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John and Mandi

us --> van --> overland
1,172 days a wanderin'

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From the Streets to the Wilderness, Ecuador

May 10, 2018
by John
in: Ecuador

It is funny how we slip into patterns, usually without noticing. Similar to how we traveled the US, we found ourselves in a city or town, then in the wilderness. Walking the line between two distinct worlds. Civilization to what feels the most civilized. Street noise to the lullful calls of wildlife. Cappuccinos to mountain water, shrills to silence. What more could we be wanting for, dividing our life as we need. Humanely managing the need for humanity and the lust for the wild. If there is a way to properly join the two, we are ever the pupils. Two halves, one whole, one heart, balance.

What We Did

Cotopaxi National Park, Cotopaxi

Coming off of our two week Galapagos cruise we were pretty wiped. We spent two nights at Colibri Hostel, $10 per night, since it is where we stored the van ($1 per day) while we were exploring the islands. It's close to the Quito airport, a decent bit out of town, so after our initial recuperation we attempted to move to the Circulo Militar parking lot but were refused...ending up at Parque Carolina for $2 a night. Our plan was to resupply and buy me a couple new pairs of pants (another trip to Tatoo), I almost removed a cargo pocket from one of my current pair when boarding our zodiac in the Galapagos. Steffi & Daniel were resupplying as well and we happily ran back into Chris & Nicole.

Being Semana Santa, we decided to head back to Cotopaxi to dodge any festivities and to continue reacquainting ourselves with van life, meaning getting used to cooking and cleaning for ourselves. We spent one night at the Rondador Hostel, $6 per night, to get showers before spending 3 free nights in the park. The weather wasn't the best but it is a beautiful place we were more than happy to visit again. We could tell more snow was on the mountain since our previous visit, spending most of our time hiding from the rain in the van deep within books during our second visit.

Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Playing hard to get

Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Right place, wrong time

Cotopaxi, Ecuador

How we live when it is cold as balls

Quilotoa Lake, Cotopaxi

We weren't exactly sure we were going to drive around Quilotoa Lake but Chris & Nicole insisted we visit the Llu Llu LLama hostel. At $12 each per night to camp, $24 total, it seemed expensive but that price included breakfast and a 3 course dinner. It is probably the fanciest hostel we have ever stayed at. The food was fabulous and everyone exceptional. We were adopted, a lone Israeli too, by a German group on vacation, taking a really fun half-day hike together. We also met a great American couple, Mike & Hillary, in whom we might have planted the seed to take a long driving trip one day (do it). After 5 nights we finally left and continued to the lake, $2 per person, hitting snow on our way to Chimborazo!

Quilotoa Lake, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

The food is that fresh

Quilotoa Lake, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

How corny

Quilotoa Lake, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Valley of the rain

Quilotoa Lake, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Single file, just like the roads

Quilotoa Lake, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Do not drink it

Quilotoa Lake, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Definitely brings out your eyes

Quilotoa Lake, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

WTF is going on?

Chimborazo National Park, Chimborazo - Salinas, Bolivar

Our arrival time wasn't well planned, we originally thought we'd spend one night on Quilotoa Lake but scrapped the idea after visiting it, so we ended up parking for free at a playground in a neighboring town near the base of Chimborazo. The following morning we drove up to 4,833 meters (15,855 feet) and parked the van in the lot next to a refugio. We were supposed to hike to a second refugio at 5,100 meters but it was snowing, instead we had breakfast, wandered around in the snow, and waited an hour to leave since a huge bike race happened to be finishing where we had parked. For perspective, the lot we parked in is higher than all but 6 mountains in the United States, every one of those 6 residing in Alaska. That means we drove to a point higher than any in the contiguous US, we aren't feats people but that is pretty neat.

Being weenies, we opted to drive to a town famous for cheese for the night, Salinas. The cheese is good but the chocolate from the cooperative was fantastic. Still no Ixcacao, but definitely a close second. There wasn't a campground in town so we free camped behind the cheese factory for a night, driving back around Chimborazo the next day on our way to Baños. The cute four legged creatures below are vicuñas.

