A Travellerspoint blog

Reflections on Our Time Spent in Ecuador

In total, Danny and I spent 40 days in Ecuador - a lot longer than our inital 3 week plan. Even not counting the days I was sick in Guayaquil, we still spent a lot more time here than anticipated. The truth is, in the beginning, Ecuador was never high on my list of places to visit. I associated Ecuador with Quito and Guayaquil, which when you researched them, they are loud congested cities full of crime and violence. Besides the Galapagos, I really didn't think there was much appeal to Ecuador...oh how wrong I was. Yes, I wouldn't dispute that Quito and Guayaquil are congested, loud, and potentially dangerous, but once outside of the big cities, the rest of Ecuador (from what we visited anyways) is a beautiful country. There are so many little towns/villages throughout Ecuador that are worth exploring and we have barely scratched the surface. We could easily spend another month here travelling the coast and exploring the Amazon.

I can honestly say we have wholeheartedly enjoyed our time here in Ecuador. Ecuador may be a small country, but there is definitely not a shortage of things to do/see. I personally loved being in the Andes - the scenery driving through the mountains (although at times nerve racking) were simply breaktaking!(:P) Banos and Cuenca would have to be both our top favourite cities in Eucador. Most unforgettable moment for Danny, without a doubt, was summitting Cotopaxi, and for me, I think it would have to be the moment when we spotted the white tip reef shark while snorkelling in the Galapagos! :)

As amazing as Ecuador was, we are super excited to see what Peru has to offer!! On to the next country we go...

Posted by TravellingFries 15:32 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Last Stop in Ecuador - Vilcabamba, the Village of Longevity

...or otherwise known as the Village of Retired Hippies

Loja
From Cuenca we took a four hour bus to Loja before transferring to Vilcabamba. We spent only one night in Loja seeing the city, which was more than enough haha. Compared to the rest of the cities we've been to, Loja doesn't really stand out that much. There were a couple of sights around the city, which we we were able to see in one afternoon.

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Puerta de la Ciudad (Door to the City)

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Main Square

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We had no idea who she is, but everyone was pushing to take a picture with her so we did the same haha

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Getting into the Christmas spirit!

We did end up having some relatively good (for Ecuadorian standards) Chinese food here :), and were able to use what little broken Mandarin Danny and I had to communicate with the owner. We thought that since she was actually Chinese, we would finally be able to get some authentic Chinese food. Much to our disappointment, she explained that for authentic Chinese dishes, we would have to order them a day in advance so she could prepare it specially for us. Ecuadorians typically don't order the same dishes and she needed the extra time to get the necessary ingredients. Regardless, the fried rice and stir fried beef with broccoli we had were still pretty darn good.

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At night there was some dance/music party going on in one of the main squares. There were tons of people (mostly young 20 year olds) on the street drinking some hot drink sold by street vendors. At first glance it seemed like it was hot beer? Curious as to what this was, we went up to one vendor and asked if it was alcohol. In another failed attempt to communicate with the locals, we finally decided it would just be easier to buy a cup and try it. So for $0.50, the girl selling it filled half a cup with a clear liquid from a boiling pot (sugar cane?), and the other half with a clear liquor from a plastic bottle. We wanted to know what type of liquor it was, so we asked to see the bottle - hm interesting, it doesn't say on the bottle and for some reason, the girl kept shushing us. We weren't quite sure what this was all about, but didn't think much about it at the time. Later when we thought about it, it occurred to us that the drink might actually be sold as a non-alcoholic (sugarcane?) drink and the added liquor is an 'under the table' arrangement - which would explain why the girl selling the drink kept the alcohol in a pop/soda bottle under the table haha.

Vilcabamba
Early the next day, we caught a taxi and endured the nerve racking 45 min ride as the driver sped through the windy roads in rainy conditions. The driver often made dangerous passes around slower drivers on the opposite lane, seemingly unaware of the possibility of oncoming traffic at the next turn. At long last, we finally made it to Vilcabamba - our last stop in Ecuador!

We were curious to see this town and what made it so special (besides, it's a good place to stop before crossing the border to Peru). Research told us that Vilcabamba is known as the Village of Longevity so naturally I expected to see a lot of really old people walking around haha. Instead, we found a lot of school kids and expat hippies around the town (I should also mention that this town really does consist of only a few square blocks - Vilcabamba is TINY!).

