The final third of my “sabbatical” was to be spent in Ecuador with Cassie. We had visited twice before, both times with family, and wanted the chance to explore just the two of us. Ecuador is a great place to travel to — there is so much diversity among the landscapes, the people are incredibly friendly, and it’s a smaller country so it’s easy to get around. Plus, as a bonus they use the US dollar, so you don’t have to worry about exchanging money.
Also, fun fact, my parents are retiring there next year and bought a condo on the coast that we could stay in for free for a portion of the trip. The plan was to be there for a month; two weeks relaxing on the coast and two weeks exploring and hiking in the mountains and cloud forests.
Sadly, Cassie’s grandma, who helped raise her, passed away suddenly just a couple of days before we were set to leave. We had already planned to take the month off of work so we were easily able to drive up to Pennsylvania to be with family, help with the house, and take some time to just be in the initial shock and grief.
After two weeks and some discussion about what we should do, we decided to rejoin our original itinerary for the second half of our planned trip. We skipped the coast and flew straight into Quito, picking up from there.
Given the circumstances, we decided that instead of the many hikes and exploring we had originally planned, we wanted to make the trip as relaxing and luxurious as possible. This meant we spent a lot of days just hanging around our room reading, watching tv, enjoying the cool weather with a drink in our hand, getting massages and sitting in hot tubs, playing cards, and napping. It also meant we canceled some of our planned stays in shared hostels and extended our stays in the nicer lodges and resorts (which actually led to our room being upgraded in both instances!).
Quito – 1 Day
We flew into Quito on a red-eye and immediately collapsed into bed the night (erm, early morning) that we arrived. We stayed in the Secret Garden Hostel in Quito and the next day enjoyed breakfast on the rooftop enjoying the expansive views of the city and surrounding mountains.
That afternoon we grabbed a taxi up to the teleferiqo for even more views of the city. Cassie’s really afraid of heights, so I always get nervous about how she’ll feel about stuff like this, but she did really well (even if my hand almost got squeezed off on the way up).
Once we made it to the landing point, we hiked a little ways up, swung on the swing, and enjoyed a hot chocolate and carrot cake in the little cafe up there. There is a longer hike you can do all the way up to the top, but we were still acclimatizing to the altitude and wanted to take it easy. I was just happy to sit and spend time together after being apart for a month while I was in Peru. After we came back down, we walked around the Floresta neighborhood and checked out Frida Tacos for lunch. We ordered way more tacos than we could eat, but they were all delicious.
Cotopaxi – 5 Days
The next day we took a van with other hostel guests who were headed to the Secret Garden’s sister hostel in Cotopaxi. We stayed here the first time we visited Ecuador and immediately knew we would want to come back for a longer stay.
I highly recommend making a visit to this place. The grounds are beautiful (and include a delightful and friendly pack of llamas), you eat family-style with the rest of the guests, guaranteeing you some great conversations and interesting characters, and the food is delicious. Oh, and did I mention that it’s completely unplugged?
No wifi, no cell service, nothing. We stayed in one of the Hobbit Holes, which was super cozy and had an unbelievable view of the Cotopaxi volcano.
You can also book tons of great activities and hikes through the hostel during your stay. When we stayed here the first time we did some of these activities, including the free waterfall hike — and a fateful horseback riding excursion where we found out my youngest brother is very allergic to horses and Cassie’s horse tripped and threw her off (she was okay).
This time, we decided to not book any activities and just enjoy hanging out around the grounds relaxing, taking walks on our own, soaking in the hot tub, playing cards, reading in our hobbit hole and on the big net, and feeding the llamas.
Part of the reason we didn’t do any of the structured hikes was because Cassie had a much harder time acclimating to the altitude than previously. We also really just needed to do nothing – and it was glorious.
Isinlivi – 4 Days
Our next stop was Isinlivi, a very small town on the Quilotoa Loop. Our original plan was to hike the 3-day loop, stopping for two nights in Isinlivi to enjoy the Llullu Llama Lodge. As I mentioned at the start of this post, we decided to cut back on physical activity and increase the luxury on this trip and so we ended up extending our stay at the lodge.
Though we were excited to slow down the pace, we were bummed to miss out on hiking the full loop, so we decided to still hike the second day’s portion from Isinlivi to Chugchilan, and I’m so glad we did. The whole day we were met with beautiful views, diverse landscapes, and just the right amount of challenge. We took a slower pace and stopped to enjoy lookouts and snacks along the way and were still able to complete the trek in a little under 6 hours.
Since the region had experienced heavy rainfalls earlier in the season, we were worried that more of the trail would be wiped out and muddy, but other than one or two early sections of mud, it was completely fine.
Once we arrived in Chugchilan, we enjoyed a big lunch at one of the hostels/restaurants in town. We followed up lunch with some ice cream and good conversation with fellow hikers who we had met at the lodge the night before, then caught a ride back to the Llullu Llama.
