International Adventure Guide 2013: Quito, Ecuador


Ecuador’s capital city, Quito, has long been hailed as a great jumping off point for adventure travelers. The city is surrounded by eleven volcanoes and dozens of flowing rivers, making it an ideal locale for those looking to hike, bike, climb, kayak and more. As if that weren’t enough, four regions are crammed into this tiny, megadiverse country – the Amazon jungle, the Andean highlands, the coastal region and the Galapagos Islands – offering boundless opportunities for adventure travelers.
No matter where you set off to in Ecuador, the main base of all activity for adventure tour operators is in Quito. And thanks to a new $700 million airport that opened earlier this year, it’s never been easier to get there – not to mention less scary. To land at the old airport, pilots needed to negotiate the Andean mountain slopes before touching down on a runway in the middle of the city.

Once you land in Quito, food, accommodations, transportation and even adventure activities are relatively cheap; this is one place where the dollar really does go a long way. And since the country uses U.S. currency, many people reading this won’t even have to worry about doing any of those pesky conversions.

Of course, it’s not all sun and roses in Ecuador. This beautiful country also comes with some safety concerns, among them the threat of natural disasters such as volcano eruptions and earthquakes, as well as crime aimed at easy-to-target travelers. Before you go, read through the U.S. Department of State’s travel warnings, and once you land keep aware of your surroundings at all times.

Adventure Activities

Climbing
The mountains are one of the main draws for adventure travelers to Quito, and there are options to suit both newbies and experienced climbers. Because they are capped with glaciers, Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, Cayambe and Tungurahua are often the most desirable mountain destinations. Before setting off, remember to allow time to acclimatize to the altitude, which can be done pain free by drinking plenty of water and allowing some time to adjust to the nearly two-mile-high capital. Several tour operators, all based in Quito, can arrange tours lasting from a few hours to several days. Book before you go, or wait until you land to shop around for last minute deals in Quito’s Mariscal neighborhood, the tourist center of the city that is packed with bars, coffee shops, Internet cafes, restaurants and dance clubs.

  • High Summits: Pinto E5-29 and Juan León Mera, Quito; (+593-2) 290-5503.
  • Gulliver: Juan Leon Mera N24-156 y Jose Calama, Quito. From $195.
  • Positiv Turismo: Jorge Juan N33 -38 y Atahualpa, Quito; (+593-2) 252-7305. From $195.

Whitewater Rafting & Kayaking
The Ecuadorian landscape is packed with the highest densities of rivers per square mile in the world. Quito itself is located just a little over an hour from the Amazon basin, meaning rivers that flow from the Andes run strong and fast from these highlands down to the rainforest. This creates ideal conditions for rafting, so much so that just a few years ago the World Rafting Championship was held on the Quijos River, just northeast of Quito. Possible operators include:

Hiking
Quito wraps around the Eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active stratovolcano that has two easily hikable peaks. The smaller peak, Ruku, makes for a great day hike if you get an early start (before the fog rolls in); begin by taking in the city on Quito’s skytram, the TelefériQo ($4), from which there are markers for the three-hour round trip excursion.

Other than the Ruku hike, there are hundreds of trails that take adventurers through Ecuador’s various landscapes. Unique to Ecuador is the Páramo ecosystem, a rocky, mossy region that exists in limbo between the tree line and snow line at about 15,000 feet, or nearly three miles high. One great place to experience this terrain is by hiking in Papallacta, where you can take a six-hour hike that ends at a collection of hot springs, where you can soak your bones and stay overnight in a comfy resort. Tours can be self-guided, or organized with these operators:

  • Tierra de Fuego: Amazonas N23-23 y Veintimilla, Quito; (+593 2) 250-1418. From $45.
  • Gulliver: Juan Leon Mera N24-156 y Jose Calama, Quito. From $75.
  • Andes Adventures: Baquedano E5-27, Quito; (+593 2) 255-7176.

Hotspots


Cotopaxi National Park

Cotopaxi Volcano, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, is located about 17 miles south of Quito. On clear days, Cotopaxi can be spotted rising strong and mighty in the distance from many points in the city. And it’s quite the sight to see: the volcano’s perfectly symmetrical cone features one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world. Guide companies offer regular guided climbs of the mountain, as well as downhill mountain biking tours from a 4,600-meter altitude. Private tours can be arranged from the capital, or adventure seekers can make the trip on their own via bus.

Where to Stay: At the first refuge, a modest building on the skirts of the volcano at an elevation of 15,744 feet, $10 gets foreigners a night’s stay. However, if you’re willing to spend a little more, The Secret Garden Hostel is also a great jumping-off point. Starting at $25 per night, accommodations are a bit pricey by Ecuadorian budget travel standards, but extra-comfortable beds, a hot tub under the stars and three-square vegetarian meals a day make it well worth the price. The hostel can arrange private summit treks by foot or bike, as well as horseback rides up another nearby volcano, Rumiñahui, which blew its top long ago.