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Village of Vilcabamba

We stayed at a beautiful hostel (our best one yet!) with hammocks overlooking onto a beautiful garden, and spent a few lazy days reading in hammocks and taking walks around town (which only takes about 10 mins round trip haha). Next to our hostel room was a retired expat hippie who felt inclined to retell his entire history of the places he's travelled to, the adventures he's had and of course, the countless women he's slept with. This was all very interesting, but after 3 hours of chatting (mostly him talking haha), I think we now know a little too much about his personal life haha.

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Awesome hostel!

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Danny found the biggest avocado of life in the garden of our hostel!

This was also where Danny decided to get a haircut.

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$2 Ecuadorian haircut - very stylish!

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Our last traditional Ecuadorian meal...

Posted by TravellingFries 15:24 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Soaking Up Ecuadorian Culture in Cuenca

A Charming City Located in the Southern Andean Highlands of Ecuador

First impressions of Cuenca - wow, it's a lot bigger than we imagined. Danny and I were expecting Cuenca to be a small, quiet town similar to Baños, Ecuador. However, we later learned that Cuenca is actually Ecuador's 3rd largest city, but with only a population of 450,000, it is very small compared to Quito and Guayaquil.

Cuenca was declared a World Cultural Hertiage Site in December 1999 by UNESCO. The cobblestone streets, windy rivers, intricate ironwork balconies, and beautiful gardens make this colonial city a very charming and attractive place - the perfect city to wind down and relax (which is probably why Cuenca is ranked pretty high as a place for retirees and expats). We ended up seeing Cuenca the lazy way - atop a double decker City Tour Bus haha.

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Double Decker Tour Bus

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Waiting for the tour to start

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City of Cuenca

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City of Cuenca

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Old Colonial House

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San Sabastian Church

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San Sabastian Square

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Inside the Panama Hat Museum

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Cultural Museum of Ecuador

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View of Cuenca

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Rio Tomebamba divides the city of Cuenca into 2 sections - the Old Historical to the north and the Modern to the south.

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Todos Los Santos Archaeological Site, where you'll see structures built by the Cañari, Inca, and Spanish settlers

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Danny found it hilarious that Alcoholics Anonymous is located on the main entertainment street lined with bars and clubs, and meets on Friday nights.

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Best cure for a bad hangover

After only two days in Cuenca, Danny and I are both in love with the city and only wish we had more time to spend here. The city is very pretty, the atmosphere is super relaxed, and the city is just big enough so you won't get bored but not too big that it gets congested. We finally understand why so many retired expats choose to settle down here - the city is absolutely charming!

Posted by TravellingFries 14:33 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Having boat loads of fun in the Galapagos

Having missed the opportunity to go to the Galapagos 3 years ago when I was in Peru with my brothers, I was determined to make it a part of our trip this time. Christine and I arrived in Santa Cruz Island without previously booking a cruise, hoping we would find some last minute deals once on the island. However, after spending the first day and a half visiting almost every tour operator in Puerto Ayora, we came to the sad realization that prices were not going to be as low as we would have liked since it was already the beginning of high season in the Galapagos. To make things more complicated there were only a few tours that worked with our schedule for the islands we wanted to see...so we finally settled on a 3 day tour of Isabela Island, after which we would start our 5 day cruise of the northern islands (Santa Cruz Genovesa, and Santiago), and a separate Highlands Day Tour of Santa Cruz on the last day.

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Isabela Island Tour
DAY 1
Our 3 day tour (which really was only 1.5 days) started off with a rather rough 2 hour ride through very choppy waters in a speed boat from Santa Cruz. A good number of people among the 20 passengers looked as if they were gonna 'toss their cookies' (one of Christine's favorite phrases) any second. It didn't help that the speed boat decided to beak down 20 mins from the harbor. After the captain managed to fix the malfunctioning propellers, we arrived at Puerto Villamil and our tour guide greeted us and transported us to our hotel. We dropped off our bags and then headed to the lone attraction of the day - a marsh with flamingos (this was clearly a filler sight).

