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Ideas

This is my idea page for when I am on the road…just a big warehouse of places I might see in case I lose my other data or travel books, so don’t read unless you are REALLY bored. Also, Bootsnall.com is great Web site for travelers…again research warehousing…cut and paste tips from bloggers… 

Here’s my two cents: Go to Valparaiso near Vina del Mar–I really liked that town. Skip Puerto Montt, go to Puerto Varas as a base in that area if you’re going to Chiloe or want to check out the lakes (I did the Lakes Crossing trip from Puerto Varas to Bariloche, and I think maybe you can do it the other way around–it was expensive but beautiful). Skip Antofogasta and Calama, but do go to La Serena and the Elqui Valley. From Atacama you can take a one-way trip through the Salar de Uyuni and end in La Paz. From there you can take the bus to Copacabana–a great place on the shores of Lake Titicaca–splurge on a room at La Cupola, and check out Isla del Sol–then into Peru via Puno and up to Arequipa and Cusco. I did this route going south, and I think that’s a smoother route than doing the salar and then backtracking to Arica. Unless you really want to go to Arica–or southern Peru border towns nearby–it seems easier to keep going north from the Salar. And I think you get to see more if you do the one-way trip.

Northern Peru, Huaraz and the surrounding Conchucos Valley

The mountain ranges are spectacular, you can see Mt. Huascaran, the seventh tallest mountain in the world and hike, for hardcore mountaineers there are some amazing peaks to be scaled. It’s a windy 9 hours bus ride from Lima to Huaraz and even longer further out, but this Northern region is generally less touristy once you head out from Huaraz (a little tourist hub but good to get connected somewhere). A lot of the little towns are filled with little plazas and lots of interesting things to see—you can see the colonial past, many Spanish cathedrals and inspired architecture. This valley region is absolutely breathtaking and I highly recommend it in the early May time when the weather is good but it does get cold at nights. Backpacker’s adventure!!! Chile/Peru Coach is the only way to go. You can hire a car in Chile but north of Santiago you’re heading into the desert and breakdowns etc are highly likely. Flights would also mean you miss out on an awful lot. Trains are limited although you can get train from Puno/Juliaca to Cusco. The coaches in Chile are pretty good, not so much in Peru. South of Santiago is best bit of Chile. Just 6 hours south is a place called Villarica where you can do a fab live volcano climb and rafting and hot water springs etc… stay in L’ecole comfy hotel at hostel prices with fab in-house restaurant. Santiago is fun for a couple of days but not all that.Head north to the Atacama desert and chill for a couple of days where you can take bus/bike into moon valley by night, climbing the dunes to watch the sun go down.Then join a 4 day jeep tour into Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia for red lakes, flamingoes, springs, geysers, cactus islands, generally fabulous scenery, and of course the salt plains. Fab trip!

As for Peru I only traveled South Peru in a horseshoe from Lima to Cusco. Took in Lima down to Nazca to see the lines, incorporated 2 day Ica/Pisco/Huacachina (oasis in desert and sand-boarding) trip. Then chilled in the white city of Arequipa including some short hikes/overnights in more rural areas and warm springs with the locals! Then over to Puno/Juliaca for 3 day Lake Titicaca boat trip including island overnighters, uros island visit, traditional costume party with islanders! Then up to Cusco for the Inca Trail. Cusco and the Inca Trail were incredible although on a par with Salar de Uyuni.

There are buses/coaches between all of these destinations.

I’m all for independent travel and signing up for small scale tours locally. The 3 day nazca/ica/pisco/huacachina was great value for money (about £40) and the 3 day titicaca (boat/island/party etc) was dirt cheap (about £10). The Inca Trail itself is your biggest expense but you can negotiate (or used to be able to) – I think you have to book ahead now but Liz’s Travel in Cusco are excellent and it’s not always worth saving the pennies.

I found accommodation easily in every town – by guidebook to start of with, then mainly by word of mouth (you’ll meet people traveling opposite direction) or from tours at the bus stops. I felt safe the entire time I was away so pretty much picked places to stay as I went along. Most hostels do double rooms at only about £2 extra pp over dorm prices. For the same price you can get a wide range of quality but none are terrible and you’re never anywhere long enough! I’d say from memory that around £5-8 pppn is plentiful! And negotiate! Many will throw in a cheap and cheerful brekkie although personally I’d rather duck out and try somewhere local.

