Posts tagged ‘Ecuador’
High in the mountains above Quito there is a party kicking off. Stalls have been setting up around the main square all day and as the sun sets vendors start to display their wares. Quail eggs, meat skewers, beef saltado and vast pots filled with curries, rice and spaghetti sizzle, boil and spit along the pathways. The overwhelming smell however, is that of a sweet tea that is brewed with rum and dished out in tiny paper cups for 30c a pop.
Known mainly as the host town for South America’s biggest market, Otavalo is gearing up to prove over the three-day fiesta del Yamor, that it has other tricks in its bag. Stationary shops around the square have traded in their erasers and staplers for crates of beer, vats of rum-spiked tea and long tables. Their interiors are crowded with several generations of the same family – kids chasing the dog around the store, Mum scolding whilst stirring the immense pot and Nan smiling knowingly from her chair.
The centre of the proceedings is the huge stage that has been erected beside the cathedral on the main square. There bands spew forth a mix of salsa rhythms, panpipe tunes and well-known South American ballads before they are hustled off the stage to make space for the all-important election of the fiesta queen.
Being the only gringos in town, just crossing the square is proving to be a bit of an event for us. Within that 100m distance I am accosted by a teenaged boy wanting to salsa and an old man with a twinkle in his eye who promises to show me a thing or two. Inches to the left of me a young girl in the traditional floor length, one sleeve pinafore is getting handsy with her Diesel jeans-clad boyfriend while her parents exchange pained glances.
Despite the party atmosphere though, Otavalo’s primary attraction is still the vast market that fills a five block radius every Saturday morning. True to form, at around 6am while the rest of the city is still in a beer coma and while the more hardcore party-goers are struggling to fit the right key in their front door, the protagonists in the weekly show are quietly setting the stage.
Men in shorts and ponchos with long, swinging plaits help their wives to set up the metal frames of their stalls while children play drowsily under wooden tables. Over the day they will play quietly in the wings, watching and learning before taking over in the early afternoon when their parents go in search of dinner. Under strict instructions they strike a hard bargain, taking no less than US50c for a rope bracelet, $15 for an original artwork or $2 for that last chirping duckling.
When the people of Otavalo do finally arise and throw on last night’s poncho they will find solace in the food market where every wink and nudge will be discussed over crispy pig rind, fresh fruit juice and fried entrails. Finally they will build up the energy to wander the streets haggling for the week’s groceries and some new cotton underware, stopping every few minutes to chatter to a neighbour or coo over a tightly-swaddled baby.
Before they know it another Saturday will have passed in a whirl of woolen hats, maybe alpaca jumpers, Panama hats, cotton hammocks, hand-carved guitars, logo tshirts and roadside lunches. The stalls will be quickly packed up and carried back to hillside villages. The pails of coconut milk emptied out. All that will be left of the day’s business will be empty food containers and plastic bags fluttering in the afternoon breeze and a handful of dazed tourists wondering if they really just saw that.
There are more pictures of Otavalo available in the gallery
When compared with the rest of South America’s major cities Quito seems to shrink into the shadows. Its elevated sprawl is dwarfed by that of La Paz in Bolivia, its colonial beauty belittled by Arequipa in Peru, its churches unremarkable next to those of Córdoba in Argentina, its Incan importance miniscule after a visit to Cusco in Peru and who could dare to take on the all-night madness of Buenos Aires’s nightlife? Indeed it seems that beautiful, historical, fun Quito is a little unmemorable when considered on a wider scale.
That’s not to say that Quito isn’t worth a visit though. In fact, its the city’s lack of airs and graces that make it such a worthwile destination. Despite extensive renovations and careful conservation, Quito’s old town – a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site – still has the feel of a regular work-a-day city. All the colourful, ornate old colonial buildings are still inhabited, many used for their original purposes and the citizens seem rather nonchalant about their surroundings. Shops selling ovens, televisions, washing-machines and motorbikes(?) are tucked into the front of listed buildings and sit alongside plastic furniture restaurants and laundrettes. So unpretentious is it in fact, that it is possible to take a guided tour of the still-functional Presidential Palace without appointment – a rarity in self-important South America. And much like the rest of Ecuador, Quito welcomes its visitors with outstretched arms (when we were walking down the street one day a man leaned out of the window and screamed “Welcome to Quito!” at us).
One feature of the city that you won’t forget in a hurry however, is Basílica del Voto Nacional. Regal at the top of one of Quito’s many cobble-street hills, the gothic towers of the church provide unparalelled panoramic views of the city which is nestled at the base of the Andes. The only problem is that in order to glimpse these views you first have to climb several winding stone staircases, cross a creaking elevated wooden walkway and tackle several narrow iron ladders – two of which are wide open to the elements and hang hundreds of metres above the flagstones below. The beautiful pavillion at the top of the tower is worth every sweaty, pants-soiling moment though. If you don’t have the stomach for heights, Basílica del Voto Nacional is still worth a look for its incredibly simple but surprisingly restful interior.
Another of Quito’s many appeals is its central location within spitting distance of many of the country’s top attractions. Within two hours of leaving the city you can zipline into cloud forest, climb a still-active volcano, navigate a volcanic lagoon or stradle the equator. Have you ever noticed that Ecuador is the Spanish for equator by the way? Considering how many tourists board buses towards the equator every day, it is surprising how many leave without ever actually seeing it. Mitad del Mundo is where everyone heads first to snap photos of the big red line painted on the ground and to pose in front of the huge monument. After an overpriced lunch and perhaps a quick trip to the observatory, most hop back on their bus and towards Quito. Far fewer exit the facility, take a left and walk 300m down road.
For those that do spare the extra time, a much more interesting experience awaits. As it turns out, the original monument and red line are located 300m away from the real equator as mapped by modern GPS systems (blame the French – the locals do.) Obviously once noticed the problem had to be rectified but rather than move the whole shebang a little down the road, the government decided to build a much less advertised, more reasonably priced museum to mark the point. