My 2015 Ecuador bucket list: Must dos no one knows about

I’m embarrassed.

Embarrassed that I’ve lived in Ecuador for three years now and still haven’t done or seen much of what Ecuador has to offer.

So naturally, one of my New Years resolutions is going to be to actively start doing the things I want to do in Ecuador.

This is actually an open invitation so if you’d like to join me on one of these just let me know.  Some of whats on the list was on my list last year, but I didn’t get around to it.  This year I will!

1. Stay at the hotel in Papallacta that pumps volcanically heated water right into each room making for a great bath.  Afterward have a trout lunch.

2. Hike, or attempt to hike Cotopaxi, a 19,300 ft volcano just 50 miles from Quito.

3. Explore the largely undiscovered beaches of the Esmeraldas province and in the meantime surf the pristine waters of Mompiche.

4. Have a drink, dance and hang out for a night with the artists/hippies and see if they will show me how to make some of their jewelry along the infamous cocktail alley of Montanita.

5. Hitch-hike up the coast from Montanita.  I’ve heard its easy in Ecuador.

6. See the most remote area of Ecuador, the Yasuni, in the Amazon region before they start their planned drilling, besdies its my best chance to see big Amazonian game like jaguars, anacondas and pumas.  Another less intense option would be to fly to the city of Coca and go in canoe alng the Rio Napo to an  Eco-lodge.

7. Take the train through the high Andes from Ibarra to Salinas (a different Salinas than the one on the coast).

8. Hike arguably the most beautiful area of Ecuador from the Lagunas de Atillo to the largest waterfall in Ecuador, the San Rafael Falls and the Volcano Reventador area.

9. Visit the Saquisili (near Latacunga) thursday market for an interesting more authentic (less touristy) look into indigeous highland life.

10. Go silver bargaining along the main plaza in Chordeleg (near Cuenca) where silversmiths flex their creative muscles.

11. Try hand-gliding for the first time off the cliffs of Crucita or Canoa on the coast.

12. Bike down the entire Ecuador coast from Esmeraldas to Salinas.  Hope I get to do this one.

13. Watch the Tungurahua Volcano erupt at night from the look out over Banos.  Tours can be arranged in one of the many agencies in Baños. Cost $20 per person.

14. Observe the amazing Pink river dolphins as they frollic in the unique flooded rainforest of Cuyabeño in northern Ecuador.  Tours can be arranged once on the ground out of Quito or Lago Agrio.  Anacondas, monkeys and sloths are also possible to be seen.  Canoe Tours start from $40 per person.  

15.  Scuba dive in the crystalline waters of Galapagos off Wolfe Island where its common to see schools of hundreds of Hammerheads and dozens of whale sharks.  2 Dives start from around $130.  Best arranged once on the ground in Santa Cruz Island near the port in Puerto Ayora with local dive shops.

16.  Snorkel with the worlds smallest penguin, gigantic manta rays, big marine iguanas and (friendly) reef sharks off las Tintoreras on the picturesque snow-white sands and turqoise waters off Floreana Island in the Galapagos.  Day tours to Isabela arranged in Santa Cruz start around $65/person.

17.  Eat two buckets of the locally-famous garlic crab at one of the best crabhouses (Manny’s Crangrejal) in Guayaquil, a city known for its numerous crabhouses.  Near San Marino Mall any taxi will know where it is.  $12.

18. Hunt for fossils along the banks of the Nangaritza River, the only river that connects the Amazon to the Pacific Ocean, high in the Condor Mountain Ridge (Cordillera del Condor).  For more try lindoecuadortours.com  $25-50 /person.

19. Deep-sea fish for Marlin and Whale-watch in August off the calm shores of Salinas.  Trips can be arranged in one of the several agencies along the boardwalk.  Cost: Whalewatching from $20 per person, deep sea fishing price varies depending on amount of people.

20. Visit a coffee farm near Ibarra and learn the whole process from harvest to belly.

21.  Hummingbird watch and observe thousands of butterflies at a butterfly farm in the cloud rainforests of Mindo.  Tours can be arranged once in Mindo. Start from $20/person.

22. Trout fish in one of the surreal apline lakes in the barren Cajas National Park near Cuenca.  Tours can be arranged with Terra Diversa in Cuenca.

23. Go way off the beaten path and discover the Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) of Ecuador’s Amazon.  Extreme adventure available through local guides only out of Nangaritza.  Cost: Highly negotiable.

