Pampered at Papallacta

Hot springs naturally heated by Antisana Volcano in the Andes Ranges

Hot springs naturally heated by Antisana Volcano in the Andes Ranges

It’s early when we drive out of Quito, just as the city is beginning to wake for another business day. We choose to do a mid-week trip because we’ve heard that Papallacta Thermal Springs is not just a routine tourist stop, but that it’s also a very popular getaway for the locals, and can get quite busy on weekends. We wanted to avoid the crowds. Out of Quito, we ascend the Andes Mountain range, stopping briefly at a lookout at the top of the range, at an altitude of around 4800 meters at its highest point. It’s quite chilly up there. We grab our warm jackets as we alight to take in the magnificent view. Volcanoes and mountains run north and south along a massive jagged range stretching almost the entire length of South America. It’s a bit mind-blowing.

Not long afterwards, descending towards the village, we pass a lake which provides potable water to the surrounding area. A narrow twisting road leads us through a tangle of forest until we finally arrive in the small mountain village of Papallacta (pronounced: Pap-ay-act-a). We navigate around the village and follow another mountain road, passing a number of trout farms and several grazing llamas along the way. Finally, we arrive at the hot springs and day spa center. Our reservation is quickly confirmed and we are shown to our very comfortable cabin.

A semi-circle of cabins overlooks four private pools, each one decreasing in temperature, soothing your body as you move from one to the other, until you reach the cold one. Not wasting time, we strip and dip our toes into the hottest pool. It’s glorious. There is no one else there. For now, we have the whole place to ourselves. After a few minutes, our skin tingling from the hot water, we change to a slightly cooler pool, taking our large bottles of water and towels as we move between the large shallow pools. The second pool is wonderful. We linger longer. Luxuriating up to our necks in volcanic waters, we lean against the side and relax, Antisana Volcano looming right in front of us with her bright snowcap and stark slopes. Her heart bubbling and brewing, she is the source of our pleasure. After a short while, we plunge into the cold pool, gasping for breath and giggling as the freezing water slaps against our steaming hot skin.

After a tepid shower in the cabin, we dress and wander around the grounds. There is a series of larger heated pools winding around the forest path at the end of the compound. For a $20 entrance fee, day visitors can bathe in the public pools. A few people relax in the steaming mineral waters, greeting us as we pass on our walking tour. Further along, we find a path running along the foot of the mountains. Feeling energetic, we follow the path, but notice how quickly we feel out of breath. It’s the altitude: less oxygen in the air.  Undeterred, we meander along the dirt path for about half an hour or so, taking in the wonderful scenery and enjoying the blissful tranquility, and then turn back. At the day spa, we book massages for the following morning, and then take a long leisurely siesta, waking ourselves up later in the wonderful hot tubs.

The restaurant has such an extensive menu that it’s hard to choose what to eat. Determined to enjoy the local cuisine wherever we travel, we order the trout. “Delicious” does not nearly describe our dinner. In fact, the only way to truly appreciate such a meal is to go there and try it yourself. Words seem inadequate. Sated, wined and dined, (and desserted and hot chocolated) we head back to our cabin to enjoy a quick evening dip in our private thermal pools before retiring for the night. Another couple have arrived while we were out. Friendly greetings are exchanged as they hail us from the hot tub. They invite us to join them for a dip and a glass of wine. More wine? Why not? Once again, we strip and immerse ourselves up to our necks in mineral-rich healing waters, each sipping a glass of red wine; smooth on the palate and very fruity, but not too sweet. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the vineyard’s name. Somewhere in Chile. This heady mix instantly makes us all chatty for the first half an hour, and then quickly makes us sleepy.

Dressed in thick white bathrobes and disposable paper slippers, we pass through the day spa and let the masseurs boss us around while they order us to strip and then pummel and pound the painful knots from our shoulders and backs. Essential oils are rubbed from head to toe. Hot rocks sear the pain from our stiff spines. Mud is smeared around. During the neck and facial massage, I feel so good that I fall asleep. Some time later, we emerge with goofy faces, both so pampered that our facial muscles still don’t feel like making expressions. Our bodies zing, delighted at this amazing treatment. Despite our floppiness, we make an important decision; just one more dip before the scenic drive back to the city. It’s even better. After our massages, the hot tub is truly amazing. It’s hard to get out. Reluctantly, we dress and get in the car. Back in Quito, we head straight to bed for one last siesta. Next time, we plan to stay longer.

