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Ecuador Day 4: Ibarra to Salinas

Ibarra Salinas train
Ecuador

Today we left Quito behind and headed north, back to volcano and mountain country. Our first quick stop was a viewpoint by the Cayambe volcano and lake. This little rest stop offers great views over the glassy lake, and the shop sells tasty home-baked snacks. I’d skipped breakfast so had a couple of corn biscotti for the road.

Ibarra

Ibarra
Ibarra

We continued to Ibarra, where we’d catch the train to Salinas, about 2.5 hours north of Quito in total. Ibarra is a bustling market town, the kind of place I’d be itching to explore, but we had a train to catch right away from the smart modern station. The train leaves Ibarra at 10.30 every day Weds-Sun, with the return trip at 3pm, and the ticket costs $15.

Ibarra Salinas train
Ibarra Salinas train

The train is named El Tren de Libertad – the train of liberty, so called to celebrate the freedom of the ex-slave population of the area. Kids on the street sweetly wave you off as the train chugs out of town. It goes at a leisurely pace, with the 30km journey taking 1.5 hours. It’s very comfortable on board and you can open up the wooden sash windows to get closer to that view.

Ibarra Salinas train
Ibarra Salinas train

Ibarra Salinas train
Ibarra Salinas train

Pretty soon you’ve left the town behind and the view is rolling farmland and hills as far as you can see – today was a beautiful clear day with bright blue skies so it was especially stunning. I can’t get over how big the sky looks in Ecuador – I don’t know if that’s my imagination or an effect of being at high altitude and close to the equator, but it seems endlessly vast.

Ibarra Salinas train

Ibarra Salinas train
Ibarra Salinas train

Ibarra Salinas train

The vegetation and crops change as the journey continues: from maize and tree tomatoes in the lusher areas to cacti, agave and sugar cane in the drier climate later on.

Ibarra Salinas train

Despite the stately pace the ride is pretty dramatic; often you can look down out of the window to a sheer drop into the valley below, and crossing this rather rickety-looking iron bridge was a heart-stopping moment. You’re also occasionally plunged into the sudden darkness of a tunnel before whooshing out into the light again. Kind of like a very slow-mo rollercoaster!

Salinas

We reached Salinas at midday, welcomed by a Bamba dance from some local girls. Salinas is a small town of 2,000 people which was originally founded as a result of the nearby salt mines, hence the name. The train line brought trade to the town in the 19th century, and continues to today – but by way of tourism rather than salt, which is too expensive to produce in the old-fashioned way now.

Salinas
Salinas
Salinas
Salinas

We got a short tour of the town from the train guides. The town comprises maybe 10 by 10 neat blocks of low, colourful dwellings with a pretty square in the middle which contains the church and school. I’ve never been anywhere that felt so peaceful and laid-back. You can imagine no-one ever rushes anywhere and the noisiest it gets is when a kid riding a souped-up motorcycle jutters past.

Salinas
Salinas
Salinas

There’s a quaint mini-museum dedicated to the town’s past in the salt business, showing how it was mined, refined, dried and sold. There is also a gift shop containing products made by the community with some very pretty jewellery, and a shop of homemade edible souvenirs like marmalade, honey, and a rather potent ‘pina colada’ made of sweet milk and sugar cane liquor. We had a nice lunch in the ‘gastronomic centre’: quinoa soup followed by mixed veggies and potato for me, with the usual aji hot sauce liberally applied.

Salinas
Salinas

Salinas

I spent an hour or so after lunch just poking up and down the same few streets, noticing something new each time: a handpainted pattern on the wall; a kitty sunning himself in a door; a classic Morris car. It felt a little like a film set, so quiet and perfect. I remembered for not the first time how lucky I am to be able to visit these unique places, so different to home.

Ibarra Salinas train

At mid-afternoon we boarded the train for the trundle back to Ibarra. My eyes were half-closed but the landscape had become more dramatic under the sinking sun: you begin to think you’ve seen all the epic scenery Ecuador can offer but it’s constantly changing and always enthralling.

Salinas to Ibarra
Salinas to Ibarra

By late afternoon Ibarra’s market stalls were still buzzing with end of day trade and food sellers had started to fry up meats and plantains from their stalls.