Baños de Agua Santa
Known simply as “Baños” by Ecuadorians and visitors, this tiny town sits at the base of Tungurahua (literally meaning “Throat of Fire”), an active volcano that last erupted in March. Besides the chance to glimpse a real active volcano, visitors can explore more than 60 waterfalls or go rafting, kayaking, canyoning, hiking, bridge jumping and more. Expect many national and international visitors – especially on weekends – as buses frequently shuttle people to and from Quito on a three-hour trek for $3.50.

Where to Stay: After spending all day outdoors, treat yourself at the Samari Spa Resort, a former Jesuit monastery that has all the comfort and amenities any traveler desires. Take a soak in the indoor heated pool, or massage those sore muscles at the spa. Whether you are a family looking for a two-level cabin or a couple in need of a romantic retreat, there’s a room type for everyone. Rooms start at $187, and if that’s too pricey there’s plenty of budget accommodation in this town, too.

Mindo
Not far from Quito – about 60 miles or a $2 bus fare to be exact – is this jungle town in the Andean foothills known to attract adventure-seeking travelers. Take an aerial tram across the cloud forest for a hike to several different waterfalls. There’s also the opportunity to take a canopy tour across the jungle on 13 zip lines of varying heights, some of which are up to 3,500 meters high.

Where to Stay: Anyone with a budding interest in birdwatching will love Mindo Dragonfly Inn, a wooden retreat in Mindo with balconies that overlook the Canchupi River. Feeders draw many species of hummingbirds to these balconies, and birdwatching tours can be arranged from the inn. In addition to comfortable rooms, there’s also an on-site bar and restaurant. Starting at $27.

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Logistics

Get Around Unless you have already arranged tours or prefer to hire private cars, the main mode of transport in Ecuador is by bus. The ability to get around the city and the surrounding countryside by this mode of transport is pretty amazing, and should be easy so long as you know basic Spanish. Bus rides through the city cost 25 cents and on average the rate for traveling anywhere outside the city is a dollar per hour.

Taxis ($25), express airport buses ($8) and public buses ($2) all service the airport frequently, but allow for at least an hour to reach the city. Since Quito is smushed between two mountain ranges, the city is long and narrow, with the main tourist attractions located more or less in the center. There are three, easy-to-navigate, mass transit lines, or trolleys ($0.25/ride), that run in a north-south direction: Trolebus (green line), Ecovia (red line) and Metrobus (blue line). Regional buses can be picked up from two stations at either end of these trolleys. The transportation system is fairly intuitive: use the northern station for destinations north of the city, such as Cotopaxi, and vice versa for destinations south of the city, including Baños and Mindo.

Some bus companies also have terminals near the tourist center, La Mariscal, but similar to Chinatown buses in the United States, these are often more dangerous. No matter which company you go with, be sure to always keep your belongings within eyesight, as theft is common on buses.

Seasonality There is no bad time to travel to Quito. Because the city is located on the equator, the weather remains relatively consistent year-round, with an average spring-like temperature of 57 degrees. There are only two seasons in the city: the dry, “summer” season (October to May) and the wet, “winter” season (June to September), when you should always have an umbrella on hand. Outside of the city, temperatures can vary greatly depending on altitude and proximity to the equator. It’s not unknown for a hiker or climber to experience a cold, mountainous climate and the Amazon heat in a short time, so visitors would be wise to dress in layers.

Safety Besides the obvious safety issues associated with adventure activities, it’s wise to be aware of your surroundings while in Ecuador, especially in Quito. It’s not uncommon to hear of people getting their belongings stolen, and there are several well-planned scams that target tourists (including a common one involving fecal matter that a Gadling blogger was the victim of). However, it’s rare for anyone to be physically threatened during these types of robberies. Pockets get picked, purses get snatched, cameras get grabbed. It happens in Ecuador, so be aware of your surroundings at all times and be careful about showcasing any jewelry or gadgets during your time in the country.

Additional Resources Here are a few additional resources that might be helpful when planning a trip to Quito:

[Photo credit: blogger Libby Zay]

How You Can Help Save Endangered Destinations

Earlier this year, I told you about several destinations you should see before they disappear. Climate change, environmental destruction and a number of other issues were all threatening to ruin these travel sites, and in some cases (such as The Maldives) wipe them right off the map.

A lot of you responded with feelings of sadness and helplessness about the travel treasures we face losing. Some of you weren’t content to sit by and let these endangered destinations die – you wanted to know what you could do to save them. So to help you do just that, I’ve put together a list of resources and organizations where you can get involved and make a difference.