Except for Cusco most of the places in Peru were more like motels than hostels anyway – far less dorm like. Oh, word of advice, make sure you stay in Cusco a day or two after the Inca Trail as you’ll probably want to hang out (drink!) with your tour group after 4 days trekking together. Mmm what to do in 3 weeks, well of course you should remain open-minded to what takes your fancy when you get there – each to their own and all that. I would probably do something like:


1 night/1 day Santiago (walk everywhere, do cable car etc, one night out)
Overnight to Atacama – 2 days/2 nights (moon valley, sand dunes, chill out)
Return Jeep tour to Salar de Uyuni (Bolivia) – 4 days
Overnight to Arequipa (not sure if this is possible!) – 2-3 days (rafting/hiking, monastary)
Across to Juliaca/Puno – straight onto Titicaca tour 2-3 days
Straight up to La Paz (interesting border experience) for 2 days (most dangerous bike ride in the world)
Onto Cusco 6 days incl Inca Trail
Flight across to Lima to head home
This has the added advantage of acclimatizing you to altitude before the Inca Trail – very worthwhile!  EcuadorGood hostel in Quito, Ecuador: http://www.secretgardenquito.com  Plus a great agent for Mountain Bike tours in Ecuador: http://www.bikingdutchman.com their equipment was good. We did the 1 day tour mountain biking down Mount Cotopaxi, the scenery was stunning and the lunch they provided was equally good! They take you up to the refugio at 4600m (!) give you a bike and away you go. Was a bit of a baptism by fire for a first timer like me but great fun. My other Ecuador highlight was the markets at Otavolo, you can get a bus from the bus stn in the old town of Quito really cheaply, it takes about 2 hrs. I want to recommend a spanish school in Quito: http://www.ecuadorspanish.com
I would recommend the Termas de Papallacta, a good day trip from Quito, Mindo, also a day trip has some pretty cloud forest. If you’ve got the time, a trip to Banos is great, do the mountain biking along the road to puyo, just gorgeous. In addition, a trip into the rainforest, Cuyobeno reserve could be great. Pais Verde books tours in gringolandia down the street from Papayanet, a good reputable place. Peru/Bolivia, Copacabana is a nice place to stay for visits to Lake Titicaca. Salar de Uyuni is amazing. In Cusco, Liz’s Adventures were absolutely brilliant. 

ECUADOR

I will probably enter by bus through Peru into the El Oro province, but might take flight in….then can’t decide if I should go up the Andes route or hit the coast, visit Machalilla National Park or try some surfing in Montañita maybe…plan to hit the Avenue of Volcanoes for sure and that whole stretch of area, Cuenca, Banos, Otavalo, really want to see some of Galapagos….

http://www.ecuadorexplorer.com/html/terrain_mapbw.html 

http://www.ecuadorexplorer.com/html/basic_ecuador_map.html 

You can get most anywhere in Ecuador on Bus – anywhere there is a road that is. All of Ecuador’s top travel spots are within a day’s ride from Quito and prices are very low. Click on our Ecuador bus page for distances, price and terminal information 

BORDERING PERU

Oro Province El Oro stretches from Guayaquil to the Peruvian border. Considered by many as nothing more than way station between Ecuador and Peru, El Oro can surprise those willing to spend a few days exploring it. The thriving banana and shrimp producing city of Machala divides El Oro’s portion of coast in two. While not a beautiful destination in itself, Machala is a great jumping off point for exploring the mangrove circled town of Puerto Bolívar, the markets of Santa Rosa, and the delightful gold-mining community of Zaruma.On the Río Zarumilla, just across the border from Peru, sits Huaquillas the main immigration point between the two countries. Outside of its function as a checkpoint and a shopping destination for Peruvian’s looking for bargains, Huaquillas offers travelers little else. If you slept on the bus all the way through El Oro, do yourself a favor and take a day or two to wander.COAST Montañita Surf School/Montañita is fast becoming South America’s surfing mecca. Strong, consistent waves and good tubes make it a great place to learn to surf and an increasingly popular destination on the international surfing circuit. In February every year, at Carnival time, Montañita hosts a surfing competition which is televised in Ecuador and stars competitors from as far away as Australia and Hawaii.