Chimborazo, Ecuador

What's all the fuss about?

Chimborazo, Ecuador

You better look away

Chimborazo, Ecuador

No, they are not ostriches

Chimborazo, Ecuador

Still ugly

Chimborazo, Ecuador

Why am I craving eggnog?

Chimborazo, Ecuador

It's as cold as it looks

Sangay National Park, Morona Santiago

Baños was a bust, at least for us. It's like the Ecuadorian equivalent of Gatlinburg. We spent one night in town at Hotel Cedro, $10 per night, then two outside town at Camping Paraiso, $12 per night. Ironically, it was quieter in town but the WiFi was blazing at Camping Paraiso and there was a great hot shower. Neither was ideal, if it wasn't for the dogs fighting and barking all night Camping Paraiso would be OK. Once we completed all of our administrative chores we left for Sangay National Park. While free, the industrious locals charge $2 to park, or to visit Lake Ozogoche when presented with the fact the park is supposed to be free. We knew that before we visited so we didn't mind. We wandered aimlessly until we finally reached one of the lakes and spent a night next to a fantastic noisy creek. It is very beautiful and was wonderful to be among indigenous people again.

Sangay, Morona Santiago, Ecuador

City boy looking lost

Sangay, Morona Santiago, Ecuador

Sheep, no Bo-Peep

Sangay, Morona Santiago, Ecuador

Not all roads in Ecuador are good

Sangay, Morona Santiago, Ecuador

Where has your home gone lately?

Sangay, Morona Santiago, Ecuador

There's a trail somewhere

Sangay, Morona Santiago, Ecuador

It's so happy it's frothing

Sangay, Morona Santiago, Ecuador

Now this is pleasantville

Ingapirca, Cañar

On our way to Cuenca we took a slight detour to a small set of Inca Ruins, Ingapirca, $2 per person. The site isn't spectacular but it was nice to wander the grounds of an archeological site again. We expect to visit many ruins in Peru but couldn't resist starting in Ecuador. The day ran later than planned, one of the roads was washed out, so we ended up spending the night near the ruins at Cuna Del Sol for $20. It was really pricey but the couple that own the place are exceptionally friendly and the WiFi was fast enough for us to binge on a YouTube series.

Ingapirca, Canar, Ecuador

Pro level hopscotch

Ingapirca, Canar, Ecuador

And we think tiny houses are a new thing

Ingapirca, Canar, Ecuador

Walls every which way, Trump should be giddy

Ingapirca, Canar, Ecuador

It's not mildew, it's supposed to be that way

Ingapirca, Canar, Ecuador

Not sure why the windows are blocked up

Ingapirca, Canar, Ecuador

This is what happens when you mix cricket with baseball

Cuenca, Azuay

We had reached out to Joe & Josee previously, Joe telling us to stay at Cabañas Yanuncay, $15 per night, when we reached Cuenca. Our list of administrative chores was growing and the van needed a little attending to so we figured 4-5 days to sort everything out. Ultimately we spent a collective 15 nights at Yanuncay over two visits. It is the closest thing to a real campground we have stayed at in a long long time. It is a very comfortable spot and Humberto is more than eager to assist in any way possible. During our time there we had our new sway bar link ends installed, our rear differential fluid changed, a diesel leak near our fuel pump fixed, and a complete suspension lubrication all for $100. We also managed to cull our 7,000+ photos from the Galapagos, get caught up on the blog, have my torn pants repaired ($2), and scrub the inside of the van while halfassing the exterior. The only other major accomplishment was to have the foam replaced in our jackknife sofa, after two years it was completely shot, by a furniture maker for $60.

