From the end of my week long Living Local Tour (which was complete following breakfast on our last morning in Quito) I had another 12 hours until I had to head to the airport for my trip home, and so of course I booked another day tour. This one I had been looking forward to all week: a hike up to the base camp of Cotopaxi Mountain, which actually happens to be a volcano.
Our group consisted of our guide Geraldo, myself and Jenna (my fellow Albertan from our Amazon tour group) one man from Italy, one man from France, and then 5 folks from the UK: two young guys in between high school and university on a gap year of travel, and a husband and wife and her cousin just stating their adventures between Ecuador and the Galapagos.
We left early in the morning with a stop about halfway to Cotopaxi National Park to grab breakfast and some Coca Tea. Coca tea is made from coca leaves and is used by the locals to help with altitude sickness. Since I’d spend the last four days only 400m above seal level and was about to head to about 4800m, I thought it would be a very good idea.
There were also a couple of cute alpacas munching on the grass outside of the cafe we stopped at.
We drove past pine tree forests that reminded me of home that then opened up into wide expanses of flat fields with wildflowers, low shrub, and a neverending sky full of clouds. Cotopaxi National Park is over 82 000 acres and home to incredible wildlife including deer, foxes, condors, bears, jaguars, and wild horses. The park is known for the beautiful Andes mountain range, and we could see the massive Cotopaxi Volcano off in the distance with swirling clouds dramatically sweeping across to first cover the summit and then reveal it again over and over as we approached. On our way in we drove by deer running through the grasses, saw wild horses grazing in the wildflower fields off of the main road, and caught sight of a beautiful fox (the size of a coyote!) near our starting point of our hike wandering into the mist.
In October of last year the volcano started spewing ash and sulphuric gas into the atmosphere again, so hikes to the summit at this time are forbidden. Even though it is considered relatively safe to hike to base camp, Cotopaxi is the most active volcano in Ecuador and so there are multiple seismographs and instruments constantly monitoring the activity of the volcano (we were told it is the most monitored volcano on the planet).
Cotopaxi in the local Quechua language means ‘neck of the moon’, and the terrain going up this mountain is definitely moon-like. The ground is a mix of dirt and sand and shale-like stone, and as we climbed the switchback path, the clumps of little white leafed grasses became fewer and fewer as we rose, until nothing grew, and eventually we even came across some snow.
The hike to base camp takes only about one hour from the parking lot but with the altitude it’s the amount of oxygen you can access to breathe that is the real challenge. Even beginner hikers can do the hike and you don’t need any fancy gear either- although a good rain jacket/windbreaker jacket is important when the wind picks up!
We were reminded regularly to stay hydrated (they recommend 2L over the day) and that “slow and steady” is the best pace, especially if you are not acclimatized to the altitude.
There was a faint smell of sulphur and occasionally you could see small curls of grey smoke winding their way into the white cloud cover above the peak of the mountain.
Me and our guide Geraldo
One of the Brits in our group got about halfway before needing to head back to the bus with a bad headache that worsened as they climbed higher. Jenna wasn’t feeling well either and at one point had decided to turn around as well, but as our group got nearer the top we looked down to see Jenna slowly making her way up the path with our guide Geraldo as her patient and supportive company until she made it all the way to base camp to join us!
Jose Rivas Refuge is the official name of the Base Camp building is at 4810m above sea level), and a couple of the guys went a little higher to the edge of the glacier to get to the 5000m mark, but were not allowed any further up the volcano than that for safety reasons.
If you wanted to hike to the summit of Cotopaxi (when it’s not actively erupting, of course), it’s not only highly recommended to stay in Quito for several days to acclimatize to the altitude, but you must hire a guide for the hike. You arrive at base camp in the afternoon to rest in the hostel-like accommodations before a late night / early morning (aka 1:00AM) departure for the summit and the strenuous 6-8 hour hike to the summit, followed by a 3-4 hour descent. Gear is often included along with some training (ie. how to wear/use crampons and ice-axe techniques). They say that only 72% of hikers successfully summit Cotopaxi. I’ve also come across the advice from several people that a good training hike is summiting a little mountain you might have heard of: Mt. Kilimanjaro…. !!
Base camp feels like a Scandinavian Lodge made of wood and brick with a beautiful orange roof you can see from quite a distance on a clear day. The ceiling is draped in international flags, and the windows along the back are covered in stickers from around the world. Groups of hikers grab tables and order refreshments, taking selfies and drinking hot chocolate and coca tea.
Here you can buy hot drinks, bottled water, both salty and sweet snacks, and even purchase stickers and badges as souvenirs! They also have an official stamp with the Cotopaxi Mountain icon and altitude that you can stamp in your passport or on a piece of paper as a memento.
We ordered hot chocolate and stamped scrap pieces of paper and our notebooks to document our achievement.
The hot chocolate was the best I’ve had in a very very long time. Served in a comforting clay mug, it was piping hot, perfectly sweet and lightly spiced with cinnamon and chiles. It felt as celebratory as champagne and we toasted each other, clinking mugs and taking photos.
I would love to say that the view was amazing but by the time we reached base camp the clouds had moved across again and we could barely see anything.
The descent is a pretty straight line back down, and with more of the soft sandy earth below your feet, I discovered that if I walked down the right side of the trail it was like stepping onto a escalator or elliptical machine with the sand letting me sink with each step- the easiest, most pleasant ‘down’ of a hike I can remember. (And with my whitewater-broken toe, this was a major coup!)
In no time at all we were back at the van, and given the option to mountain bike down the 40-50 minutes to the lake we had passed on the way to the volcano.
I am definitely not a mountain biker and wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy it, but seeing the majority of the group jump at the chance I figured that I may never have this opportunity again so I strapped on a helmet, hopped on a bike, and started down the VERY bumpy, rocky, and winding road to the lake.
About half of the group were incredibly comfortable on the bikes and flew by me down the hill and out of sight. The other half ended up behind me, going slowly with the van following close behind them.
Within about ten minutes I was completely on my own and carefully maneuvering over gravel and mud, ruts and turns through these stunning alpine meadows with wildflowers galore, and views of mountains all around.
