A guest article written by Ian Gough, with excellent photography. Republished with permission it provides an unique perspective of traveling much of Ecuador during COVID. Although many places are still closed, limited tour opportunities, and there are still restrictions, he enjoyed the natural beauty of Ecuador during these strange and quiet times. From Quito to Vilcabamba, & Tena to Guayaquil. Originally from England, a former restaurateur, now a full time traveler & photographer who has now visited 75 countries.
If there is one word I could use, to sum up how is travel in Ecuador with COVID-19, it would be "quiet".
I arrived in Ecuador for the first time on October 1st, 2020. I didn't have a plan. It was just time to leave Panama after an unexpected 7-month stay. Although quarantine in Panama wasn't the worst experience I've ever had, I desperately needed a change of scenery.
I departed Panama after a 3-week stay in Panama City. My flight from Panama City was probably the quietest flight I have ever taken, or likely to ever take. Little did I know that this would be a sign of things to come.
My arrival in Quito on October 1st was pretty straightforward. My arrival at the airport was smooth and fast. I had my COVID test results and all the necessary paperwork printed and in my hand ready for inspection. Everything was well explained and organized. With so few passengers on the plane, I was soon in my waiting taxi to my Airbnb apartment
Coming from Panama, things here didn't seem much different at first. Everyone was wearing masks, using lots of hand sanitizer and seemed to be taking the virus seriously.
The quiet streets of Quito at sunrise
I had chosen to stay in an Airbnb apartment, mainly because I had a $75 credit that would soon be expiring. But also during these strange times, staying in a busy hotel or hostel didn't seem like the best idea. After being in Ecuador for a while I would soon realize that there was no such thing as a busy hotel or hostel anymore.
I stayed in the Centro Historico of Quito, just a few blocks from the main square, Plaza Grande. I would spend most days just wandering the streets and visiting different parts of the city. Life here seemed to be much closer to normal than anything I had seen in Panama over the last few months. Although locals would tell me otherwise and how quiet things were these days.
Probably the one thing that really stood out was me! I honestly can't remember ever going to such a beautiful city with so few tourists. In the two weeks that I spent in Quito, I probably saw less than 10 other gringos. Considering that Ecuador had been open again for tourists for a few months now, it was really unbelievable how few other tourists were here.
No tourists to ruin my pictures
Most shops, restaurants and markets seemed to be open, albeit at a limited capacity. Many hotels and hostels still appeared to be closed. I'm not sure if it was because of government restrictions or just from lack of business. Bars remained closed, and the once popular nightlife street of La Rhonda was a ghost town with everything closed.
Tourist attractions such as museums seemed to be hit or miss. Irregular hours and capacity restrictions kept me from visiting any of them. I did manage to visit most of the beautiful churches in the Centro Historico of Quito. Many of them are just open for mass so I visited whenever passing and one was open.
One of Quito's many churches
The popular Basilica in Quito was open to tourists, although the famous towers to climb for the view of the city were closed. The day that I visited I was the only tourist inside this amazing place.
Inside the Basilica
The one highlight of Quito that was open and actually busy was the TelerifiQo. I wanted to do the hike to Ruca Pichincha and was surprised to see how many other people had the same idea. It was a pleasant surprise as I didn't want to do this hike alone anyway. It was a beautiful weekend day and was definitely one of the highlights of Quito for me.
I ended up staying for 2 weeks in Quito and really enjoyed it. It would have been nice to have a little more of a social life but it seems like that is just not an option at the moment. And maybe that's a good thing!
My next destination was Otavalo , just a few hours north of Quito. I travelled by bus from Quito's northern bus terminal. Masks are of course mandatory on the bus, as well as temperature checks and hand sanitizer before boarding the bus. The bus was never more than half full and I was never sat next to anyone.
Upon arrival in Otavalo I walked the few short blocks to my hotel, Hostal La Rosa. Like most places in Ecuador, I was greeted with more hand sanitizer and a foot bath at the door. The reception was shielded with glass. My room was immaculately clean and I felt very comfortable being there. So comfortable that my two-night reservation turned in twelve!
The market in Otavalo
There was one other traveler staying at the hotel the day arrived. She left the next day and I was there alone for the next 10 days.
Otavalo is famous for it's huge Saturday market. Normally the town would be full of gringo tourists for the weekend. I think I saw maybe 5 other gringos both weekends that I was there for the market. The market, I'm told, was about half the size it used to be. To be honest, that's plenty big enough for most people.