Our time there wasn't all work. Chris & Nicole came through as did Steffi & Daniel. Chris & Nicole were kind enough to take Mandi on her very first climb at Cojitambo, Daniel seized the opportunity too, and one entire day was spent celebrating Steffi's birthday. Other days we did our own things, wandered into town together, or shared a big meal. It was all great fun, even the cuy we all finally tried for Steffi's birthday lunch, the fondue dinner was much better!

Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador

See, we do go to cities

Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador

Why does our iPhone suck now?

Cojitambo, Canar, Ecuador

Friends only rope up to friends

Cojitambo, Canar, Ecuador

You can do it

Cojitambo, Canar, Ecuador

Fingers and toes

Cojitambo, Canar, Ecuador

Monkey in her gene pool

Cojitambo, Canar, Ecuador

The appropriate amount of space

Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador

Appetizing

Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador

Keep eyeballin me and I'll eat your face off

Cuenca, Azuay, Ecuador

Before we all tasted it (Photo: Daniel)

Cajas National Park, Azuay

The break between our Cuenca visits was an overnight trip to Cajas. Park entry was free, camping was $4 per person per night. Humberto recommended we hike and stay near Llaviuco Lake, which was perfect. Steffi & Daniel decided to do the same, us all getting to hang with an Andean Toucan (Gray-Breasted Mountain-Toucan) that evening before hiding from the rain in our respective rigs. The following morning we drove through the main section of the park, stopping at another lake, before running back to Cuenca from the rain. Steffi & Daniel continued south, we hope to cross paths with them again in Peru.

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

If there's moss, we will find it

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

So safe and sound

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

Why didn't we bring kayaks?

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

Fungi festival

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

The other side is prettier

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

Little slimeball

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

Cue Roman warrior

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

Idyllic: this

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

Toucan Santiago

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

We are still offering 10k for that thing

Cajas, Azuay, Ecuador

Shouldn't it be frozen?

Podocarpus National Park, Zamora Chinchipe

Our last National Park in Ecuador and one that has two points of entry, over two hours from each other. We had been living at or above 9,000 feet for a while so we decided to visit the higher section of the park first, not expecting to see many orchids the free national park is famed for. We arrived late in the day so we parked in front of the administrative building, scoped the facilities, and settled into the van. Our WiFi extender grabbed the network mentioned in iOverlander so we had a leisurely evening watching random YouTube documentaries, we've started to use our extender a lot in South America, before an unimaginably quiet night...at least until the wind started blowing.

The following morning was foggy so we chose the easier mirador hike, hitting the two small loops on the way back down. It was a slog, much needed exercise, and we were done before anyone else was in the park. We probably should have spent another night, instead choosing to move to the lower section of the park that contains several waterfalls. The drive was wonderful with many waterfalls visible and next to the highway. After parking in a mostly level spot, we walked 30 minutes to the administrative office (where the facilities are), received an overview of the available hikes, then set off to a really beautiful waterfall. During our return we hiked to another small waterfall and to the river before walking back to the van. We were surprised that we saw more orchids in the higher section of the park, even though the lower section was much more humid. We visited just before the usual blooming season so we expect that to be the reason. Both parts of the park are beautiful, and free, but we prefer camping at the higher section since it is close to the facilities and there's WiFi...priorities. We left early the next morning and stopped at a free pull off opposing a waterfall to give the van a rest and to have coffee.  

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

Bro, mill me lad

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

The kind of snowdrops we like

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

That must be the pod, now to find the carpus

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

Can we eat them

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

Mud makes muscles

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

Does it carry lyme?