Depending on the phase of the moon and its subsequent effect on the tides, the waves range from 3 – 12 ft through the month. Even 3 foot waves look intimidating to a novice. Inexperienced surfers are at risk if they go out without supervision so lessons are essential for beginners. If you’ve got surfing genes you’ll be standing on your board on day one. If like the rest of us you’re not blessed with natural talent it can take from 1 to 3 weeks. Lessons are mostly individual for 2.5 hrs each day. They cost USD 10 daily or USD 45 for a 5-day course Group tuition is also available. The middle section of Ecuador’s Pacific coastline is an excellent place for a holiday. It features miles of pristine beaches set in sweeping bays, lively fishing villages and unique pre-Columbian archaeology.

Montañita is a cool place and it knows it. Due to both its charm and excellent surfing it has grown in popularity over the last few years and although small, it’s a booming beachside retreat, attracting its fair share of foreigners as well as an alternative Ecuadorian crowd. It’s fairly quiet midweek but at the weekends throngs with young, trendy Guayaquileños escaping the big city for a dose of surfing freedom.

Pavement culture thrives in Montañita village and the two main roads are lined with outdoor cafes in which to sit, watch and be seen. The food is cheap and delicious – a diet of tropical fruit for breakfast and fresh seafood for the rest of the day comes highly recommended.  The beach is a glorious expanse of golden sand. There are a number of simple wooden beachside bars near the village and another cluster at La Punta, a sandy headland about 0.5km along at the North end of the beach. These bars are perfect for watching flocks of albatrosses skimming the waves and for sundowners with a view of the Pacific. Heaven!

Accommodation is cheap and easy to find, particularly if you’re happy with a room in the village. Far nicer though is to stay in a beachside cabaña but everyone wants one so get there early. 

Montañita parties ’til the wee small hours. When the sun sets the Ecuadorians promenade, strolling laps of the centre and checking out the action. The Doors and Bob Marley are alive and well and clearly the height of cool…..every single bar rocks to the sound of the sixties. Music isn’t just confined to the bars, night entertainment is something of a free for all and takes place on the streets too.

Salango

This tiny tranquil fishing village has only a couple of streets but is home to an impressive and well-maintained archaeological museum. The exhibits feature numerous artifacts demonstrating ancient innovations in ceramics, fishing techniques and shipping technology. There’s an excellent reconstruction of an early fishing raft which looks none too sturdy given the size of the Pacific waves that crash on the beach behind the museum building! 

Puerto López

Puerto López is the ideal place from which to explore Machalilla National Park. This sleepy seaside town sits in a picturesque horseshoe bay with gentle waves, rocking fishing boats and a tree-lined promenade. The beach is the focus of local life with fishermen mending their nets, courting couples, unaccompanied cows wandering along the shore and kids running down to play in the breakers at sunset. Transport along all this part of the coast is easy because there’s only one road.

Buses run either North or South, appear about every 30 minutes and you can flag one down or get off at any point you choose. You’ll see evidence of construction and bridges being repaired all the way along the coastal road in the aftermath of the havoc wreaked by El Niño in 1999.They bus service ends early at about 7pm but don’t worry if you miss the last bus home because a number of private enterprises are available.

Camionetas (trucks) frequently drive by and for little more than the bus fare will take you to your destination. One memorable night I caught a ride with some locals on a farmer’s truck. We roared through the starry night perched on top of a mountain of oranges and enthusiastically munched our way through the cargo. Orange trucks come highly recommended if you can find one.

Machalilla National Park

Machalilla National Park encompasses 55,000 hectares of land and 2 offshore islands, Isla de la Plata and Isla Salango. It constitutes the last remnants of dry tropical forest in Ecuador and is home to a rich variety of birdlife as well as some reptiles and mammals. A 5 day entrance pass to the Park, including the islands, costs $20 in the high season (May to September) and USD 15 at other times.  

Agua Blanca

This is a small village inside the park which is home to another excellent archaeological museum. It contains local ceramics, jewellery and domestic objects attributed to the Manteña civilisation dating from 500 BC – 1500 AD. You can get there independently by catching a bus to roughly 5 kms North of Puerto Lopez. From here there’s a turn off and you walk 5 kms inland on an unpaved road. Alternatively various agencies in Puerto Lopez organise day trips with transport. From Agua Blanca there’s an easy 45-minute walk to some pre-Inca ruins and guides can be hired in the village. 