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DAY 2
The day started with a 5 hr round-trip hike to Volcan Sierra Negra, one of the most active volcanoes in the Galapagos. Its last eruption was in October 2005. The caldera of the volcano has a maximum diameter of almost 10km. Throughout the entire course of the hike, it was really interesting to see how the geology and climate of the volcano can change. The beginning of the hike started inland where the landscape was covered in thick fog. Lush, green vegetation covered the land where many species of birds can be observed. As we hiked towards the peak, the fog began to disappear. When we hiked passed the caldera and towards the coastal side of the volcano, it became completely sunny. The land here was very barren with the exception of some cacti and other shrubbery.

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Afterwards, we headed to Las Tintoreras. Here we saw tons of marine iguanas basking in the sun and many white tip reef sharks resting in a shallow channel, as well as sea lions and sea turtles.

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The last activity of the day was a boat tour around the bay and some snorkelling time. We saw several Galapagos penguins, which is the only species of penguins that lives in the northern hemisphere, swim by. Countless sea lions rested on the beach, while a number of the famed blue-footed boobies circled the air above before dive bombing down into the water in search of a quick meal. After observing much wildlife on land and in the air, it was time to check out the wildlife in the water. Even though the hot season was beginning, the water was still a bit chilly, especially without a wet suit. After jumping in, the abundance of wildlife quickly made us forget how cold the water was. As I hovered and snorkelled around aimlessly, out of the corner of my eye a green sea turtle calmly swam by, foraging seaweed and algae from one spot to another. I quickly tried to get Christine's attention, but as I waved her over, I unintentionally splashed the water and the turtle swam away. Whoops. Unfortunately, after taking several underwater pictures, our underwater camera broke.

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DAY 3
Activity of the day - 6am speed boat ride back to Santa Cruz. The ride back was pretty uneventful (waters were slightly less choppy this time), but did offer nice views of the sunrise...and that concludes our tour of Isabela Island (see, it really was only a 1.5 day tour in reality haha).

Boat Cruise on the Aida Maria
DAY 1
Since the tour began at the airport, as soon as we arrived back on Santa Cruz Island we made our way back to Baltra to meet the rest of the tour group. After what seemed like hours of waiting, we finally gathered everyone and boarded the Aida Maria - our home for the next 5 days!

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After lunch we had our first snorkel opportunity at Bachus Beach on Santa Cruz. We did a quick walk around the beach and discovered turtle tracks indicating that it was nesting season. We also saw brown pelicans, flamingos, iguanas and sea turtles. Once in the water, we were searching for sea turtles and sea lions but no luck this time. Regardless, we still saw plenty of tropical fishes and sting rays nestled in the sand at the bottom of the ocean.

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We had dinner back on the boat and was passed out by 9pm haha.

DAY 2
We spent the entire day on and around Genovesa Island, which is a shield volcano. Because a section of the caldera wall collapsed, the island is now shaped like a horseshoe. In the morning we rode the pangas to Darwin Bay and then did a short walk around the island to see all the different types of birds, including red-footed boobies, nasca boobies, frigates, swallow-tailed gulls, and, of course, several species of finches. It was pretty amazing as the birds were virtually unaffected by us walking around. We noticed a number of bird carcasses, and our guide explained that it was probably due to attacks from the frigates. Frigates, the lazy bad asses on the island, are not equipped well to catch their own fish. But being the bullies they are, they tend to circle the air above and when they spot a booby or gull making a catch, they attack and attempt to steal their meal. In many cases, the smaller birds succumb to their injuries. Afterwards, we went snorkelling around Darwin's Bay and had our first encounter with a sea lion (however brief haha). We were snorkelling and all of a sudden a dark blob brushes by, and that was the last we saw of it. Some people said they saw sharks but no such luck for us. In all honesty, I was a little disappointed at this point. As amazing as the tropical fishes were, my main goal was to snorkel with a shark.

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In the afternoon we hiked up Prince Phillip's Steps in hopes of seeing the earless owl. However, the earless owl was nowhere to be seen, but we did end up seeing some more nesting boobies and finches. A number of us joked that the guide challenged us with this task in order to kill time for the rest of the afternoon hahaha.

