Isla de la Plata – poor man’s Galapagos

Oh Galapagos, should we or shouldn’t we? In the end taking into consideration time, money and Vida, George and I decided to save Galapagos for a standalone trip when we are again employed. As a consolation prize, we heard about a day trip from Puerto López to Isla de la Plata (silver island) in Machalilla National Park that would set us back $40 USD per person plus a few dollars for the park entrance. Thank the cheap gas in Ecuador for keeping the prices down.

On the way to the island we spotted a handful of humpback whales. I felt a little guilty as our boats and a few others combed the water for the whales, but our first sighting had me as giddy as a school girl. They are remarkable animals.


The tour then took us to the island which is chock-full of birds including the blue-footed bobbies. When we first laid eyes on the bird, I wondered if we had somehow fallen into Toontown. Our entire group was transfixed watching them act out their mating rituals including a foot to foot dance number performed by the males. After the bobby sightings, we hiked past hundreds of frigatebirds. Also found on the island are red-footed bobbies, albatrosses, pelicans and other seabirds. Since the Waved Albatross found there is critically endangered the hike near their nesting area is closed, so we were unable to get a glimpse of the elusive bird.

Five turtles turned up around our boat as we were getting ready to leave the island. A fitting farewell to a wonderful few hours spent appreciating the island wildlife.

We wrapped up the day with some snorkeling. No one in the group lasted longer than 30 minutes in the water because of the cool weather. The snorkeling was pretty decent though. If you take the tour which I highly recommend, definitely take layers. It’s pretty chilly on the crossing from the mainland to the island. We went with Machalilla Tours which worked out well for us.

Driving the Quilotoa Loop: surprise encounters and a heart pounder hike

My anxiety had been growing for several weeks every time I got in the truck with George. We have an ever expanding laundry list of to-dos on the truck which we were not coping with very well. The laundry list was manifesting as an angry Bulgarian driver.

Many backpackers hike between the towns on the Quilotoa loop. Since we have Vida, we opted to head straight to the mid point. The drive to Chugchilán on the loop started well with a chance encounter of a local celebration just outside of Latacunga. We were quickly offered a shot of the local liquor by some friendly face-painted gentleman. I squelched my usual internal warning alarm and embraced local custom by drinking out of the communal cup.

After enjoying the festivities for a little while, we got on our way. As the road degraded, so did George’s mood. He heard a new noise that could be the transmission. His tone implied – why had you brought us down this shitty road Teresa? I asked him to stop yelling at me. George replies that he is not yelling at me, just yelling. Hmm, right then.

Lucky for me, Hostal Cloud Forest where we were staying provided two meals a day. With some pork and beer for dinner and a good nights sleep, the laundry list of fix-it items once again seemed attainable and our transmission had not blown up. We enjoyed the beautiful views and lush setting of the hostal the next day before heading to Quilotoa crater lake.


It is my personally opinion that hikes that end with the harder part, in this case hiking out of the crater, are no good. I’ll admit that my favorite part of hiking is the feeling I get when I start walking back down. The lake draws you in quickly though. You’ve committed before you realize how f$%king dusty it is, how annoying donkeys running on a trail can be, and how heart pounding the climb back up will be.

Ok, I’m beging dramatic. It’s a quick 30 minute walk down (~400 meters). Thankfully, the sand is actually kind on your knees and the donkeys are only a minor annoyance. The lake is stunning, you have a snack, and then you climb back out in about 1 hour 15 minutes.

After reaching the top, G was drawn in by the aroma of grilled meat. We swung by a local food stand where G ordered papas con pollo (potatoes with chicken). The potatoes come first in the Andes. We not only got a bowl of good food but some good conversation with a local family.


Volcán Cotopaxi – eat your hearts out Seattleites

After dragging ourselves away from Quito and new friends, we headed to Cotopaxi National Park. The highlight of the park is 5897 meter Volcán Cotopaxi.


We set camp at Tambopoxi for the night and braved the strong winds and rain to prepare dinner. Some less battle-tested campers joined us for the evening. Now, I don’t think I’d be stretching the truth if I use the phrase ‘clown tent’ to describe their sleeping situation. George asked them how their sleep was in the morning, which they quickly claimed was great. I call bullshit because that’s a one-season tent at best. Getting off my veteran camper pedestal and on with the day’s business, we set our sights on Cotopaxi. First, we fortified ourselves with another meal of potatoes, which we still had an overabundance of (welcome to traveling with George).