Hacienda Cusin
Hacienda Cusin

It was about a 45-minute drive from Ibarra to my bed for the night, at the Hacienda Cucin. It was getting dark as I arrived and the light rain turned into heavy thunder and lightning, so exploring the pretty grounds would have to wait until the morning. I had a dinner of more quinoa soup, garlic mushrooms and chocolate cake in the elegant restaurant before turning in for the night in my room, equipped with a crackling log fire, layers of woollen blankets, and a hot water bottle.

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own

Quito Day 3: Volcanoes, birds, and middle(s) of the Earth

Pululahua crater viewpoint

Day 3 started early, as we were heading out of town to the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’ to the north of Quito. About an hour’s drive just outside the bounds of the city was our first stop, the Pululahua crater viewpoint and geobotanical reserve.

Pululahua crater viewpoint
Pululahua crater viewpoint

As ever there were lots of unique flowers growing with medicinal and edible uses. You can take a walking trail or horse-ride around the crater’s edges or down to the bottom. There’s a hotel and some hot springs, so it’d be a pretty nice place to stay a night. I was excited to spot a couple of hummingbirds flitting about, but there were far more to come later!

Pululahua crater viewpoint
Pululahua crater viewpoint

We had lunch at the El Crater restaurant near the lookout point. This is a pretty swish place with amazing views over the rolling green hills and valleys and the crater itself. The food was very tasty, as well. I do love the Ecuadorian style of giving you a little bit of lots of thing on the same plate: some grilled veggies, a tortilla (this is a small fried corn or potato cake in Ecuador), fried plantain slices and toasted and steamed maize kernels, served with spicy-creamy-salty salsa to slather over it all.

Alambi

From Pululahua we headed west to Bellavista Cloud Forest, a huge private nature reserve and eco guest lodge which is especially known for exotic flower and bird spotting. Unfortunately though, there had been a landslide in the night and the only road to the cloud forest was completely shut off to traffic so we couldn’t drive to it. Instead we went to a smaller reserve called Alambi which we’d passed on the way.

Alambi

I can’t compare it to Bellavista, but I really loved Alambi anyway. It’s the private home of owner Fabian, and he’s built a lodge for visitors on the little piece of land. In what’s basically his backyard he hung lots of sugar water feeders and planted sweet flowers, which mean hummingbirds flock there in droves.

Alambi
Alambi
Alambi
Alambi
Alambi
Alambi

It was quite amazing to see so many hummingbirds from so close – I was maybe 1m away. I think I sat watching them for about twenty minutes before being taken on a tour of the small reserve.

Alambi

Positioned on the edge of the rainforest, there are more interesting plants here, like the ‘dragons blood’ tree which oozes red liquid when you cut the bark. It turns into a white cream when you rub it into the skin and is said to be an insect repellant.

Alambi
Alambi
Alambi

Fabian also has orange, guava, lemon, coffee and mandarin trees, so you can grab a sweet snack while spotting butterflies. This was a really lovely place, I’d like to come back and stay the night sometime.

Intinan Museum

The next stop is kind of an Ecuadorian must-do: a visit to 0 degrees, 0 minutes, 0 seconds latitude, ie the horizontal centre of the earth. There are two big tourist attractions set up around this point – but unfortunately neither are particularly good!

Intinan Museum

The first one, the Intinan Museum, claims to contain the real geographical centre as calculated by GPS. They’ve built a little outdoor museum around it but it’s pretty kitsch and quite poorly done: a couple of llamas and snakes in too-small enclosures, some rather random displays about indigenous cultures, and some reconstruction totem poles. Kind of cheesy and not worth bothering with in itself.

Intinan Museum
Intinan Museum
Intinan Museum

The 0,0 degrees line itself is quite nicely marked and an obvious must-do photo op. The guides give various demonstrations about phenomena that supposedly happen around the equator – water draining in opposite directions, balancing an egg on a nail, your strength and balance becoming weaker – all of which I was a little skeptical of and had my suspicions confirmed by Googling afterwards. It’s nearly all faked: the Coriolis effect is not strong enough to pull draining water in opposing directions (the guide pours from different angles), you can balance an egg anywhere with a bit of effort, and the strength test must be suggestion. Weirdly I did find it really hard to walk straight along the line (supposedly due to centrifugal forces pulling you) but I can probably put that down to suggestion too. So yeah, it was all a bit silly and fake but at least this is (pretty much) the genuine 0,0 line so that in itself was quite cool and worth seeing.