Feel like being pampered in Papallacta? Ask me how.

Ecuador is Awesome – Part Two

Blue-Footed Booby

Colonies of the adorable Blue-Footed Booby are found all over Galapagos

When I asked all my friends about the best things Ecuador has to offer, we unanimously agree that one of the most spectacular not-to-be-missed destinations in Ecuador is, without doubt, the incredibly beautiful and mystical Galapagos Islands. Straddling latitude zero, 1000km west from the mainland, this archipelago is home to an amazing array of wildlife; numerous species you will never see anywhere else in the world abound on these enchanted islands, unusual and fascinating creatures to someone who has never visited, and yet often quite common to those who know the islands well. Landscapes – or  moonscapes – of shimmering black lava and hardy flora forcing its way through the rock to thrive in such an arid environment where rainfall is extremely scarce in many places is a miracle so fantastic to behold that it’s worth every penny to come and discover the secrets of Galapagos for yourself.

There are 10 species of Giant Tortoises in Galapagos

Giant Tortoises (Chelonoidis nigra) are the longest-living vertebrates on earth. The average life-span is over 100 years, and some live to over 170 years.

There are four inhabited islands: San Cristobal, Santa Cruz, Isabela and Floreana, with an international airport on Baltra, near the abandoned WWII American military base. While the Galapageño capitol of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is on San Cristobal, which also has an airport, Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz is the most populated settlement, with its infrastructure firmly in place to serve the requirements of around 175,000 visitors per year to the World Heritage National Park and Marine Reserve. Whether tourists participate in land-based or water-based activities, Galapagos; its phenomenal wildlife, unique vegetation and breath-taking landscapes, are bound to make a life-long impression on anyone fortunate enough to experience the magic.

Las Grietas, a fissure in the lava rock, is a wonderful local swimming hole.

Las Grietas, a fissure and a swimming hole where dare-devils leap in from the cliffs.

Regardless of age, there are activities to suit every level of fitness and include a vast range of interests, from a gentle 2.5km walk to Tortuga Bay near Puerto Ayora, to a strenuous hike up the challenging slopes of Sierra Negra on Isabela to see the massive crater, which is 11km in diameter, from stretching out in a bikini under the hot equatorial sun while your launch cruises leisurely from island to island on the azure Pacific Ocean, to rolling back off the launch in your scuba gear to experience the fascinating world of Galapagos marine life 20 meters below the surface off North Seymour, from observing the Magnificent Frigate Birds bathing in Lagoon El Junco on San Cristobal, the only fresh water lake in the archipelago, to leaving your postcards in Post Office Bay on Floreana and hoping they’ll arrive at their destination at some point in the future, and once you’ve done all that, there is still so much more to do… like visit the Giant Tortoise breeding center at the Charles Darwin Research station, or just lay on a towel on a pristine beach and relax.

Divers are always thrilled to find large schools of Hammerhead sharks

Scuba Divers are thrilled to find large schools of Hammerhead sharks at Gordon Rocks.

A trip to Galapagos is, for many, a once in a lifetime experience. Admittedly, it’s a little costly to get there. Between airfares, national park fees,  and the high cost of cruises and many other vacation activities, you almost need a second mortgage just to put your feet on the enchanted islands. And because most of the food is shipped 1000km, it also costs more than on the mainland. Even so, if you spend every penny you’ve saved for this trip, just to make it one single time, you will spend the rest of your life enjoying the wonderful memories of a natural phenomena not to be found anywhere else on the planet. Galapagos is worth every penny. There are also a number of land-based and water activities that don’t cost a thing. Depending on which island you are on and, if you have the time and resources, it’s highly recommended to go island-hopping on at least two islands in the Galapagos, and you can easily find out which activities are free. Whether you’ve lived in Ecuador for many years, or have just passed through as a visitor, the magic spell of Galapagos remains with you forever.