It was incredibly quiet and truly peaceful. Occasionally I stopped to simply stand in wonder of the landscape around me that was both stunning and somehow familiar, reminding me of the Rocky Mountains back home.
During one of these glorious pauses in my ride, two huge foxes appeared out of the grasses across the road and started wandering in my direction. I switched my camera to video mode and watched as they came closer, with one crossing the road to my side and curiously walking almost right up to me!
Please excuse the poor quality screenshot of the video here. But know they were majestic.
I felt an indescribable combination of awe and disbelief and delight at coming across them in this wilderness. As the one fox crossed to my side of the road and towards me there was an additional, albeit minor feeling of fear in their casual, confident approach, and at one moment I wondered if there were more on the ledge behind me and I was about to be ambushed from behind (Perhaps I had velociraptors on my mind?). This of course was not the case and as soon as I straightened up and looked behind me the fox quickly crossed back to the other side and up into the wild flowers.
I will never forget the magic in that moment.
Once the two foxes had fully walked out of sight I continued on the road to meet the first half of my group at the lake, with the last few cyclists and the van arriving about 15 minutes after me.
We stopped at a beautiful little restaurant outside the park and were served a delicious lunch with soup (of course), chicken, beans, rice, and vegetables.
The yard outside had alpacas, ducks, and dogs, and we were invited to feed strips of carrot to the alpacas. It wasn’t too long before a couple of friendly ducks wandered over and waddled around our ankles, quacking excitedly. Upon receiving carrot pieces themselves, I swear they wiggled their tails like dogs wagging in delight.
It rained a bit while we were at the restaurant and was a bit misty as we climbed back into the bus for the ride back to Quito. It was a quiet drive with most of us napping against the fogged up windows.
Another unforgettable day in Ecuador and another awesome adventure had.
And just like that, the trip was nearing its end, I had just enough time to enjoy a hot shower at the hotel, repack my bags for the flights home, and an early arrival at the airport to peruse the possible last-minute souvenirs to bring home.
And this concludes a trip full of adventures that I will never forget.
We left the cool and rainy spring weather of Quito early Saturday morning to head into the the Napo Province with an elevation drop of almost 1000 meters and a temperature increase of about 20 degrees for our stay in the Amazon rainforest at a hostel-type housing with a local family.
We were a group of 15- made up of four Canadians (myself and an Edmontonian named Jenna representing Alberta, two Ontarians: Faraneh and Siobhan), seven Americans (buddy travellers Angie and Adrianne, solo travellers Ryann, Mattie, and Laura, and mother/daughter duo Donna and Kat), Fiona from Switzerland, Enis from Turkey via Chicago, and Dacia and Adam -a couple on an incredible extended honeymoon- moving to Australia from the UK. Matti -from New Jersey- was my awesome roommate for two of the nights of the trip, and she brought a camera with a zoom lens practically the entire length of her suitcase with the goal of catching some good shots of wildlife in the jungle. We were one person short of a full group because Nydia, a friend of Angie and Adrienne, got sick upon arrival in Quito, so sadly she had to stay behind.
A long bus ride (6+ hours) and many stops & local salty snacks later (plantain chips, anyone?!), we pulled up to the end of a jungle walkway over a stream and surrounded by hanging vines and elephant ear-sized monstera leaves with a misty drizzle of rain.
We walked up the pathway to find ourselves at the wonderful Cabañas Pimpilala, the home of Delfin and Estella, their family, and staff of local workers who host multiple groups like us year round.
I was delightfully surprised to receive my own room with an incredible view above flowering bushes with jungle hills and misty mountains in the distance.
The week was absolutely FULL of activities and adventures, all slightly dependant on the weather as we are in the shoulder season between the rainy season and dry season. (It rained every single day at some point, whether for a brief sun shower, an hour long torrential downpour, or a thunderstorm as we were heading to bed). The night rainstorms were the most common, and miraculously, the rain never negatively affected our daily plans!
The setting was exactly as I pictured for rustic jungle living with no electricity in our rooms, mosquito nets around the beds, the sounds of geckos calling at night and bugs chirping and buzzing, butterflies and humming birds everywhere, and colourful flowers on the nearby bushes and trees. I also loved how you never went too far without a small river or stream so the sound of water was the Amazon Rainforest underscore.
The first place I ever saw these beautiful ‘natural shampoo and bug repellent’ flowers was in Costa Rica.
there were a few small pineapple plants growing behind our building- have you ever seen how pineapples grow- in low plants on the ground?
cacao trees are plentiful around the property- they almost don’t look real!
The family was incredibly kind and welcoming to our group, and we felt very well taken care of. The food was generous and varied, and every lunch and dinner had two courses, always beginning with soup. The soup flavours ranges from broccoli to chicken to potato to vegetable and corn, and they were always filling and delicious, with the occasional milder soups that we would punch up with a little hot sauce or the fresh and spicy salsa they served at every meal. Often, a fresh bowl of toasty popcorn was served as the topping for the soup (but most of us just ate it by the handful). There was always rice or plantain or yucca or corn included in the main course (and sometimes: all of them!). We had fire-cooked tilapia, grilled chicken, stewed beef, and a variety of different seasonings and vegetables alongside. It was simple, local, good food.
A chicken and rice dinner with fresh avocado and tomatoes and roasted white cacao beans
A plantain pancake with papaya and banana, coffee and pinapple juice for our last breakfast
The family pets were friendly and with one cuddly cat and two sweet labradors, we felt even more at home.
The family also had a large coop of chickens with a couple of roosters that ensured none of us truly slept much past 3:45 in the morning, seemingly having a competition of who can be more impressive in their crowing.
Our generous host Delfin.
We went for small hikes and wandered through winding paths near the property, learning about many of the plants, some with healing properties like the “Dragon’s Blood” tree used for both skin irritations and injuries as well as ingested to help with certain illnesses. You can buy small bottles of this dark red sap all over the place in Ecuador, as well as other medicinal plant salves and waxes and balms.
On one of these walks we followed a small stream into a little alcove where our guide Miguel gave us all mud masks complete with decorative leaves, and we let them dry as we walked back home.