Middle of the Earth
Middle of the Earth
Middle of the Earth

The second site is about 200 metres away and much grander, yet unfortunately utterly inaccurate. Built in the 1970s, it was decided to build the resort here as a result of French scientists’ measurements. Sadly it’s definitely not the real 0,0 spot, though there’s nothing at the resort to tell you that! You can see why they’re carrying on the pretence though – it was obviously an expensive development, pretty much a mini village with shops, restaurants, an observatory and even a bullfighting ring (used for concerts and events since bullfighting is now illegal here). The big monument in the centre is quite classy, and there’s a pretty interesting exhibit inside about the indigenous people all over Ecuador and the Galapagos islands. So even though I was a little disappointed by both sites, they are both worth visiting for one reason or another.

Quito

Quito
Quito

Back in Quito for the evening I took myself out for a little wander around the old town as it was my last night staying here. The half-hour before the sun starts to set is a really beautiful time, the light streaming down from the sky before sinking below the mountains; even a short rainfall is a nice relief from the heat.

La Cuchara, Quito

I’d done a bit of research on vegetarian restaurants and walked down the lovely cobbled San Marcos street to find La Cuchara de San Marcos. I think the name means cul de sac, as appropriately it’s tucked away at a dead end at the very end of the street. (Amusingly I thought I found the place as I was walking down San Marcos street and it took ten minutes’ chatting to the waiter and chef in broken Spanglish before I realised it wasn’t the right place. By that point I felt like I had to stay for a bit, so I ended up having a very tasty michelada and little place of tacos en route. Two dinners for the win!)

La Cuchara, Quito
La Cuchara, Quito

Anyway, the real Cuchara is tucked up a staircase which leads to a pretty fairylit courtyard and a cosy restaurant-bar. The menu is Ecuadorian food given a veggie makeover: soy, potatoes, cheese and vegetables take the place of meat in classic local dishes. i had ricotta empanadas followed by a peanut stew with soy protein and potatoes.

La Cuchara, Quito
La Cuchara, Quito

They also have some local craft beers; I had an Andes red ale which was really tasty and got a couple more bottles to bring home. I got chatting to the co-owner, an American ex-pat from San Francisco (hence the beer knowledge), who explained to me how he came to open the place. He also brews small batches of beer on-site, though sadly the next batch was still fermenting on my visit. I was really pleased I ventured out and found this place: it’s generally recommended that tourists, particularly women, don’t walk around alone after 9 or 10pm but I didn’t feel unsafe while walking there and back (pre-9pm but definitely dark). The old town is well-lit and as long as you stick to the larger streets and plazas I think it’s OK to have a wander.

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own

Quito Day 2: 4000m high & The Chapel of Man

Panecillo

The next day of my trip we were due to climb to even higher heights, then take in some culture from Ecuador’s most renowned artist. We hopped in the car and took a ride up to El Panecillo – a volcanic hill so named by the Spanish because it resembles a little bread roll. This site was chosen to build a statue of the virgin madonna, who watches down on the city from her perch and can be seen from all over the old town. She is clad in 7000 aluminium tiles and was completed in 1975.

Panecillo

You can climb up inside and get an amazing view of the sprawling city. Quito has seen an explosion in growth in the last 10-15 years and the infrastructure has not really caught up yet – but a new subway and road tunnels are under construction now to better connect the north and south of the city.

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Next we headed up even higher – via the Teleferico cable car that hoists you up along the slopes of the Pichincha Volcano to over 4000m above the city, to a lookout point called Cruz Loma. Luckily I’m not afraid of heights…

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Once at the top, the bustle of Quito seemed to melt away. It was so quiet and peaceful, surrounded by alpine plants and delicate flowers with just a hint of fresh breeze.

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You can walk a trail around the mountain top, and also take a horseback ride or bring bikes up to explore further.

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A rather cool looking modernist church was built up here about ten years ago, and people make the journey up here for mass in order to feel closer to God.

