Otavalo, Ecuador

This is the last in our blog series for Ecuador. To read from the start of our Ecuador travel journal click here

We spent a fun week in picturesque, sleepy indigenous town Otavalo, drinking a lot of rum and eating all the foods with our old travel buddy from Chile, Amelie. We also did a couple of pretty hikes there in the surrounding countryside, and checked out the famous Saturday market.

We lucked out in finding an almost deserted crazy-cheap hostel ran by a super chill Senora, where we could drink on the hostel rooftop, cook big brunches in the little kitchen, and play our party tunes in the evening, without any care. It quickly started to feel like home. We also met a cool long-term hostel resident, American traveller and music fan Mark in his 60s, who sometimes joined in with our drinking fun, and he and Sam spent a few evenings playing guitar and harmonica together (and whilst drunk, I even joined in on vocals which was surprisingly fun!)

We nursed hungover days searching the town for cheap tasty eats, from local typicas to big juicy American burgers (from brilliant American ex-pat restaurant Sloppy Joe’s), Sam had a second try at guinea pig (apparently much better oven-cooked!) and tried chicken feet, we found favourite eateries like a super cheap Mexican with $2.50 lunch deals, and so, SO may good bakeries.

Our 2nd anniversary fell in our time there, and we celebrated with a delicious fruity sponge cake we found for a crazy $1.50!

We also did some nice hikes – including one that Amelie and I took to nearby Pechuge waterfall, which took us through an indigenous village of families dyeing fabrics in the river, past hot springs, woodland, and an ancient sundial. After losing our way within 10 minutes of hiking, the cute kids of the village ran up from the river to help us back on track, and we subsequently trekked with the most adorable Ecuadorian couple, taking photos for each other en route.

Life around Otovalo was a dreamy mix of cute little towns and beautiful mountains (and dinosaur topiary!) and it was super easy to hike on trails, roads and railway tracks..

Another trek was the tough but rewarding 5+ hour trek around Laguna Cuicocha which took us around the edge of a stunning crater lake, through high altitude, up steep dusty climbs, through burning sun, strong winds, and a country road at the end. Hungover and frankly totally winded by the hike, I decided at this point to quit smoking (again!) Let’s see how that goes…!

The most famous thing to do in Otavalo – we also checked out the Saturday market, which was cool if a bit full-on, as we walked the streets around Plaza de Poncho looking at hammocks, bags, traditional clothes, ponchos and all manner of crafty goods. I bought a bright pink soft baby alpaca scarf for a bargain $6, and we did plenty of window shopping – though found the prices were hiked up a lot vs. the midweek prices. Bloody gringo influx!

Prior to the craft market we also checked out the morning cattle market, where we saw all the animals – from pigs to cows to guinea pigs to rabbits and kittens, being herded around and caged up for purchase. I had to turn off the European alarm bells ringing in my head about the treatment of these animals, as a) we have so much factory farming in Europe and b) this is just normal life out here! It was an interesting local experience, despite some wincing (and a strong urge to buy all the cute puppies and kittens and rescue the guinea pigs from imminent slaughter!)

Overall we found Otavalo to be an easy place to wile away a week due to it’s super friendly indigenous population, the beautiful surrounding scenery, the mad cheap prices and great local flavour. The street food was the most abundant and tasty that we’d seen anywhere in Ecuador, the markets bursting with exotic fruits and veggies, and local folk music travelled on the air. Even the bin men’s truck had its own folk song jingle! I’d really recommend it for independent travellers looking for somewhere to unwind and enjoy the slower pace of highland life.

Next we took the bus over the border to our final South American country, Columbia!

Galapagos Islands: Isabella

This is part of a three part series.

We’d heard a lot of great things about Isabella being the best island to chill on as an independent traveler – with lots of beautiful beaches and lots to see for free, so we put aside a good 6 days to see it all.

After receiving the usual response about camping (this time the only campsite was halfway up a volcano!) we found another cheap hostel – our favourite on the islands, Posada Caminante. It had a hammock area, free oranges, free water, a kitchen, and free laundry in exchange for a ‘like’ on Facebook. How cool is that? We also had fridges in our rooms, pretty pimpin! And all for $25 a night (post negotiations)

So the hostel was a pretty cool place to chill and chat to fellow travellers, and after our head-spinning travel day of 2 nausea-inducing boats in one day, we took a day off to relax and re-set. Enjoying the novelty of having a kitchen again, we cooked noodles and pasta and eggs (the cheapest things given the hefty Galapagos tax on store-bought goods!) and walked around town, finding the cheapest lunch places and checking out the beaches and lagoons. 

Isabella has a kind of dusty dirt-road beachy vibe about it, and feels more relaxed, and more like a regular town, than the other islands. There are sports fields, bingo halls, old guys sitting on their porches drinking, and kids cycling round on their bikes. We felt like we’d taken a break from our frenetic pace of activities.. Snorkelling, boats, tour, boats..!

After a day of chilling we decided to see most of the island’s in-land attractions, which are easily done on foot (you really don’t need to get taxis or tours everywhere!) We walked first to Isabella’s Giant Tortoise Reserve, via red lagoons with neon pink flamingos and paths strewn with marine iguanas…

The reserve was really cool, as we arrived at breakfast time and got to watch all the tortoises, from babies to oldies, munching away on leaves and stems, and working together to tear and chew the tough plants in slow motion with their gummy mouths! 

