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Old 16th January 2016, 08:27   #1
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Default Driving to Laguna Quilotoa (Ecuador)

I recently returned from a two week holiday in South America and the last leg of my trip was in Quito, Ecuador for three days. During that time I decided to take advantage of the excellent roads, public transport and good weather to visit some of Ecuador's famed volcanoes - Cotopaxi, Chimborazo and Quilatoa (there are many others but these are ones we were taught to mark in our middle school Geography classes!). Unfortunately Cotopaxi has been under watch for signs of volcanic activity and the park had just reopened with limited access after a precautionary closure last year. Chimborazo was more than twice the distance from Quito and required two full days and plenty of bus-hopping which I was reluctant to undertake after a strenuous hike to Machu Picchu that had left my knees bruised and hurting. Quilatoa was best suited and I decided to rent a car in Quito for a day and visit the famed caldera lake named Laguna Quilatoa which lies at the mouth of this inactive volcano.

I. Background

Ecuador is a small country in South America bordered by Peru and Colombia (area-wise it is slightly smaller than Maharashtra). Situated around the equator it has a range of environments from the Amazon jungle in the East to the Andes running vertically through the centre and the coastal plains in the West. Politically it also controls the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific - two hours away by air. The dominant language is Spanish and unusually, the currency is the U.S.Dollar. Along with Quito, Guayaquil is the other major city. Cuenca and Riobamba are smaller colonial towns with a touristy feel. While the country is marginally less prosperous than neighbouring Peru, it is more than four times more so than India (per capita income of USD 6,000 v India's USD 1,500). The Human Development Index is also significantly more and Ecuador lies about thirty places higher than India on U.N. rankings.

Political map of the region.

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Getting into Ecuador is easy - there are several flights a day to Quito and Guayaquil from Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, Europe and, of course, the U.S. In addition there are several land crossings from Peru and Colombia. Indian nationals do not need a visa to enter Ecuador for upto 90 days. I entered from the town of Huaquilas on the coast, from Peru by bus. Immigration was easy though the officer found my Indian passport something of a novelty and had to consult a manual to confirm that no visa was required.

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The Andes dominates the Ecuadorian landscape and the country is host to several famous active or dormant volcanoes such as Chimborazo and Cotopaxi. Laguna Quilatoa lies approximately at the centre of Ecuador, in the middle of the Ecuadorian Andes (see red arrow on the relief map below). At an altitude of about 4,000m it is a high peak and about 1,500m higher than Quito (the capital city that lies 180 km to the north-east and lying in a north-south valley).

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The Laguna itself is a gigantic lake within the caldera of the volcano Quilatoa said to have formed about 800 years after a massive eruption. While closer to Quito than many of the other prominent volcanos Quilatoa gets fewer tourists because it is relatively inaccessible by road across the Andes. It is also the westernmost volcano in the country.

II. The Route

The route from Quito consists of three distinct parts.

The first is a 90 km drive south on the Panamerican Expressway from Quito to the small town of Latacunga. This is along a valley plain.

The second is an 80 km drive west from Latacunga to the tiny village of Zumbahua located deep in the mountains. This is a hilly stretch (though I did not realise just how hilly it would be)

The last bit is a 13 km drive to the north of Zumbahua along the Quilatoa valley ending in an ascent to the peak and finally the brim of the caldera.

Screenshot of my GPS indicating the route. The size of the crater is apparent even at such a small scale.

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III. Preparation

While apparently easy in theory it was an ambitious trip. I have never driven an LHD vehicle before on the right side of the road, never driven outside India and never driven in even slightly hilly terrain let alone major mountain ranges. In addition I, of course, had no knowledge of local road rules and my Spanish was rudimentary. The car was new to me though not unfamiliar but I was going solo. My cell phone was not working in Ecuador though the GPS was reliable and I had downloaded relevant maps onto my phone in Quito. Travel time estimates on the internet quoted 3 hours from point to point and that was encouraging enough for me not to bother with food and just take a 250 ml bottle of water. Due to the small backpack I was carrying I had no car-charger for my phone and just about USD 20 in cash for fear of robbery. Physically I was not in good shape - my knees were still recovering from the hiking around Machu Picchu and I could not run or climb down slopes without some pain. Lastly I am not someone who can tinker under the hood and perform emergency tuning - the only thing I am good for is changing a tyre and checking the battery. There were other factors that came into play later on (described later) making it a somewhat risky journey and I have no hesitation in not recommending such a journey to anyone in future.

