America leg. Other than setting a $50/person budget for the region, we didn’t plan for any major tours or excursions. This, in hindsight, was a mistake and we’ve had to do some budget manoeuvring since.
One of those major budget recalibrations came when we got to Ecuador and, along with our friend Anusha who joined us for 3 weeks, decided that the Galapagos was a must do. The question was how to do it without breaking the bank?
The ruins of Ingapirca are the best Inca ruins in Ecuador and lie a couple hours by bus north of the city of Cuenca. As ruins in South America go, it’s not a bad site but it is a far cry from Machu Picchu. The incas were not the first ones to settle the spot – the Canari were there before – but they did make a number of additions to the site, notably the temple of the sun, an elliptical building which is by far the best remaining structure of the site.
If you are interested in going to visit the ruins, you can take a bus from the main bus station in Cuenca for $5.00 a round trip. The walk around the ruins doesn’t take long and the park entrance fee – $6.00 – includes a tour guide. You can be back in Cuenca by about 4pm or so leaving lots of time for dinner.
Much to our surprise, we loved Cuenca. I’m not exactly sure what it was exactly but we really enjoyed our time there. It has a useful market, pretty cathedrals and the mandatory hill to climb to get a view of the city. It’s not a small city but it does have a small little downtown area which is cute and fun to walk. We kicked around for three days, walking along the river and then going out of town to visit the ruins at Ingapirca.
After the Galapagos and Banos, we didn’t really hit on many gems where we felt compelled to linger. Ecuador is a beautiful country to be sure but for some reason, many of the cities and places didn’t call out to us. Cuenca seemed to be an exception and we regret not taking a few extra days to enjoy it more.
Banos is said to be one of the “must see” stops in Ecuador. It is found at the base of a large active vulcano, Tungurahua and is surrounded on all sides by hills making for some beautiful pictures. It has bungee jumping, dirt biking an various other “extreme” sporting options.
After you are done with your “extreme” side, you can indulge the lazy person inside of you and lounge in the natural hot springs which are fed by the vulcano.
While we didn’t take part in the extreme sports, we did enjoy the baths and hiked up to the lookouts to snap some pictures and had some relaxing time in the evening sitting in the baths.
There’s been more than enough written about the Galapagos Islands that our two cents won’t hold up much. So I won’t really bother but to say that the islands are a magical place that deserve their reputation and, unfortunately, their outrageously high price tag. We saw all the usual suspects as you can see below as well as a lot of underwater creatures we simply weren’t equipped to capture. All the same, our 8 day adventure in the Galapagos will go down as a top 5 experience of our trip for sure.