Fight Climate Change

When it comes to problems that are destroying our environment, climate change is a biggie. Two examples I gave you before were the melting snowcaps at Jungfrau, Switzerland, and the rising sea levels in The Maldives, but of course there are countless other victims, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and the flora and fauna in the Amazon rainforest.

One organization that has been tackling the problems caused by climate change is the Environmental Defense Fund. The charity pushes for clean energy policies and legislation that will lower carbon emissions. They also work with big companies to lessen their impact on the environment, and encourage other countries around the world to cap carbon pollution as well. If you want to support the cause, you can become a member of the organization, donate funds, sign petitions, or lobby your senator to take action.

Adopt A Polar Bear

Polar bears are dwindling in number fast as their icy home shrinks more and more every year. These creatures not only play an important role in the marine food chain but also in the culture and economy of people living in the arctic region.

The World Wildlife Fund is one of several groups working to save these animals from extinction. They do things like monitor polar bear populations, protect the animals from bears, and prevent oil and gas drilling in the local habitat. If you want to help save this animal from extinction you can get involved by writing a letter to congress or adopting a polar bear for as little as $25.

Conserve Important Art

When we think about travel sites that are disappearing, we don’t normally think of art. But many significant artworks around the world are in fact crumbling away – Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” which I mentioned in my prior article, is among the more famous of them. In the Italian city of Venice, thousands of paintings are under threat. The city is home to the highest concentration of historic architecture in the world, but rising waters, sea salt and industrial pollution are pummeling the cultural treasures.

Organizations such as Save Venice have been helping to preserve the city’s landmarks and restore its artwork, and to date, they’ve tackled more than 400 projects. Those looking to get involved can become a member of the non-profit organization, make a donation, or choose a specific restoration project to adopt.

Save The Rainforests

Deforestation has been wiping out the planet’s rainforests at an alarming rate. Last time, I talked about the plight of Madagascar’s rainforest, which has shriveled to less than 20 percent of its original size.

The Wildlife Conservation Society has stepped in to try and stop further destruction of the country’s natural landscape. They’re teaching locals how to grow rice without slashing and burning the forest, creating tree nurseries and promoting ecotourism so locals have ways of earning a living without resorting to things like illegal logging. If you want to contribute, you can become a member of the WCS (which includes free access to a number of New York City’s zoos) or make a donation.

Preserve World Heritage Sites

Of the hundreds of travel sites that have been given World Heritage site status, 38 of them are considered to be in danger. Natural disasters, war and even out of control tourism have all taken a toll and threaten to obliterate these historical sites. If you have cash to contribute, the World Monument Fund is a good place to start. They’ve partnered with local communities and governments in more than 90 countries to save and restore cultural treasures.

However, if you really want to get your hands dirty and do something, then you might consider volunteering at a World Heritage center. There are volunteer projects across the globe, including diving along the Great Barrier Reef to help threatened coral, conserving the Medina of Fez in Morocco, and restoring archaeological sites in Tanzania, to name a few. If you want to take part, you need to apply well in advance and you will have to share some of the travel costs. But the good news is you don’t need any experience to get involved.

[Photo credit: Flickr users Peter Blanchard; Travel Manitoba; cowman345; Frank Vassen; Fighting Irish 1977]

Kayaker Attempting Amazon River Speed Record

The Amazon RiverThis past Saturday, Texas native West Hansen set off on what is sure to be an epic adventure in South America. The avid paddler from Austin launched his attempt to set a new speed record for kayaking the length of the Amazon River, a waterway that runs more than 4400 miles (7081 kilometers) in length. The entire expedition is expected to last several months.

Hansen began his journey on Mount Mismi, a snow-capped peak located in a remote section of the Peruvian Andes. The 18,363-foot (5597-meter) mountain has been identified as the most distant source of the Amazon with the Rio Apurimac, one of the prime tributaries for the river, beginning on its slopes. As it rushes down the mountain, the water picks up speed and power, creating dangerous Class V and VI+ rapids. West will need to successfully navigate those treacherous waters in the early days of the expedition.

Reading the early updates on Hansen’s Amazon Express website, it seems that low water flow at the headwaters have made it tough going over the first few days. At times there hasn’t been enough water to even paddle, forcing him to portage around certain sections. Carrying gear and a kayak through lush rainforests isn’t easy either, which only serves to cause further delays.

