Beyond the Galapagos Islands – Ecuador’s Forgotten Treasures

Ecuador is one of the countries that you’ve heard a lot about, but maybe would never consider visiting. Why go to Ecuador on holiday, when there are the exciting destinations of Colombia, with its rich jungles and famous beaches, and Peru, with its Inca history and Andes culture, both nearby?

One fabulous destination that Ecuador does offer, and one that you have probably seen countless times on TV documentaries and in wildlife, travel and photography magazines, is the Galapagos Islands. The islands will forever have their position in history due to their astounding array of endemic wildlife species and their connection with Charles Darwin and his infamous work on evolution following his trip to the islands on the Voyage of the Beagle.

Galapagos in Ecuador Photo: Blinking Idiot on Flickr

Galapagos in Ecuador

However Ecuador has so much more to offer the discerning tourist than these islands, and the many tourists that fly in to Ecuador, transfer to the islands for a tour or cruise then immediately fly home, are missing out on so much! Having had the pleasure of travelling through Ecuador and experiencing the delights that this country has to offer, over and above the Galapagos Islands, I realised that many people are missing out. Here’s my brief guide as to the best of the rest of the fabulous country of Ecuador:

Basilica del VotoNacional Quito

Basilica del VotoNacional Quito

Quito

Quito is one of two main stopover points for international tourists travelling to and from the Galapagos Islands (the other being Guayaquil), but is potentially a destination in itself. If you ever get the chance to visit Quito (and you should give yourself the opportunity!) then try and stay in a hotel in the old-town city centre rather than in the new modern region – it might cost a little more but you won’t regret it.

This region of the city is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, due to its outstandingly well-preserved, ancient and beautiful central region. To explore this area is like stepping back to colonial-era South America – labyrinthine cobbled streets wind through white-painted buildings, leafy plazas, and ancient churches and religious buildings. You can get lost here for days, exploring, and soaking up the history. Make sure to visit the Basilica del Voto Nacional, if only for the adventurous climb through the rickety old roof for fabulous views of the city from a viewing platform on top near one of the spires.

Equator Quito

Equator Quito

Also worth visiting, although a little touristy (but good for a laugh!) is the equator visitor centre, only a few kilometres from Quito – stand on top of a painted line on the earth for a memorable, if a little corny, photo. Just don’t tell your friends and family that this isn’t “technically” the equator (they built the site in the wrong place – the true equator is a few hundred metres away!). Finally, for those that have fully acclimatised (don’t visit this if you’ve only just arrived), Quito’s “TelefériQo”, a giant gondola that travels from Quito, at 3117m above sea level, to the top of one of the valleys, at 3945m above sea level, offers excellent views of the city stretching away from you far below.

Guayaquil

Okay, so this may be a metropolis, and quite a large one at that, but if you’re going to pass through a destination (many international flights and connections to Galapagos use Guayaquil Airport), then it would be a shame not to visit the best of this city. Maybe not worth visiting for more than a couple of nights, but in that extra day or so you will be able to experience modern Ecuador – how Ecuadorian people see it and live it. Head down to the “Malecon 2000″, the walkway overlooking the Guayas River, built in 2000, lovely in the evenings.

View from Cerro Santa Ana Guayaquil at Night

View from Cerro Santa Ana Guayaquil at Night

During the day Guayaquil can be a sweaty and humid affair, but as dusk begins to set and the temperature falls this modern river-side getaway stretches for a few kilometres along the river-front, and contains many monuments, mini parks, restaurants, art displays and plenty of space for a relaxing stroll. At one end of the Malecon there is the fabulous district of “Las Penas”, which is a regenerated area of the city, full of many mini streets built up the sides of a hill, complete with perfect little art galleries, salsa bars and restaurants, and other delights abound – explore to your heart’s content! A walk along the streets of Las Penas will eventually lead up towards the hill at Cerro Santa Ana – there are fabulous views of the city below and a lighthouse at the top of the hill.

Art at Malecon Guayaquil

Art at Malecon Guayaquil

Unspoiled Beaches of Ecuador

There are many fabulous areas of South America that are not that well known by the English-speaking world. Take the beaches of Uruguay for example – very popular with Argentinians, and with Spanish wanting to escape the humdrum of Europe in the height of summer, but not really on the radar of other Europeans. The same could be said for Ecuador’s beaches, and it was tempting to not even mention the beaches on this list for fear of increasing their popularity – some places are best kept secret! The benefit of Ecuador’s beach regions, compared to many of their equivalents in the Mediterranean or other similar locations, is their relative quietness without the crowds and without high-rise hotels of purpose built resorts.