More places appeared to be open in Otavalo than in Quito. Most shops, bars and restaurants were open. Most restaurants would do a decent lunch business but they were all so quiet at night. Bars in Otavalo were open, but they were all so quiet I didn't really feel the need to go into them.
Laguna de Cuicocha
The beauty of having so few tourists around is really noticeable when you get out for a hike. I did a couple of great hikes near Otavalo and it was just paradise. The first was to Laguna de Cuicocha. This was a great 5-hour hike around a beautiful volcanic lake about 45 minutes from Otavalo. That day I had to share the trail with just two other visitors!
My second hike was nowhere near as busy as the first. The day I spent at Laguna de Mojanda and Fuya Fuya, I didn't see any other people all day! It's just so hard to believe that you can have these beautiful places to yourself.
The summit at Fuya Fuya
My stay in Otavalo was definitely made more pleasant by staying in a hotel. At least I had the hotel owner and staff to chat with everyday rather than being alone in an apartment.
I took the bus from Otavalo to Latacunga and it was an uneventful journey. The bus was half empty most of the way and I always had two seats to myself.
I used Latacunga as a jumping-off point for my trip to Quilotoa. It was the ideal place to spend two nights here before and after hiking the Quilotoa Loop. I stayed at the Hostal Rosita which was a great choice. As to be expected, I was the only guest staying there at the time and I didn't see any other travelers in Latacunga either.
The main square of Latacunga
Latacunga was a pleasant place to spend a few days before and after hiking, but unless you are going to Quilotoa, there is no real reason to go there.
The Quilotoa Loop.
From Latacunga I took a bus for about 3 hours to the small town of Sigchos to begin my hike. Once again, the bus was half empty and everyone was wearing masks.
You can read the full story of my hike on the Quilotoa Loop here but I will tell you, it was just as quiet as the rest of Ecuador.
Laguna de Quilotoa
In 4 days of hiking I think I met 5 other travelers. I hiked with another girl one day but apart from that I hiked alone. Occasionally you will come across a few local villagers but not much else. It was nice not to have to wear a mask for 4 days!
Considering that this is one of Ecuador's most popular hiking trails, I did feel lucky to have these amazing sights to myself. But I must admit it would have been nice to see a few more people around
After recovering from my hike in Quilotoa, I headed to the city of Baños. I arrived on November 2nd which was a major holiday here in Ecuador. All festivities for the holiday were canceled nationwide, including the closure of all cemeteries. But this didn't stop people from traveling.
I had to take two different buses from Latacunga to get to Baños, but both were still only half full. I made a reservation by phone at Hostal Timara. Although Baños was by far the busiest place I had seen in Ecuador so far, reservations were still not necessary. I had made a great choice in my hostal but apart from a long term resident, I was still the only guest.
All alone in Baños
The next day, Baños was a completely different town. All the local tourists left and I was once again the only gringo around. I ended up spending 11 days in Baños and things did seem to pick up a little while I was there. There were definitely a few more foreign tourists around by the end of my stay, but far from being busy.
Pilon del Diablo waterfall
I spent many days hiking the trails around Baños and would rarely see another person all day. You would still see a few local tourists at the waterfalls and the Casa Del Arbol. To my surprise, the thermal baths in town seemed to be busy every night though. But the restaurants and bars remained empty at night, especially during the week.
I really enjoyed my time in Baños and I'm not sure if I would like it so much if it was busy all the time.
After a surprise meeting with my German hiking buddy from Quilotoa, I decided to head to the Amazon with her for a while. This really turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.
Tena is actually quite a nice city with some life to it, so it wasn't such a bad place to be. It probably had the best nightlife I had seen in Ecuador so far. The problem was trying to put a group together to make a trip into the jungle affordable. This seemed to be the biggest problem with travel in Ecuador with COVID-19.
Hanging out in Shiripuno
I stayed at Hostal Limoncocha which was another good choice, and it actually had other guests. But I still couldn't get a group together for a jungle trip. You really needed a group of 4 to make the trip affordable at around $65 per day each. I couldn't even find one other person who wanted to go. The trips out of Tena itself were pretty touristy type trips and not something of interest to me. Anything further afield got even more expensive.
Monkeying around in Misahuallí
There are some fun day trips to do out of Tena, but many of the further options were also still closed. Yasuni National Park is probably the highlight of that region, but it was still closed to visitors. Apparently many of the indigenous communities are still fearful of visitors because of the virus. It was also really difficult to find out any information on what was open or closed. For all these reasons I decided to not venture any further than Tena and head back to the mountains and volcanoes.