Last edited by Kumar R : 24th January 2016 at 12:13.
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Old 17th January 2016, 07:35   #2
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilatoa (Ecuador)

IV. Renting the vehicle

For me the hard part was getting or renting a vehicle. I had been checking car rentals on the internet many weeks before this trip and there were a huge variety of options on the internet - both from direct vendor sites (like Avis or Hertz) as well as comparison sites (like kayak). Prices ranged from US $35 to 70 for small hatchbacks (for a day), including insurance ($20). My hotel in Quito also suggested some local operators who, I was told, would settle for lesser rates but that was not an option I favoured. Having a psychological hesitation to paying or giving my credit card details online for a car / vendor I had never seen or met, I decided to rent a car directly from a vendor even though that might mean paying a bit more (since internet rates were supposed to be less). I had done some research and found out that my Indian license was valid for six months.

So on Jan 11 there I was marking my map for vendors with nearby pick up locations. One problem I faced was that most of these locations were clustered around the new (since 2013) international airport located 30 km away and I was reluctant to travel that far just to come back if the deal was unfavourable. The airport was also not on the way so this was a time and convenience problem as well. In the end I chose Thrifty and Avis - in that order, with Thrifty having an office less than 2 km from my hotel.

The rental took about 15 minutes to negotiate with the two sales ladies who seemed to know very little about the terms and were simply focused on getting my card and my signature; they literally had to call up the manager for every thing we discussed. One of them was crooked and tried to scam me after the return [more on that later]. The price started at $71 for a day and after some to-and-fro we agreed on $50 for a day with tank-to-tank and unlimited mileage. A $500 hold on my card was necessary for post-return traffic violations and tickets.

The car itself took 20 minutes to be delivered and was a new (2015) red Chevrolet spark - a successor of the Daewoo Matiz (see below - with vendor's mechanic). They were willing to also supply a compact sedan (Chevrolet Prisma) at the same price but I declined since I wanted a small car.

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It has 16,034 km on the odo.

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The car had a third-party fitted electronic numerical combination-lock key that required asequence of buttons to be pressed each time before ignition switch on or door open /closure - a failure to do so resulted in an alarm which continued till the correct sequence was entered. The mode of operation of this device proved to be highly annoying and nearly got me locked out once. [More on that later]. Being the lowest option there was no built-in GPS or phone charger though a music system and non-retractable antenna were present. The spare tyre was new and the tools unused.

Quito has been maintaining a decongestion rule with vehicles having certain last digits not allowed to run during rush-hours on certain days. Accordingly a flyer (see below) with the rules was handed over to me since my car ended with a '4' and I would have to be careful while returning the next day.

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The rental company provided maps of Ecuador and Quito (supplied free by the Tourism Department and plentifully available all over the country).

Last edited by Kumar R : 24th January 2016 at 14:50.
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Old 17th January 2016, 13:49   #3
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilatoa (Ecuador)

V. Driving on!

After completion of the paperwork and inspection (the rental company missed many minor scratches on the paintwork) I was finally on the road at 1340 hrs!

A. Quito to Latacunga

As I wrote earlier the first leg was the easy part - almost a hundred km on the famous Panamerican Expressway from Quito to the town of Latacunga.

Route map (Avenue America is the pickup location)

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While I was eager to get onto the expressway I had to overcome the perils of Quito city traffic first - not something to look forward to at all! Fortunately Ecuador traffic though rule-driven is much less so than the U.S. or Europe and drivers are prepared to anticipate faults much more - so driving faults are more likely to be tolerated - this works in favour of drivers new to the country / city.

View of downtown Quito traffic while waiting at a traffic light.

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Like Indian cities, Quito roads are narrow and a maze of one-ways making them a challenge to decipher.

Getting out of Quito requires some travel on the Simon Bolivar Avenue which winds and loops its way around the eastern mountain range that borders Quito on one side. Before long the road cuts through some gentle slopes.

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This provides for some good views of the city.