Beach at Montanita Ecuador

Beach at Montanita Ecuador

Of course, there are exceptions, with the city of Salinas being one example (a resort-town if ever there was one)… however a journey north from Salinas up Ecuador’s beautiful coastline (simply a delight at sunset) will take you past endless fishing villages, all sitting atop beautiful sandy beaches – just take your pick. Montañita, once a well-kept secret complete with lovely sandy beaches and fishing shacks serving up cold beers, has over recent years started to grow in popularity (the secret got out!), but is still worth visiting for those seeking a surfing style holiday, cheap beach-side villas, and glorious sun. As you head further north, travel along the “E15″ road and either stop wherever takes your fancy – try Mompiche, Cojimies, or countless others.

Cotopaxi in Ecuador Photo by Ainhoa Bilbao on Flickr

Cotopaxi in Ecuador

Cotopaxi National Park

There are many national parks in Ecuador, and all are probably worth a visit if you have the inclination, and time. Cotopaxi is probably the most well-known of the mainland parks, because of Cotopaxi stratovolcano that sits within the park and gives the park its name. The volcano features the beautiful symmetrical cone shape that is synonymous with volcanoes in general, and sits majestically on the Andean plateau (resembling that other equally beautiful volcano – Mount Fuji in Japan). Visitors to the national park are greeted by stunning Andean landscapes – rough tundra shrubbery, grazing llamas, indigenous farmers, sporadic farming buildings offering limited shelter – all with the sight of the giant conical volcano on the horizon. This is a landscape unlike anywhere else. The best way to experience this area is to get up close and personal with the region, and go on a horse-trekking adventure through the lands. For the brave, the volcano can be climbed on a guided climbing excursion, worth it to experience the awe-inspiring views from the top.

Horse Riding in the  Andes

Horse Riding in the Andes

Stay in a Hacienda

Not really a destination, but more of a way of life, haciendas were, and still are, large self-sufficient estates situated across much of the Ecuador mainland, around Quito and the surrounding area. Although their traditional ways have started to disappear, many of these haciendas have adapted and provide exceptional, and unique, tourism opportunities. Many excellent haciendas are close-by to Quito, so can easily be visited, and they provide an excellent way of experiencing what life might have been like for colonial people in Ecuador hundreds of years ago. The centre-piece of these large estates is usually the central mansion, some of which contain ancient Inca walls that were used in the construction of the mansions when built by the land-owners, and these mansions have been converted into wonderful and delightfully decorated accommodation.

Many thanks for this article to Jonathan, who spent time living in South America throughout 2008 and 2009, and who has travelled extensively in Ecuador. Since returning home to the UK, Jonathan has taken up photography after being inspired by the fabulous landscapes of the Andes, and works for Go Andes, a specialist holiday company that offers cruises and tours to the Galapagos Islands, as well as many other destinations through South America.

Photo Credits: Galpagos by BlinkingIdiot, Cotopaxi by Ainhoa Bilbao Other photos by Jonathan at Go Andes

For more South American stories:

Ecuador and the Amazon Rainforest
Coca tea or Cappuccino – in Peru
South America Backpacking with Indie Travel Podcast

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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A weekend in Birmingham on the Tolkien Trail

With the latest addition to The Hobbit trilogy being recently released on DVD, and the next instalment ready to grace our cinema screens in a few months, now would be a perfect time to delve a little deeper into the life of the author, JRR Tolkien. While he may have been born in South Africa in 1892, he had an affinity with the city of Birmingham since moving there at four years old and, as such, literary fans will love to explore the sights that have been linked to the writer’s Midland adventures.