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You can see why, as from here you are literally amongst the clouds. It was clear when we made the ascent, but a thick white wall of cloud rolled in from the south as we were at the top. To be standing at over 4000 metres high watching clouds amble past in front of your eyes is quite something.

La Capilla del Hombre
La Capilla del Hombre

Reluctantly coming back down to a relatively normal height, we went to a different kind of wonder next: The Chapel of Man (La Capilla del Hombre). This place is really interesting – it’s kind of a secular artistic monument to the struggles that mankind faces all over the world, founded by Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín (1918-1999), whose artworks fill the cavernous space. I was given a guided tour to help explain the purpose of his work to me.

La Capilla del Hombre

Guayasamín’s aim in his art was to highlight the pain and suffering that humans face as a result of war, slavery and dictatorships. His works are incredibly striking and moving, especially up close where you can appreciate the colours and textures. You can see influences from Picasso in the distorted angular shapes of human bodies, and from Goya in the grotesque depictions of evil forces and pain.

La Capilla del Hombre

Some canvases are kinetic – the panels can be moved into millions of configurations to represent shared connections even amongst fragmented souls.

La Capilla del Hombre

This interesting work is a pastiche of an iconic 15th century religious painting which hangs in the Louvre. Instead of Jesus and Mary, the agnostic Guayasamín removed the religious imagery, making his piece show the universal human pain of any mother who has lost her son.

La Capilla del Hombre

“I cried because I had no shoes until I saw a child with no feet.”

I hadn’t heard of Guayasamín before visiting the museum, but came away very moved and interested to learn more. My guide said that while he is the most famed Ecuadorian painter, his work is not especially well known outside of South America. I recovered from quite an intense day with a caipirinha in the hotel bar before turning in ready for an early start in the morning.

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own

Quito Day 1: Casa Gangotena and Old Town

Quito old town

After a lovely bath and long sleep to shake off the flight, I was ready to explore Quito. I landed on my feet with my first hotel stay at Casa Gangotena. The above was the view I woke up to just before sunrise.

Casa Gangotena
Casa Gangotena
Casa Gangotena

This place is luxury on toast: voted 6th best boutique hotel in the world by TripAdvisor, it’s situated ridiculously centrally in the old town overlooking Plaza San Francisco and the same-named church. It’s the old mansion of a wealthy Quito family which was converted into a 31-room boutique hotel a few years ago. Despite being so central with the bustling square right outside, my room was a haven of peace and quiet.

Quito old town

It was such a lovely introduction to the city to wake up and watch the sun rise behind the church and see the plaza slowly roll into life.

Casa Gangotena

Breakfast blew away any remaining plane-fuzz. Seated in a sunny corner with more views of the square, I started with a mimosa and tasty homegrown coffee.

Casa Gangotena

There’s an extremely well-stocked buffet including juicy local fruits, breads, pastries and cheeses, and you can also order cooked-to-order dishes.

Casa Gangotena

I had to try something local: the ‘San Roque’ comprised soft-boiled eggs next to a cheese-topped pancakey flatbread, with a brown sugar syrup to drizzle over. Slightly weird and utterly delicious.

Quito old town

I met my guide for the week, Luis, in the hotel lobby and we set about on a walking tour of some of the nearby sights of the old town. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre, on the strength of it having the best-preserved historic centre in South America. You can easily see the Spanish and Moorish influences in the architecture; if you plonked me here at random I’d have said it was Barcelona.

Quito old town

We started by doing a lap of some of the streets leading off the plaza, taking in some of the local shops. I see they got the memo to send out a welcome cat.

Quito old town
Quito old town

Grain stores selling masa, beans and rice by the sack, and small stoves cooking up hot snacks.

Quito old town

Beautiful vegetables, familiar and exotic

Quito old town

An alternative pharmacy, which uses herbs and plants to make remedies – camomile, aloe, ochre root and so on.

Quito old town

A flower shop – roses are a big export for Ecuador, and I’ll see a rose farm later in the week.

Quito old town

I bought a delicious fruit-flavoured shaved ice from an old lady’s cart. Street selling is a huge thing here: fruits, hot food, ices and sweet snacks are on offer literally every few paces for a bit of small change.

