Picking up where my last post left off, my fam trip with G Adventures was just getting rolling when we pulled into Banos, Ecuador. We all were stunned by how picturesque this little town was - giant mountains loomed everywhere you looked it seemed, and the town was filled with cute squares, buildings, restaurants, shops, and bars. It's no surprise why backpackers flock to this place - especially when you consider all the amazing adventures you can have. We checked into yet another ADORABLE hotel. Quick note on the hotel selection - apparently some people worry because you often won't know the exact hotel names before you set off on a G Adventure trip, but there's a reason for that. They work very closely with small, locally-operated hotels (whenever possible), and therefore they may not know exactly which one will have availability for your group until a short amount of time before the trip. This allows them flexibility, and gives them a better relationship with the properties. (Having worked in the business from the tour operator side, I know just how thrilled hotels are to work with operators they can't trust to actually bring business to them!) In any case- hopefully the pics of the hotels used on this "standard" level trip will ease any fears you may have. (G Adventures has three levels- standard, basic, and upgraded - something for everyone!)
Again, we arrived early enough in the afternoon that we could squeeze in an optional activity. The list of options was LONG, but most of us chose the "unique" zip-lining option that Sol described. It is unique because, besides zip-lining, there's some scary elements like a wire bridge and a small climb up a wall. When we arrived at a canyon just on the outskirts of town, we were all thrilled with how pretty it was, but couldn't quite see where all we would be zip-lining/climbing. Once we got outfitted and hiked up to our starting point, it was clear this would be no calm canopy tour. No- we would be flying on our stomachs across the canyon, into a cave. Sol had warned us that it will seem like we wouldn't stop in the cave, but even with the warning it was a jolt, to say the least, as we flew into the cave at full speed. Then there was the "bridge" over to our climb. We were always strapped in to a safety wire, but my goodness- all I could do was concentrate on placing each foot exactly in the middle of the metal grate/plank while gripping the two side wires with all my strength, ignoring the rushing water about 100 feet below. It just got worse/scarier though - there was a dude at the end of the bridge to move our safety wire from the bridge to a narrow ledge on the side of the cliff. From there we had to navigate a curving "ladder" made of rebar drilled directly into the rock. We also had to slowly transfer our safety line(s) as we climbed. I have literally never been so scared in my life. (Again- not a rock climber!) My feet were slipping around in my keens by the time I finished, and let's not even talk about how shaky my hands were. When we got to the next take-off, I asked the head staff guy how high up we were... he thought about it and said, probably only 100 meters. !!! That's over 300 feet! Over a rushing river along a sheer cliff. Honestly, the last zip-line (superman style) was fun and easy after all that. Plus there was an adorable rottweiler to greet us on the other side (there were cute dogs ALL over Ecuador - no mangy mutts at all!). After the adrenaline rush, we opted for a lovely French-Ecuadorian restaurant for our one "fancy" meal of the trip. Here are some pics of the area- but you really can't see where we climbed, or high it all was:
Early the next morning it was time for our trek into the Llanganates National Park, high in the mountains above Banos. This activity was what I was most excited about when I set out for this trip, and it delivered. In short, we took a surprisingly fun jeep ride high into the hills, got dropped off and continued to climb up for about 300 feet more in elevation. Then, over the course of two days, we descended about 6000 feet. We overnighted at a working trout farm (in tents), complete with a truly excellent dinner comprised of the trout we each caught. Day one had the adorable beagle Boris with us, along with some awesome views of the always-erupting (and audibly rumbling) volcano - the Tungurahua. Oh- and how could I forget- we stopped on the way up for a quick photo of the volcano, and sure enough, the very nice farmer let several of us actually get on his pony for some pics - SO awesome! Here are the highlights of day one of the trek:
So, yeah- just a little pretty, and kinda exhausting - my kind of day! :) Day two brought ever more descents (my knees were screaming at me), more lovely vistas, and finally, at long last, the return to civilization. I think it was only about 13 miles in total over the two days, and we certainly took plenty of breaks - easily do-able, but the hills! Aye! Here are a few highlights from day 2:
Needless to say, me and several others went straight to a spa for a massage right when we got home. Getting a massage with a language barrier is interesting - luckily my Spanish skills were JUST adequate enough to make them understand that my legs HURT & I needed a gentle massage. I'm not sure it was worth it in the end, probably should've just gone to the famous hot springs in town, but, oh wellsie. It was yet another lovely spot. We all met up for a really fun dinner in a little artist cafe, followed by a sampling of the nightlife in Banos. Mostly your typical back-packer choices, but our guide did take us to the best of what was out there, and we had an epic locals vs. tourists foosball game. (The locals won BARELY, partially my fault - sigh.) The next morning dawned and I was afraid that I partook too heavily of the drinks the night before... but luckily it was a travel day and we didn't have much planned before our afternoon bus trip, so I was able to attempt to sleep it off. My darling roommate did drag me out of bed and up to see the famous "Swing at the end of the world", but between our completely fogged-in morning and my very unhappy stomach, I was not the happiest of travelers this day. I managed to down a coke and some chips before boarding another, extremely nice public bus, and basically slept my way out of Banos, a place I'm very, very glad I got to visit.