The Tolkein Trilogy

The Tolkein Trilogy

It’s often believed that Middle Earth was based on the Midlands, so it’s only natural to want to see where Tolkien gained his inspiration. If you’re after a weekend break in the city so that you can see more, book with Travelodge and you won’t have to worry about spending more than your budget can allow on accommodation. The Tolkien Trail is the perfect way of exploring parts of Tolkien’s childhood, with highlights including:

Sareholl Mill in Birmingham Photo: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Sareholl Mill in Birmingham on the Tolkein Trail

  • Sarehole Mill, situated in the village of Sarehole (which is often considered to be the inspiration for Hobbiton and The Shire), is a fantastic museum that pays homage to Tolkien. It’s believed that he, and his brother, used to play for hours near the mill. It’s only open for part of the year though, so make sure you check that it’s open before you visit to avoid disappointment.
Moseley Bog in Birmingham Photo: Peter Lewis on Flickr

Moseley Bog in Birmingham

  • Moseley Bog was once a mill pool and was the site of many an adventure for Tolkien when he was a lad. Nowadays, it’s a Local Nature Reserve and a perfect addition to your Tolkien itinerary if you’re a lover of the great outdoors. You can access it via Yardley Wood Road or the Wake Green Playing Fields.
  • St Anne’s Church on Alcester Street is where Tolkien and his family used to worship. Pop by during service hours and you can enjoy the interior beauty as well as the outside.
  • Perrott’s Folly stands near to the Edgbaston Waterworks, alongside a Victorian tower that, together, are believed to be the inspiration behind the Two Towers of Gondor – which, as any Tolkien fan will know, is the name of the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Perrotts Folly in Brirmingham Photo: Tony Hidgett on Flickr

Perrotts Folly in Birmingham on the Tolkein trail

Whether you wish to head off on your own adventure, discovering these places and more, or you prefer to embark upon a Middle Earth tour with the help of a tour guide, the Tolkien trail is a must for any fan of this fantasy writer. These tours operate at various times during the year, so keep an eye on the Midlands Discovery Tours site if you fancy being part of the next one – you can sign up to receive email notification of when tickets for the next tour go on sale, and it’s recommended you do so, because they sell fast!

If you can’t wait for the next tour, there’s no reason why you can’t venture out on your own to see where the inspiration for Tolkien’s amazing literary works evolved. Incorporate it into your visit to Birmingham and learn more about Tolkien’s roots in The Midlands.

This article was brought to you in partnership with Travelodge.

Photo Credits: Sarehole Mill by Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Moseley Bog by Peter Lewis, Perrott’s Folly by Tony Hisgett, Tolkein Trilogy from TheHobbit.com

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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Celebrating Labor Day Weekend at Fiesta Hermosa in Southern California

In this article our guest writer, Sophie Couwenbergh shares her experiences at Fiesta Hermosa in Southern California that takes place over the Labor Day weekend on Hermosa Beach, featuring live music, fish tacos and hippie underwear.

When I was researching my first trip to Los Angeles in 2012, I found out that we would be there during Labor Day Weekend. I thought it would be fun to experience some of the festivities held during that weekend. After some more research a friend and I decided to go to Fiesta Hermosa and we had so much fun that I even decided to go back when I was in LA for another trip last year.

Fiesta Hermosa was organized for the first time in 1972 and has since been the largest arts and crafts fair in Southern California. The festival takes place every Memorial Day and Labor Day Weekend (Saturday, Sunday and Monday), right by Hermosa Beach. The stands are stretched out over Hermosa Avenue (from 10th St. until 14th ST.) and Pier Avenue (from Palm Dr. until Pier Plaza). Here you can find anything from jewelry over clothes to paintings.

Hermosa beach in Los Angeles Photo: Wonderfulwanderings.com

Hermosa beach in Los Angeles

Plenty of food and entertainment

That’s not all that Fiesta Hermosa has to offer, though. There are also two stages – one at Pier Plaza and one at the Charity Beer & Wine Garden at 11th Street – where live bands play different kinds of music all day long. Last year we saw a Beatles tribute band performing at the main stage.

Beatles tribute band at Fiesta Hermosa Photo: WonderfulWanderings.com

Beatles tribute band at Fiesta Hermosa

Although there are enough bars and restaurants in the festival area to grab a bite, Fiesta Hermosa also has its own food court with stands offering tastes from all over the world. There’s pizza, fries, Mexican food and I later learned that the Hermosa Beach lifeguards even have a fish taco stand there. I somehow missed that, otherwise I would have definitely gone for a fish taco. I did see the Holy-Guaca-Moly stand and got a sample of their nachos with guacamole. Yum!