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After 30 minutes of this arterial route the road widens and becomes the famous Panamerican Expressway!

The sign for Latacunga is clearly visible.

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While the Quito roads were excellent, they are surpassed in quality by the Panamerican expressway which is about 4+1 lanes wide and a treat for motoring. I was earlier informed that the political leadership in Ecuador had heavily prioritised road-building and the results are very apparent. All roads are in first-class condition with not so much as a minor depression anywhere, let alone a pothole. Roadpaint is always fresh and signs are so comprehensive it feels like a hotwheels set from the 90s. I witnessed squads of workers everywhere pruning grass, collecting debris and keeping water channels clear.

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I also noticed that traffic scrupulously left the service lane free for halting vehicles and as a result it is easy to stop momentarily to take pictures without blocking a lane.

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Last edited by Kumar R : 24th January 2016 at 14:51.
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Old 22nd January 2016, 12:14   #4
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilatoa (Ecuador)

One of the bonuses of driving in Ecuador is the plentiful supply of cheap petrol - locally termed 'Extra'. It costs about USD 1.50 a gallon (3.98 litres), less outside the city with the lowest prices available at the state-owned PetroEcuador.

On the Panamerican expressway petrol pumps are common and rarely more than 2 km apart. All that changes on the road from Latacunga to Zumbahua where there were no pumps on the mountain road for nearly 70-75 km (there is a small one at Zumbahua).

Every petrol pump I encountered had spotless restrooms rivaling a 3-star hotel - sanitation and hygiene was excellent in Ecuador. Unusually though, water or agua as locally called is neither free nor forthcoming - it is not served in hotels, restaurants (or pumps) and must be bought (about 50-80 cents for a 600 ml bottle). This was the case in Peru as well. I found this a minor irritant but solved some of my problems by refilling my bottle from the many clear mountain springs and water channels that crossed the road at various points on the journey.

View after filling 3 gallons on the onward stretch. On the return I filled another 2 gallons, all @ USD 1.44/gallon.

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Like my car, I too deserved a top-up - this was at the same petrol station. Chicken and fried potatoes are abundantly popular in a non-junk foodish kind of way - if such a thing is possible.

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Further ahead the road becomes more and more scenic

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The vegetation is very distinctive with the characteristic Araucaria trees. A closely related species Araucaria columnaris seems to be popular as an ornamental in Bangalore and other cooler Indian cities.

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Also on the road to Latacunga is the exit to Cotopaxi National Park - home to the Volcano Cotopaxi. Originally on my travel plan I had to drop it when the park was closed last year due to volcanic activity.

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Throughout the nearly 100 km stretch of Panamerican expressway that I drove there was one toll point charging a USD 1 toll with no provision for a 'return journey'

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Last edited by Kumar R : 24th January 2016 at 14:48.
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Old 23rd January 2016, 13:40   #5
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Default re: Driving to Laguna Quilotoa (Ecuador)

After driving for about 100 minutes I spot the exit to Latacunga. This is where I say goodbye to the joys of the Panamerican expressway and turn right, first into Latacunga town and then onto the road for Zumbahua.

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B. Latacunga to Zumbahua

Route map

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This was the second major leg of the journey. Latacunga is a very densely-populated, touristy town, popular with day-travellers from Quito, long-distance buses that stop for lunch or dinner and tourists on their way to Ambato and Riobamba. It's loud and chaotic and full of taxis and shuttle buses and a small nightmare after the complacency of the expressway.

I did not have a chance to stop my car to take pictures as the roads were single lane for the most part with plenty of concentration needed to avoid hitting a speeding taxi or stray child.

The road to Zumbahua is not easy to find and I spent 20 minutes taking wrong turns and backtracking. Luckily the GPS (and the English-to-Spanish app) comes in very handy.

Finally after going through the trouble of making three U-turns on these narrow roads and a ten minute long session on directions from a car mechanic who was immensely happy to help I found myself on the right trail. The time was 1615 -- 2.5 hours since I started from Quito.

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Almost immediately the changed terrain is noticeable, as is the size of the road - though the quality of the surface is still very good.

The total distance from Latacunga to Zumbahua is between 70 to 100 kms depending on what marker is used for calculation. From the Panamerican, I estimated a total of about 80 km with the principal mountainous portion being about 70 km covering an altitude difference of 1200m of which an ascent / descent of 900 m is required twice for crossing two ranges.

