Ecuador highlands: Cotopaxi, Quilotoa, falling in love with alpacas

As mentioned in my previous post– altitude had not been my best friend. Regardless, I was determined to overcome it and enjoy the raw and wild nature the Ecuador highlands has to offer.

Having said so, spontaneously signing up to a tour to the volcanic region of Cotopaxi leaving on day 2 was probably also not quite the “taking it slow” recommended for altitude!

Secret Garden runs tours through their affiliate location in Cotopaxi, a super cute oasis in the middle of wildness and mountains, very much closed off from the world (no wifi or any network – except staff use and emergencies). Awareness goes a long way to be prepared to be cut off a few days! Which was not the case for me and my Swiss friend, but oh well. What do you do 🤷‍♀️.

The location was at least beautifully peaceful and our room “hobbit house” was super cute:

We ventured on our first activity, a waterfall hike. Here is where one realizes there’s a need to be super careful and look out for yourself on tours and activities in South America! Low cost tours are cheap for a reason, and safety standards are not always a given. And in the case of Secret Garden, the guides were young volunteers. Hiking in slightly dangerous slippery and wet conditions on rocks, and in inadequate gum boots provided, I managed to have a small accident aggravating an old shoulder injury. Luckily not overly serious but meant I would need to limit a bit activities the next couple weeks- and I resolved to myself to be more aware in future.

Here was that waterfall:

A few brave souls ventured in for a swim (or rather quick dip for a photo and run back out!!) in the 7 degree celsius water!!

Scaling the first waterfall:

The second day was more successful. Still feeling the effects of altitude, I decided to skip the volcano hike and opt instead for the more chilled out option (or at least I thought!) of horse riding through the Andean plains!

Spoiler alert. It was NOT relaxing! After a 5 minute crash course in horse riding we were off at a solid trotting pace set by the impatient and still young stallion of our Andean guide. My horse – a sweet stubborn thing, had a tendency to do the exact opposite of what I wanted it to do! Which made for an interesting ride of 2.5 hours, first half mostly consisting of me trying to not fall off, especially when he started galloping with me urgently saying “Whoa whoa! Despacio!”

Horses are amazing creatures with a mind of their own, they sense immediately your anxiousness and it makes them only more difficult to control. Eventually I managed to calm myself and him, and we got back on track. I certainly felt my whole body though for several days, from the effort to stay balanced and upright (surely odd given the horse was doing all the work ?!)

The scenery along the way was absolutely breathtaking! In my holding on for dear life, I could not get in too many shots, but did get a few along the way:

The stubborn one:

After we became friends, sort of!:

Quilotoa

My South America adventure was into full swing! After a night of rest back in Quito, I joined a tour to see and hike Quilotoa.

Quilotoa is often referred to as the most beautiful lake in Ecuador, formed by a volcanic eruption 800 years ago, the crater slowly started to fill with water, and the lake was born. The unique scenery is characterized by the turquoise shade of the water, due to minerals in the water.

The hike itself involves a downhill trek to the lake, where you can kayak or simply enjoy the scenery, then a 1-2 hour 2km climb back up the steep and sandy path. Our group moved a bit faster and made it up in 45-50 mins.

Here is where you end up:

This little doggy decided to adopt me and followed me for about a quarter of the way down! 😍

Pre- hike back up, enjoying the scene:

The huffing and puffing climbers we saw on the way down were not exaggerating! As we experienced ourselves!!

Almost back at the top:

This adorable pair were waiting for us at the top. The sweet faced alpaca and the slightly grumpy but still cute llama that let out a disgruntled spit when a little kid went to sit on him. The moment I fell in love with these adorably fluffy South America creatures!

Ecuador- the first days solo! Landing in Quito, first impressions and altitude sickness

Being on the road can make it challenging to find time to sit down and write. Looking back those first days in Ecuador flew by in an absolute (probably altitude affected) blur!

I had mixed feelings of excitement but also anxiousness about my first venture into South America and solo. Will I like it? What about safety? Though I was convinced the ominous warnings you read were exaggerated, still there must be some truth? Will I get by with my Spanish?

I landed in Quito – the high up mountainous capital of Ecuador. I had pre-arranged transportation via my hostel- Secret Garden, not yet being familiar with local taxi systems, and my driver was thankfully already waiting. 45 pleasant minutes of broken Spanish conversation later – about Mexico, Ecuador weather, culture, and his family … we pulled up in front of Secret Garden. I was told to make sure to only take official yellow taxis and that Uber was illegal (though noted- several travelers I met did use Uber in Quito to get around with no issues, and it’s significantly cheaper than regular taxis, but as a single female traveler, and given the low costs of taxis in general I certainly did not see any point in taking the risk!)

My intro to Quito was breathtaking- literally! Secret garden is a super charming and social hostel with private room options as well as dorms in different sizes. To get to the reception you first have to climb up 5 floors with enormous sets of stairs !! 😱 These are not tiny little regular hotel stairs but seriously high and steep stairs! Out of breath and slightly confused on why on earth a reception would be built in this way, I spun around at the top and realized why:

The friendly staff of Secret Garden are a mix of locals and volunteering travelers proudly wear T-Shirts displaying the altitude of the stunning terrace bar where the reception is.

After picking up dinner at the bar and feeling initially daunted by the crowd upstairs, whom all seemed to be already seated in distinctive groups, I started chatting with a French guy at the bar and joined him with a large group of solo travelers from about 15 different nations in the open area of the terrace. Over a beer I happily teamed up with another Australian and a Swiss German girl to ride up the Quito volcano Pinchacha the next morning by cable car “teleférico”.

For those landing the first time in Quito, or in fact any high altitude place without first having been acclimatized… be aware! The altitude hit me on that first day with a crash. Having been up the teleférico (4050m) and even hiked a little and feeling totally fine up there, it suddenly hit me after coming down. Luckily the symptoms were not too serious, albeit a bit scary (dizzy spells and seeing bright spots, with my right ear temporarily not hearing). It passed after a few minutes sitting down and some light food, and a lie down the rest of that afternoon (!!)

Either way, the view from the top of the teleférico was totally stunning and worth the ride.

Quito as a city itself is ok. It truthfully did not blow me away with charm but admittedly I also did not give it enough time. A group of 4 American friends I met in Galapagos (more on Galapagos coming!) had an amazing time in Quito, and the city gives me the impression that experiencing the real city might need a bit more time and some luck in being in the know on where to go! On the surface it felt a little cold and grey, with few people walking around that seemed to contradict the vibe you would expect from such a big city. The warnings on walking around solo by locals and fellow travelers also did not add to the vibe. First impressions not amazing, but I would give it another go, and it either way serves as an excellent base to explore the real beauty of Ecuador in its raw and wild nature and splendor.

I did manage to find some cute local streets and a food market (mercado central) where you could get some amazingly cheap almuerzo (3 course lunch) for $2.50-3.00 and sampled some great soups- probably what I would recommend the most of Ecuadorian cuisine, and climbed up to the top of the main cathedral, for more views of the city:

Cute streets to find almuerzo.

The next day my new Swiss German friend and I spontaneously booked a trip with our hostel to the volcanic region of Cotopaxi.