Holy-Guaca-Moly stall at Fiesta Hermosa Photo: WonderfulWanderings.com

Holy-Guaca-Moly stall at Fiesta Hermosa

By the way, right next to the food court you’ll also find Fiesta Hermosa’s ‘kids department’ with different rides and games, just like a mini carnival.

We didn’t have lunch at the food court but instead decided to head back to this small place at Pier Plaza where we had a coffee in the morning. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the name but it was about two shops away from a big clothing store selling surf brands like Rip Curl. When you enter there’s a counter at the left and some tables to the right. Pier Plaza isn’t that long, so I’m sure you’ll find it. This place has fresh orange juice, a multitude of coffees and teas and it serves great quiches. I liked it because it was much less crowded (because it was such a tiny place) and noisy than the other places in that area and if you manage to get a seat outside you’ll be ideally placed for some people watching.

Fiesta Hermosa highlights

I found this cute little cupcake shop quite by accident. Some of the stand owners were talking about it and while they weren’t selling cupcakes outside, the shop was actually right behind one of the stands. I always have to get a cupcake when I find some abroad.

We loved this stand full of hippie colored clothes, including underwear, and just had to get a picture of this. Luckily the stand owner thought we were funny.

Left: Cup cake at Hermosa Beach Right: Hippie Underwear at Fiesta Hermosa

Left: Cup cake at Hermosa Beach Right: Hippie Underwear at Fiesta Hermosa

I don’t know if this is typical for the Californian coastline, but we saw such cool bikes at Hermosa Beach, such cool models, in all possible colors. If I could’ve taken one home with me (meaning: if it wouldn’t have cost a fortune to do so), I would have.

Bikes at Hermosa Beach Photo: WildWanderings.com

Bikes at Hermosa Beach

Practical information for Fiesta Hermosa

Be aware that Fiesta Hermosa is a daytime festival. It starts at 10 am and finishes at 6pm, except for the Beer Garden, which is open until 7 pm. Glass and plastic containers are recycled and the plates and cutlery used at the food court are all either recyclable or compostable. Fiesta Hermosa is green! The buses that bring in visitors as well as the generators that supply power for the festival run on biodiesel.

If you want to visit Fiesta Hermosa you could drive there, but I don’t know if you’d easily find a parking spot. Parking in Los Angeles is tough, with different parking restrictions on every block and pretty high fines if you don’t keep to those restrictions. That’s why I love Fiesta Hermosa’s shuttle bus system. You can park your car at the Northrop Grumman Building O4 at 15092 Aviation Blvd. (near the intersection of Aviation Blvd and Marine Street in Manhattan Beach) for free and then take a shuttle bus (also for free!) to the festival area.

The buses drive constantly between Fiesta Hermosa and the parking lot from 7.30 am to 7.30 pm. I made use of the shuttle system both times I visited Fiesta Hermosa and I’m glad I did. No stress searching for a parking spot and the bus drops you off right where the fair begins. (Note: dogs aren’t allowed on the shuttle buses.)

What else is there to do at Hermosa Beach?

If you’re in the area during Labor Day weekend you should definitely spend a day at Fiesta Hermosa, but even if you’re in Los Angeles another time of the year, this beach town is worth a visit. Even when there’s no fair you’ll be able to do some shopping on Pier Avenue. It’s not like spending an afternoon on Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, but there are some nice boutiques there. If you walk down Pier Avenue you’ll get to the beach. A nice big stretch of sand where you can catch some sun and watch people play volleyball on one of the beach volley terrains.

Often there are also some surfers out in the water, working on their best tricks in the hopes of getting a spot on the Surfer’s Walk of Fame. You can find this collection of surfer names engraved in bronze plaques on the Hermosa Pier.

Surfers Walk of Fame

Surfers Walk of Fame

If you’d like to get active yourself you can mingle with all the runners, bikers and walkers on The Strand. This beachfront sidewalk is also great for some people watching. And if you happen to be in Hermosa Beach on a Sunday, you might want to check out the Comedy and Magic Club. Jay Leno often performs here on Sunday nights to try out new material.

Bio-PhotoMany thanks to our guest author, Sofie Couwenbergh, a Belgian language lover and travel aficionada who combines a full-time job with a never-ending wanderlust and an upcoming freelance business. She uses her weekends, vacation days and public holidays to travel the world and share her experiences with you on Wonderful Wanderings. Be sure to follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com - Read the original article here

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