San Sebastián

San Sebastián is situated at 800 metres above sea level, a higher and wetter altitude compared to the relatively low and dry Agua Blanca. It’s difficult to get there independently but agencies in Puerto Lopez organise 2 day tours which take in both places. Look out for beautiful orchids and noisy howler monkeys. 

Los Frailes

Reputed to be the most beautiful beach in Ecuador and the star of countless posters, Los Frailes is 30 minutes North of Puerto Lopez by bus. If you wish to test that reputation but aren’t planning to visit rest of the park you can buy a cheaper beach-only day ticket for USD 10The bus drops you off at a signed turn off. There’s a ticket booth and a house where you can store luggage and buy cokes and water. There are no refreshments available at the beach and the sun can be intense so it’s important to stock up. From there it’s a circular walk which takes 2-2.5 hrs. A 3.5-km trail winds down to the beach and leads across three separate beaches. The first two are in smaller protected bays on either side of a headland. One has black sand and one white. The third is the famous beach and deservedly so – it’s a huge white sweep of sand framed by forested cliffs.

It’s sparkling clean and has been protected from any form of human construction. The big crabs rule here. From there it’s a 2.5-km walk back on an unpaved road. Los Frailes is well worth it if the sun’s shining but the price is hard to justify on an overcast day, particularly if you bear in mind that there is a whole coastline of fabulous beaches, which cost nothing, waiting to be explored. 

Isla de La Plata

The Isla is named after the silver that Sir Francis Drake allegedly stole from the Spanish and buried there. To this day it’s not been recovered but there’s no harm in looking. Even if you don’t find hidden treasures it’s well worth a visit. The Isla is generally considered to be a cheaper alternative to Galapagos and is home to various must-see birds including frigates with big red pouches on their necks, boobies with blue feet, boobies with red feet, masked boobies, pelicans and a small nesting colony of waved albatrosses. There’s also a resident group of sea lions.

The Isla is also a top spot for whale-watching, one of the primary sites in Ecuador for our large blubbery friends. There are various agencies in Puerto López which run day trips. They all charge USD 25 which includes the use of snorkelling equipment and lunch. Itineraries incorporate a walk around the island in the morning followed by an afternoon of snorkelling offshore. The island has two trails, one takes three hours to walk.

ANDES 

Otavalo

Imbabura province, north of Quito, is famous for its lakes, traditional adobe villages, indigenous communities and native handicrafts. The town of Otavalo is home to one of  South America’s most famed Indian market — a definite stop for most visitors. This open-air extravaganza overflows with a wide variety of handicrafts, as well as llamas, hand-woven sweaters and bags of potatoes, all piled high and wide and sold side by side. Surrounding Otavalo are a handful of well-preserved haciendas, a number of which now operate as B&Bs. Horseback riding programs home-based at these haciendas have recently become a popular way to experience the highlands.

Two hours north of Otavalo is the Guandera Reserve, a spectacular sliver of Andean cloudforest and paramo, near the Colombian border.

Volcanoes

An hour and a half from Quito, along the Avenue of the Volcanoes, lies the dominant image on the Ecuadorian national psyche: the perfectly conical Cotopaxi volcano (5897m), one of the world’s highest active volcanos. Most visitors with a bit of verve at least contemplate making the ascent to its 19,890 foot peak. The volcano is the highlight ofCotopaxi National Park, which straddles a number of provinces and protects a wide swath of Andean paramo, the Ecuadorian equivalent of the Arctic tundra, and homeland to the Andean condor and paramo fox. 

Latacunga Loop Just down the “Avenue of The Volcanoes”, is the Latacunga Loop, a spectacular area for Andean trekking and getting-off-the beaten path. Adventurous trekkers who make the effort will be treated to incredible vistas, unequalled mountain hospitality, and the possibility of a spontaneous encounter with a llama herder. Traveling on these scenic back roads you can Visit Zumbahua’s colorful Saturday morning market and see loads of llamas. Stop by Laguna Quilotoa, an emerald volcanic crater lake located high in the paramo at 3800 meters, and buy some Naif or primitive paintings from the indigenous artists. Completing the loop will take you through Chugchilan and the Rio Toachi Canyon system. Enter the Cloud Forest of the Iliniza Ecological Reserve.

