Wednesday, 28 June 2017

A Week's Worth of Adventure and Buses

6th - 14th May - Taking a Week Off

MINDO/QUITO 6th - 9th May (Heading North)
Bethyn, Katy (fellow volunteers) and I began our week off by travelling up to Quito in the hopes of connecting on to another bus to Mindo, a small cloud forest 2 hours out of Quito. However, our weekend didn't quite go to plan...

All was fine until we arrived in Quito after the 9 hour bus ride and discovered that we'd just missed the last bus to Mindo for the night but when we asked around at the bus station someone suggested that perhaps if we went to the other bus terminal (Quito has three) there may still be buses leaving from there. So we quickly bought tickets and took the hour long bus across the city to the other bus terminal only to discover that there were no buses to Mindo from there either. It was time to put our 'big girl' pants on and get ourselves a place to stay for the night as well as ring the hostel in Mindo and inform them that we would not be arriving until the next day (or so we thought).

Thankfully, we found a place to stay near one of the main streets in the Old Town of Quito and got ourselves some dinner on La Ronda in a strange restaurant/bar/disco place. We went to sleep in the hopes of getting to Mindo the next morning. Luck, it seemed was not on our side as when we woke up the next morning we found out there had been a landslide (very common in Ecuador) and there was no pass to Mindo. Again, we rang the hostel in Mindo and informed them of our delay by another night... What was supposed to be 3 days in Mindo was looking like it was only going to be one.

We spent the day being annoyed by Quito's comparatively expensive taxis and food when we took a $5 taxi only to discover that the museum we wanted to go to was $8 each and nothing else was open. Let's just say we were not big fans of Quito that weekend. Especially since we are used to the smaller, cheaper, cleaner Cuenca which we now call Home.

Thankfully, the next day we finally caught a bus to Mindo. We were dropped on the side of the road in what felt like the middle of nowhere but crossed the road and started walking down a road towards Mindo (there was a sign thankfully). We were quite happy enjoying the peaceful walk down the road surrounded by lush greenery until a taxi drove past us and asked if we needed a ride, we nearly declined as we were content walking until the driver mentioned it was 7km to town and we realised there wasn't really much option.






When we finally got into the gorgeous little village of Mindo, the temperature was lovely and the Hostel was perfect for the one night we were going to stay. We had arrived pretty early and after putting our things down we quickly got down to making the most of the one day we had. First, we went to one of the many tourist agencies and organised to do a zip-line tour with 10 different lines through the forest. This took just over an hour and cost us just $20 with the options to fly superman or butterfly (upside down) as well! Enjoy the pictures below.






After the zip-lining we were pretty hungry so we found some lunch along the one main road. After lunch we headed back to the Hostel for a bit and booked a Chocolate Factory tour at one of the few famous chocolate factories that Mindo has. Once we'd booked that we went to the Info centre to find out what else we could do. Although the weather had turned pretty cold and wet we decided to catch the Tarrabita (cable car) across to where you can walk to some waterfalls. We didn't have much time before the Tarrabita closed so we just walked to the closest waterfall which was rather powerful and pretty.



By the time we were back it was still pouring with rain but we had our Chocolate Factory tour which was really relaxed and interesting. We got to participate in recreating the ritual that the Incans used to do when making chocolate. This involved roasting the cocoa beans and peeling the shells before grinding them until a paste started to form. We then used this paste to make a drink with boiling water, cinnamon, chili powder and honey. It was rather bitter and strong but an interesting experience and Katy quite liked it.

After the chocolate factory experience, we got to take home some of the shells to make cocoa tea and we bought a famous Mindo Brownie which we shared between us (it was super duper delicious by the way). We then quickly got a bite to eat at a sandwich place that had recently opened nearby.

The next morning we were up bright and early to catch the bus back to Quito. Thankfully, we got a relatively early bus back to Quito although it was still a hassle getting between bus stations and there was another landslide which again nearly stopped us from getting back but luckily the bus pushed through and we weren't back too late.

On the Wednesday 10th and Thursday 11th of May we just had a chill couple of days in Cuenca.