The relative calm won’t last long, however, and the volume of water will most definitely pick up. Before he reaches the slower, more tranquil waters of the Amazon itself, West will have to run the dreaded Acobamba Abyss, a 40-mile (64-kilometer) stretch of river that is amongst the most difficult whitewater on the planet. The section flows through a towering slot canyon that once paddlers enter, there is no escape or turning back. He’ll have to successfully navigate Class V+ rapids on a river of no return, relying on his skills as a paddler to successfully make it out the other side.

That will simply be the start of what promises to be quite an adventure for Hansen and his support crew. He doesn’t offer up a definitive estimate of how long it will take to complete the journey, which will pass through both Peru and Brazil on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. Regular updates should provide plenty of insights into his progress, however, and it should be fun see what he discovers along the way.

Explore the Amazon with Google Street View

The Amazon River, now available on Google Street ViewYesterday, in honor of World Forest Day, Google rolled out a new addition to their popular Street View application. The Internet search giant updated the service with imagery and data from the Amazon River, giving would-be explorers the opportunity to travel along that famous waterway without ever leaving the comfort of their own home.

According to the official Google Blog members of the Street View team from both the U.S. and Brazil traveled to the Amazon Basin back in August in order to collect the thousands of images necessary for its inclusion into the system. That team worked closely with the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to environmental conservation in the Amazon and the improvement of the quality of life for those living there. All told, they collected more than 50,000 still images, which were digitally stitched together to create the 360-degree panoramic views that are the hallmark of Street View.

The Amazon River is truly one of the great natural wonders of our planet. It stretches for more than 6400 kilometers (4000 miles) in length and at its widest points it can be as much as 48 kilometers (30 miles) in width. It is so massive in scope that it is estimated that approximately 1/6 of the world’s fresh water is contained in this one river alone making it the lifeblood of the Amazon Rainforest that surrounds it. That dense forest is home to thousands of species of plants and animals, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth.

I had the unique opportunity to visit the Amazon a few years back and found it to be a spectacular destination. The dense forests, diverse wildlife and miles of water are amazing to behold. Most travelers will never have the opportunity to visit the place for themselves, however, which makes the river’s inclusion in Street View all the better.


New Seven Wonders of Natural World revealed amidst controversy

The Amazon is one of the new seven wonders of the natural worldAfter four years of hype and fanfare, the new seven wonders of the natural world were unveiled last Friday, honoring some of the most amazing landscapes on the planet. But as the competition drew to a close, dark clouds of controversy formed, casting a shadow over the entire affair.

The selection process for the new seven wonders began back in 2007, when 440 natural wonders, from 220 countries, were first submitted for consideration. Over the course of several rounds of voting and judging, that number was eventually reduced to 28 finalist. The seven winners were selected from that list following months of online voting.

According to the preliminary results, the new seven wonders include the following: the Amazon Rainforest (South America); Halong Bay (Vietnam); Iguazu Falls (Argentina/Brazil), Jeju Island (South Korea); Komodo National Park (Indonesia); Puerto Princesa Subterranean River (Philippines) and Table Mountain (South Africa).

The organizers behind the new seven wonders are quick to note that this list is for the provisional winners, as they are currently conducting a recount of the votes to ensure that the correct wonders have been named. The results are now being independently verified and they expect to confirm the winners in early 2012.

On the eve of the announcement of those winners, disturbing stories began to emerge about how organizers were attempting to collect millions of dollars from the nations that were home to the finalists. When the search for the new wonders first began more than four years ago, countries were required to pay a $199 entry fee, but as the selection process narrowed the candidates, some countries were asked to pay large sums of cash to aid in a world-wide marketing campaign. The Indonesian government claimed, for example, that the organizers wanted $10 million to cover licensing fees and an additional $47 million to host the official closing ceremony. Earlier, the Maldives withdrew from the competition altogether when costs to participate spiraled upwards towards $500,000.For their part, organizers of the new seven wonders competition say that their branding efforts were optional, and that allegations of charging exorbitant prices are completely “baseless.” They also refused to discuss exactly how much individual countries were charged for taking part in the branding campaign, but did acknowledge that the fees varied by nation.

Considering that the entire “new seven” idea was the brainchild of an international marketing firm, it should come as no surprise that it was seen as a way to make some money. Critics have pointed out however, that the firm should have secured financial backing prior to announcing the campaign four years ago, thus avoiding any attempts to seek funds from the countries involved.

Which brings up another issue with the whole competition. Since the organizers also don’t disclose voting numbers, we have to take it on faith that they are reporting the correct winners. After all, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that a country that paid the large fees would receive some kind of preferential treatment over those that bulked at them. I suppose the independent verification system is suppose to keep everything on the up-and-up, but there is no denying that there were some strange decisions made along the way.

Those issues aside, what are your feeling on the list of the new seven wonders of the natural world? Did we end up with some good selections or are there others sites that were more worth of inclusion