24. Pamper myself with a the natural mud bath in the mud pools in the dry rainforest of Machalilla National Park and spend the night playing volleyball with the local indigenous and later sleeping in one of their tiki huts.  From Puerto Lopez hire a motorcycle taxi and pay a few bucks from them to take you to the indigenous community of Aguas Blancas in the park.  Cost: $10 for the day tour to the mud baths and $10/person for the night.

25. View thousands of Orchid species and hummingbirds along the well-kept trails of the Podocarpus National Park easily reached in a $4 taxi ride from the town of Zamora.  Free entrance to park.

26Get a taste of ancient Incan life by hiking the 10km trek from El Tambo to Ingapirca, ancient Incan ruins and effectively Ecuador’s own “Machu Picchu”.  You can also take a train, taxi or bus which can be arranged out of Canar.  Ruins Entrance fee $6.

27. Get certified as a glider plane pilot in Santo Domingo through a one month course with a local flight instructor.  They say if you can fly a plane without an engine you can fly a plane with one.  Course starts around $1300. 2015 prices yet to be released.

28.Learn to kite surf with an instructor against the strangly barren cliff landscapes of Santa Marianita near Manta.  Classes can be arranged on site.  Prices vary.

29. Zip-line through a Banana plantation in Machala and learn all the ins and outs of the interesting business with CristyViajes.  Tours start around $20 per person.

30. Fish for Pirana in Laguna Pañacocha, a beautiful black wáter lake backed by cloud forests.  To get there, hire a local canoe where the Rio Panacayu meets the Rio Napo, to get there you’ll need to take a Nuevo Rocafuerte Canoe hired in the town of Coca.  Price varies depending on season.

31. Visit a Chocolate factory in Mindo.

32. Hike the Quillotoa Volcano and witness the majestic, stunning turquoise-colored lake in the volcano’s crater.  Can be done solo by taking a bus from Latacunga and getting off near the base.  Cost: $4 bus fare from Latacunga.

33. Mingle with sexy locals dressed to the tilt during the 2 hour river-boat cruise on the all-you-can-drink boat ‘Morgans’ which leaves every night from the boardwalk (Malecon) of Guayaquil. $15 per person includes all you can drink.

34. White-water raft and try kayaking for the first time in the lazy to fierce rivers around the city of Tena where the activities have made the town famous.

35. Explore the rarely-visited beaches north of Esmeraldas while at night dancing salsa to afro-latino beats after eating the local delicacy of Shrimp cooked in spiced coconut milk (encocado de camaron).  I’m sure I’ll feel like I’m in the Caribbean.  Cost: $5-6.

36. Just for fun one day try panning for gold in Yantzaza with the locals in the southern Ecuador Amazon.
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When to fly cheapest from Ecuador: Quito-Miami RT $354

Now’s the time to buy your flight if you plan on flying back from Ecuador to visit the US/Canada in the next few months!  

Wait a month to buy and any reasonably priced fare from now until May will be long gone.  

Working next to the Quito airport in my hotel for over a year and a half now, I’ve got a good feel for whens best and least expensive to travel to/from Ecuador.  

For an expat living in Ecuador, we often have the luxury of picking and choosing when to fly back to North America.  

So why not go when its cheaper?

Right now, its cheaper.  

The high season, and when the flights are more expensive, is late December to early April.  Then again from Late June to early September.  

The low season when you’re most likely to find deals is in May, October/November (now), and until early December.  

The highest of the high season and when you are least likely to find flight deals is in January and July.  (Don’t ask me why, it is what it is.)

Right now, TAME, Ecuadors national airline, has a few low season specials available until the end of this week.  

-Quito to Fort Lauderdale USA for $455 round trip with all taxes and fees included.  Travel whenever you want over the next few months if you buy this week.  (New route special).  Normal price Quito to Miami area around $6-800 USD. 

Quito to Baltra (Galapagos) round trip $268 (for residents of Ecuador) all taxes and fees included except park fee.  This is the CHEAPEST I’ve ever seen, usually the flights are in the $450 range round trip.  

I recommend buying one of these flight specials NOT online, but in one of the TAME kiosks in the big malls in Ecuador.

LAN, a Chilean airline that flys extensively to Ecuador has an even better special from Quito to Miami, but with restricted dates.  This is the BEST price I’ve seen in two years!  