We also learnt in a little museum that the species that settlers brought with them, from rats to cats to goats, were the main contributor to totally fucking up the Giant Tortoises’ breeding, as they destroy eggs and any turtles that haven’t developed their hard shells yet. They’ve still got a long way to go to reverse all this damage!

We then took a long, hot walk to the infamous ‘Wall of Tears’ which was built by prisoners as a mode of torture, hauling heavy volcanic lava rocks from the highlands to build a tragically impressive wall. Hundreds died from exhaustion or being shot for not building fast enough. The prison was here as late as 1959 which beggars belief, as the islands were just opening up as a tourist hot spot at this time! Pretty sobering stuff.

Our walk was really scenic and took us past beaches, a pretty cemetery, through patches of woodland where we found giant tortoises roaming wild and free, an estuary where you can walk through mangroves, and a mirador from which you can see some of the island’s four volcanoes, and a dramatic view from the highlands to the sea. Our only advise for this walk would be to take plenty of water, because at a 5-hour round trip, in the baking heat, our 1 litre Nalgene was woefully inefficient and we were crazy parched by the end!

After a delicious 2-course lunch of soup, grilled fish, rice and salad at our favourite restaurant Cesar’s, we watched the sunset on a pretty patch of beach, and were lucky enough to see a HUGE feeding frenzy taking place in the sea! 

There were hundreds of boobies and pelicans flying in swarms and dive-bombing into the water in hoards, creating an entrancing visual effect as they repeated the process: fly, swoop, dive, feed, fly.. Round and round. Tons of tourists from nearby bars and hotels ran out onto the beach and started filming on their phones. It was pretty special! 

The next day, feeling ready for the water again after a couple of days’ respite, we headed to the port for snorkelling at Concha de Perla Bay, where, after clambering over a load of sunbathing sealions and marine iguanas on the jetty, we swam with yet more tropical fish, our first ray, and even a Galápagos penguin! 

The current is super strong in places at the bay, and after a while swimming round and through the mangroves we found ourselves swept out on a fierce cold current, the upside of which being we saw a couple of penguins swimming in the current alongside us underwater (while we clung onto rocks for dear life to avoid getting swept into the rudders of nearby boats!)

That afternoon, we checked out Isabella’s own ‘Playa del Amor’ which was little more than a tiny cove of rocks with a local family sunbathing, but it was a pretty cool spot to chill and take too many photos (again!) of the nesting marine iguanas and flock of blue-footed boobies on the rocks.

Now, for the TRUE HIGHLIGHT of Isabella (any maybe even the Galapagos!) – our tour to Los Tunneles. If you only do one trip on the islands, I urge you to make it this one.

So Los Tunneles are a group of volcanic rock ‘tunnels’ and arches that have formed in the water, and in and around the tunnels lurk a crazy amount of wildlife. The snorkelling there is out of this world. 

After a very choppy 45 minute speedboat trip we arrived at our first stop where we walked on the rocks and observed white tip sharks swimming in the water below us, and our guide told us all about the mating rituals of blue-footed boobies and giant sea turtles whilst we watched them on rocks and underwater. 

Then 10 minutes later we were at our first snorkelling spot where we swam in warm clear water with huge fish, an eagle ray, and chased a white tipped shark to his home under a rock. 

Our guides were fantastic and helped us swim through the rock tunnels (which didn’t come naturally to me, as I bumped my head pretty hard on the first effort!) and they held us deep under water so we could watch the families of sharks under the rocks and peer into nests of seahorses in the mangroves, one at a time so as not to disturb them. They could spot the tiniest creatures from miles away and were always pointing something new out to us!

Exhilarated by our first snorkel through the stunning water, we then stopped at a second spot which was so fantastic it had me and Sam gibbering on about it for days to anyone who would listen. It was here that we swam with yet more of what was now becoming crazily normal (sea lions, huge fish, chasing sharks, observing seahorses) but also saw a couple of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen…

The first was a pack (shoal?) of 20+ golden rays swimming in formation through the water, gliding in a huge pyramid, showing their white bellies and their spindly tails. We followed them in awe until our guides steered us off to give them some space… 

Then moments later we saw a beautiful spotted eagle ray swimming below us, and moments after that, two giant female sea turtles that were about 5ft long! 

It was insane watching such a huge creature swimming through the sea, and we were lucky that our guide (armed with his proper underwater camera!) managed to capture a snap of Sam swimming with one of the beautiful, majestic creatures. Truly breathtaking!

We also had some laughs with a couple of Galápagos penguins (the northernmost penguin in the world!) – one of which loved posing for pictures, so I got behind the guy for a quick selfie (obvs!) 

When we got back to shore we saw a load of the guys swimming around at the port too – super cute! They’re endemic to Isabella only so we were super happy we got to see them upclose!

And another great thing about this tour (as well as the wildlife and the brilliant guiding from our two park rangers) was that it was only $85 (vs the $110 we paid for disappointing Kicker Rock) and in terms of what we saw, was so much better value. Everyone on Isabella told us it was the most comprehensive tour, and it really was!

That evening, giddy from post-tour high (and literally giddy for me with post-boat motion sickness!) we took to the roof of our hostel for our first night of drinking in nearly 2 weeks, and we managed almost a whole bottle of local firewater aguardiente (sugar cane brandy) whilst listening to a LOUD local game of bingo that was played to the whole island over loudspeaker! This confident return to drinking meant that the next day was pretty much a write-off and not worth writing about…Suffice to say, we lazed, I ate ceviche, and it was goooood.

Then for our last few days we headed back to Santa Cruz for our aforementioned final failed attempt at camping, as documented in the other post….!

This is part of a three part series.