My final days in Ecuador

My final days in Ecuador

This article was first published February 2015 and has been updated.

The ‘Day of the Dead’ and Climbing a Volcano in Quito, Ecuador

Arriving in Quito, Ecuador on ‘The Day of the Dead’  my friend Marcel and I managed to wangle our way into the crypt which is underneath the Basilica.


Normally only open on this one day each year to the relatives of the dead whose remains are interred in little holes in the walls, we tried to look like locals as we sidled past the guards on the door.

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the crypt underneath the Basilica, Quito, Ecuador

the crypt underneath the Basilica, Quito, Ecuador

We respectfully spent half an hour or so wandering around the tunnels where families were dusting out the cobwebs in the little alcoves and replacing the plastic flowers, photos and statues of this saint or that virgin and generally just giving everything a bit of a spring-clean.

It was very different to the bright, colourful ceremony that we had passed in our bus earlier that day up in the mountains, although I do like the tradition of everybody remembering their loved ones on the same day.

Rather than individuals dealing with their personal loss on various anniversaries of birth, death or Christmas whilst the rest of life goes on around them, the Day of the Dead allows a collective understanding and empathy with others.

As our bus had driven out of the mountain town of Otavalo earlier that morning we had got caught up in a traffic jam outside the main cemetery where the majority of the indigenous population bury their dead.

The roads around the cemetery had been packed solid with people and families laden down with baskets and flowers as whole families decamped to the graves of their ancestors where they held picnics. The picnics which always included the dead person’s favourite food were actually spread out on top of the graves and everybody sat cross legged around.

The ‘Day of the Dead’ which is celebrated all around Central and South America and Mexico is a day of celebration rather than sadness and it was never going to be any more colourful than in that rural cemetery.

To further cement the collective remembrance, at this time of the year many of the shops and restaurants sell little images of people called guagua de pan (bread babies) and a thick, gloopy purple, slightly unsettlingly warm drink called colada morada (the drink is made of corn and blackberries).  Both of these seasonal treats are devoured with relish everywhere.

guagua de pan; treats for the Day of the Dead in Ecuador

guagua de pan; treats for the Day of the Dead in Ecuador

Reflecting on the previous five years.

As I update this article nearly five years after I had first published it, I reflect upon how my life has turned out.

Arriving in Quito after 3 months in a volunteer placement in Peru I was a totally confused solo traveller.  My personal life was in tatters and my self-belief was at rock bottom. I often pose myself the question….’what will my life look like in 5 years time’…and I vividly remember doing just that when I was in Ecuador.

I never take things for granted and I know that I got to the place in my head where I am right now with a lot of determination, constant questioning and with the support of some truly amazing friends. South America is edgy, dangerous, overwhelming and bursting with life and it was certainly a baptism of fire for me, then recently divorced and with almost zero self-confidence.

I am now a Mindfulness Practitioner and a published (ebook) author, (click here for my book, Becoming Stronger through Mindfulness), I support and guide others along their paths of self-discovery and I continue to travel.

At the end of this article I will post some useful links to resources that you might like if you are about to head off on your own journey – and if you are not quite ready to do that yet and you would like some guidance about how to learn to believe in yourself again, drop me an email.  I would love to hear from you.

Things began falling into place for me in South America and one day in Quito when I was out for lunch I met a lady from Canada who was visiting the city.  It now always makes me smile when this happens because one of my main worries before I set off on my adventures, and that of most solo travellers is of how you will meet people when you’re on your own; but back then, I didn’t realise how frequently this would happen.

I was extremely grateful when this lovely lady simply came over and asked to join me at my table.  The following day Sudha and I agreed to meet so that we could ride the cable car together – and there I was, no longer a frightened solo traveller

In the end we didn’t take the cable car as there was incredibly low cloud over the entire city but we went off for a morning’s shopping in a large craft market and drank some more of the purple colada morada.  Quito stretches the length of a long narrow valley and in just about every direction there are mountain peaks, volcanoes and clouds.

There is something so special about the clouds above the Andes.  I don’t know how the sky can appear to be bigger and more expansive but here it does, and because in the mountains you are high up, the clouds sit lower over you.

They can certainly affect the mood of the city trapping the air in when they press down grey and menacing, or stealthily creeping and flowing down the surrounding mountains like soft grey rivers of fog or, when there are no clouds at all, it’s as if your spirit is free to soar and fly up and away into the universe beyond and here I was enjoying it with a lady that I had only recently met and looking forward to my next destination.