Quito old town

Quito old town

Quito old town

Quito old town

We walked to La Ronda, a little cobbled street which is known as an artsy bohemian hub, housing several bars, restaurants, artisan studios and workshops. I bought some beauty products made using local honey, and watched some metalsmiths and wood carvers at work.

Quito old town
Quito old town

Back on the Plaza San Francisco, we had lunch at Tianguez restaurant. It was nice to taste some more local food: I had spicy sauteed mushrooms with salsas and chips followed by a lovely potato soup with avocado and crispy corn kernels, with a sweet steamed tamale for dessert. The juice is a local fruit, tomate d’arbol, ‘tree tomato’ which tastes like a cross between tomato and apricot – really tasty and refreshing.

Quito old town

We visited three churches: first, Iglesia de San Francisco, the one that formed my sunrise view. No pictures allowed inside (though I just had to sneak one) but it was quite breathtaking with every surface carved and gilded, sombre statues and Renaissance paintings bearing down, and the ink-blue domed roof dotted with more gold. High Baroque at its finest.

Quito old town
Quito old town

The Basílica del Voto Nacional. The outside is quirkily decorated with stone animals of all the local fauna: alligators, armadillos, turtles and so on, and it’s pure Gothic drama inside.

Quito old town

Finally the equally Baroque St Ignatius Jesuit church. No photos again but it’s another highly gilded wonder, with every square inch covered in intricate baroque- and Moroccan-influenced carvings. The church also houses a small collection of 16th century religious paintings and a special tribute room to a nun called Mariana who allegedly sacrificed her own life to God to save Ecuador from an earthquake. She is buried in the church; you can see her tomb at the altar and the crypt underneath. Also notable are the two arresting paintings on each side of the church’s entrance; one an extremely gruesome depiction of hell and the other of a more serene heaven. Religious or not, I found it all utterly absorbing and beautiful.

Quito old town

Finally we got a first glimpse of the city from above by driving to Itchimbia, at 3,000m above sea level. This is a little park with some rare species of tree and flower, most of which are used for medicines. The crystal palace in the centre is used for events, exhibitions and concerts.

Quito old town
Quito old town

It was incredible to see the sprawl of the city for the first time: my guide explained that most of the houses on the hills surrounding Quito are self-builds, but the government has started to crack down on planning permissions as over-development is becoming a concern. Quito has seen exploding growth in the last decade and right now the infrastructure, particularly travel and pollution, is playing catch up.

This was a great introductory day to the historical wonders and everyday life of the old town. Tomorrow I’d be seeing more of it, and climbing even higher into the clouds…

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own

Introducing Ecuador

Ecuador

I’m back from Ecuador! I had a amazing trip, as you can probably tell if you were following my Twitter or Instagram. Thank you again to sponsors KLM and Quito Turismo UK for making my visit possible. I’m going to write my usual daily diary of all the fantastic things I saw and did, but first here are a few general facts and tips about Quito and Ecuador if you know as little as I did about this beautiful country.

Ecuador

Ecuador is about the same size as the UK area-wise, with 15 million inhabitants. It’s split into 24 provinces, from the coastal Manabí to jungle of Sucumbíos, with the Andes of Chimborazo running down the middle. It borders Colombia to the north and Peru to the south, with a Pacific coast on the west.

Ecuador

The varied landscape and interesting anthropological history of the country mean you can see a massive variety of scenery, nature and lifestyles just by travelling a couple of hours in any direction from the central capital city, Quito. Of course there are also the Galápagos Islands a two hour flight away, which I did not see this time. The Quito tourism board are keen to divert visitors away from Galapagos as it has become vastly over-visited, to its environmental detriment, and instead to promote Ecuador as a destination in its own right. There’s certainly enough to see and do here to justify that!

Ecuador

KLM flies to Quito and Guayaquil daily via Amsterdam from several UK cities. You get a little Cityhopper to Amsterdam which barely takes any time at all, then the long haul is about eleven hours from there. The transfer is simple – I was a bit worried as it was my first-ever totally solo flight but it was really straightforward! I found the journey comfortable overall, with decent food and a great selection of films to while away the time. You can read a bit more about my flight experience here. Quito has a brand new modern airport which is close to the centre, but the access road is currently too narrow and traffic is common – a new road is being constructed right now. A taxi into town only costs $20-30 though.