On Thursdays, don’t miss one of the Sierra’s most important markets in Saquisili. The Latacunga Loop gives visitors an authentic taste of the Ecuadorian highlands. Accomodations on the loop are available in Latacunga, Pujili, Zumbahua, Quilotoa, Chugchilan, Sigchos, and Saquisili. The trip can easily be broken up into two or three days.

Baños 

After a long day of bargaining or climbing, you can unwind in the nearby hotspring baths of Baños, a town situated in a valley of eternal spring. Baños is also one of the gateways to the Amazon — albeit down a hairsplitting eye-popping road. Also easily accessed from Baños is Riobamba, the starting point of the exhilarating train ride down the “Devil’s Nose”. Thrill-seekers can ride rooftop, which is the ideal place to watch the bucolic landscape roll by. See the Baños page for more details.

Situated in a valley of waterfalls and hotsprings, Baños has become a mecca for international travelers seeking year-round temperate weather, a small town atmosphere, and a base for exploring the great Ecuadorian outdoors. Located four hours by bus from Quito, Banos offers hotsprings, horseback riding, trekking, rafting, climbing and mountain biking. It also offers easy access to Riobamba, the starting point of the exhilarating train journey down the Devil’s Nose to the coast, and to Puyo, one of the gateways to the Amazon. Banos also serves as a popular site for studying Spanish — a mellower and cheaper alternative to Quito.

Cuenca

Not many tourists venture farther south, but those who do delight in exploring Azuay and Loja provinces, known for their hospitality, unique cuisine, and charming pueblos nestled between the softened folds of the Andes. In
Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city, you can stroll the well-preserved colonial streets, trek through undulating countryside, and visit the nearby Incan ruins of Ingapirca.

 Vilcabamba and Podocarpus National Park 

In Loja visitors will find a splendid natural landscape. Vilcabamba, known for the longevity of its inhabitants, is a place for travelers who want to slow down and watch the flowers grow. A number of resorts catering to the backpack traveler (and others) offer therapeutic spa-like facilities. From Vilcabamba, it is possible to access Podocarpus National Park, an extraordinary collection of ecosystems ranging from paramo to endemic Podocarpus forests to rainforest (excellent for birding).

Galapagos – How to Island Hop

The most popular way to see the islands is by boat on a Galapagos Cruise, although land-based and scuba diving tours are also offered. Due to the increasing popularity of the Galapagos, a variety of boats are available for cruises, ranging from rickety sloops, to luxurious air-conditioned sailing yachts, to mid-sized cruise ships.  Most of the boats share similar itineraries, so boat quality, price, crew and trip length are often more important considerations when booking a trip. Voyages vary in length from four to fifteen days.

One of the primary differences between the varying boat classes, besides the comfort of their accommodations, is the experience of the crew and naturalist guides. Top-end boats have top-end staff. Boats in the midrange category of superior tourist class (and up) have bilingual naturalist guides, usually with a university degree. (In the Galapagos, the adage, “what you pay for is what you get” couldn’t be truer).To get the most of your Galapagos travels at least 6 days are recommended.

Bear in mind that, the shorter the trip, the less you will see — and there are a number of “don’t miss” islands such as:

Española (natural wonder after natural wonder, from the immense blow hole, to the thousands of nesting blue-footed boobies, to the world’s largest waved albatross colony);

Floreana (Devil’s Crown, flamingos, Flour beach and one notorious witch); Bartolome (spectacular views); and

Black Tortuga Bay on Santa Cruz (mangrove maze chock full of sharks, rays and sea turtles).

Most landings are by panga (dinghy) onto sandy or rocky beaches; so be prepared for what are known as wet landings and dry landings. Wet landings require you to wade to shore in up to knee-deep water, while dry landings are made along rocky outcroppings, and require a bit of agile grace to avoid turning a dry landing into a wet one (watch-out for slippery seaweed!). In addition to naturalist-guided tours on land, you will have plenty of time for underwater frolic with your snorkel, flippers and mask — and the local sea lion contingent. 

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