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This was our first trip to South America and we wanted it to be memorable. After reviewing travel guides and many internet sites for the best things to see in Ecuador and the best things to see in Peru, we had enough destinations to easily fill 5 weeks in Ecuador and Peru. Trimming it down to the manageable we decided: 1. Quito, 2. Galapagos, 3. Lima, 4. Machu Picchu. Galapagos has many islands and they are all somewhat different - so we splurge and do an 8 day cruise on a budget friendly ship.
Cruises can only be booked by travel agents, so I found a travel agents, told them what I want and ... one proposed a shorter cruise and to add two single day trips. His proposal got us almost all I wanted in less time and it was cheaper. A travel agent who wants to save me money? Wow, I love this guy! Needless to say, we went with him and I can confirm he was right. I just wish he would have changed the weather from windy to sunny on our last day in the Galapagos...
We gained 2 days and added them to explore Quito and Cuzco...or so we thought. More on that later.
We arrived in Quito, second-highest official capital city in the world, at 11pm, breezed through immigration and were thankful that our hotel was only a quick 20min cab ride from the airport.
Most memorable highlights in Quito:
1. Plaza de la Independencia
When we arrived, the plaza was busy and people were happy and enjoying themselves while street vendors sold food, drinks and souvenirs. What a great start to our first day in Ecuador! This beautifully upkept plaza houses a monument, and is bordered by the Government Palace, City Hall, the Archbishop's Palace, and the cathedral. What's even better is that this area is a beautiful area to explore. Beautiful old architecture, many stores and restaurants and...nobody speaks English. Did I mention we don't speak Spanish? Well, I am proud to report that we somehow managed to buy food. And yes, Cash is King.
After walking around in awe about the beauty of this place and visiting some sites, we found a true jewel of a church: La Compana de Jesus
2. La Compana de Jesus
Hidden away about 2 blocks from Plaza de la Independencia lies this church - we first walked by it without noticing it. From all churches we have seen in Quito, this is my favorite. It has a nice exterior, but wait after to pay admission and enter. This church is truly a baroque masterpiece. Its interior is covered in artistic golden decorations.
3. El Panecillo
The last Memorable Moment highlight of Quito is El Panecillo. We took a taxi up the hill and were overwhelmed by the views and the many colorful houses that are built anywhere on the hills, slopes and the valleys of the many wavy hills that nowhere seem to be flat. If find that a truly spectacular view.
Due to our shortened Galapagos cruise, we had 2 additional days to rent a car and explore the truly spectacular mountainous regions
1. Parque Nacional Cotopaxi
We rented a car and took the scenic drive to Cotopaxi National Park. On our way we passed this sign and decided to sind Cumbaya, but we did not go there.
We arrived in Otavalo shortly before noon. Otavalo is known for South America's largest outdoor market and that's why we came here. It can also be your base for day tours or longer hikes to experience the beauty of this mountainous region.
Somebody jokingly said if they don't sell it in Otavalo, it does not exist. Well, that may not be the case but I can confirm the market is huge; my estimate is about 5 blocks x 5 blocks. There are hundreds of street vendors selling everything from souvenirs, clothes, paintings, prepared food, produce etc. Not counting the regular storefronts of the buildings that add even more stores, supermarkets and restaurants to the mix. If you go there, please make sure to leave the outdoor market and just walk around town as there are other interesting things to see.
4. Laguna de Cuicocha
Cuicocha is a caldera lake at the foot of the Cotacachi volcano. This 2 miles (3km) wide caldera was formed at a massive eruption about 3100 years ago and has been dormant ever since.
The name "Laguna de Cuicocha" means "Guinea Pig Lake", because the shape of largest island looks like a guinea pig.
2. Quitsato Sundial
We used our rental car and took the scenic drive to Otavalo, passing rolling hills; snow covered mountains were all around us and we passed the occasional lake. During that drive we stopped at Quitsato Sundial. There are several monuments in Ecuador that claim to be on the equator, but only this one actually is. There is nothing fancy or monumental about it and it is actually somewhat hidden, so we accidentally drove by it at first. It was only after Google Maps complained that we turned around and found it. Upon arrival, we were asked if we wanted a guide explain to us the monument and the significance of this site in real good English. I am so happy that we agreed, otherwise this would have just been a fairly boring 5min photo and bathroom stop.