We took the well-graded dirt road up the volcano to a parking lot a few hundred feet shy of Refugio José Ribas (Jose Ribas Refuge) at 4864 meters (15,953 feet). If you’re paying attention, that puts us and Vida over 4400 meters without breaking a sweat which means we drove higher than Mount Rainier at 4392 meters.  It is then a short but heart pounding climb to the refuge and about a half hour more to the glacier. Although the climb is a relatively short one, it was definitely not easy going because of the altitude and steep incline. The highest point we hit on the hike was just over 5000 meters with George in a full stretch. For the mountaineer set, the refuge is also a base for summiting Cotopaxi. We’re told the groups leave around midnight and take approximately 6 to 8 hours to reach the summit.

That evening, we rewarded ourselves with a movie in the tent with a diy movie screen. Not too shabby. That thing was secure. George wouldn’t risk his mac ‘baby’ without a safety self-tightening knot just in case.


All told, we loved the park and the climb. I’ve been dreaming about the Andes for several months, and Cotopaxi was surely a great welcome.


Colombia’s Coffee Triangle

The moment I read about Colombia’s coffee triangle (Pereira, Manizales and Armenia), I was fixated on a visit. Delicious coffee, rolling hills, perfect comfortable temperature – check, check and check. Following fellow overlanders advice (LifeRemotely and SeventeenBySix), we decided to visit Hacienda Venecia just south of Manizales and  La Serrana in Salento, a little outside of Armenia.

Hacienda Venecia

I thought I had died and gone to heaven when we arrived at Venecia (northern point of the coffee triangle). Jorge greeted us in the parking lot with a smile and hand shake. He gave us the grand tour of the hostel which included a pool, ample common space, spotless bathrooms and a large well stocked kitchen. George and I nearly fell over when he showed us the professional espresso maker and told us coffee was free. FREE. He then proceeded to give us a demo. Trumpets sounded in the background.


Venecia is a large award winning coffee farm, so G and I decided to take the coffee tour. The tour was extremely educational, if not a little mind bending. My takeaway are as follows:

  • Colombia can harvest at least twice at year, because they have two wet and two dry seasons which means fresher coffee.
  • Colombia only exports the good stuff. This is controlled by a central organization to protect Colombia’s coffee brand.
  • See last point.  Because the good stuff leaves, Colombia’s coffee culture is what you might expect. Colombians prefer their coffee very sweet to mask the bitterness.
  • Coffee roasting is complex (countless scents and flavors), so I’ve opted to just enjoy the final product.


With more time, we would have taking advantage of the close proximity to Los Nevados National Park – yet another reason to visit the area.

Salento and Hostel La Serrana

Knowing we had to keep moving, we pulled the espresso IVs out of our arms and headed south to Salento and Hostel La Serrana (southern end of the coffee triangle). Salento is another small colonial town getting popular with foreigners for it’s easy access to Valle de Cocora.


The first thing we set eyes on pulling into La Serrana was Vida’s doppelgänger, a Land Cruiser with the same tent owned by a Dutch couple. La Serrana is a nice big hostel with great views and lots of space, but without fail it is jammed packed. It is a growing trend for hostels like La Serrana to offer volunteer programs in exchange for food and lodging. Gardening was one of the volunteer jobs offered there.


We hiked into Valle de Cocora (known for the sky high wax palms) the following day. It is a loop hike that takes you past farms and then through forests while you crisscross a river. Be prepared for mud. This is followed by plenty of switchbacks as you climb. Do not fret though, the good stuff soon begins. At the top, there is a nice little area with benches to have a snack. It is then time to hike down through the valley. The wax palm soldiers stand at attention in greeting.  All-in-all, a pretty easy and pretty beautiful hike. If you’re feeling lazy, don’t do the loop. Hike in the opposite direction and skip the river bit.


I could have easily killed a week or two in Colombia’s coffee triangle. The coffee is just the beginning. There are plenty of ways to explore nature and appreciate your surroundings.