A local fruit’s seeds – “Olecho petito” – are used for a natural paint and it was used to paint symbols on our cheeks as we were taught about important symbols to the local indigenous communities. We were shown symbols like the circle of life, Pacha Mama (or Mother Earth), medicine bags, and the protectors and leaders of each community.
Delfin is the son of a traditional Shaman, and we were lucky to learn about the revered position of the shaman in the local communities and how someone trains from as young as age 5 and are not truly considered a shaman until the age of 45. We were told about the rituals of healing practices and medicine, preserving traditions, weddings and death practices. Delfin would enthusiastically share these stories and information in Spanish and our G Adventures CEO Alejandro would translate.
The first major highlight of the stay was the “Waterfall Climb” at the Cascadas Pimpilala. We were each given a helmet and a pair of rubber boots, and I was definitely skeptical as I have never thought of rubber boots as grippy, active footwear…
Led by the spry and always smiling Miguel and the Delphin’s son and constant comedian Rolando, we hiked up the nearby stream and I was surprised to discover how rough all the rocks were; even when they appeared to have lichen or moss on them, they were grippy and rough like large grit sandpaper. And Rolando’s sister Maria ended up joining us as our photographer!
Slowly but surely we climbed up the rocks on the side of some waterfalls, directly up the centre of others with water cascading over our shins and around our ankles, along logs with notches carved into them and ropes tied around large rocks or to nearby hooks and tree stumps. Occasionally we had to jump into the pools of water below before climbing up, and it was fun to cheer on and celebrate each person’s success as we worked our way up to the destination at the base of the huge, final waterfall.
It was an absolute blast and we were all happily drenched with our socks completely saturated and our rubber boots heavy with water, and many of us took the opportunity to take one final swim (sans boots and socks) in the pool built into the base of the river. The warmth of the late morning sunshine was the perfect end before we headed back home for lunch.
We took great advantage of the multiple hammocks around the property- I particularly loved the upper level of our accommodations which had an outdoor ‘living room’ of long fabric hammocks, hammock chairs, benches, and lounge chairs. We would also (very optimisitcally) hang our wet garments and towels all along the railings with the hope that we would get enough afternoon sun to dry them a bit, but as we were told only half-jokingly and we all learned it to be true: “nothing truly dries in the rainforest”.
One evening we helped make some chocolate from the fruit off the trees nearby, learning about the cacao plants that dotted the property, and getting to taste fresh cacao seeds (my favourite), watch them roast some sun-dried seeds over a fire (along with the banana leaf wrapped tilapia we would have for dinner that night) and then help shell the piping hot husks off before taking turns grinding them into a paste. For dessert that night we got to dip fresh strawberry and banana slices in the warm melted ‘fondue chocolate’ that was a combination of our melted cacao paste, sugar cane syrup, and milk. (Photos below by Ryann!)
The included activities of the next day were to visit a nearby lagoon and go swimming followed by a bike ride to the nearby school that Delfin and Estella started for the local kids.
The optional (aka additional cost) activity, was white water rafting down the Napo River with Rios Ecuador. 🤩
I had always wanted to go white water rafting but I had yet to actually ever try it, and I knew this would be an incredible day, hoping others would feel the same about the oppportunity. Luckily, five other people in our group wanted to go as well: Adam, Ryann, Fiona, Enis, and Kat. Of the six of us, Kat was the only experienced white water rafter -who had rafted levels four and five- while the rest of us were total newbies.
The river/rapids we went down were considered a level three and was comprised almost evenly of busy rapids and calmer ‘pool’ areas -so we would have the chance to both have some excitement and work and paddle hard for a bit and then we would get a break to enjoy the scenery, take pictures, and relax. This quickly became the second major ‘joy’ moment of the week, and definitely one of the most memorable days of my life.
We walked down the road from our home base to catch our pickup truck to the put in site, and the girls of the group got to sit in the bed of the truck- ‘like true Ecuadorians’ we were told- as we rode about fifteen minutes down the road.
Fiona -looking pretty cool as we sped down the road.
Our guide Gregory (who also went by the nickname “Tuti”) went through all the info about what the river was going to be like and all the safety protocols and instructions we needed to follow, and we were getting familiar with our gear and proper terms and instructions he would give us, rescue/safety, etc) while another member of the staff was putting our raft down the chute into the water. Suddenly we heard a huge bang. We knew it probably wasn’t a good sign that Gregory and all the other staff members at the site immediately stopped what they were doing and all went to see what the noise was down the hill.
It was our raft splitting open along one major seam and deflating. 😳
We were assured there was nothing to worry about and it was an 11 year old raft that had lived a good rafting life, and that we would be getting a new one- a “younger” one for our trip today.
These bamboo poles were the “chute” for the put in location to get the rafts easily to the water.
As another larger group in their fully functioning raft took off ahead of us down the river, the crew that had been working on our boat left in the pickup truck to go get the other raft. We waited down on the shore and wandered along the mix of sand and rocks until our replacement, aka ‘stunt double’ raft arrived with our guides and we got on our way down the river.
There were seven of us in the raft, and then we had Emerson: our second guide travelling separately in his kayak.
Often, Emerson was down the river ahead of us, reading the water and communicating with Gregory with paddle signs for the safety of our route, and also I often caught him doing trick moves and spins as he waited for us or as he kayaked back upriver towards us.
Gregory and Emerson and several of their co-workers at Rios Ecuador are among the top teams in world kayaking and rafting competitions and had travelled around the world to do so, so we knew we were in great hands.
We were able to jump out of the boat a couple of times and swim, and it just so happened to be another magically sunshiny day for this. All in all we travelled 27 km down the Napo river with one stop in the middle to have lunch and buy some local art and souvenirs, and we were on the water for over 5 hours!
One of my favourite things along the journey was the fact that after we made it through each set of rapids, we all high-fived our paddles above our heads in celebration. It must have happened a couple dozen times that day and I loved it.
I caught this moment entirely by luck as my camera flipped around while filming!