During our stay we also took a day trip to Quilotoa Lake – which was gorgeous – enjoyed the spa at the lodge, walked around the tiny town, and drank many many mojitos made by the friendly bartender and property manager, Giovanni. Dinner and breakfast were included at Llullu Llama and the food was quite tasty every day.
Baños – 4 Days
Our next destination was Baños. On our first trip to Ecuador back in 2019, everyone we met (including locals) kept asking us if we were planning to go to Baños, and when we answered “no” we were always met with disbelief and a strong recommendation to visit. So on this trip, we made sure to book a few days to explore this town known for its volcanos, hot springs, adventure sports, and many, many waterfalls.
Unfortunately, the day we arrived in Baños, I was feeling sick and spent the whole first day in bed, watching Netflix, and soaking in a hot bath. On the upside, this was another place where we decided to cancel our hostel stay and instead, extend our fancier stay at the Samari Spa & Resort. This change of plans resulted in another upgraded room. Our new room was basically a house all to ourselves (including a yard), had the biggest jet tub I’d ever seen, a fireplace, and a truly giant comfortable bed.
The grounds of the resort were so beautiful that we spent some of our time walking around a small nature trail on the property and just staring in awe at the thin waterfalls cascading down the bright green mountains surrounding us.
The town itself was different than I was expecting. After spending time in the small cloud forest tourist town of Mindo (try saying that five times fast) on our 2019 trip, I was surprised at how big and busy Baños felt. At certain times of day, the traffic on the main road could be quite busy, and in the city you’ll be approached every few minutes by someone trying to sell you souvenirs or adventure excursions. This was also the place where we were most consistently disappointed with the food, though maybe we were just unlucky in the respect.
All that said, Baños is still incredibly beautiful and worth visiting, and I would definitely go back. I think I was just expecting something different after hearing so many people recommend it.
On one of our days we took a drive out of town to do a short hike around the Pailón del Diablo Waterfall, translated to the Devil’s Cauldron, named after the way the water appears to bubble upwards from the force of the water falling, causing it to look like intensely boiling water.
The walk to and around the waterfalls was beautiful and wet. We were drenched thoroughly by the end from the water splashing back out at us along parts of the narrow trail. There are also portions where you have to crawl through small caves on your hands and knees. There were parts where we couldn’t stop laughing while watching people attempt to make the walk in ponchos that were no match for the falls, which is one of the strongest in South America.
On the drive to the falls we also stopped at a few of the roadside attractions for some exposure therapy for Cassie’s fear of heights. We walked across the glass bridge and took a terabita across another gorge to get up close to another waterfall and admire the rushing river beneath us and other falls in the distance.
Our last day in Baños was mostly spent relaxing by the pool, soaking in the spa, and getting couples massages. Ahh, the life.
Quito – 2 Days
As we reached the end of our trip, it was time to return to Quito to spend a couple days before our flight back to the States. While we stayed at the Secret Garden when we initially flew into Quito, we capped off our trip staying in a little studio Airbnb overlooking Parque la Carolina.
This was the perfect location as we spent most of our days wandering around the park, eating ice cream, renting a peddle boat, people watching, and exploring the botanical gardens housed in the park.
We also were walking distance to one of the best restaurant districts in the city, and we took full advantage of that. Our first night’s dinner was at Somos, a female-founded restaurant rooted in local ingredients and Ecuadorian tradition. The food was phenomenal and the night was rounded out with a visit to their downstairs speakeasy, Sed, for Ecuadorian-inspired cocktails.
We made good friends with the bartenders, who donned us in ponchos and hats, and ended up drinking much more than we anticipated since they kept making us drinks on the house that they were excited to share with us. Hands down these were some of the best drinks I’ve ever had, one of which I’ve tried unsuccessfully to replicate at home on multiple occasions. (Unfortunately, Sed is now closed, but you can still get delicious cocktails at Somos itself.)
On our second day, we ate lunch and dinner at De la Llama (it was that good), which is another contemporary Ecuadorian restaurant. We stuck to seafood for entrees, trying the ceviche, grilled swordfish, and shrimp chupe (my fave) but a surprising standout was the duck baos that we shared as a starter.
While I felt a little sad on the drive to the airport that night knowing my sabbatical was coming to a close, I also was excited to get home. I looked forward to enjoying time with my parents before they move to Ecuador next year, seeing my dog Carob, and sleeping in my own bed (and not having to wear the same three outfits over and over – although honestly that last part I really didn’t mind).
While we almost skipped this trip, I’m so glad that we decided to still go on a shortened version of it. While traveling can be tiring, the way we structured this trip to be very intentionally unplugged and balanced with activity and luxury left me feeling deeply rested and present in a way I hadn’t been in a long time.
Let’s just say that I’m already scheming on when I can take my next sabbatical.