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DAY 3
Early this morning we boarded the pangas and maneuvered around Sullivan's Bay in search of Penguins. We spotted several of them chilling out along the rocks. After the ride, we disembarked onto Bartolome Island and climbed the 300 odd steps to the top for a view of the famous Pinnacle Rock. We lucked out and the clouds cleared by the time we reached the top. Following the climb we went back to Sullivan's Bay on Santiago Island for some snorkelling. We had the best visibility so far and we really wanted to see penguins. We followed the guide and snorkelled around in search of penguins. Disappointment sets in again as all we saw were tropical fishes. Christine got cold so she went back to shore first, while I further searched for the elusive penguin. Later when I got back on shore, Christine told me that she actually saw penguins. Two penguins were just cruising in the shallow water along the beach shore and she was able to run along side them on the beach. She wasn't actually in the water with them, but she was still pretty stoked about it...oh well, that was as close as we got to a penguin all day. After lunch we went back on Santiago Island for our lava walk. The last major eruption on Santiago was probably in the early 1900s. The lava here is called the pahoehoe, which is a Hawaiian term for ropey lava. Once back on the boat, we headed towards Daphine Island. Along the way, we spotted about a gazillion sea turtles and flying sting rays!

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DAY 4
Today we visited Black Turtle's Cove on the pangas and saw tons of sea turtles gettin it on. Literally, tons! While a pair is still mating, another male typically will swim around in hopes of an opportunity at the dismounted female. We also saw many white tip reef sharks and sting rays. Afterwards, we had our last snorkelling opportunity. Seeing as how we didnt really see any other sealife besides fishes in our previous snorkelling, we didn't expect much. However, this turned out to be the best snorkelling yet, as Christine and I both got to see (no, not only see, but swim alongside) sea lions. We were literally inches from them! And save the best for last, we crossed paths with a white tipped reef shark. Man, it was pretty bad ass. We were just snorkelling around, and BAM, out of nowhere we come face to face with the shark. It was just cruising along, and we got to swim right behind it, uncaged. We tried to tailgate the shark for as long as we could, but then we realized we probably should back off a little bit. I mean, even though it was only about 3 feet in length, it's still the top predator in the water. After lunch we hiked up to Dragons Hill on Santa Cruz Island to see the land iguanas. The sun was scorching hot by afternoon, and we were only able to spot about three of them (which was ok for us, since we were still pretty pumped from the shark encounter haha).

We boarded the boat one last time to make our way back to Puerto Ayora...and then came the boat ride from hell ....for Christine. This was the last night, and the worst night for Christine. The water was exceptionally rough, and it did not settle well with Christine (even with the motion sickness pills). She ended up tossing her cookies twice - once off the side of the boat, and the other in the cabin. Half the group didn't make it to dinner that night. I can usually handle motion pretty well, but I didn't have much of an appetite (and I always have an appetite for all-you-can-eat-buffets!).

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DAY 5
Finally we made it through the night and it was time to leave the boat and head back to dry land. Half the tour got dropped off to see the Darwin Center, while the other half stayed on for an additional 3 days. In the Darwin Center, we got to see the famed giant tortoises, including the pen where Lonesome George used to live. Lonesome George was the last male tortoise subspecies from Pinta Island. Attempts to breed it with two females from another subspecies were unsuccessful. We spent only an hour here because we had to meet our tour operator to begin our Highlands Tour.

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Highlands Tour
This tour turned out to be somewhat sketchy. We met our Tour Operator at 8am, and only had about 2.5 hrs (for three sights) for the tour before we had to check in at the airport (which was an hour away). Before booking, we repeatedly asked the Operator if there would be enough time for the tour, and of course, he guaranteed that there would be more than enough time. Since we really wanted to see the giant tortoises in their natural habitat, we decided to believe him. The three sights included the Lava Tunnels, Los Gemelos Pit Craters, and seeing the Giant Tortoises. We only got to spend about 10-15 mins at each sight, which was pretty disappointing, but at the same time, we kind of anticipated it. How else were we going to fit 3 sights in 2.5 hrs, plus an hour drive to the airport?

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So...was it worth the splurge?
Hell yeah!! We knew that the Galapagos would put a huge dent into our budget, but we both thought that it was definitely worth it!!