We were all given the option of taking turns “riding the bull”: you sit on the bow of the raft with your legs over the front and your ankles tucked under the front curve of the raft, holding onto the rope between your thighs at the centre, while the rest of us paddled through rapids. The goal was to hold on and tighten your legs against the raft in order to stay up and not fall back into the boat. Fiona, Ryann, Enis, and Adam all tried it, with some success, but it was always funny when a big wave bounced a person back into the boat, often still holding onto the rope but with feet sticking straight up into the air, and no ability to right themselves until we stopped paddling or were in calm water.
The photos above (and any ‘first person/in boat action shots’ are actually all screenshots from the haphazard video my cell phone caught (set to record whatever it could as we bounced and flew through the water as I am not fancy enough to have a go pro and didn’t have time or hands to ever hold it up. This are all from the folks taking turns “Riding the Bull”, all with more success than these photos suggest.
Photo 1: Ryann, Photo 2: Fiona’s first attempt/fall, Photo 3: Ryann after a good fall, Photo 4: Adam really enjoying the reclined position after his fall back into the boat.
Each set of rapids was given names, and at one section called “the Widow Maker”, Adam, the only married man in our group, jokingly refused to sit on the front, so Enis volunteered. At the moment we hit one particular wave, Enis fell back into the boat with feet straight up in the air and as I looked down at him to make sure he was okay I noticed both Fiona and Ryann floating in the river and heading past our raft! In that one moment, there were only three paddlers and our guide still in original positions in the boat and we had to continue paddling until we could help Enis up and get the girls back into the boat. (No photo evidence as my camera shut off here.)
We safely got everyone into the boat and back into their positions all the while laughing at the sudden chaos that had just happened. Amongst the laughter, our guide told us he had never seen that combination of events happen at all once, and said that Emerson, our guide in the kayak caught it all on film (though we have yet to see this and cannot wait!).
Ryann explained that she felt herself falling out of the boat and started grabbing for anything she could to save her. Meanwhile: Fiona, who was sitting just in front of Ryann, had been grinning with pride that she hadn’t yet fell out of the raft on these bigger bumps when she suddenly felt a tug on the back of her life jacket and felt herself being yanked into the water.
We stopped about halfway for a delicious lunch of tortillas and multiple filling options like tomatoes and avocado, onions, beans, ground beef, cheese, chips, and hot sauce. There was the most mouth-watering thick pineapple chunks for dessert, cookies, and fresh juice and water. We played with some friendly and gentle local dogs, and bought a few bracelet mementos from the locals who set up tables of local chocolate, coffee, and handmade souvenirs- beaded and woven jewelry and keychains, and wood and coconut shell containers and bowls.
Ryann took this gorgeous shot of the lunch spot and souvenir stand.
It was a nice break and an amazing, filling lunch, and by the time we left, we had even dried off a little in the midday sunshine. Adam’s clothes seemed to be the most dried out of all of us… but it would not be for long.
Shortly after we got into the boat for the second half of our trip, we came across some rapids and Gregory asked us if we liked surfing, and a few of us answered with an enthusiastic “yes”. He helped us guide the raft back up the river a bit and to the base of a large boulder and a long shelf of curling water. I now know this spot would have been considered a “hydraulic” which is a small and less powerful “hole” where the water reverses back on itself and is not safe for smaller rafts -but for us it meant we would sort of spin in place and ‘surf’ there on the curl of the water, but I think all of us in the boat would describe it more like a wall of water dumping into the side of the raft closest to the downward current, filling the raft with water and slamming the full power of the rapids into the faces of whoever was on that side of the boat, particularly in the front. As the two people in the front, Adam and I can assure you there’s not much like the feeling of being practically waterboarded by a river. We all laughed and squealed with shock and amusement as we kept turning in that spot for what seemed like forever. And someone joked “Adam, did you say you were completely dry just a few minutes ago?”
A lovely action shot of us “surfing” aka filling the front half of the boat with all the water of the river. I drank so much river water I think I’m now part Ecuadorian fish.
We finished the day by hauling our raft up onto the shore to the crew’s truck, and celebrated the end of the adventure with cold beer and sodas, realizing that we all got a lot of sun and unique tan lines…
The many exciting stories from the day were dramatically retold by yours truly (unanimously designated by our rafting team) over dinner that night with the rest of our group.
Another ‘bonus’ memento from the day was the completely unnecessary broken toe I got while getting back into the boat simply after a swim midway down the river and as I was getting in, kicking a rock. The rock won, needless to say, and I was a bit of a hobbler the rest of the trip as it tried to heal without any proper rest. 😬 I think that I finally have the motivation to invest in some good water shoes for the first time since I bought my very first pair of teevas for summer camp in 1997.
An evening in a hammock overlooking the jungle was the perfect way to end that day of course, and prepare for another highly anticipated part of the week- an animal sanctuary the following afternoon! (That, and a sheepish visit to Estella in the kitchen for some aloe vera application.)
First and foremost let it be said, squirrel monkeys are one of the cutest things on the planet. I hope you get to see one close up in real life someday. At the start of our activities the next morning we got to wander through a beautiful park with a plethora of squirrel monkeys and we were able to feed them slices of banana to entice them to come down from the treetops (where the teensy tiny baby monkeys stayed, but watched with curiosity). They patiently took turns climbing down the vines and branches to politely take the banana pieces from us with their hands – or on a couple occasions, very gently with their mouths – and then scamper up the trees to eat them.
We also wandered through an old site, overgrown and left unfinished with an ethereal tropical vibe.
the bamboo here was some of the tallest I have ever seen.
A motorized canoe took us further down the Napo river that we had rafted the day before and we arrived at the Amazoonico Animal Wildlife refuge for the afternoon. This not-for-profit organization is run primarily by volunteers and relies on donations even though it is the biggest organization of its kind in Ecuador.
We got to watch a couple incredible rainbow-feathered macaw parrots wander around the ground -protected by the dogs on site who are apparently a little scared of the birds-, we were all delighted by a baby spider monkey just casually chilling with his mom (and when he got a little too exploratory his mom would grab his tail and pull him back to her side).