VILCABAMBA 12th - 14th May (Heading South)
On the morning of Friday 12th May Bethyn, Katy and I commenced the second part of our week off. We chose to head south of Cuenca to a small village called Vilcabamba "where the balmy air is synonymous with longevity." (Lonely Planet)
We first took the bus to Loja and from there we caught another bus to Vilcabamba arriving around 1.30pm. The 'hostal' we stayed in definitely was a "backpacker's retreat" about 1km out of the main centre with gorgeous views, room, atmosphere and temperature. We got ourselves settled in our room - with the fortune of not having to share a bathroom due to the shared bathroom not being available and still getting it for just $12 USD a night. Outside our room was a patio with hammocks and a view over the bush.



We spent the afternoon enjoying the peace and exploring the Hostel. For dinner, we ate in the restaurant at Izhcayluma (name of the hostel) which served delicious food and had a wide range of food to choose from.


After dinner, we headed down to the bar for a couple of games of pool (which I suck at fyi) and enjoyed the 'not too hot, not too cold' temperature.

The next day we headed into town for breakfast at a place called Midas Touch which served scrumptious food for brilliant prices. After breakfast we wanted to explore a bit so decided to do the quick hike to a small spring called Agua de Hierro that the Lonely Planet guide recommended... only to find out that the spring was merely a trickle and really not anything special to walk 30 minutes for. Nevertheless, it was a nice walk and we walked back into town to try out the Juice Factory. By this time, it was about lunchtime so we went in search of another Lonely Planet recommended place which had apparently moved and thanks to Google maps and more walking we eventually found the place we wanted. This place was called Shanta's Bar and the owner had a pretty wicked moustache and the bar stools were saddles. It was in a beautiful quiet setting in the open air with a cactus garden around it. We enjoyed a scrumptious pizza before heading back to Izhcayluma for our massages that we'd booked the previous night.










The rest of he afternoon we just soaked up the atmosphere and went for a dip in the pool, playing around with Katy's waterproof camera getting some "stunning" photos...





That evening, we dined at the Hostel restaurant again as it was so yummy the previous night and continued down to the bar for a few more games of pool before heading to bed.

The next morning we checked out and got some breakfast at Midas Touch for the second time before getting the bus(es) back to Cuenca, arriving late sunday afternoon in time to get into bed nice and early for work the next day.

It was lovely to have a week off (even if it was a while ago now).
Georgia xx

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Weekend Exploring

Saturday 8th April 2017

Today we decided to go in search of some well known craft markets near Cuenca. We hopped on a bus which took us first to Gualaceo. Gualaceo is a small market town about an hour from Cuenca and is well known for it's shoes and Chancho (pig/pork).
We arrived at about 10am and hopped off the bus to a slightly warmer climate than Cuenca and went in search of the markets. Unfortunately we couldn't find the markets (we decided they must be on Sunday instead) but we did find a very pretty, tranquil river. We explored the town for a while where there was a lovely church and town square. By about 12pm we decided we'd explored the small town enough and were getting hungry, so we got on another bus which took us to an even smaller market town called Chordeleg.








 It was a short 15-20 minute bus ride to the tiny, picturesque village. As soon as we got off the bus we found a cute, quirky place for lunch. It was called 'La Cabaña' and was owned by an Argentinian man who was also the sole chef. The food was absolutely delicious and so reasonably priced! $3 for a homemade Lasagne and $1 for an Empanada (all made by hand, then and there whilst we waited).








Once we'd filled our bellies, we explored the gorgeous town. The streets surrounding the town square were lined with the many jewellery shops that the tiny town is famous for. Coincidentallly, the first jewellery shop we encountered was called 'Georgia' so of course we had to go in... I bought a gorgeous pair of earrings in the shapes of butterfly wings and some plain sparkly studs.



We explored the picturesque town for the afternoon, glad we had been to the first jewellery shop we'd seen or we would have been there for days choosing jewellery!

