We never really knew what to expect from Ecuador. Before arrival we knew that Ecuador is a small country that grows coffee and cocoa, we also knew it was neither the richest or poorest in South America and that the President was a somewhat radical character (sheltering Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for one). Other than this we knew little about the place so we arrived pretty much without preconceptions.
Thanks to our Spanish course we spent seven weeks in Ecuador in the end, far longer than we’ll spend anywhere else. Also thanks to the Spanish course we were able to live with some of the locals and really get a little more under the skin than we’ll be able to do anywhere else.
After our ride on the Devil’s Nose train, we’d decided to make the journey straight to Baños on the same day since there was nothing else to see in Alausi. We’d also eaten at the only restaurant with any hope of vegetarian food, so our only option for dinner was being the only people at the no. 1 restaurant (of 4) on TripAdvisor yet again. After the train we headed straight back to our hotel, collected our bags and jumped onto the first bus to Riobamba, the nearest city to Baños along the Pan-American highway. We were headed for the small town of Baños, an hour further east of the main highway, but Riobamba was as far as we could get on a direct bus from Alausi.
The bus wound its way north and soon enough we were arriving in the Riobamba bus terminal. The bus next to ours was heading to Baños, but we needed to buy tickets before boarding so we headed into the terminal to buy them. The counter was easy enough to find so we queued up an ask for two tickets. The response from the woman behind the counter was “no hay boletos” (there are no tickets). Since it was late in the afternoon this was a little worrying so we had a quick look around for other bus companies going to Baños (there were none) and looked at other options including taking a bus up to Ambato and then a more frequent bus to Baños. Luckily someone who was behind us in the queue had noticed our confusion and came over to tell us that there was actually a bus at 5pm to Baños so just to double check we queued up again and asked for tickets to Baños. This time same lady that we’d spoken to not five minutes before asked for $4 and gave us two tickets. We could only assume that since the previous bus had now left she was allowed to sell tickets for the later bus, and had neglected to explain this to us the first time around! Mostly just relieved to have tickets we sat down to wait.
We landed back in Guayaquil from the Galapagos and headed straight for the nearby bus station. We were heading to the small colonial city of Cuenca, back on the edge of the Andes. We had a 4 hour bus ride ahead of us so wanted to get going as soon as possible. The bus station was a huge confusing building, part bus station and part busy shopping mall. After staggering around in circles with our giant bags we found an information desk and were directed to the right bus ticket booth. I asked when the next bus left and was told 5pm, this was in about 3 minutes time but they still sold us the tickets and called the bus conductor to wait for us, what service! So after more running through the station/mall we were on a bus only about 45 minutes after landing!
We had comfy seats and the journey didn’t feel too long, we arrived at about 9.30pm and got a taxi to our hostel. We’ve been booking one place ahead at the moment, especially when arriving late at night it’s nice to know you have a room waiting for you. The hostel, La Cigale (French for Cicada, and it seemed to attract mostly French tourists!), was above a restaurant/bar and so once checked in we just had to walk downstairs for a nice evening meal and beers. We messaged Stephanie, a friend from the travelling classroom who was doing her final week of Spanish lessons in Cuenca, and arranged to meet the next day.
One of the two things about this trip that we (well mostly I) decided were non-negotiable was the Galapagos islands off the coast of Ecuador. We knew that we’d get a better deal if we looked at the last minute so we left it until about a fortnight before we wanted to depart. During our Manta week we discovered that the Spanish school did some last minute deals, but when we asked for quotes it turned out that although they had good deals they were more at the budget end of the spectrum with dates that didn’t really suit us. Fearing that we’d left it too late we frantically starting searching on the internet and realised that, although there wasn’t a lot available, there were still a few options with good dates, itineraries and discounts.
The small coastal town of Montañita was our final stop with the travelling classroom. We were keen to explore Montañita so we agreed to get the bus from Manta together with our travelling classroom friends Stephanie and Jacqueline at 09:30 in the morning. We arranged to share a taxi to the bus station so that we all arrived together and, since we were the furthest away from the bus station, we got in a taxi at 08:30 and headed over to Stephanie’s. Stephanie was already waiting for us on the main road (5 minutes early, thank you Swiss efficiency) so we headed over to pick up Jacqueline. We arrived 5 minutes early to the spot where Jacqueline had told us that she would meet us. She’d told us that there was a café next door to her house, but we couldn’t see any sign of it so we drove on a little further. I spoke to Jacqueline on the phone and got a slightly confusing response. Eventually after 5 minutes of driving around we put the taxi driver on the phone to the father at Jacqueline’s house and he explained where to go, back to exactly where we’d started, we would have found it easily except that the sign for the café was missing! Relieved and still with enough time we headed to the bus station. At the bus station the taxi driver pointed out the right bus.