At one enclosure we were greeted enthusiastically by a beautiful female toucan -named Kevin- and many curious parakeets and parrots, a couple hanging upside down eating bananas, we got to peek at an anaconda called Esmeralda, catch sight of ‘pecari’ (similar to wild boar), and even come across wild tortoises lumbering along the forest floor.
Occasionally huge (wild) spider monkeys would swing across the branches above us, which encouraged us to move along quite quickly.
Most of the animals here have either been rescued from illegal trafficking, from being pets or even from labs or animal testing facilities, and there were some very sad stories about the cruelty of humans to these amazing creatures. The major goal of the refuge is rehabilitation of the animals so that can be released back into the wild, so they maintain a strong habit of minimizing direct interaction between humans and animals (particularly with birds and monkeys), but many animals are unable to go back into the wild either due to major injuries or having been kept by humans as pets for so long they have been become tame/habituated to humans and no longer able to survive on their own. It was an eye-opening experience and I was grateful to learn about this place.
This was the muggiest, hottest day of the trip, reminding us all how truly in the Amazon Rainforest we were, and we all practically wanted to swim back to our starting point, definitely looking forward to the cold water showers back at our home base.
That night before dinner we got to try out firing blow darts at a watermelon bullseye, and with two attempts each, I think we all wanted to spend more time to hone our skills because it was fun and exciting to try! The hardest part that a few of us tried out was holding the blow gun ourselves without help. At 10 feet long, the long wood ‘pipe’ was quite heavy and tricky to hold while both aiming and preparing to quickly and forcefully blow the tiny bamboo-skewer type ‘dart’ towards our target. I think if I had a third try I could have hit the target (as the dart lands lower than you think it will) and both of mine shot deep into the stump just below the watermelon disc.
Of the entire group, Danica was the superstar/insta-pro, hitting the watermelon bulls-eye twice! She was honoured with a prize/gift from Delfin, a mysterious package of banana leaves tied with vine.
Danica’s worst fears were realized as she reluctantly undid the tie and opened the leaves to reveal a bit pile of squirming, crawling, yellow grubs.
Delfin prepared and fried up the grubs for everyone, and a small handful of the group tried them out, myself included. I think the hardest thing was the fact that once cooked, they pretty much looked the exact same as when they were alive, just not squirming… The cooked inner texture was like that of soft scrambled eggs and sort of had that flavour, along with almost a bacon and shrimp or scallops flavour mixed in. Another unique experience not to be forgotten.
That night after dinner we shared drinks with the family and staff at our home stay, and learned a local toast in both Spanish and Quechua- the local indigenous language. In Spanish: “Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’ dentro!” (Which means ‘Up, down, to the centre, inside!’) The video below has the Quechua version.
We had all felt so welcome here and we all hugged the family members before we left the next morning with huge gratitude for their welcoming and generous hospitality.
It’s encouraged to tip the local guides/hosts by G Adventures and we were all more than happy to give the family an envelope with great thanks for taking so much care of us all week, and I also was able to sketch and paint a postcard with my personal thanks to give Delfin and Estella.
Our travel back to Quito began early the next morning with a bittersweet departure from the jungle at 8am, a private van trip to Tena, a transfer to a huge public bus that included two Spanish-dubbed movies and several washroom stops, and a second transfer to another private van in Quito to get back to our hotel for 2pm. Many of the group then hired the same driver to go to the Centre of the Earth museum, and a handful of us stayed at the hotel and enjoyed our first hot shower in a week (and I was able to blow-dry my hair as well and had dry hair for the first time in 6 days!), and I think several people definitely went for naps.
Fiona and I walked over to the local artisan market to search out some fun souvenirs and see the local art offerings.
Honestly I have never been more tempted to buy sweaters on a hot day than after seeing what was available in terms of beautiful alpaca wool ponchos, sweaters, scarves, socks and hats for very reasonable prices.
But also I felt compelled to purchase a full herd of alpaca stuffed animals that were so soft I wanted to cuddle in a pile of them.
There were beautiful hand-painted bowls and artwork and collectibles/souvenirs of every size and style, plus lots of beautiful silver and stone jewelry.
One final dinner altogether with the group that night was both a celebration of the week we had spent together and a farewell, too, as we all would be going our separate ways the following day- some continuing on exciting journeys and some heading home. Did some people try the local delicacy of Guinea pig at dinner? Perhaps…
We all shared numbers to stay connected through WhatsApp and Fiona suggested Photo Circle to share all our photos and videos. If you haven’t heard of Photo Circle, it’s pretty brilliant: it keeps all the media in one place for you to access (in much higher quality than WhatsApp) and you can keep/download what you like! (And no I am not sponsored -lol)
Well, I think this post is freaking long enough so my last day-tour adventures to come next! 😎
Last fall I became inspired to try out my first tour with G Adventures, and after hearing about the experience of a “Local Living” tour in the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador, I booked it almost without a second thought. I had never been to South America, and although the Galápagos Islands and Peru and Machu Picchu are already on my bucket lists, the price and timing seemed like they would be just right- I had a break in my season of work, and wanted a little trip to explore another part of the world that was new to me.
Fast forward to the very busy and somewhat whirlwind months of March and April where I opened and closed a show, ended a long-term relationship, and moved out of my apartment of four years. By the time the trip was getting close I couldn’t even remember what was on the itinerary. I got the necessary travel vaccines, packed warm weather & water gear for the rainforest part and cold weather gear and hiking boots for the mountain part, and prepared to head south!
After a full day of travel, I arrived at the International airport of Quito at midnight in a rainstorm. I navigated through the extremely busy arrivals gate and customs areas, and was grateful to see my name on a G Adventures sign and driven the 45 minutes to the beautiful Ikali hotel and a room all to myself for the night.
I got to bed at about 2am, and fell almost immediately asleep which was lucky as I had ambitiously booked a full-day tour with G Adventures **and it began 6 hours later at 8:00am that morning**.
Breakfast was included at the hotel and a full and generous buffet spread included granola, cereal, toast and jam, fresh fruit, eggs and various corn and veggie dishes as well as cured meats and cheese. There was even a selection of local desserts. And fresh juice, coffee, and tea, of course.
