Mountains, Jungles and Deserts
|Written by Jared on August 31, 2012|
Start: August 10, Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador
The past couple weeks we wrapped up our time in Ecuador. By all accounts one of the most scenic and ecologically diverse countries we've visited. From our two-mile-high campsite in the shadow of Volcan Cotopaxi, we head through the Ecuadorian Altiplano and into the Amazon jungle for a brief (and wet) one-night stay.
From the jungle we head back into the high plains, cross the Andes and arrive in the Peruvian desert, pictured above. Our stay in Ecuador was short, just shy of three weeks, and the huge variety of landscapes, climates and people we met made the time fly by.
This is a shot of one of the world's highest-elevation hummingbirds below Volcan Cotopaxi, they live up to 15,000 feet and nest in cliffs in the side of the volcano. Considering how windy it is up there, and the lack of plant life, we're not entirely sure how they survive. This guy spent most of his time rocking wildly on this feeder.
From Cotopaxi we crossed the Pan-Am and headed farther into the mountains on the Quilotoa loop, a 200km drive through indigenous villages and awesome scenery.
About half of the road is paved, the other half is a mix of cobblestone, dirt and road construction. The photo above was taken as we neared the highest pass at an elevation over 13,000 feet, setting a new record for this trip.
We spent two nights at a hostel in the town of Chugchilan surrounded by a tour bus of French families, which inspired this Venn diagram after a couple bottles of wine. Considering it cost $15 for the room and included breakfast and dinner, we couldn't really complain about the noisy guests.
The highlight of Chugchilan was a trip to the local cheese factory where we stocked up a log of fresh bathtub mozzarella, a commodity hard to come by in Ecuador.
At the point where the loop starts to head back to the Pan-Am, in the town of Quilotoa, is the centerpiece of the drive: Quilotoa Lake. A crater lake at around 12,600 feet elevation. Click the above photo for the full panoramic shot.
From the high mountains we drop about 8,000 feet and cross into the Amazon basin at the town of Baños and witness a complete reversal of climate and ecology. In the span of three hours we went from cold, dry, desolate high-mountain plateaus to warm, rainy and green cloud forest.
We stayed at a place called Pequeño Paraiso (Little Paradise) in the town of Rio Verde about 20 minutes outside Baños. It's run by an expat couple, Marc and Sue, who used to be professional overlanding tour operators. Needless to say this is one of the most camper and overlander friendly places we've stayed since this trip began.
Unfortunately the weather didn't cooperate, it rained nearly the entire time we were there. What's a guy to do? Making deep dish pizza with some of that mozzarella we picked up in Chugchilan seemed like the best option. And it was.
We spent three or four days cooking, and eating, and cooking, and eating...and finally getting around to finishing up the ebook we started in Panama! Read about and download it here. It's free, and full of useful information for overlanding in Mexico and Central America. Who knows, maybe a cookbook will be coming up next.
Our last night in Pequeño Paraiso Sue and Marc took us out to town for a steak and some delicious beer at the Stray Dog Brewpub in Baños with a couple of their visiting overlanding friends. This involved a 20 minute ride in the back of a pickup through several dripping-wet tunnels into town.
Totally worth it. An Irish red, a proper IPA and a deliciously dark stout were all on the menu. Hands down the best beer we've had on this trip. The owner's son cooked us up some filet mignon, special ordered, and we chowed down on hot wings while chatting with the brewmaster, a Dutch guy who filters rainwater to make his beers.
From Baños we head to Macas, farther down the eastern slope of the Andes and into the Amazon. We spent an hour our two shopping around for a campsite, which proved to be both expensive and wet. After an afternoon and night of rain we decide to pack up and head back into the mountains rather than delve deeper into the jungle.
The road we took back into central Ecuador ran directly through Sangay National Park, a Unesco site that until recently was on the endangered list due to the construction of this road. The first hour is rough gravel through a misty cloud forest, but then turns to beautiful pavement as it winds up to the pass at more than 10,000 feet.
Along the way we pass a dozen waterfalls and streams that run down sheer rock faces, and stop every fifteen minutes to snap some photos through the clouds. Had there been better facilities in the park we definitely would have stayed a couple days, but civilization was very sparse on this road less traveled.
After leaving the park we spent the night at a hotel in Alausi before heading on to our last big stop in Ecuador, the colonial city of Cuenca. The view from our hotel room included the entire town, complete with a 40 foot tall statue of the region's patron saint in the background.
We spent three nights in Cuenca: a day for work, a day for shopping and an afternoon of sightseeing. Cuenca's biggest attraction, aside from the typical colonial charm we've come to expect from old Latin American cities, is the cathedral in the central square.
From Cuenca we headed to the Peruvian border. After a last minute change to our itinerary we ended up choosing to head towards the coastal road rather than cross in the mountains and face potentially nasty road conditions.
Our last stop in Ecuador was at a petrified forest in a dry tropical region in the foothills of the Andes. Unfortunately the park's campground was closed due to road construction and we were forced to spend a night camping on paving stones near the park headquarters. We passed on visiting the petrified forest the next day given the less-than-ideal campsite, and got up early to head to Peru.
The border crossing was a piece of cake, once we figured out where to go - as is usually the case. A half hour after crossing into Peru the landscape starts to turn to desert. No trees taller than our car, lots scraggly bushes and rolling sand dunes. Amazing considering the tropical jungle we were in just days before.
Our first stop in Peru was the beach town of Mancora. According to Lonely Planet, "Peru's worst kept secret." It certainly was touristy, but it's the low season, temperatures are fairly cold at night and so the crowds aren't out of the control. We found a nice hostel that offered camping and decided to spend a couple relaxing days near the Pacific Ocean which we hadn't seen in two months.
Our first mission once we hit the surf was to acquire some ceviche! A sorely missed snack of seafood "cooked" in lime juice with onions and other snack bits like sweet potatoes and banana chips. Delicious!
Up next: We continue through the desert before turning inland to the Peruvian mountain ranges around Huaraz.