After exploring all the touristy shops and buying some delicious bread for the bus ride home, we found a direct bus to Cuenca and headed back. Out of Gualaceo and Chordeleg I would definitely recommend Chordeleg for it's picturesque surroundings and charming village although Gualaceo is worth a visit too.

13th - 16th April - Easter Weekend Trip to Baños

This year Easter was a little different for me since I couldn't be in New Zealand spending the weekend gourging on chocolate and hot cross buns and spending time with family. Instead, I was off to a small adventure town in Ecuador called Baños, more or less near the middle of Ecuador.

Easter in Ecuador is a little different to New Zealand and instead of Hot Cross Buns and chocolate Easter eggs they have a traditional soup known as 'Fanesca' - which Cuenca is particularly well known for. The soup is rather complicated and contains twelve different types of beans and grains - said to represent the 12 apostles, Bacalao (salted cod) soaked in milk and is usually topped with sliced avocado and boiled egg.

My host family ate this over the holy week and saved me some for when I returned from my trip to Baños. Overall, I thought the soup tasted pretty good (although you can'y beat a toasted Hot Crosss Bun with melted butter in my opinion).

Due to 'Semana Santa' (Holy Week), most of us had the Thursday and Friday off work so 7 of us decided to head north to Baños. We left on the bus at 8.45a on Thursday and what was supposed to be a 7 hour bus ride turned into a 10 hour one when the bus broke down 30 minutes from our destination... welcome to Ecuador! We sat in the bus waiting for 2 hours before they got a taxi/ute to drive us into the town.

We arrived around 7pm and walked to our hostal. We stayed at the 'Plantas y Blanco' hostel in two rooms of 3 and 4. We met up with the volunteers from Quito and headed into town to find something to eat. We were all pretty tired so didn't stay up too late. We found a cool burger place which was comic themed (see pictures below) and headed to a bar for a free, flaming, rainbow shot and then chilled in another quiet bar which was 'Simpsons' themed.






The next day the adventure began! It started with breakfast at a small cafe before some of the brave ones involved themselves in an activity known as 'Puenting' which can basically be described as jumping from a bridge and swing (like bungee jumping but without the bounce... I'll let the video explain that! (Unfortunately I was not brave enough for that so here's a video of one of the other volunteers Katy doing it ☺)


video


After the brave ones had bridge jumped, a few of us decided to go ziplining! I was one of these people and it was absolutely wicked fun! We got to fly like superman, climb a 90m vertical rock face and tandem zipline to the end. Watch the video below to see what we did (disclaimer: video isn't of us)
https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=1874623176084366&id=1601197473426939

Following an adrenalin packed morning we were pretty hungry so whilst some people went quad-biking and buggying, Bethyn, Ruby and I went and got ourselves some lunch. Later that evening we saved ourselves some money by cooking up a delicious stir-fry at the hostal in the small kitchen on the roof terrace (mostly thanks to Anna and Katy's wonderful cooking skills!). We spent the evening chilling and chatting before heading back to our rooms to sleep.

On Saturday we kept things a little more low key since unfortunately Katy was pretty sick (on her birthday! 😞). In the afternoon we took the bus up to the well-known 'Casa Del Arbol' although we didnt go on the actual swing attached to the treehouse as we didn't have time to wait in long lines. Instead we went on one of the other (just as good) swings and admired the view over the valley.



For the rest of the day we just relaxed. In the evening we went to the thermal baths that Baños is well known for. It cost us $3 to get in and upon entry we encountered the murky water filled with colourful heads due to the compulsory swimming caps...just believeme when i say we looked 10/10 haha. Afterwards we quickly aadmired the waterfall that feeds the thermal pools before having some dinner and a drink at the hostal until the restaurant closed and we went to bed.

On Sunday, we packed up our things and travelled home, arriving back in Cuenca around 5pm.

Overall, despite Easter being different to what we experience in New Zealand it was still a wicked fun time and don't think many other people can say they spent their easter weekend ziplining through an 850m canyon at more than 100kmh!