Our third week of the travelling classroom was at the Surpacifico Spanish School in Manta. As Chris has been busy sorting through his many photos from the jungle and the Galapagos, it’s Alex back again with an update this time.
Our guide book has just one paragraph about the coastal city of Manta, basically telling you to steer clear as there’s nothing to do. We weren’t expecting much from the week, so have been really pleased as we had a great time.
The city is pretty much as described by the Rough Guide, not much to look at or do in the centre. It’s a major fishing port so lots of boats and some very tasty seafood. The weather was nice, very warm and sunny but not too humid. There is however a lingering smell of sewage (especially on the south side of the city where we were staying), which doesn’t help the place.
However, the Spanish school was excellent and the activities organised, as part of the travelling classroom course we were on, were great fun. The school is run by Manuel, who also owns Montañita school (our 4th and final week on the travelling classroom). He and his wife Rosi were really lovely and welcoming. The school is above their home and we spent the week in and out of the school and relaxing in their garden by the pool.
After saying goodbye to our family in Quito, we set off for the second week of the travelling Spanish classroom. We walked to the school and sat outside the front door as it was a Sunday and the school was closed. Waiting with us was Mario, our teacher for the next week, a short balding man with thick glasses and a baseball cap. It’s lucky that he was there because at 8:30am nobody had yet arrived for our 8am pickup. A few minutes later a tired old estate car pulled up, driven by Augustin, the man who owned the school in the Amazon. Augustin was polite and spoke perfect English, we piled the luggage into his boot and climbed in, Mario in the front and Prisca, Alex and I in the back. The back of the car only seemed to be designed for two people with the wide bench seat split in two, with Alex sitting over the middle. It was not ideal and the idea of a four hour trip without seatbelts (not at all unusual in Ecuador) did not fill me with excitement. Luckily we didn’t need to worry as, after a quick detour to collect Augustin’s wallet, we headed for the open road and realised with its broken rev counter and wobbly speedo the car wouldn’t do a lot a more than 40 mph.
As we headed away from Quito the roads went from excellent to fair then slowly got worse. As we drove through the mountains it became obvious that, thanks to frequent landslides, the road was often either in the process of being cleared, or in many places had completely washed away. We saw many teams of workers repairing the road but they were obviously fighting a difficult battle. We climbed up to 4000m over the Andes and through fog, then slowly started our descent into the jungle. Every hour or so we stopped so that Augustin could buy us a snack or sometimes just to admire a particular plant.
We were due to start our first week of Spanish lessons on the 12th of October. Before we left home we’d found Montanita Spanish school online, and read lots of good reviews, they offered something unique to other schools: a ‘travelling classroom’ consisting of four weeks of Spanish lessons in four different locations in Ecuador. The package included all transfers and accommodation, most meals and lots of activities, meaning we could still see the country and learn at the same time.
We’d been communicating by email with the school over the past few weeks concerning a few questions and getting the balance paid. They’d sent us the address and phone number for the family we’d be staying with in Quito. We’d worked out our route back to Quito and from Terminal Quitumbe (the southern bus terminal of Quito) up to the north of the city where we’d be staying. The bus from Latacunga went smoothly, watching the countryside pass by and trying in vain to see the famous snow-capped Cotapaxi volcano that has been showing signs of activity recently (it was permanently shrouded in cloud for our whole visit to the area, except for one fleeting glimpse on the last day in Quito!).
Hi all, we’re having an amazing time in Ecuador and our Spanish course is fantastic we’ve been really busy but we thought it was time we published the next post. The following is our trip to Quilotoa a lake in a collapsed Volcano high up in the Andes. It’s quite close to the Cotopaxi volcano which is currently closed due to the threat of eruption, however just before we were due to depart we checked with our Spanish school that where we were going was safe (which it was). The story starts on our first morning in Ecuador….
We woke up in Quito and enjoyed a room service breakfast. Alex ordered it on the room phone in English and when she asked for juice they interpreted it as cheese. She corrected them and thought that they understood however 20 minutes later our order of waffles, coffee and two plates of cheese arrived. Since we haven’t had any similar problems when ordering in Spanish I think we’ll be sticking to it from now on!
We had a couple of nights in Bogota before the flight that we’d booked to Quito, Ecuador. We got back to our hotel and the staff were all pleased to see us. In many ways it is the closest to a homecoming that we’ll get in the next 6 months so it was nice to back somewhere that we knew. Having had a brief taste of home with our Indian food in Salento and still craving spice, we had dinner that evening at an Indian in Usaquen. Although it was not a cheap meal it was as good as a curry back home and a welcome change!