When we arrived at the GORGEOUS estancia in the shadows of approximately four different volcanoes, I was truly unwell. I managed about 10 minutes of consciousness to snap a few pics of the really, truly lovely setting, complete with our first llamas, before collapsing into the plush bed for yet more napping before dinner.
Side note: G Adventures doesn't really do "single supplements" like traditional tour operators &/or cruises - they basically expect solo travelers to share a room with a person of the same sex during your tour. You CAN pay extra to always have your own room if you want, but of course none of us did that. Because we only had 3 ladies, however, we rotated nights for who got the single room. Extremely fortunately for me, it was my turn for the single room! I barely drug myself from bed for dinner, where nope- even the very mild soup wasn't acceptable to my stomach. Instead I sipped oregano tea (as recommended by the ever-helpful guide Sol) while we went over the next day's activities on Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world. Happily, after about 12 hours more sleeping, I did feel almost 100% normal in the morning, though eating still wasn't really happening (this was no hangover- I def ate something no bueno at some point!). We headed over to Cotopaxi, viewing several other volcanoes on the way, and stopped at the little "local" market at the base of the mountain to stock up on wool gloves/hats/ponchos, ect. With the parking area located at over 15000 feet, it was going to be CHILLY up there, so as usual, Sol had us prepared. On the way to the parking, the clouds parted and we stopped for a stupidly lovely view of this massive volcano (including a shot of some of the wild horses that live up there!):
We decided, as a group, to attempt to hike up to the glacier which is only about 2km from the parking area, but again, it was well over 15000 feet, so altitude was going to be an issue. After about 1 minute, I could tell this was going to be just impossible for me, especially in my weakened state, but I gave it the old college try. I did turn around and head back about 1/4 of the way to the "refuge", which is the sort of warming-hut halfway up to where the glacier starts. I'm especially glad I turned when I did, because the weather abruptly flipped and I had fiercely blowing misty rain for most of my little descent, while my fellow travelers were soaked by the time they got back to the bus. Here are a couple of shots I took up there- crazy desolate landscape!
Once we were all re-assembled (and dried off a bit), we descended a little to get out of the weather and then got outfitted with our mountain bikes. We were given lots of strict instructions, but really - this was a piece of cake! We got to zoom down the mountain road, and other than navigating the soft gravel, it was the most fun! I'd had a fortifying chocolate bar (the first thing I'd enjoyed eating in about 24 hours), so even I could handle the ride down the hill and over to the little lagoon where we re-met our bus. I love the shot of me taken by one of my colleagues - it really encapsulates this awesome day on Cotopaxi!
With that I'll conclude this post and hold off on telling you about my exploration of Quito. It merits its own post really - and this is plenty long already! I hope these past two posts have inspired you to give Ecuador and/or G Adventures a chance. Both are WELL worth your attention. I know I was more than pleasantly surprised, especially by the natural beauty of Ecuador - it really is more than just the Galapagos! As for G Adventures, it absolutely met my high expectations and will (hopefully) be my chosen tour operator going forward. Drop me a line if you have any questions about either.