Ecuador is a great country for riding the local buses and observing people and culture up close. Unlike the chicken buses in Guatemala, you can usually reserve a seat on a bus in Ecuador and there is no expectation that three people should share the seat.
This is a country where climate is determined by altitude rather than latitude for while it lies on the equator it is bisected by the Andes Mountains and the temperature can be quite chilly at times.
This is also a country where there seems to be a few too many evangelical Christians from the United States running around trying to convert the people.
Quito (Old city is UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Side trip: La Mitad del Mundo (middle of the world with latitude “0”
Avenue of the Volcanoes
Banos (the great outdoors
Riobamba (tallest volcano in Ecuador and departure point for one of the most spectacular train routes in the world)
Cuenca (colonial city)
Otavalo (famous Indian market)
Quito (for flight home)
Quito, the capital, is located a few kilometers south of the equator, the imaginary line that divides the earth into two hemispheres at 0 degrees latitude. It is located in a valley flanked by the Andes. With an altitude of 2,850 meters, it is the second highest capital in South America after La Paz in Bolivia, and the third highest in the world.
The city is divided into modern and colonial Quito. The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage site with outstanding colonial monuments. While the old city is certainly worth a visit, I would think twice about staying there. It did not seem to be the friendliest place and we were glad to escape into a church to collect ourselves when we got lost on the back streets. My (then) husband had his bag slashed and its contents taken when we were mobbed crossing the street. We saw policemen laughing with one another when they stole the basket of goods an Indian woman was selling; it was obvious they didn’t care who saw them do it.
La Mitad del Mundo
Fifteen kilometers north of Quito is where the middle of the world where latitude “0” is marked. There is an Equatorial Monument where you can take pictures with one foot in each hemisphere. There is also the Musio Etnografico, an interesting museum that retraces the histories of the different ethnic groups that make up Ecuador today.
Avenue of the volcanoes
The Pan American highway runs south from Quito between majestic, snow-capped volcanoes, offering numerous climbing opportunities for those so inclined. The four hour ride is spectacular for the road winds around mountains, over fast flowing rivers, past simple villages and picture perfect yet incredibly steep garden plots. The bus stops in Riobamba and you go to a different terminal for the bus to for Banos (we took a taxi between terminals).
Banos is the Spanish word for baths and the town was given that name because of its hot springs that are popular with locals and tourists alike. The setting is perfect with its lush green mountain landscape and certainly a place to stay awhile with good choices for hotels and restaurants and outstanding trails for hiking and biking. The place is also well known for its Spanish schools.
I fell in love with the Luna Runtun Resort and if I ever won a lottery I would stay there for a week or so and contemplate the meaning of life (which is the question posed on one of its signs). We did splurge on a meal and have a tour of the grounds.
The road from Banos to Puyo is spectacular but one you should only consider if you are prepared to die. The bus hugs the mountain for almost four hours and you can’t see the road below, only the drop to the valley. For me—never again!
Riobamba is about 200 kilometers from Quito and the departure point for what is considered to be one of the most spectacular train routes in the world. It also boasts the tallest volcano in Ecuador, Chimborazo at 6,310 meters. It’s not a very touristy place and we were doubtful that it was the start of the famous train trip until we got to the station and saw so many foreign tourists. Unfortunately the train was not running but they had equipped a bus with special wheels so it could ride the rails. There was not much room for passengers on this bus-train and it was a bit mob scene as people crowded on. The bus-train actually took off with young European students on board much to the horror of their teachers who were still in line purchasing tickets.
We chose to get to Cuenca on a bus that goes on the road instead of on a train track. It was an exciting journey with the bus making its way up steep inclines through a series of switchbacks, its brakes shrieking endlessly. We travelled through Indian settlements of sod houses with thatch roofs, tethered goats, small children carrying smaller children, farmers beating grain, clothes drying on bushes. Locals got on and off the bus. There were rosy-cheeked women dressed in sequin-bordered wool skirts and decorative necklaces. Most carried a sleeping baby in a shawl strung across their back.
Cuenca is another colonial city with cobblestone streets and houses with red tiled roofs. For what it’s worth, Panama hats are made here (not in Panama). If you are in the mood for shopping, take the short bus ride to the village of Chordeleg where you’ll find fine filigree gold and silver jewelry (plus the kind of stuff that turns your finger green).
You can return to Quito by bus or plane. We took the long way around—back to Banos and then on the Puyo and Tena.
The world famous indigenous market is held in Otavalo, north of Quito every Saturday. The market dates back to pre-Inca days. A number of local buses go there from Quito; the trip takes about two hours and is very inexpensive.
Otavalo is a pleasant little town and you may decide to stay for a couple of days.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2010