$354 Quito – Miami round trip all taxes and fees included… but must fly from DEC 10-16 and fly back between JAN 13-24.  Doesnt get any cheaper than this, wait a few days and this price will be gone!   I recommend buying this deal QUICK via kayak.com .  

$429 Quito – NEW YORK Roundtrip, all taxes and fees included.  Promotion offered this week by LAN on their site.  

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Whats it really like living in Olon, Ecuador? – 1 expat response

Ahhh, Olon, Ecuador, one of my favorite beaches on the coast of Ecuador, and certainly a growing ‘expat hot spot’.

Olon is a few kilometers north of Montanita, about an hour north of Salinas (which has the nearest airport), an hour south of Puerto Lopez, and about 3 hours south of Manta.

For me, with its golden cliffs and gentle waves Olon has a special, Californian-laid-back feel, and its got one of the widest beaches in Ecuador making it one of the nicest walking beaches in Ecuador.  Its also unusually green, whereas once you pass the point at the south end of Olon which separates Montanita from Olon, from there south the coast is actually quite dry, brown and arid while from Olon north to Manta the coast is actually quite green and lush.  I know, its strange.

Above all else its great for folks looking for a quiet small town to sleep, yet still near the social scene of rowdy Montanita.

Today lets chat with an expat about what life is really like from the ground…

Enter Mrs. Defrain.  

Why did you choose Olon?

My husband and I had been coming to Salinas and Montanita for about 2 years, and we decided to see if there was anything for rent in the area.  We found a very small unfurnished house in the middle of Olon for rent and we got a very good deal because we signed a year lease.  (We had to supply our own appliances.)

Montanita is a lot of fun, but it is loud.  Very very loud.  My college-aged son likes to visit Montanita when he is here in Ecuador.  Montanita is getting very built up and the available rentals seem to cater to short term visitors.  The town center has had problems with sewage smell, and they are working on that.  It’s a great place to visit but we did not want to live there.

We had never been “beach people” before.  My husband has learned to surf, or as he says it, “push a large board around in the water for a couple of hours every day.”

The beach in Olon goes for miles, from the point on the north end of Montanita, all the way up to La Entrada.  We have a lot of beach at low tide, and even have quite a bit of beach at high tide.  Some beaches in Ecuador disappear at high tide, but not in Olon.

How long have you lived there?

My husband and I have lived in Ecuador since June 2011, and have been in Olon for 9 months.  We still have an apartment in Cuenca, and stay there every once in a while.  We are building a small house here and plan to relocate.

There are some ex-pats who have been in the Olon area for several years, some like us just for a few months.

Tell us a little about yourself? 

My husband is retired.  My career was IT Project Management, but I have had 4 books published and now I am focusing on writing.  We chose to come to Ecuador from the US West for another adventure.  We looked in Thailand, Mexico and Peru.  Ecuador seemed to have the best balance of cost, environment, infrastructure, and proximity to the US.

What are the biggest positives and negatives to living in Olon in your opinion?

Two reasons that we enjoy Olon are the beach and the community.  The Malecon has quite a few thatched roof restaurants to choose from, all with an ocean view.  Olon is very clean and graffiti-free for the most part.

The community here is wonderful.  This includes the ex-pat community as well as the locals.  When you live here, you have to be part of the community.  The area is too small to hide out.  For example, when there is a local wedding or Quinceañera, the street in front of the family’s house is blocked off.  A festival tent is put up, and speakers the size of small trucks are put on a stage.  The whole town gets to experience the event, whether you are invited or not.

Olon, it seems to us, is a town in which not much is hidden away.  People are out on the streets day and night, visiting, sometimes drinking, and often dancing.  There are several events a year in which local dance groups compete against each other.  Because we live near the square, we have seen and heard them practicing the moves for months.

One midnight I heard something besides techno-pop music in the square; it was more traditional Andean music.  I woke up my husband and we watched a dance troop of about 20 people in Andean costumes dancing in their little black slippers, with wide straw hats in their hands.  Then the men bowed, put their hats on their heads, lifted up the ladies and spun them around in unison, and then moved away.  The traditional dancing went on, without conversation, for 4 dances.  Then they turned the music off and walked silently away.  My husband and I looked at each other in amazement.  Another Brigadoon moment in Ecuador!  We have never seen the dance troop since.

We wake up to the smell of bakeries close by, and go to sleep to the smell of grilled meat at Leila’s.  Sometimes the local wild donkeys add their “perfume” to the air.