Quito far below the Pichincha volcano in Quito

Quito far below the Pichincha volcano in Quito

Climbing the Pichincha volcano, Quito

However, I’m getting all poetical and I digress yet I still have to tell you about my last amazing day in Ecuador.  Marcel and I decided to climb a volcano.  We were joined by Rachael who was new in town and staying in the same hostel as us and luckily for us the clouds were way up high on the day that we set off for the cable car called the TeleferiCo.

Quito, the capital city of Ecuador sits at an altitude of 2800 metres and is the highest official capital city in the world.  It has more than 1.6 million inhabitants…and it literally sits around and up the sides of an active volcano which last had a significant eruption as recently as 1998.

These South Americans are a hardy lot and they don’t let a little thing like an active volcano bother them – they have even built a cable car system up the side of this one!

Unlike many other cable cars in Latin America such as those in Medellin or Manizales, this cable car in Quito has been built mainly for tourists and it whizzed us fast up the side of the volcano.  Or at least it was fast once we’d got onto the thing.  Rachael and I had to restrain Marcel who with his German scientific mind could not believe the method by which we had to get onto the system.

In fact there seemed to be no method.  Despite the steadily growing queue, if you wanted a whole cabin to yourself then you could have a whole cabin to yourself and damn everybody else behind you!  In the end, Marcel cracked and escaping the clutches of Rachael and me he jumped the queue and strode into a cabin with a family who had hoped to have it to themselves.


the summit of the Pichincha volcano is the furthest peak

the summit of the Pichincha volcano is the furthest peak

Once onboard the Teleferico it whisked us up to 4,000 metres and some absolutely stunning views of the city.  The ride costs twice as much for tourists as locals and is quite expensive by South American standards and in my opinion you shouldn’t bother going unless you have a clear day.  But we were lucky and we had a stunning wide-open sky kind of day and we were not here only for the ride.  We were here to climb a volcano.

It started out just like a walk in the park.  But an altitude affected heart thumping, heavy-limb uphill sort of a walk in the park.

A grassy ridge led us up and up for more than an hour and very gradually the sharp craggy rocks of the summit came into focus.

People use this volcano as a training ground for altitude and groups of runners – runners!!! – I could barely put one foot in front of the other at this altitude – groups of runners puffed past us.  In the cafe there was an oxygen bar where, for a few dollars you could buy time at an oxygen point and sit with a mask on and revive yourself.

the scree slope - great fun coming down the Pichincha volcano

the scree slope – great fun coming down the Pichincha volcano

I am never entirely happy with heights and a couple of hours we were faced with the steep side of the sharp peak.  Here I have to thank my two friends who encouraged me up – at times using hands and feet and climbing up the rocks.

It was tough going but we passed people on their way down who told us that the effort was worth it.  The clouds began to swirl down around us and I was a little afraid of getting lost because in some places there was no obvious path, but onwards and upwards we went.

And finally, after much scrabbling, we were there on top of the world.  The clouds lifted and swirled and allowed us to see Quito, just a large splodge of dusty colour below and we sat and caught our collective breaths.

It was amazing to think that we were stood on the summit of an active volcano, 4000 metres up in the sky – but we also knew that getting down was not going to be a piece of cake either.

we made it - the summit of the Pichincha volcano in Quito

we made it – the summit of the Pichincha volcano in Quito

But there was a quick option to get down part of the way.  Once past the spiky rocks which were very slowly negotiated, we bypassed the zigzag path and launched ourselves off down the scree slope.  This was an almost sheer, almost smooth slope at a steeper angle than 45 degrees and was made up of soft sand and gravel with the odd clump of grass or rock to add an element of danger.

At the top you take a deep breath and you launch yourself using whatever method best works for you.  Crouch down on your heels and scoot down the hill using your feet as a sled, or bounce down; leaning well back into the mountainside taking giant-sized slithery steps and all the time being very careful not to catch your boot on a misplaced hillock which would cause you to face-plant the gravel.

We all obviously made it down in one piece and we caught the cable car back down through the thick fog which had now swallowed up the entire city.

heading back down the volcano in Ecuador

heading back down the volcano in Ecuador

And then I was climbing into my bunk in the Minka Hostel for one last time before I would take a cab to the airport and my flights down to Brazil.

If you are thinking that your life is somehow stuck but you can’t quite put your finger on it, or you have demons that you need to fight before you can move forward, you can get my book here – Becoming Stronger through Mindfulness or trial my self confidence builder, the Smash the Pumpkin Project for a month, click here.