This portion of the drive was largely solitary - despite the good roads the towns on the route are very small and buses few and far between (about 6 a day in each direction). Tourists were not a common sighting and most of the cars I encountered were 4x4 pickup trucks taking supplies to and from the settlements on the road. The weather also became a good bit colder.

View of sheep farmers on the road.

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View of the mountainside

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Landslides both major and minor occur frequently due to the frequent spells of light rain. Below are the remnants of a small landslide cleared by the very responsible Ecuador highway force.

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The road is sometime gentle and sometimes steep. Signs were generally present throughout except for short stretches (these made a big difference on the path back when it started to rain and the fog came in). I had a few nervous moments when turning the car at high speeds - a mistake quickly rectified.

As I discovered not only was the road devoid of any petrol pump - it had no shops, garages or even a home for the entire 70 km stretch to Zumbahua - a worrying thought in case I had any mechanical trouble with the car.
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Old 24th January 2016, 07:05   #6
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilatoa (Ecuador)

After nearly two hours of careful driving I reached Zumbahua. It was almost 1800 and the low latitude meant an early sunset in summer. While the volcano was a mere 13 km away to the north (as per the road signs) I did not wish to tempt fate any further and decided to spend the night at Zumbahua and resume at first light. Besides, continuing at this point would have left me with very little time at the crater.

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13 km to Quilatoa!

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Zumbahua is a tiny village lying on the road to Quilatoa - it is actually off the Latacunga road. The Quilatoa road is a very minor one and continues to the larger town of Chucchilan to the north of the crater before looping right and rejoining the Panamerican. There is no public transport at all and tourists determined enough to brave the bus journey from Latacunga must negotiate with local 4x4 pickup truck owners for a place in the back (usually USD 5-10) for a lift upto the crater - or back. Due to the remoteness and also the tourist-ness everything around here is expensive - water costs 3-4 times the price and a night at a small hostel will set you back by USD 15-20. I resolved to hang around the few shops till nightfall and spend the night in my car.

There are effectively three shops and one restaurant at Zumbahua. I took permission from a shop owner to park my car within the alcove of his shop in an effort to dodge the cold winds at night. He was most agreeable and once again I suspect the uncommonness of my nationality played a small part. The shopowner, like many others had only recently replaced his kaccha structure with a brick-mortar shop and was very proud of it. The shop itself was a small bakery and occupied the front portion of his residence which he shared with his wife and daughter. I bought a half-dozen buns and two raw eggs for a dollar - this was my supper. Most of the evening was spent playing translation with his daughter. The whole family, and as I found later, many of the locals, knew a bit of bollywood - except their knowledge was a generation or two old. Like a lost world they asked eagerly about Papa kehte hain and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. Listening to these ethnic Quechua people hum 30 year old tunes from a country 16,000 km away was quite an experience.

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The shop closed at 2100 but many people, curious to see me and my rental car (which was a novel concept - at first they thought I had driven it all the way from India) came by to say hello. The idea of spending the night in the car was also very strange to them and I had a couple of offers of blankets and jackets. The shop owner even cooked some rice, beans and an improvised omlette for me.

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The night was extremely cold and it rained several times. There were just three street lamps on the road which went out each time the power went so for a while I was in pitch darkness worried that the handbrake would fail and the car would roll down the mountainside. While I was comfortable inside the temperature difference meant that the windows were completely fogged and visibility except for one window was zero. I later found that nighttime temperatures at this time drop to 0-2 degrees Celsius. Overall a forgettable night.

Scene of my overnight layover - photographed following morning.

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Old 24th January 2016, 12:45   #7
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilatoa (Ecuador)

C. On to Quilatoa !

I woke at first light without any trouble - not having the most comfortable night this was not a problem. By then (about 0600) I was shivering and even the 6 layers I was wearing seemed to little, including two pairs of socks that, in desperation, I used as gloves. Cleaning the windshield and windows was hard - the water had frozen in places and the wiper was of no use. I also wanted to avoid switching on a cold engine lest the engine develop some problem and decided to wait for a further rise in temperature. Finally by 0645 I was ready, eaten a bit and the air had warmed by 2-3 degrees, enough to resume!