My next destination would be a 5 hour bus ride from Tena. Once again the bus was fairly quiet and I always had two seats to myself for the whole journey. A quick taxi ride from the bus terminal and I was soon at the beautiful Hostal Villa Bonita. This soon turned into my favorite place I have stayed so far in Ecuador. It's just hard to believe that such a nice place at a great price can have so few guests. There were just two of us staying there during my 3-night stay.
As for Riobamba itself, it was probably my least favorite place I have stayed so far in Ecuador. Although it is a fairly pleasant city, there was just nothing going on here. I'm not sure what things were like before COVID, but I just couldn't find a reason to stay here for long. Eating out in this city was hard work. Apart from a plate of hornado at the market during the day, I couldn't find anywhere else worth eating at.
A snowy day at Chimborazo
Luckily I didn't come to Riobamba for the food. I had come to visit Volcan Chimborazo and that did not disappoint. Although the views of the volcano were not exactly what I had hoped for, it sure made for a great day. Once again I was the only gringo to be found. There were a few Ecuadorian tourists who made the drive up to the refugio, but I was the only person out hiking that day.
5000M above sea level
As much as I loved Hostal Villa Bonita , 3 nights in Riobamba was enough for me. It was time to head for Cuenca.
After an uneventful 6 hour bus ride from Riobamba, I arrived in the beautiful city of Cuenca. After a long bus ride wearing a mask I needed some fresh air so I decided to take the 25 minute walk to my hostal instead of a taxi.
As soon as I reached the centro historico, I knew I was going to enjoy Cuenca. The streets had life. There were people all around going about their daily business like COVID didn't exist, with the exception of wearing masks. It was refreshing to see.
My check in at Hostal Latina was very strict as far as COVID was concerned. I had my temperature checked and hands sanitized, as well as filling out a health questionnaire. This is not something you expect at a $10 a night hotel. Once again, there was no need for a reservation. Things were very quiet at the hotel.
El Centro Historico
The streets of Cuenca were busy on a Saturday afternoon, full of families enjoying the nice weather. But most businesses remained quiet. When I tried to find a place for dinner, most restaurants were empty, even on a Saturday night. This was like this for the whole time that I stayed in Cuenca. The only exception was the cafes/ice cream shops on the main square, of which I became a regular customer!
One of many beautiful churches in Cuenca
Whilst in Cuenca I took a trip by bus to Cajas National Park, which was amazing. I think I was the only person in the park that day. It's so amazing to have a beautiful place like that to yourself.
I ended up cutting my time in Cuenca short. It's not that I didn't like it. But I found a house/dog sit for a month over Christmas, so I will have plenty of time to explore it more then. And at least i will have a dog for company this time!
After another 5-hour nauseating bus ride wearing a mask, I arrive in the lovely city of Loja. I hadn't booked any accommodation in advance as the place I wanted to stay never answered the phone. Of course, there were plenty of rooms available when I showed up. Residencial Internacional turned out to be a great choice in Loja. It was about as central as it gets and with great clean rooms set in a beautiful historical building. Once again, I pretty much had the place to myself.
The city gate of Loja
Loja turned out to be a nice place to spend a few days and I ended up staying 6 days. I didn't do too much while I was there, just hung out in town really. It was nice not to do anything for a change. And Loja is a pleasant city to do nothing.
Life here felt fairly normal, at least during the day. The restaurants were busy for lunch, and the markets in town were fun to explore. At night things were quite different. Restaurants and bars were empty, even on the weekend, and the streets were quiet. But this is something I'm getting used to in Ecuador now.
From Loja it is an easy day trip to the small town of Vilcabamba only 40km away. But as I have plenty of time I decided to pack my stuff and head there for a few days instead.
After another nauseating mask-wearing bus ride, I arrived in the small town of Vilcabamba. The beautiful Hostal Eterna Juventud where I would be staying was just two short blocks away.
Just on the short walk to my hostal, something felt different about this town. It had life to it. Granted, it was a Sunday afternoon and many families were out and about in town.
My hostal on the left
After a quick break in my room I needed to head out for some lunch. While walking around town looking for a restaurant, something didn't feel quite right. It took me a while to figure it out, but I was one of the few people wearing a mask! Yes, Vilcabamba was pretty much a mask free town, and boy did it feel good.
One of my favorite things about Vilcabamba is that you could actually sit outside to eat and drink. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to sit outside and enjoy a cold beer while just people watching.
