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...two travellers in search of the world's wildlife

3 August 2011

Ecuador nutshell

Ecuador has a handful of really cool things tucked into a small country, although the two main draws – the Galapagos and the Amazon – cannot be visited cheaply. It’s got an attractive capital city, friendly people, half-decent food and lots of scenery. It is also fairly warm, as you’d expect from a country straddling the equator.

Accommodation

There are some nice boutique places in Quito, but you can end up spending almost European prices for them. Almost. We didn’t explore much of Ecuador beyond the capital, so it’s hard to comment more generally, but in Mindo we had a lovely rustic room in a wildlife paradise for only £24 per night. Our lodge in the Amazon had great rooms and delicious all-in food, as did our boat in the Galapagos. However, in both cases I think we picked one of the best outfits.

Food
Our best food in Ecuador was that supplied as part of our packages to the Galapagos and the Amazon. Otherwise it has to be admitted that we stuck mainly to either higher-class or tourist restaurants, wherein the food ranged from jolly good to startlingly naff and while cheaper than back home wasn’t appreciably so. It looks like eating locally in Ecuador mainly involves the same range

of grilled or fried meats as found in Chile or Peru, same kind of smaller bites too – the ubiquitous empanada. Eating locally would be cheap, but with the last week of our trip remaining we were too lazy to investigate.

Drink
We had some gorgeous Ecuadorian coffee in Mindo, so it’s a shame that most of the other coffee we had was dire instant or nasty tasting brew. Fruit juices were good, possibly even better than Peru and certainly cheaper. Your wine will come from Chile or Argentina and will cost more than it does in its country of origin. And the local beer is… terribly surprising… fizzy yellow stuff with the international flavour of fizzy yellow beer. I am really gagging for a pint of real beer.

Transport

Ecuadorian drivers can’t grasp the basics of when it is safe to overtake, so I had a few heart-in-mouth moments driving around the country. The roads as well are generally good but have a tendency to throw up pot-holes without any warning or preamble. The biggest difficulty is navigation, as sign posts are woefully lacking and the mountainous geography means you often go a few miles in the wrong direction just to cross a valley and continue to where you wanted to be. With the complete lack of any decent maps – none on sale in a big motorway services and even Google Maps grossly lacking in good coverage – it can be fun finding places without a local to help. For car rental the big internationals seemed very expensive, and we saved around 50% when we got a used-car rental from a local company for £24 per day. The somewhat battered car also made for good camoflage in a country where apparently car theft and theft from cars is rife.

Weather
The Amazon was hot, humid and it rained sometimes – this is normal all year. The Galapagos were hot and sunny, which is also pretty normal. Quito and the cloud forest areas we visited ranged through sunny, cloudy and rainy but remained fairly warm. Although do note that Papallacta is cold in the winter – something we failed to look up!

Scams, hassle and crime
We didn’t see much hassle, and weren’t scammed. There were places in Quito where we didn’t feel very safe, though – especially where there were signs saying ‘Tourist robbery zone – do not go this way’. In our few days there we saw no crime at all, but I guess those signs weren’t put up for fun.

Hiking and wildlife watching

Ecuador has two of the best wildlife watching places on earth, the Galapagos islands and a chunk of the Amazon. It’s hard to overstate the amazing nature of the wildlife spectacle in the Galapagos, where everything that flies, crawls or swims is utterly unfazed by the presence of man, even a bunch of tourists gawping just a few feet away. I would also add the cloud forests around Mindo, to make a triad of must-see wildlife locations. Nowhere on earth have I ever heard as much birdsong as I heard in those forests, and with an expert guide on hand we also saw more birds in just two mornings than anywhere else on our trip.

We didn’t do any hiking in Ecuador, except for the walks needed to look for wildlife.

Conclusion
I could come back here. I’d love to visit the Galapagos again, and there’s lots more things to do in the rest of Ecuador too. It’s quite an easy country to like, having good weather and good enough infrastructure to travel independently through with a rental car – which is what I would do.

We liked best:

  • Swimming with sealions in the Galapagos
  • Marvelling at the close-up wildlife on Espanola island in the Galapagos
  • Watching monkeys leaping above us through the trees at Sacha
  • Gobbling totally home-made chocolate and coffee at ChocolArte, Mindo
  • Swimming with sea turtles in the Galapagos
  • We liked least:

    • Getting lost, seriously lost, trying to get from Mindo to Papallacta
    • Frustrating phone calls in Spanish when our emails went unreplied
    • Miserable final day’s weather in Papallacta


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