I was able to walk to the nearby hotel where our “Old Town and Equator Line” tour was to begin, and jumped into a van with our guide and 15 other travellers, some on their last day of travels in this part of the world, and many, like me, on their first. There were folks from the UK and from the US, and a few Canadians as well.
We started at the Basilica del Voto Nacional, this incredible Neo-gothic and baroque combination of church design, with spectacular spires and gargoyles of animals- everything from turtles to gorillas to ant eaters (which were my favourite). It looks ancient but is actually one of the ‘youngest’ churches I have seen, only built in the end of the 1890s and the early 1900s. (Technically the basilica remains unfinished)
Walking inside the church had a familiar feel to many European Catholic Churches, although I immediately noticed huge arrangements of fresh roses everywhere: on the pillars, at the altar, on either side of the doors… it made the space smell like a flower shop, and then the morning sunlight streaming through the stain glass windows made it look like candied jewels were splashed all over the tall columns lining the sanctuary.
Every stain glass window told a different story or had a different theme, though my favourite was the star at the main doors where every sliver showcased a different flower, from roses to lilies, to tulips to lupins. There was a beautiful chapel at the end, and if we had more time I definitely would have taken the time and paid the $2 to climb up into the towers to see the upper levels of this grand space.
Our next stop was the Plaza de la Indepencia, a large square with fountains and trees and many benches, flanked by the Carondelet Palace (where the president resides), the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Municipal Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace, and the Grand Plaza hotel. This is clearly a great tourist spot and gathering place for many.
As we arrived, there were two older gentlemen standing by the main fountain reading to each other from weathered bibles with curling edges, young girls in school uniforms giggling as they played tag weaving around tourists taking photos and street dogs napping in the shade of the trees, carts of fruit juice were being sold by the bottle, some with carved young coconuts as an optional container, and I clocked one woman holding a large clear pan filled with three colours of ice cream and with pointed towers of sugar cones atop it wandering around the periphery, prepared to scoop columns of iced treats.
We were invited to try “mistelas” – thin shells of sugar candy filled with a local liquor that tasted similar to tequila. Once the entire group was given one we had planned to try them all at once, like doing a toast and/or a shot. One of the men standing next to me forgot and upon receiving it immediately popped the candy into his mouth, his wife gasping in protest and several of us nearby burst out laughing as he gently and sheepishly dropped the candy back out of his mouth and into his hand like a dog being caught with something forbidden in their mouth.
We wandered between colourful buildings, often with the view of the majestic Basillica in the far distance, and in addition to having tours of two different cacao factories (including tastings that included hot chocolate and brownies!), we wandered into several churches, some market areas, and the Old Square at the centre.
Throughout the streets there were people selling textiles like beautiful alpaca wool scarves, cooked corn with hot peppers, candy, salty snacks, and pages and pages of lottery tickets. There were also often a small bowl with Paulo Santo wood burning outside the churches like incense, and it reminded me of the smell of burning sage often used in smudging in Indigenous practices back home in Canada.
Part of our tour included going into the tunnels under the Church of San Fransisco and seeing some beautiful recreations of artefacts as well as many handicrafts of the area. It was a little tight to turn around and we were all careful not to knock the many sculptures perched on nails in these long narrow hallways.
We were given the option of seeing the inside of the Church of La Compañia, the façade made of gloriously carved volcanic rock, and the interior containing seven tonnes of gilded gold, and let me tell you, it was like being wrapped in a Ferraro Rocher foil. We were not allowed to take photos inside but this lovely photo from Wipikedia (below)gives you an idea!
What I found incredibly fascinating about the churches in Quito is the fact that the majority of the interiors are wood, and often gilded with gold, and real candles are actually forbidden inside every one except for the Basilica.
We then took the van up the switchback streets to the top of Panecillo hill where the Virgin of Quito statue (also known as the Virgen de El Panecillo) looks over the city. This beautiful figure is made of 7400 pieces of aluminum and is the highest statue in Ecuador, (and is even taller than Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, which surprised me). With a beautiful halo of stars and long elegant wings, she stands on a dragon that is wrapped around the top of the earth.
There is a museum inside and you are able to climb up to a balcony at the base of the earth part of the sculpture, but our tour guide assured us that due to the trees along the top of the hill, the view of the city is mostly obstructed. She took us along a pathway along the hill below the statue and we could see the wide expanse of the city stretching from North to South.
Our next stop was the museum at the Ciudad Mitad del Mundo where we learned that the ancient people of Quito knew where the centre of the earth was 2000 years ago, and a monument was erected where they believed the centre of the earth was, and using sun dials of various types to determine both the time of day as well as the seasons / time of year.
We learned about many of the local animals, traditional housing of ancient tribes, previous hunting techniques like blow darts and spears, and even of the traditional techniques that the Jivaro tribes of creating shrunken heads of their enemies that they used as trophies after winning battles.
We then visited the Equator line in the centre of the property, with a long red strip of tile deliniating the actual line. There we were given the opportunity to try balancing a fresh egg on a nail head (which one can only do on the equator), we poured water down a drain on either side of the line to see the water spin in opposite directions or drop directly down on the line, and even try to walk the ‘tightrope’ of the centre line with our eyes closed and not fall over on each side -as the centrifugal force of the earth spinning is strongest here- and you fully feel like you are failing a sobriety test.
It was also cool to discover that the most unique part about this section of the Equator line with the altitude of Quito, this is the furthest away from the centre of the earth you can possibly be at the Equator Line. (We were also informed that the actual furthest point on the planet from the centre of the earth is also in Ecuador, at the peak of Chimborazo, an inactive volcano about 4 hours south of Quito.) I also learned that there are 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 6 seconds in a day, which is why every four years we ‘correct’ it with the extra day in February!
We ate a delicious lunch at a restaurant facing the original monument (240 m away from the scientific Equator Line), and it looked to me like a post-apocalyptic statue belonging in a movie like the Hunger Games. I had fried pork and yucca pancake with platain, corn, avocado, and vegetables, and many of our table tried the mixed juice recommended by our tour guide: blackberry and soursop, which was perfectly sweet and tart and refreshing.