Route map of the last stretch.

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The last 13 km to the volcano was a scenic road through the beautiful Quilatoa valley. In India a road of such insignificance would be in terrible shape - here the road was still very motorable and of high quality despite the lack of road signs and the reduction in width. Otherwise the route is not hilly and there are only gentle slopes.

As can be seen the Quilatoa valley is quite picturesque.

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Looming in the background are the twin peaks of Illiniza sur and norte (south and north).

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The sides of the valley seem like a setting for a sequel to Lord of the Rings!

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After 25 minutes of sedate driving where the major risk is crashing your car while distracted by the scenery the road quality improves and signs beckon that the end is near.

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Entrance to the park. At this hour no staff were present but luckily the road is not barricaded.

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Old 24th January 2016, 14:13   #8
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilatoa (Ecuador)

D. At the Laguna !

Finally - after 5 hours of driving, a miserable night and a few close calls I reach the crater of this massive volcano at 0730! The sight I am greeted with is simply magnificent.

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The enormity of the crater and the depth of its lake filled with bubbling volcanic gases is extraordinary and feels like an alien planet. The crater is so large that it's hard to get a viewing angle to capture the whole scene in one shot.

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On the side of the platform where I stood was a rough, dusty, pathway into the floor of the crater - nearly 400 m below. I was advised that descent took an hour with the ascent nearly two. It is also possible to circumnavigate the brim - over 5 hours. I chose not to undertake these trips because of my knees but it's Very highly recommended to make the most of the experience.

Descent into the centre of the Earth...

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I was quite lucky that when I reached the air was clear - the one other tourist (an Argentine unsurprisingly named Diego) mentioned that he had arrived three days ago and most of the time so far the crater had been obscured by the heavy mountain fog. I was also lucky in reaching the crater at a time when it is completely devoid of tourists or even locals. The osiation of the place compliments its beauty.

Even in the short time that I spent I could see the fog rushing in - almost spilling into the crater.

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Last edited by Kumar R : 24th January 2016 at 14:46.
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Old 24th January 2016, 14:45   #9
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilatoa (Ecuador)

VI. Return

After an hour at the crater I reluctantly returned to my car for the long drive back to Quito. The great advantage of the road was its proximity to the crater's brim.

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With a first-hand experience I knew what to expect so the trip back was perhaps easier. Nonetheless I was not prepared for the rain and the dense fog as well as a brief bit of small-particle snow that proved to be a challenge for a city driver like me. The fog in particular was quite dense and visibility was low.

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Overall I'm lucky to have managed it and even gave a lift to two locals who, mistaking me for a taxi, solemnly left 75 cents onto the co-pilot's seat and left quickly before I could react!

It took me a further two hours to make the journey back to Latacunga and rejoin the Panamerican and another two hours to reach the rental showroom in Quito, with 30 minutes taken up in the city traffic -and a brief stop to fill another two gallons of petrol. Oddly enough I was stopped briefly at a police checkpoint outside Quito for inspection of my documents and license by a very businesslike posse of Ecuadorian traffic police who were fine with my Indian driving license. Ironically this is the only time I have ever been stopped to have my documents inspected - never such an occasion in all the years in my own country.

Vehicle and driver - on the Panamerican.

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Odo on return. Total distance covered:354 km, petrol loaded: 19.45 litres. Mileage: 18.2. Total driving time: About 9 hours. Total trip cost: USD 50 (car rental) + USD 7.2 (petrol) + USD 2 (Toll) + USD 2 (food) = USD 62.

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I hope you found this travelogue interesting - I'm happy to answer any questions about my trip or about visiting Ecuador!

Postscript: The Thrifty Rental Scam: On returning the vehicle to Thrifty Rental the same sales rep (a Ms Angeles) made a half-hearted demand for an additional USD 70 - based on the mileage accrued. When I reminded her that those were not the rental terms she backtracked and assured me everything was ok. Despite this after my return to New York on the 14th I found an unauthorised USD 70 debit to my credit card which infuriated me. When called she went back on her word and hung up. I disputed this with Citibank - and they were quick to reverse the charge - though I suspect they absorbed it rather than reverse the credit to Thrifty. This incident slightly marred the otherwise fabulous journey and I can only warn others to be more vigilant about such practices while renting a car.


