Again, sorry about the visa post - let's get back to it.
I had a few friends in town from the states and was itching to travel around Ecuador for a few days. My boss let me take a few days off of work, so we left Quito on a Thursday morning to start our road trip and returned the following Sunday.
Fortunately, we were able to borrow a car for the weekend. If you don't have a car, I just filled out an estimate to rent a car and it came out to $160 for the four days. You could probably get around via bus as well, but being able to stop along the way for ice cream and scenic views is vital for road trip happiness levels. Also, getting to places such as Quilotoa and driving through Cotopaxi National Park is much easier with a car.
Café de la Vaca
We first stopped at Café de la Vaca in town called Machachi, a landmark for Quiteños passing through to the south. It's about 45 minutes south of Quito. Their specialty is breakfast, where they give you bread, nata (the creamy byproduct from boiling milk that tastes like a mix between butter and heavy cream), butter, jam, huevos de cazuela (an egg casserole served in a mini-ceramic vessel with tomato sauce and cheese), juice, freshly milked cow milk, and your choice of tea, hot chocolate, or coffee. Places like this are great for people new to Ecuador because you get to try all of the juices that aren't available in the states. My go to is a mix of guanabana and mora. Also, the hot chocolate is made of fresh milk and is a unique experience. It's about $10 for everything and super homey. Highly recommended.
Cotopaxi National Park
After a quick stop for brunch, we made our way to Cotopaxi National Park. If you live in Ecuador already, you know of Cotopaxi as the world's highest active volcano that had a few minor eruptions last summer. The threat of an eruption has been reduced down to a level safe enough to visit the park. It's hard to plan around the weather since Ecuador's day-to-day weather is very unpredictable, but if you can, try to go on a clear day. We went on a cloudless day and caught a rare glimpse of Cotopaxi uncovered. Regardless if the weather is meh you should still go, the park's landscape is b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l and is like nothing I've ever seen. The elevation becomes so high that the plant life gradually transforms from lush greenery into bony shrubs and splattered patches of moss. If you're not Ecuadorian, then you'll need a guide to take you into the park. Supposedly a few years ago, a Venezuelan man had a heart attack and died in the park, prompting the Venezuelan ambassador to demand that all non-native people need a guide to enter the park. There were tons of guides waiting at the gate and I think our guide charged ~$30 for a couple of hours.
After spending a few hours in Cotopaxi, I was ready to eat something and get out of the park. Something about being that close to an active volcano and my narcissism telling me that it will erupt for the sole reason of being in its proximity kicked in, so we left.
Our next stop took us to Rumipamba, a hotel located in Salcedo, a town known for its multi-layered ice cream. Salcedo is a quaint town and a microcosm of Ecuador in many ways. There's not a ton to do in Salcedo, but it has a plaza in the center of the town where you can hang out and eat your ice cream. Rumipamba is the more interesting part of this stop. It's a funky hotel; it has a mini-horse (who bit me), a human-size chessboard, an AIRPLANE, pools, 4-wheelers, and a moat with rowboats. The rooms and restaurant are filled with industrial knickknacks that give you a sense that you're on the set of the Ecuadorian version of Little House on the Prairie. They were converting one of their buildings into a pizza place when we were there, but the restaurant had phenomenal traditional Ecuadorian food as well. This hotel is something worth seeing; at least go to check out the airplane. Single bed bedrooms will run you about $40 a night.
Our next stop took us to the aesthetic overload part of our trip: Quilotoa. Quilotoa is an ancient, inactive volcano that is now filled with turquoise-colored water. While we were at Cotopaxi, we ran into these two French guys who advised us to get to Quilotoa before sunrise. We took that advice, and went on our way to Quilotoa at 5:00 AM from Rumipamba. We arrived right at sunrise and it truly was a magical sight. You can see in the photos below, but the color combination appeared like CGI. Always trust the French. Maybe the French can deal with cold better than me, but wear 3+ layers of clothing because it was frigid before the sun made its way fully out. We planned to spend half a day at Quilotoa and decided to hike down to the base of the lake. If you're crunched on time, you won't miss out on too much by staying at the top. (Except you won't get to ride a donkey/horse hybrid back up to the top). I had never ridden a horse before so I was a tad more excited than my friends. Once you make it to the top, grab some coffee and head out towards Baños.
Trip to Baños
On your way to Baños, try to play this game without ruining friendships. It's called the cow game:
- One point for every cow you see (you must call it out)
- Five points for every horse
- Double your points for every church
- Halve the points of your opponent for every graveyard
That's the game. Play to whatever you think is best. I'd go with 500. We had 6 people so it was a big ol' mess. If you have more than 3 people, go with the person game, where someone thinks of a person and the rest of the group has 20 questions to figure out who that person is. The group can only guess the exact person three times. Also, we made this Spotify playlist that has a nice mix of genres.
I seem to go to Baños every time an American visits, because it's relatively close to Quito (2 1/2 hours without making stops), there's a good mix of activities to do during the day, and has an amazing nightlife. Baños is in the Andes but a bit further east than Quito so it has a microclimate that's a mix between the rainforest and the strange weather patterns known to the Andes. It's incredibly lush, with waterfalls in sight whenever you look up from the tiny valley town. I recommend staying at Le Petit; it's clean, cheap, in a great location, and has a $4 crepe-filled breakfast.
Go through a company called Imagine Ecuador, it's located at 16 de Diciembre Street, between Montalvo and Luis A. Martinez, on the same block as Le Petit. It hosts a number of adventure-type activities, such as rafting, canyoning, canopying, 4-wheelers, rock climbing, etc. The guides are hilarious but professional and it's fairly priced.
After you’re done with your rigorous activity for the day, head to El Refugio and get in one of their Baños del Cajón. It’s amazing. You sit in a wooden box of steam where you control the steam flow. The employees then pour freezing cold water on you four different times. After about an hour, you leave the box and they give you fruit and a mud mask. It’s $8 and hands down my favorite activity in Baños.
You should also check out the market in the middle of the town. Baños is so small; you'll eventually run into it. It's a big warehouse located in the middle of the city.
If you have time, check out the Pailon del Diablo (Devil's Cauldron). It's about a 20-minute drive east. Once you park your car, the path to this massive waterfall is very Indiana Jones. You'll have to cross one of those wooden bridges where villains eventually fall to their death. I hate heights and hated this bridge, but seeing the power of the waterfall was worth it.
Check out Leprechaun. If you ask a local for directions to this bar, make sure to pronounce it in Spanish, with a strong "chon" sound at the end. It's a cool bar, usually they give you a free drink for coming in, and it's normally packed with good music.
Another bar, #Allthetoys, was a funny surprise the last time I went to Baños. We were walking home after some time at Leprechaun and passed this tiny hole in a wall. We were the only ones in the place except for two other Americans, but the place is tiny and we loved the DJ's music. So we stayed and danced for a few more hours, having our own little quasi-house party in Baños.
Once you've had enough of Baños and Baños has had enough of you, head back to Quito. It's a painless drive back, but make sure to make it less painless with as many food breaks as possible. We stopped at Café de la Vaca once again for lunch and it cured us of our chuchaqui-related woes.