Posted by TravellingFries 20:40 Archived in Ecuador Comments (2)

Exploring Guayaquil

A City of Two Extremes

After a very nauseating 5 hr bus ride through winding mountainous roads, Danny and I finally arrived in Guayaquil!

Once we arrived at my aunt's and got settled in, she proceeded to give us very specific instructions on where we can go and what areas to AVOID. She drew out a map which marked the boundaries of 'the safe zone'. This essentially consisted of Malecon Simon Bolivar (the waterfront boardwalk, but stay within the blue gates), Santa Ana Hill (stick to the main staircase), and the tourist downtown blocks surrounding her building. We were given strict orders to stay within these limits!

The following day, armed with our safety map, we headed out to explore the city (well, the parts that are in the safe zone anyways). First stop was Seminario Park, otherwise known as Iguanas Park. Why Iguanas Park? Well, because there are literally tons of iguanas wandering the park freely. This was also where I discovered Danny's fetish for iguanas haha.

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Entrance to Seminario Park (or Iguanas Park)

A few of the many MANY photos Danny took of iguanas :P
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The Malecon Simon Bolivar (or Malecon 2000, because it was built in the year 2000) is a 1 1/2 mile waterfront walk. This area is actually very nice and quite comprehesive. Along the entire walk, there are monuments, museums, gardens, restaurants, shops, and even an IMAX theater, as well as docks and viewpoints. We also noticed that the entire waterfront is extremely clean and well maintained.

Photos taken along the Malecon:

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Malecon waterfront

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Malecon waterfront

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Garden in Malecon

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Hemiciclo de la Rotonda

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Moorish Clock Tower

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Almost X'Mas!

At the north end of the waterfront is a staircase that leads up Santa Ana Hill. There are exactly 444 steps (no, we did not count them, the steps are labelled :P). Both sides of the staircase are lined with restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries. At the very top, there is a small church, a lighthouse, and a view of the entire city. Adjacent to the stairs is Las Peñas - a charming neighborhood with cobble stoned streets flanked with small local art galleries and shops.

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Staircase of Santa Ana Hill

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Lighthouse at the top of Santa Ana Hill

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View of Guayaquil

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Las Peñas

Our Impressions of Guayaquil
I must say, when we first researched Guayaquil, we were both a little worried. I mean, almost every site we googled indicated that Guayaquil is an extremely danergous and violent city. When we first arrived at our hostel (before we were picked up by my aunt), we noticed that every house in the neighborhood was either gated, surrounded by barbed wires, or enclosed by 7ft high concrete walls with glass shrapnels protruding from the top. Furthermore, all windows, regardless of which floor they were on, were protected with metal bars (we wanted to take a picture of this but was scared to take out our camera haha). After sunset, it is like the city is under lock down. During the day, the waterfront and downtown blocks are heavily patrolled; hotels and banks are guarded by policemen armed with shotguns.

A fellow traveller we met in Baños (who we bumped into later in the Galapagos) told us that he was held up by a guy armed with a machete when he visited Las Peñas in Guayaquil - "I walked up the wrong side of the hill" he explained. This was a very unsettling thought for us, as Danny and I were just there a few days ago. I also noticed that for every crime related story I hear (whether if it happened in Quito or Guayaquil), the victim always seem to take the blame - "I shouldn't have pulled out my cell phone", "I should have stayed on the main street", "I shouldn't have left my purse on the passenger seat", etc. Wow, it really is a very different world here.

On the flip side of the coin, my aunt also brought us to some very nice new development areas around the city, where it is perfectly safe to use your cell phone and walk around with a camera. I learned from my aunt that there are actually several pockets of 'safe zones' spread out around the city (granted, these safe zones are heavily guarded and patrolled).

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Enjoying a cup of coffee in the nicer part of the city (Plaza Lagos Town Center)

So, having said all this, is Guayaquil really a dangerous city? Even though nothing has happened to us (knock on wood, we're still here for one more day), we would say relatively speaking, yes (relative to North American standards of course)...but that doesn't mean the city isn't worth a visit - you just have to learn to stay within the safe zones haha.

Posted by TravellingFries 19:33 Archived in Ecuador Comments (3)

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