If you are ready to travel yourself; when I was in Quito I stayed at the Minka Hostel – get the latest prices and details here. I bounced in and out of this hostel for a couple of months because it had such a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.  I love the Lonely Planet Guide books – you can get many of them online now too so that you don’t have to carry them around in your backpack – and talking of backpacks I STILL love my Osprey Farpoint 55 backpack which has been all around the world with me

If you enjoy reading about my adventures, do follow me either here or on Facebook.  Click on this link and I will also send you a virtual postcard with the odd newsletter attached every month or so.

And do take 10 minutes to drop me an email or let me know in the comments what you are up to and what you thought of this article.

the hike up the Pichincha volcano started off fairly easily

the hike up the Pichincha volcano started off fairly easily

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Return to Quito and to the Minka Hostal

I returned to Quito after my little foray to Latacunga and I was as pleased as punch to see some familiar faces at the Minka Hostal.

Pedro and Josh are both working as volunteers there and are two of the loveliest men that you could ever hope to meet, along with Sandra who is the lady who owns the hostel.


such a cool space

The Minka is situated just half a block away from the imposing stone grey Basillica in the old part of Quito and hides behind an unimposing green garage door.  I can vouch for the fact that no matter what time you ring the bell you are NOT left standing in the street – and I have witnessed Josh or Pedro actually sprinting  for the door.  The street outside is very quiet at night with little traffic noise.

Once upstairs, you go into large, open airy white spaces, decorated with really cool artwork and with walls made up of collages of travel pictures.  Sandra explained to me that the building was owned by her family and it was used as a warehouse and storage space until she invested in it and converted it into the hostel.

The dorms are airy and comfortable with the most massive lockers that I have yet come across and they have the most comfortable bunk beds too.  I was in the ten-bed dorm but I had the best nights sleep ever.  We had a tiny little en-suite bathroom – and a complete bonus for a hostel – the beds were made up for us everyday.


the light, bright comfortable dorm

A basic breakfast was also included in the very reasonable price up in the communal area on the top floor.  This large open space contained a well equipped kitchen, beanbags and hammocks, a pool table a computer and access to a tiny little terrace.

I spent six nights here in total over two weekends and I just loved the chilled, laid back and very friendly atmosphere.  Everybody worked together to create a homely feeling and socialised with the guests.  I was to meet up again with two of the guests a few days later in Banos – H, the Australian with the impressive facial hair and L from the UK with her very funny paramedic stories, but all the guests that I met there were lovely.


the upstairs social area

On my second weekend in Quito I again met up with my Christmas and Carnival travel companion M as she had now left the NGO in Peru and we planned to travel together for a few weeks.  We walked for what seemed like miles around Quito city centre as I tried to replicate some of the tour that my friends had given me the previous weekend and then   later we caught a bus to the top of the hill above the city where there is a large glass exhibition centre set in some parkland.  The late afternoon views as the sun dropped in the sky were amazing and we just sat quietly soaking up the views.

The following day we jumped on the Trole bus system and headed off for the Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the Earth).


its in the wrong place!

This site which is dominated by a large monument was built to represent the highest point where the equator line runs around the planet,  but in fact the French placed it a few hundred metres off course.  All the guide books said that it is a bit of a disappointment – and it was – but to be honest, I am glad that we went there first.  After our rapid visit to some less than average exhibitions we walked a few hundred metres up the main road to the correct place where the contrast between the two sites was massive.  The first place was tacky and had the most boring exhibitions I have ever seen.  I didn’t pay the extra to go into the small museum on site and that may have been amazing although I doubt it, but the proper equator venue was really good.  There were exhibitions and displays of traditional indigenous homes and also some real-life, very old shrunken heads.  The tribes people in the area used a technique to shrink the heads of their victims from war or they preserved the heads of their important leaders which they would either wear as a lucky necklace or stick on the end of their spears.


the correct equator line

There were also some cool experiments on the equator line.  We all know that water swirls down a plughole in the opposite direction depending on whether you are in the north or southern hemisphere, but did you know that it is almost impossible to balance on the actual line itself, and due to less gravity, you have less resistance to somebody pulling or pushing you around.  Apparently you also weigh less too and this was a cue for most of us ladies to jump onto the line and pose.

After a tiring day out me and M made our way back to our respective hostels.   The charming Pedro shared his home made soup with me whilst I had a bash at forcing everything back into my rucsack because me and M were once again moving on the following day.