Last edited by Kumar R : 24th January 2016 at 14:53.
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Old 25th January 2016, 14:05   #10
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Thread moved to the Travelogues section. Thanks for sharing!

Last edited by GTO : 25th January 2016 at 14:06. Reason: Bump
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Old 25th January 2016, 16:30   #11
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilotoa (Ecuador)

Thanks for sharing a nice & interesting travelogue.

On that uncalled for expense, and Citibank's reversal: I have faced the same scenario, in a different context though. When you raise a dispute, Citibank is prompt enough to refund the amount. They start a dispute case on their system, and ask you to submit the relevant docs within 60 days.

If you fail to do so, the entire reversed amount reappears in next billing cycle, which you need to pay.
If you submit the documents, which are sufficient to prove the Vendor was faulty, then the charged amount is passed to the Vendor, and case closes. But if it cannot be proved that Vendor was at fault, then you need to pay the same amount in next billing cycle.

Hope you have sufficient documents in your favor.
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Old 25th January 2016, 18:10   #12
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilotoa (Ecuador)

Wow, that is a beautiful write-up.
Thank you for the share.
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Old 25th January 2016, 18:54   #13
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilotoa (Ecuador)

A great travelogue. Very Unique I would say. Equador is one of the most unexplored countries for people from the East rather India I would say. Thank you for the wonderful insight to a great place. People still would have reservations while travelling to South American countries. I have a cousin who lives in Chile for a few years already now and I have heard lovely stories from him as well. Crisp and informative writing. Thank you.
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Old 26th January 2016, 07:01   #14
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilotoa (Ecuador)

Originally Posted by Zinda View Post
On that uncalled for expense, and Citibank's reversal: I have faced the same scenario, in a different context though. When you raise a dispute, Citibank is prompt enough to refund the amount. They start a dispute case on their system, and ask you to submit the relevant docs within 60 days.

Hope you have sufficient documents in your favor.
Citibank was extremely quick to take my dispute and resolve it permanently in my favour after, of course, patiently listening to me give an account of the situation. I was reading online that for small amounts the banks prefer to absorb the loss rather than conduct investigation which is also costly. The tone of the fraud officers I spoke to was very reassuring.

That said, I do have my rental contract and I remember quite well (when I returned the vehicle) that the Thrifty sales lady had made insertions about the mileage on their counterpart only - an insertion which is missing in my copy - talk about fraud!

Originally Posted by MSMILES View Post
A great travelogue. Very Unique I would say. Equador is one of the most unexplored countries for people from the East rather India I would say. I have a cousin who lives in Chile for a few years already now and I have heard lovely stories from him as well.
South America is, from my limited recent travel, not only a beautiful place to travel - but it has several advantages. The countries and people have a culture very similar to India with a laid-back way of life, relatively lower cost of living (partially true) with very warm people by default. They also have a high regard for India and getting a visa is not only easy but easy on the wallet -- Ecuador, Colombia do not require a visa, many (Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay) do not charge fees, Brazil and Peru charge a very low fee ($20-30). There is a much lower risk of getting scammed compared to our own country and I personally do not think security is a problem - except maybe in Venezuela and parts of Colombia (from third party accounts). The chief problem is the enormous distance and cost getting there and the difficulty in moving around due to lack of rail infrastructure and long road routes due to mountains and forests.
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Old 26th January 2016, 12:17   #15
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Default Re: Driving to Laguna Quilotoa (Ecuador)

A great travelogue and a very very interesting read. Just wanted to comment on the bollywood and hindi songs that you have mentioned. I have traveled in some remote parts of Indonesia and have always wondered how the locals are able to hum Hindi/Indian film song tunes and mouth hindi/ Indian songs without understanding a single word. Its an amazing and awesome experience to listen to hindi songs deep in the jungle in some remote part of the earth and that also from a person who has no idea about the language or the meaning of the songs. At some times, I feel so proud to be an Indian and feel an enormous sense of gratitude towards the Indian movie industry for being able to so effortlessly push Indian soft power into the deeper reaches of the earth. Hindi songs have often helped me in sticky situations - either directly or indirectly.
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