Ecuador

Most of inland Ecuador is at high altitude – 2000-4000m above sea level. Surprisingly I didn’t notice any ill effects but some people get dizziness, breathlessness, fatigue and headaches. Be sure to carry water and take regular breaks in the shade when you’re out and about. I never tired of seeing the hills peaked with clouds; a reminder of how high up you really are. The rolling valleys and hills make for some extremely breathtaking (literally, ho) scenery.

Ecuador

The year is split into wet (Dec-May) and dry (June-Nov) seasons, although it varies a little depending on if you’re at the coast or in the highlands. While the temperature may hover in the teens and low twenties, it feels much hotter due to the strength of the sun at the equator. So pack suncream, a hat, sunnies and shorts – plus mosquito repellent if you’re going into the forests. For my late May visit it only rained in short bursts in the evening and night (plus a couple of lively night-time thunderstorms) and was warm enough for bare arms and legs nearly all the time.

Ecuador

The currency is the US dollar. Food, transport, souvenirs and most other things are pretty cheap. Expect to pay $3 for an in-city cab ride, $1-3 for museum entry, 20-50 cents for a street snack and maybe $20 for a higher end 3-course meal with a drink. There are lots of markets selling the gorgeous local handcrafts – more on those later, of course!

Ecuador

The cost of accommodation varies depending on what you go for: there are chain hotels, boutiques, and hacienda guest lodges. I’ll share all the places I stayed in upcoming posts.

Ecuador

Ecuador is generally safe, stable and welcoming for visitors. It’s recommended that tourists, especially women, don’t walk around on their own late in the evening both in the city and countryside, but I didn’t feel unsafe anywhere. Spanish and Quechua (an indigenous language) are the spoken languages. Not many people speak English outside of touristy attractions, so knowing a bit of conversational Spanish would be very helpful in navigating and ordering food etc.

Ecuador

The local food is pretty heavy on meat and fish, and the concept of vegetarianism isn’t really understood – but everywhere I went had something I could eat, and the food was generally really great. Expect eggs, corn bread and fresh fruits for a filling breakfast with excellent homegrown coffee and a tropical fruit juice. Lunch is usually the main meal of the day and typically consists of a potato or quinoa soup to start followed by a a platter of meat/fish/veg with tortillas (here these are tasty thick fried discs of corn or potato), choclos (delicious crispy fried maize kernels), and a salad, plus a dessert of helado (sorbet / ice cream) or cake. I was usually too full to eat a large dinner!

Ecuador

Cell phone signal is poor due to the valleys and mountains. Signal for calls is very hard to come by, never mind 3G, even in Quito. Most hotels and restaurants have wifi that you can use if you’re a customer. Just something to bear in mind if like me you are over-reliant on phone data for navigating and staying in touch with people!

Ecuador

Quito was the base for my trip. This sprawling city of 1.6 million is split into the old colonial town (also called the historical centre) and the new town to the north. It’s a very easy city to navigate, being well-signposted, well lit after dark, and split into regular blocks with constant landmarks to help you get your bearings. I am terrible with directions and didn’t get lost once, even without my usual Google Maps crutch.

Ecuador

However the public transport situation in Quito and the country as a whole is currently not great. There is a lot of road traffic in Quito from locals using their cars to get everywhere, so walking around parts of the new town in particular can be a bit grubby and unpleasant. The government is working to improve this, with a new subway line and hybrid buses coming soon, as well as the promotion of cycling and no-car days. For now, taxis are plentiful and cheap if you get tired of walking, and the traffic eases up over the weekends.

Ecuador

There is also construction in the works to open up new train lines between the major towns (Guayaquil – Quito – Ibarra – Otavalo – Salinas) which will make travelling the country less reliant on having a car. The first of these from Ibarra to Salinas is already open (and a stunning journey – more on that later) with more to follow later this year. This is great news because all of these towns are worth visiting and it’d make a great 2-3 week trip taking the train between them spending a few nights in each.

Ecuador

Hope that was a useful introduction to this lovely country! Back with day one of my trip soon…

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own