One thing that is a challenge for us are the stray dogs, or the dogs with neglectful owners.  As dog lovers, we find it difficult to see the condition of these dogs.  One friend is in the process of working with a vet to build a dog shelter, in which injured strays can be taken for treatment.  She is also starting a spay/neuter center.

Approx how many resident expats live in the area?  Are there any weekly meet ups new expats should know about? 

There are Saturday afternoon meet ups in Olon and in Montanita during the high season.  Wednesday nights alternate between Olon and Montanita.  There are many formal and informal get-togethers.  Sometimes the magic just happens spontaneously at a local tienda on the highway.

I am not sure how many ex-pats live in the area, but over the year I am guessing around 200.

The ex-pat community is very welcoming and just plain nice.  There are inconveniences to living here, and we try to help each other.  For example, it can be difficult to get certain greens and veggies here.  Many people have gardens and share seeds and produce.

There are quite a few ex-pats who have built houses here, and they are extremely helpful in providing advice, contacts, and sources.  My husband and I are grateful for our friends and neighbors here every day.

Locals who live in Olon year round are always very nice, too.

What is there to do in and around Olon?

We have a book group that meets monthly, and ex-pat meet ups on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Bird watching is superb.  Beach activities such as surfing, boogie boarding, swimming, and just walking the miles of beach are just outside your door.  You can go outside every day.  What’s a little drizzle now and then?

We usually see friends whenever we walk outside our door.  Visiting is high on our list of fun activities.

Because we live at the beach all year, we are very happy when it’s Monday.  From Monday to Friday morning, we usually have the beach to ourselves, even in high season.

We are never bored, even sometimes when we want to be!

Where do you do your shopping? 

We do the majority of our grocery shopping in La Libertad.  We put ice in the coolers and load up any friends who want to go along.  It is usually 4 to 5 hours for round trip for travel and shopping.  We go about every 10 days.

It’s important to keep a good shopping list, as there is no running back to the store easily.

Some fruits and veggies, as well as eggs, are available locally.

Do you go to Montanita often?  What for? 

We go to Montanita to go to the bank, for surf board repair, and for our monthly Book Group.

What are rental prices like in the Olon area? 

Rental availability depends on time of year.  A rental that is $300 in the off season may be $800 Jan – March.  Longer term rentals are mostly found via social contacts, and are rarely advertised.  It may take a while to find what you are looking for if you are very restricted in what you can tolerate, price range, or location.

If someone wanted to rent a house, my suggestions are:  find any place you can afford for a few months in the area, meet your neighbors and talk to people.  You will probably eventually find what you want.

Understand that there are times in the center of Olon in which sleep is impossible due to celebrations in the square.  Friends that live over a mile away can hear the music.  Sometimes our dog hides under the bed and whimpers, it is so loud.  This is part of the coastal culture and there is no reason to fuss about it.  It is all part of the package:  if you are part of the neighborhood, we are all in this together.

What are average purchase prices in the area?  Know of the prices of any actual transactions? 

We searched for a lot to build upon in October/November 2013.  We bought a small lot about a half mile back from the beach.  Beach front property is available, but it is at least $100 per square meter.  Lots away from the beach can vary, but in Olon at the time we were looking were averaging $40-$50/square meter.  Land up in the hills may be as low as $20-30 per square meter.  Those lots may have additional costs for bringing in electricity and water.

Prices are going up and up.

What businesses does Olon lack and need? 

It would be very handy if Olon had an ATM.  We have to go to Montanita for cash.  There is currently one ATM in Montanita which can give more than $100, and there is a Banco Bolivariano bank with a teller and an ATM (usually $100 limit).  There is often a long line to use either ATM or to get to the teller.

The other business that would be handy is a larger grocery store.  There are small vegetable stands and a mini-Tia which has many staples.  It would be nice to have more variety close by.

Where in Olon would you recommend to live, which sectors?  And conversely are there any areas of Olon or nearby to avoid? 

Olon is very small, as are the towns north of here.  There is a choice between being right in town in Olon, on the beach, or up in the surrounding hills.  It all depends on what you want.

The main thing to understand, in my opinion, is that some of the remote areas just out of town can present access challenges during the rainy season.

Dos Mangas, to the east out of Manglaralto, has very nice lots for sale if you have a car and would like to be more up in the hills.  City water is available quite far up the road.  It is very beautiful, with jungle-like greenery yet only 20 minutes from the beach.