Ask us how to get to Galapagos:

The Octopus Garden

Just after dawn, as the motorboat pulls out of Pelican Bay, we start to prepare ourselves for the dive, pulling on pre-dampened wetsuits over our bikinis and leaving them hanging half-open at our waists for the rest of the journey. Frigate birds fly overhead, their distinctive red necks deflated as they wait to see if we’re offering them breakfast. Disappointed, they soar towards a flock of blue-footed boobies hunting nearby to bully the boobies and pirate another meal.

The glorious Galapagos Islands shimmer in the bright sunlight as we speed past Santa Cruz and Baltra, Dafne and finally arrive at North Seymour. A large manta ray skims along just under the surface. At first, just a shadow in the distance, we get close enough to see the 4m wingspan of this magnificent creature, with its wingtips breaking the surface as it cruises alongside. We anchor in the channel between North Seymour and Mosquera to listen to the dive brief and finish putting on the rest of our gear: weight belts and fins, masks and finally our BCDs with tanks and regulators attached. The language of the dive has been discussed. We all know how to communicate underwater.

It's another world where nothing above the surface matters.

Twenty meters under the Pacific Ocean there is a completely different world where nothing above the surface matters.

Unless you have been scuba diving, it’s difficult to describe the feeling that envelopes you when you roll backwards into the water and then descend to the first meeting point. The only sound you can hear underwater is your own bubbles as you exhale. A small group with a very experienced dive guide, we buddy-up and head into the channel, adrift on the current which carries us along. Almost no effort is required. I barely wiggle a fin. My buddy drifts along beside me. White-tipped sharks rest of the ocean floor, letting the cool water rush over them. Minutes later, we find ourselves in the middle of a large school of yellow and black striped angelfish. We drift over impressive lava formations and colorful corals until we notice that some of the pretty pink rocks aren’t rocks at all. They’re fish. Scorpion fish.

The Scorpion fish is one of the world's most venomous species

The Galapagos Scorpion Fish is one of the most venomous species in the Pacific Ocean.

Responsible divers in the Galapagos know not to touch anything, so we are never in any danger of being stung by this cleverly camouflaged fish. Starfish abound in all shapes and colors, clinging to rocks and corals as the current sweeps over them. An octopus hides in a narrow crevice, its tentacles stretch over the rock as it moves ever-so-slowly across the rock face to find a more spacious hiding place. Enormous Moray eels peek out from their rock caves, mouths open to allow the Pacific cleaner shrimp to wash their faces for them. Outstanding service, if you ask me! During the dive we glide alongside elegant Eagle rays, and see a large school of Devil rays overhead. Concealed Stingrays shoot out from their hiding places in the sand and a large Manta ray circles overhead. A massive Pacific green turtle snoozes on the sandy bottom, ignoring us as an underwater photo-frenzy takes place above its head.

After a fifty-minute dive, we slowly ascend, making a safety stop a few meters below the surface. As we hold hands in a circle and dance, wiggling and shaking our hips, trying not to laugh out loud and lose our regulators, our friendly Manta ray sweeps by one last time to wish us farewell. On the surface, we board the boat once more, all talking at once, such is the excitement of yet another great dive in the spectacular Galapagos archipelago.

Would you like to come diving with me? Ask Footprints how.

Footprints Ecuador

  • Footprints Ecuador: Galapagos Scuba Diving Tours
    Footprints Ecuador helps you custom design and plan your trip to Ecuador, inc. Galapagos Cruises, Island Hopping, Scuba Diving, and also travel on the mainland inc. Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Mindo, Quito, Cuenca & more. Go Scuba Diving in the Galapagos!
  • “LIKE” Footprints on Facebook
    Footprints offers personal one-on-one consultation to help you plan the trip of a lifetime to Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands with no-fuss itineraries making the most of your time and budget, catering to your specific interests and requirements.