We then headed back to the starting hotel and I walked back to my hotel just in time for our first meeting with our week-long “Local Living Ecuador: Amazon Jungle” tour group!
I don’t know if you’ve asked anyone who’s been to Greece where you must go, but if you ask more than two people you probably end up with 8 to 10 islands suggested to you. And there are truly hundreds, but even then there were definitely a dozen that I wanted to visit. I settled on two (this time).
I have been looking for a slightly quieter island that still had some entertainment and restaurants and good beaches that weren’t overly touristy or commercial. The island of Ios (pronounced EE-os) doesn’t get cruise ship travel to it so I knew it was a good option. The famous Santorini (encouraged heavily by my friend Brianna) just seemed to be one of those spots that I couldn’t pass up on this trip. Like Mykonos and Crete it is exceptionally popular (aka busy) and has thousands of tourists visit every day, however I figured it would be worth it to see the sights, the views, the beaches, and the cities.
When I arrived at my room at the Far Out Hotel and Spa and opened the shutters onto my balcony, I knew I had hit the jackpot on dreamy escapes. The view from my room was exactly as pictured on the hotel website and it truly felt like a magical retreat, framed by white buildings and lush greenery with the ocean in the background and the hills of the island scooping up on either side. It felt perfect.
The hotel stay included a delicious continental breakfast each morning with a huge spread including fresh fruit, Greek yoghurt and honey, meats and cheeses, pastries, eggs, sausage, coffee, and fresh juice.
With a stunning view of the shore and the occasional company of a stray island cat winding themselves around your ankles, I enjoyed lingering on the patio at breakfast time.
After that it was generally a move over to the picture perfect pool to spend a few hours every day.
You could order food and drinks at the pool so I decided to indulge even more and get a virgin mojito. The bartender had a physical reaction of shock to my order, as if it was sacrilege to have a mojito without rum in it. I had to assure him I was serious, take a little light teasing about how “not proper” a virgin mojito was, and finally he relented with a mischievous smile and a solid 8 minutes of meticulous preparation of fresh lime juice and wedges muddled with individually-chosen mint leaves, and garnished with a perfect final sprig of tiny mint leaves.
I can say with all certainty that the result was the most delicious Mojito that I have ever had.
As I had the picturesque pool to myself quite often, I had a choice of changing between shade or sun on the many extremely comfortable deck loungers.
The beach was a ten minute walk down the hill and was relatively busy during the day with about a dozen different areas with full loungers, bean bag chairs, umbrellas and gazebos to enjoy the shade. Prices to rent a chair for the day ranged from 7€ to €15.
As someone who gets attacked by sand fleas or ‘no see’ums’ bites that are WAY worse than any mosquito bite, I now always make sure to get a lounger to stay even a few inches off the sand.
Even though signs showed that all of the beach chairs and umbrellas incurred some charge or another, either I swooped under the radar or the beach chairs and umbrellas in the FarOut Hotel section are free…
I liked it.
You could rent stand up paddle boards and kayaks or pay to go out tubing behind a speed boat. They were also volleyball courts and many of the restaurants and beachfront hotels and pools just off the beach with the beautiful views.
The water here was refreshing and not too cold, and it was nice to find that real ‘sweet spot’ balance of sunshine, shade, and swimming. At some of the beach lounge chair areas you can order food or drinks – as many are owned by the restaurants across the road from the beach.
The roads on these islands and even from the hotel down to the beach are winding and switchback style and remind me of Sardegna. There are bamboo stalks, hibiscus blooms, large pomegranate bushes, and fig and citrus trees lining the road, as well as big cascades of magenta and salmon coloured bouganvillia branches tumbling over walls and roof tops.
I had dinner one night at Salt, one of the chic but mellow beachfront restaurants that felt a lot like the great vegan restaurant on Gili Air that I visited every day during my trip to Indonesia. It was a mellow, inviting and comfortably busy place.
I hadn’t yet had gyros in Greece and finally ordered one, expecting a wrap with some fries on the side (or the fries stuffed right into the wrap, as I have been told is very common in Greece). What arrived at the table was a modern deconstructed version of a gyros wrap with 3 warm pitas, tidy stacks of tomatoes and sumac-seasoned red onion, a dollop of tzatziki, a pool of a spicy pepper sauce, and a pile of freshly sliced gyro pork. It was absolutely perfect and I practically wiped the board clean.
I decided to linger there and ordered a frappe (in Greece this means unsweetened iced coffee with stiff whipped coffee foam) and then dessert; a delicate chocolate bowl of tiramisu. Both were excellent! I loved the feel of this restaurant, and I would totally recommend it.
There were many options along the road for different types of spots to eat, and convenient regular buses to take you from one end of our beach to the other, or to take you back into the main town in Ios and the port.
The days on Ios were slow and relaxing. I would order my daily “not-proper” mojito, sit and sip, swim, read, and sunbathe with the regularly scheduled flip over to try and get a little vacation sun-kissed look!
I got in a visit to the hotel spa and relished another couple of beach and pool days that were *just* the relaxing island escape I was looking for. I ordered many a Greek salad by the pool and many a “not-proper Mojito”, I people watched and waded along the beach shoreline, perused the souvenirs of various various beach toys and scarves and bathing suit cover ups, as well as trying to get as much sun as possible before heading back to Canada and the inevitable cool fall and winter bundle-up months.
I can proudly l say that I was a regular sunscreen user and did not get a sunburn on this trip. Which is huge for me.
I had no idea that the final big party of the season was happening while I was on Ios and my New Yorker friend Mitchell invited me to join him and some friends at the Beach Club way down near the end of the shoreline. With a full DJ set up with moving lights and lasers and a hazer/fogger system, the place was wild, and the party was wilder. There were drink specials and lots of food options, and a tattoo parlour on-site that was booked up with people getting permanent island mementos like palm trees and ocean waves and variations on the classic Greek evil eye.
It was great fun but I definitely felt like this was something I would’ve done when I was university age more than these days when I am… a little bit older than that… so after a couple of hours I was happy to take the island bus back up to my peacefully quiet and sans-laser-light-show hotel.