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

Seen it, let's slog back down

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

Holy hairy tendrils

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

No problem, red and black is a friend of Jack

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

Of course the shower is cold

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

It should be a pansy, it's purple

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

If it wasn't free there'd be no point

Podocarpus, Zamora Chinchipe, Ecuador

It'll do

Vilcabamba, Loja

Marcus & Julie recommended we visit Vilcabamba, a town overrun with expats claiming to be hippies. The town is small, most overlanders choosing to stay on the outskirts, we picked Hotel Valle Sagrado ($10 per night) since it is a stone's throw away from everything. We love small towns and the convenience of wandering to and from the van as the day progresses. Villa de Leyva, Colombia, is still our favorite but we could easily get stuck in Vilcabamba for a while. Life is slow, deliberate, and easy...what else is there to want. We may return someday to whittle the days away in front of cafes, munching on organic food, and just basking in the near perfect weather. We can see why westerners have flocked there. Five days was ample for our first taste. 

Vilcabamba, Loja, Ecuador

Yup, another church

Vilcabamba, Loja, Ecuador

No cushions, sadists

Vilcabamba, Loja, Ecuador

There's at least one cool person here

Honorable Mentions

While we don't list every place and thing we do there are some that stick in our minds. Weeks later we catch ourselves mentioning them to others or just savoring the memory of the exquisite cuisine we consumed. Here are a few standouts.

Sunrise Cafe, Cuenca

Good ole American style breakfast complete with free coffee refills. The chili omelette, hash browns (you read that right), and biscuit breakfast will not disappoint, roughly $7 per person.

UFO, Vilcabamba

Falafel and hummus plate, $6.50, plenty for one and delicious.

Beverly Hills Coffee, Vilcabamba

Great effing organic coffee. Americano - $1.50, Cappuccino - $2, 1 pound of coffee - $8.

Midas Touch, Vilcabamba

Bacon Omelette, country potatoes, toast and a cup of coffee for $5, we were stuffed.


Say what? (4)
Sri Kanth
May 10, 2018 at 03:24 PM
Very scenic. Beautiful pics.
May 12, 2018 at 02:44 PM
Thanks Sri!

We hope all is well with you and your family.
Sandy Rehmann
May 10, 2018 at 06:14 PM
You guys are amazing (we met at Zion a few years ago). Your narrative and photos are just perfect. I have a question: how do you feel about the vehicle you chose for this expedition? You've met other travelers with different vehicles, and no rig set up is perfect, but would you choose a van, this type of van, again?
May 12, 2018 at 03:25 PM
Thanks Sandy!

We will always remember you, Sandy from San Diego 😉. Great question, and one we ask ourselves often. First, we are extremely pleased with our van and how capable it is. We talk about different floor plans and other upgrades, it is a solid platform for where we have been so far and we are 100% that it was the right choice. Other travelers that have owned both smaller and larger rigs tell us it is the perfect size. We personally don’t want to be any bigger but, from time to time, wish we were a little smaller. Realistically, we can’t give up any space at this time so it’s just a pipe dream.

That all being said, we have talked about one day owning a Land Cruiser Troopy...like the one our friends have pictured above. It’s about 1/3 shorter than our van and narrower too, since it’s not a commercial vehicle. It is the rig of choice for most solo travelers we’ve met. Great for one, a little tight for two, but extremely capable in almost any situation. One could argue it has a larger parts network but most order in OEM instead of the cheap knockoffs available, so that’s a wash.

Ultimately it comes down to where you want to go and how you wish to live. For the US, a small class B or C with a little lift is probably the best...the infrastructure makes it so easy. For the Pan-Am, we’ve seen everything from Mini Coopers to huge Unimogs, even a classic Mercedes sedan pulling a tent trailer. We personally couldn’t do this without inside space so a van fits what we need, our stuff won’t fit in a Troopy or a 4-door Jeep with an Ursa Minor poptop...another very capable combo.

We know you’ve owned several vans, so you are use to having an inside space and pass-thru. If that is still your preference, a rig with those qualities is essential. If you still have your Chevy, it would work fine. We have met several couples in home built Chevrolet vans. Maybe add some lift, some recovery gear, and a pora potti. If you want more headroom, consider a high top or a pop top...both are available for your van.

We hope this helps. If you have a specific scenario we’ll gladly answer as best we can. Take care and it’s great to hear from you!
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