Of course come Monday morning, Vilcabamba was once again a sleepy little town. As was the norm in Ecuador, I had the hiking trails to myself whilst in town. There are some great hikes to be done close to town, and for that reason I ended up staying a week in this little town. Along with the cool vibe of the town, it was just a comfortable place to be
After a week I finally made a move to leave. Although I dreaded the thought of going back to wearing a mask again.
I decided to take a night bus to Guayaquil. First I had to take the 8.45 pm bus to Loja before boarding the comfortable 11.30 pm night bus to Guayaquil. The bus was less than half full and I managed to get a good night's sleep without a mask before my 6.30 am arrival in what most people say is the worst and most dangerous city in Ecuador.
Before arriving in Guayaquil, I had not heard anything good about the place and was a little nervous about visiting. My main reason for visiting was that I had some free hotel nights through some of my US credit cards that were going to expire and Guayaquil would be the only place I could use them.
I arrived at the massive Guayaquil bus terminal at 6.30am on a Sunday morning. Things were quiet. I decided to get some breakfast at the terminal before taking Uber to the Radisson Hotel for a little nap. COVID precautions in this big international chain hotel were no different to the cheap hostals I had been staying in, but things just felt more unsociable.
As there wasn't much of interest in this neighborhood I ventured to a nearby mall for some lunch after my nap. I lasted no more than 10 minutes inside the mall. The place was packed on a Sunday afternoon two weeks before Christmas. The lines for any of the restaurants and food court were huge and I couldn't wait to get out of there.
Downtown Guayaquil was a different story. It was eerily quiet on a Sunday afternoon and didn't feel like the best place to be. But once I reached the Malecon it was once again packed with people. Being outside with lots of people feels a lot more comfortable than being packed in an air conditioned mall with them, and I enjoyed the rest of my day there.
The Malecon 2000
Despite all the negative things I had heard about Guayaquil, I actually liked this city. So much that I ended up staying for a week. I moved out of the Radisson and checked in to Hostel Nucapacha in the cool neighborhood of Urdesa and enjoyed my time there.
I managed to navigate the city by public bus, even at night time, and felt safe the whole time.
Parque de Las Iguanas
There are many interesting places to explore in Guayaquil making it a highly underrated city in my opinion.
The neighborhood of Cerro Santa Ana is one of the highlights of the city. It's so close to the Malecon but it seems very few people make it this far.
Cerro Santa Ana
Perhaps one of the least talked about places to visit in Guayaquil, but maybe my favorite was the cemetery. Seriously, this place is incredible. Of course, I was the only tourist visiting this place but it was so worth it. With over 700,000 people buried there, it is like its own little city and you really need a few hours to explore.
I left Guayaquil with a great impression of this city and seriously have to wander why more people don't visit here.
This was my second visit to Cuenca. When I was here before I managed to arrange a house sit for a month, hence the return. I arrived back in Cuenca on December 20th, just a few days before Christmas. I stayed for just one night in the city before beginning my house sit. And how the city had changed. The streets were packed with people out enjoying the shopping and Christmas decorations. At night so many families were wandering the streets enjoying the lights.
Beautiful Cuenca at night
After just one night in the city, I moved out to the suburb of Challuabamba where I would spend the next month. I would be staying in a 4 bedroom, 5 bathroom house taking care of one dog and two cats. This made a really nice change from staying in empty hotels and hostels. At least I had some animals for company when I was home.
I would spend a lot of time in this part of town and just relaxing at home with the animals. But when I felt the need to go to the city, I would do so using the public buses. I would go into Cuenca 2 or 3 days a week and the I always felt comfortable on the buses. They were frequent and never crowded and everyone wore masks.
There was still a 10pm to 4am curfew over Christmas and New Years but I can't say that this ever affected me. I was quite happy being at home, walking the dog, and watching Netflix with a cat in my lap.
After the holidays passed, the curfew was lifted and there are no real restrictions here now. Life doesn't seem any different. The city is a little quieter but still has life to it. During my stay here I made several trips out to Cajas National Park. This place, for me, is the real reason to visit Cuenca and is definitely a highlight of Ecuador. Yet there is never anybody out there.
El Bosque at Cajas national Park
I'm not sure what it is like during non-Covid times but at the moment you will have the trails to yourself. And what stunning trails they are. To be out in stunning countryside like this by yourself is just an amazing experience. Although the best part about if for me was not having to wear a mask for 5 or 6 hours!
Republished with permission - to enjoy more of Ian's adventures both within Ecuador, and throughout the world visit his blog.