The next afternoon I hopped onto another ferry to sail over to the famous island of Santorini and to meet up with my friend Brianna!
I arrived in the afternoon and did some exploring with Mitchell and then solo, lugging my carry-on backpack with me simply for the fact that I didn’t want to have to take transit or a pricey taxi across the island three times that day as I had promised to meet Brianna when she arrived that night at the airport!
I had the most incredible dinner at this restaurant that was homemade farfale pasta with in-house made burrata and shaved truffle and parmesan that was to die for. (I’m not ashamed to admit that the next day I suggested we go there for lunch and I ordered the same dish a second time. No regrets.) The restaurants in Fira take reservations weeks and sometimes months in advance for the sunset dinner spot. I got there early (6pm) so I was able to get a great view in the pre-sunset hour.
I then did a bit more walking, then grabbed a strawberry lemon granita from a great little coffee shop who’s lovely staff told me to sit at a window at the front saying it was the best view in all of Fira to see the sunset and I do not disagree.
I wrote a couple of postcards, I watched the sun go down, and then it was time to head to the airport to pick up Brianna. I made a makeshift sign with her last name as if I was a driver (because I am a total dork) even though we already had a driver booked to take us to our hotel that night.
Niko-the-very-handsome shuttle driver drove us safely to our hotel in Perivolos right along the black beaches on the south east side of the island, carrying our bags up to our room overlooking the pool just after midnight, and let us know he would see us on the returns route to the airport in a few days.
We could easily take the island public bus to get up to the main bus teminal in central Fira, and from there you could catch buses that would take you to the different parts on the island. You just need cash to purchase a ticket, and there were always staff with change so you didn’t need the exact amount, which was nice. The buses were air-conditioned and came by pretty regularly, which made it very convenient to get around.
The Perivolos black sand beach was less than a three minute walk away, and we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon there complete with refreshing drinks and warm “Donald’s” – also know as cinnamon sugar doughnuts- still warm from being baked locally and sold by a guy wandering down the beach who spoke very little English and kept calling out “frrrresh Donald’s! French hot Donald’s!” to the amusement of both tourists and restaurant staff alike.
(It reminded me of the woman selling snacks by the ferries that take you to the Gili islands in Indonesia, calling out “Dor-EE-tas!” And the full phrase of “Something something chips!”)
And oh, the restaurants in this area! So many many options! And so many handsome staff members urging you to come and sit at their restaurant because “it’s the best”. What won us over the first night we were there was live music. We became the superfans of the night, made most of the requests and heard all our favourite songs performed by an incredibly talented musician who played guitar and sang with a a wonderful smoky and passionate voice.
Speaking of restaurants, have I talked about the Greek salads here enough? Impossible! They were delicious and incredible EVERYWHERE I ordered them here.
We booked a day tour with a company that took us on a sailboat across to the volcanic island of Tholos and to Thirasia.
We took the winding steps down to the water and decided we would definitely take the cable car back up to the top of the hill passing by the donkeys waiting along the walls of the stone stairs to take tourists up and down. We definitely felt sorry for them and their sweet demeanours as they stood in the sun flicking off the flies with their ears and tails. The boat trip across was fast and entertaining with our trilingual tour guide giving the history of the area in English French and Italian.
We hiked around the top of this volcano that is one of the youngest in the world. We then got to swim in the mineral waters at the base of one side of it, Which is said to be very good for your health. Some people really got into it, making body masks and covering their arms and legs and faces with the rust-coloured mud along the shore. The water was warm and we would’ve happily stayed there longer but they called us back up on the boat to head to another island.
At the next spot Thirasia, where less than 300 people live, there’s a lovely little shoreline of restaurants where you can get great seafood and traditional Greek fare. We we ordered a combo platter for lunch that in the end we agreed could’ve fed a family of five.
The water around this island was incredibly clear and we just *had* to dive in and see what we could glimpse underwater. My handy pair of goggles that I had bought six years ago in Sardegna made it easy to see the schools of tiny silver fish darting by, the sunlight streaming through the water in diagonal shafts, and the rocks curving over and disappearing into the deep blue depths of the Aegean Sea. I could’ve stayed there all afternoon.
Back in Fira after a quick trip up on the cable car, we enjoyed exploring the maze of narrow walkways and side streets with lots of jewelry stores and souvenir shops and restaurants and galleries and locally made items and many food options. The main church in the town square was beautiful and ornate inside, and elegant and sleek outside with a beautiful and quiet courtyard.
We headed up to Oia; the most famous part of Santorini – this is the spot where people swear the sunsets are the best on all of Santorini. (I can honestly say that I saw a better sunset midway down the island on the edge of Fira for sure, but a sunset is a sunset and they are always beautiful, especially when you are on vacation.)
The highlight of Oia was definitely the famous blue domes. I didn’t think I would be so impressed by them but they really are stunning. There’s quite a line to get close to them to take a photo, but in the end I’m glad Brianna convinced me to wait in line for it. It didn’t take that long to get to the photo op end of the line and you can still enjoy the view or people-watch while you are waiting.
We also stopped into a beautiful art gallery filled with a collection of 15 different artists, curated by a very kind owner who had lived in Oia all his live and loved sharing the work of local artists with tourists and Greek islanders alike. I fell in love with one particular piece -a fishing boat made of reclaimed wood and recycled bits of nails and string and bottle caps. I ended up paying for it to be shipped home to arrive safely outside of my carry-on luggage.
We were supposed to take a kayaking trip to some sea caves off the side of the island but there just so happened to be a lot of high winds during the time we were there. In fact, they were a couple of days while I was on Ios that all of the ferries and flights in the area were hugely delayed (or cancelled for a entire day) due to the high waves and wind. No storms, no rain, no lightning or thunder- just wind.
It definitely goes to show that weather can stop travel plans on a dime. The only real inconvenience about the severe winds and swells of the water was that I never got to kayaking Greece. I’ll just have to do that next time I’m here, it seems.
We definitely made the most of our time on Santorini, and then it was off to the island airport- Brianna on to England, and me home to Canada!
Until next time Greece! Thanks for the sun and the sand and the Greek salads!