Cotopaxi is the second highest mountain in Ecuador and an active stratovolcano with occasional eruptions. Local Andean people considered it a "Sacred Mountain" and believed that the gods lived at its summit. They worshiped Cotopaxi as “rain sender” ensuring the fertility of the land. For us, Cotopaxi was a serene place where we could take hikes through meadows mit many colorful flowers and small animals.
Our first hotel in Quito: Quito Airport Suites
We stayed at this bed & breakfast style hotel for 2 nights. It is an easy 10min drive from the airport. Taxis at the airport charge a flat rate of $10 for the trip to the hotel. Be aware that some taxis don’t know where the hotel is, so bring the address, a map and/or directions. The hotel has an entrance gate which may be locked when you arrive. Ring the bell and someone will open. Cars can be parked in the backyard. If you have a rental car, look for the hotel sign or use a GPS, otherwise you may miss it as the hotel blends in with the other houses around it.
You will likely be greeted by the owner when you arrive. Only the owner speaks English. We had room 3 in block 2. The full room rent is due in cash at check-in. You will need to carry your luggage up 1 set of stairs as the hotel has no elevator. The suite has 2 bedrooms, each with a double bed, and 1 bathroom. One bedroom has a TV mounted to the wall, a desk, a small night stand and a small cabinet. There is no A/C. The bathroom has a shower, a small sink and toilet. Two towels, a small bar of soap and a dispenser with blue shampoo (I guess) were provided. There are English signs telling you which way to turn the shower valve to get hot water and another sign reminding you that, like everywhere else in Ecuador, all toilet paper must go into the plastic bag in the trash can next to the toilet as the waste water system cannot handle toilet paper.
The suite was clean, but we had to kill some flies after we arrived; a fly swatter was in the room. Some of the windows has mosquito nets, but the flies still got in there somehow. The rooms have plenty of grounded US-style power outlets.
Water, ice cream, cookies and even some paintings can be purchased in the lobby, no water is provided for free. Tap water can be used to brush your teeth, but it is generally advised not to drink it even though some people do. It may be a good idea to either buy water in the airport of fill up on water at the US-style drinking fountains in the airport.
Breakfast was from 7-9am in the hotel lobby; it consists of unlimited coffee, 1 fruit drink, 1 pineapple slice and 1 dish from a selection of 8 (all listed in English; sandwiches with eggs, omelets). In the small kitchen adjacent to the lobby, one employee prepares the dish. This can take a while, especially if you have a few other guests waiting in front of you.
The second day we had asked the hotel to call a cab. It took maybe 5min until the taxi arrived. The driver charged $5 for a trip to the airport. He is not allowed to pick up passengers at the airport.
Trips to and from Quito are $25. Make sure to have a map and directions handy as taxis in Quito will likely not know how to get to the hotel.
Long story short: If you are looking for a clean and inexpensive hotel near the airport and you don’t mind a B&B atmosphere and no A/C, then this hotel may be for you.
Our second hotel in Quito: Hosteria Airport Garden
We stayed in room 9 in this hosteria for 2 nights. The room is clean and comes with 2 beds which have soft innerspring mattresses.
It has hardwood floors and the lights are on motion sensors (that can be turned off if there is a need). The room has no A/C or heating. I liked the shower which had the best water pressure in all hotels we stayed at in Ecuador. The room has a closet (that is open at the top), but that is the only storage area in the room.
The owners speak fairly good English and are always willing to call you a taxi if you need one. Should you need to print a boarding pass, then you have to get it emailed to the hotel website and they will print it for you.
Be aware that most taxis don’t know where the hotel is, so bring a map and directions and/or the business card from the front desk.
Taxi prices are: trip to airport is $8 (when they call the taxi; we also stayed in another hotel close by where the charge was only $5).
A taxi trip from airport is $10 and a taxi ride to and from Quito is $25.
We arrived at noon and the owner offered to fix lunch for us.
Breakfast is included in the price. Is consists of 2 slices of toast, 1 piece of cheese, 1 slice of ham and fruits and coffee/tea/milk/water and sometimes a freshly prepared glass of fruit juice.
They did not make our beds when we were there.
When you arrive, the gate will likely be closed. Just ring the door bell; they are very good responding. I was pleasantly surprised to always find the owners when we needed them even if they were not in the office.
Long story short: We liked the hotel for its modern design, proximity to the airport, affordable rate and availability of the owners. I can recommend it but you need to be aware that there is no A/C or heating in the rooms.