The Magic of Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

The 4WD picks us up early in the morning. We climb into the vehicle with the blankets of sleep still covering our faces. Yawning and floppy, we bump southwards out of Quito though the winding mountain range. Three and a half hours later, after stopping for breakfast somewhere along the Avenue of Volcanoes, we arrive at the Cotopaxi National Park Entrance where there are several stalls selling hand-knitted gloves, socks and balaclavas for anyone who has forgotten to dress warm. There are also brightly colored blankets, jackets and sweaters made from hand-dyed alpaca wool on sale. It’s warm at the entrance, the sun shines brightly, lighting up the snow-capped peaks of the surrounding volcanoes, the Illinizas (17,213ft) and Chimborazo (20,560ft),

Following a dirt trail that leads into the 36,000 hectares of pristine forests, rolling mountains, and serene lakes, as well as the treeless plains of the Andean páramo, which are also home to herds of llamas, wild horses, deer, and large lizards. On our way we see the Andean gull, blue-billed ducks, some large hummingbirds and a pair of (endangered) Andean condors circling high in the clear blue sky. We don’t see any pumas, spectacled bears, Andean foxes, or orange-headed caracaras that day, but are assured by our naturalist guide that they exist in the park. Shortly, we arrive at the Mariscal Sucre Museum and Visitor’s Center to drink a steaming cup of herbal coca leaf tea, which helps combat altitude sickness, and inspect the native garden in the grounds before checking out the relief map inside the tiny center, which also has a public bathroom at the back.

A quick stop to admire the reflection of majestic Rumiñahui (15,489ft) in the cold, clear waters of Limpiopungo Lake, and the spectacular view of snow-capped Cotopaxi on this brilliant sunny day leads into a photography frenzy when some rare black-faced Ibis and a small herd of llamas turn up to do a quick show.

The drive up to the carpark on Cotopaxi (14,924ft) reveals an incredible view of the surrounding plains and ranges, and our guide points out nearby volcanoes along the way. According to our guide, the Quechua meaning of the name Cotopaxi is Neck of the Moon, so called for the position of the volcano under a rising full moon. Dressed like so many Michelin men in many layers of wool and cotton, we spend the next forty-five minutes ascending the rocky path to the José Ribas mountain refuge (15,780ft) on the Cotopaxi snowline. At the yellow-roofed refuge, sipping more hot coca leaf tea, wrapping our freezing hands around the mugs to warm them, we’re not sure if we were lightheaded from bliss or the thin air at that altitude. For today, at least, we have no plans to climb to the summit of Cotopaxi (19,347ft).

In the Cueva del Búho (Owl Caves) great horned owls peek out from high above, blinking wisely as we eat a picnic lunch of home-made spinach pie, pasta salad and brownies, with brimming mugs of coca tea. Our guide points out native wildflowers as we lean against volcanic rocks and enjoy the warmth of the midday sun. After lunch, we’re off again, bumping over dirt trails until we come to Pucará El Salitre. After a snack of wild black currants from a nearby bush, we enter and explore the stoney ruins of this sprawling Inca military fortress which was used to monitor the movement of its armies and supplies, and keep look out for the enemy.

We leave the picturesque archeological site and drive over the grassy volcanic plain, spotting herds of wild horses and a flock of Andean gulls as we head towards Santo Domingo Lake via the Manantiales (natural springs). Inca stone walls surround the tranquil lake which gives us a glimpse of a traditional hacienda and boasts excellent views of the vast volcanic plateaus all around. The whole vista gives us a wonderful sense of feeling spiritually enhanced and celebrates our deepening love for the spectacular nature to be found in the Ecuadorian wilds.

Most of us are dozing lightly as we pull up outside the hotel in Quito at the end of the day. As we disembark, we fully understand the proud claim that Cotopaxi is the second most popular adventure destination in Ecuador. It’s definitely an unforgettable adventure.

Fancy a trip to Cotopaxi? You can take a day trip to visit the National Park and Volcano, or Climb right to the Summit!

Ask Footprints how!

Footprints Ecuador

  • Footprints Ecuador: Cotopaxi Tour
    Footprints Ecuador will help you custom design and plan your trip to Ecuador, inc. Galapagos Cruises, Island Hopping, Scuba Diving, and also travel on the mainland inc. Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Mindo, Quito, Cuenca & more. Take a Day Trip to Cotopaxi or Climb right to the summit!
  • LIKE” Footprints on Facebook
    Footprints offers personal one-on-one consultation to help you plan the trip of a lifetime to Ecuador & the Galapagos Islands with no-fuss itineraries making the most of your time and your budget, catering to your specific interests and requirements.