Where do you go for your healthcare needs? 

As far as healthcare goes, there is a doctor on the main square in Olon, and he is open several days a week.  We see him if we have a bad cold or tummy troubles.  Our regular doctor is in Cuenca, where we still have an apartment, so we see him for our regular checkups.  There is a small emergency clinic in Manglaralto, about 20 minutes from Olon.

People who are thinking of relocating to this area should be healthy and mobile.  If you have a chronic health condition in which you need to regular be treated, it is likely that you will need to go to the Salinas area (1.5 hours away) or Guayaquil (3 hours away) if you need to see a specialist.  It is a lot different from Cuenca, where several large, modern hospitals are a short taxi ride away.

People should realize that part of the charm of the area is that it is not yet as dense as Salinas, but that also means that the conveniences and amenities are fewer.  This includes serious health care.

Where do you fly into or out of?

Guayaquil is the closest major airport.  Olon is about a 3 hour bus ride or car drive from the GYE airport.  The roads are new and very good, with a new “cutoff” near San Vicente just opened in the last year.  This saves a lot of miles.  NOTE FROM DOM: JUST A FEW WEEKS AGO FLIGHTS STARTED GOING TWICE A WEEK FROM QUITO TO SALINAS.

Do you have a car?  Do you feel like you need one living in Olon?

People ask us whether it is necessary to have a car to live on the coast in Olon and the nearby communities.  While my husband and I have a car, many of the ex-pats in the area do not.  The ex—pat community is wonderful here, and we all pitch in to help each other.  For example, you cannot take a dog on the CLP bus, so we often car pool to take our dogs to the specialty vet in Guayaquil.

There are very good local drivers for the day if you need to pick up large items, although the saying is “If an item is smaller than a VW bug, you can put it on the bus.”

For about one dollar, you can take a taxi to Montanita.  The bus runs several times an hour during the day for 40 cents.

There is very good bus service to Guayaquil, and in fact if we are just going to Guayaquil for the day we often take the CLP bus.  The CLP is a “4 Star” bus, very clean, and the movies are PG rated.  (I have seen some horror flicks on other buses that have made me cringe.)  The CLP buses can be found at the Guayaquil Terminale Terrestre at window 83.  The cost is currently around $6.00.  It leaves Guayaquil at 5:00, 6:00, 9:00, 13:00, 15:00 and 16:30.  The CLP leaves from their bus station in Olon and goes to Guayaquil at 4:30, 5:30, 9:45, 12:45, 14:45 and 16:45.

Between Olon and Puerto Lopez, or Olon and Salinas, there are currently no high speed buses, but the local buses run all day.

Over the course of the year, what’s the weather in Olon really like? 

We have been told that, weather-wise, this has been a “weird” year.  Normally in January and February, it is hot during the day and heavy rains at night.  We have seen very little rain this Jan and Feb.  Our experience is cool, dreary and rainy June to November, with a few days here and then of brilliant sunshine.  November to May is mostly sunny and very warm, or hot.

We do not have aircon.  We use fans and stay almost comfortable on very hot days.  Some of the ex-pats have aircon in the bedrooms.

My husband and I actually like the off season very much:  the beach is wide open, it is nice and cool, and the town is pretty quiet.  It is a good time to get to know your neighbors.  There were times, though, that we went to Cuenca just for a bit more sunshine.

Any new infrastructure developments in the area of note? 

More streets in Olon have been paved in the last year.  Other towns nearby, including Curia and Las Nunez, have had street paving projects.  Our water is “city” water, and we do not have a cistern.  There are times when the water is turned off, either for maintenance or from usage.  In Olon, as in most of the small towns here, sewage is handled via individual septic tanks.

How do you get internet in your home?  How do most access the Internet, is it tough to get? 

My husband is retired, but I have clients in the US.  I need to have reasonable internet.  We have 2 internet connections at the house:  CNT ($30/month) and Interdatos ($35/month).  We have both so that we generally have one up if the other is down.  Also, I can be working while my husband is talking to family on Skype.

Like a lot in this area, either you can go to Santa Elena to fill out paperwork, or you can have someone help you.  In our case, friends helped us get both internets set up.

How can we get in touch with you if we want to know more? 

Please email Michele at mythprojectecuador@gmail.com.  I can provide info on our book group (second Monday of every month), on the new dog shelter, and any other help I can give.  We are all in this together.  Thanks for listening.

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