Note:- Whilst I received complimentary accommodation at the Minka Hostal this did not influence my opinion or review in any way.  I have portrayed an honest picture of my stay







Quito – The First Time Around

I had met a Swiss girl whilst in my hostel in Mindo and we teamed up to go to Quito together.  Martin (of the frog chorus) joined us on the bus trip back and after me and Kath had checked into our hostel (the Minka Hostel – more about this in the next post)  Martin showed us around the night life sights of La Mariscal in the new town.  This is an area of several streets based around a lively square, edged with restaurants and pubs and jam packed with people all out to have fun.  It is knows as Gringo Corner or Backpackers Alley and is where many tourists and travellers gather both during the daytime and at night.
The following day was a Saturday and Kath was planning to visit the market town of Otovalo. I was originally going to give it a miss as it was physically impossible to put anything extra in my rucsac but I am so pleased that I changed my mind and I went along.  Otovalo is said to have the biggest and best street market in Ecuador and it didn’t disappoint.  It was enormous and the stalls spilled out of the main square and took over many of the surrounding streets.  It was a riot of colour with stalls selling material and ceramics but the best bits for me were the different clothes worn by the local women who were sat behind the piles of merchandise.


so tempting

Many of the women wore crisp white cottons shirts with fabulous embroidery around the top half.  They had long skirts made of wool – in most cases these appeared to simply be a large length of woollen cloth which they had tucked into a waistband.  And hats.  There were all sorts of hats but the strangest headgear appeared to be a large amount of material which had been folded down into a large square and just popped on top of the owner’s head.  The majority of the ladies wore their hair long but in a single plait or a pony tail and many had wrapped a length of elaborately embroidered material around and down the length.  They also had wider embroidered strips which they wore as bright belts.


a stall holder poses for me

After trawling around the market we had a bit of a wander around the other streets and then we got the bus back.  We were treated to the usual violent film on the bus, and after being escorted to the correct Trole bus across the terminal by our own personal armed guard we very quickly got ourselves lost when we disembarked.  I don’t know what it is about Quito but for the life of me I cannot get my bearings and I have no idea where I am for most of the time.


everything is bright and beautiful

Quito stretches along a thin valley for some forty kilometres but it is only five kilometres wide.  Add to this, the fact that it is built on hills and on the sides of volcanoes which slant away from the run of the grid structure, and it contains many old streets which do not conform to the grid structure which is trying to impose some order on the map and you have a recipe for losing your way.

The following day me and Kath met up with one of my Ecuadorian friends who lives in Quito and we were treated to the most amazing guided tour of the city.  If you are going to see a city, then the best way is with a local.  Tanya, Daniele and Lys tried to encourage me to climb the ladders up the turrets of the Basillica (do they think that I am completely mad??), but they did  persuade us to clamber high up onto a ledge in front of a massive round stained glass window for a photograph.


the Basillica

We saw the old town on a Sunday morning when many of the streets are closed and are given over to the population who walk and ride their bicycles.  We popped our noses into a few of the many churches and convents and wandered around a food market sampling many of the local flavours.  And then we strolled down La Ronda – a series of narrow streets which used to house poets and writers and now house artisan products, workshops and traditional restaurants.

After a lunch, in my case a warming, filling local soup called locra, we got a cab up to the top of the smallish hill called Panecillo (because it is shaped like a little loaf of bread) and we climbed up inside the large statue of La Virgen de Panecillo which dominates the skyline.  The statue is made up of thousands of squares and has been constructed like a three-D jigsaw.  She faces the city with her back to the south and is believed to protect the city from the volcanoes in the region.


La Virgen de Panacillo

Me and Kath returned back to our hostel and both agreed that we had been very lucky and privileged to have such amazing tour and experience in Quito.

We parted company the following day when I set off for Latacunga on my own but I left my larger rucsack behind at the hostel, as I would be returning and hopefully meeting up with my Polish friend at the end of the week.

I am becoming unhealthily focused on what I can possibly leave out of my rucsack so that I am carrying less, but it seems that this is an affliction that strikes all backpackers at some stage.  Paint on carnival clothes – a good excuse to throw them out.  Thousands of mozzies – great – spray on the poison – it will reduce the weight.  Toothpaste finished – this is a cause for celebration until I remember that I have to buy more and that loads the grams back on.

And yes, of course I bought something at Otovalo market!


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