Sorry for the delayed post...
Georgia xx

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Montañita

From the 24th to the 26th of March we went on our first 'weekend away.' We headed north west to the coast of Ecuador - Specifically to Montañita which is one of the most famous surf beaches in Ecuador. Montañita is a small, laid-back surf town with it's own chill culture and a variety of travellers - mostly young.

We left at the extremely early hour of 2:30am to ensure we arrived at the beaches early Friday morning. The bus ride went well for almost the entire journey as we mostly slept and had a few stops for toilets but we 'hit a bump in the road' when our big tour bus tried to go down a dirt road after heavy rainfall in an attempt to reach our first beach 'Playa Rosada'... And so began the  first of the weekend's adventures.

We ended up stuck in the mud for 2 hours before help arrived! During these 2 hours we made a few attempts ourselves to get the bus out of the mud but alas the situation was only made worse and we gave up and sat inside the bus trying not to trample the sticky mud everywhere and avoiding the rain and muggy air. 

I was never so happy as to see the giant digger and dump truck come round the corner, especially since the words "apparently a man is on his way to help" could literally mean anything here in Ecuador. Not going to lie I was expecting something like a small family car with a tow bar to come round the corner 😂


When we finally got out of the mud, we arrived in Montañita around 1.30pm and checked into our hostal. We stayed at the Iguana Backpackers and were on the loft floor which was open and had around 12 beds along the floor (see picture below).







Once we'd sorted our bedding situation and put on some cooler clothes (average temperature was 27℃) we went out as a group to find something to eat. Most of the group ended up with a seafood dish - as you would expect being on the coast but for (now) obvious reasons I avoided the shellfish and had a chicken dish.


We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the beach and taking in the vibe of the place. Within half an hour of sitting we were offered all manner of things including 'Happy Brownies' (a common occurrence in Montañita) to which we politely declined. After this we headed back to the hostal and joined Happy Hour before heading out to find some dinner. After dinner some of the others went out clubbing and dancing on the beach but as I was on antibiotics and couldn't really drink and was also incredibly tired from the early start and mud palava, I decided to head back to the hostal with a few of the others (it was only 10pm) and try and get a decent sleep so I could stay out longer on the Saturday night.



On Saturday morning we had breakfast at the hostal at around 8.30am. Breakfast was a fried egg, bread roll and fresh fruit.


At 10am we boarded the bus to head to one of the nicer beaches just over an hour out of Montañita called 'Playa de los Frailes.' I think the pictures below will speak for themselves. We were also very lucky in that it was super sunny when we went and we spent most of the morning bathing in the tepid waters of the beach (I think all us Kiwis were surprised when we got in the water and we weren't hopping around trying to get used to the water temperature!). In fact the water was so warm it was barely even refreshing compared to the air temperature. It was super relaxing and a very lovely morning indeed.


After the beach we headed to a town nearby (can't recall the name) and got some lunch (which was incredibly average and we waited more than an hour for!). Once we'd finally all eaten we got back on the bus and headed back towards Montañita however first we stopped at a lookout near a place called Olón which had the most breathtaking views and even had a gorgeous church built on the edge of a cliff. We were told that it was expected for the church to fall into the water within the next 5-10 years so feeling pretty priviliged to see it whilst it's still standing.




When we got back to the hostal, I had a quick shower in an attempt to cool off but that lasted all of 10 seconds before I was sticky and sweaty again -  the joys of humid places. We had dinner at the hospital which was a big BBQ (only worth it if you're going to eat lots which I did not do). We partied there for a while before leaving to go clubbing and dancing on the beach. Managed to stay out later than the Friday night and it was good fun. 

The next morning (Sunday) we had breakfast and packed up our stuff before getting delicious Nutella, banana and strawberry crepes as our 'lunch' before we got back on the bus to head back to Cuenca. The bus ride was long and I slept most of the way and took in the incredible sunset in the moments when I was awake. We left about lunchtime and got back to Cuenca at 10pm. 

Overall the trip was good fun, although I definitely couldn't have sustained staying in the muggy heat for more than the 3 days we were there. Bring on the next trip!

Georgia xx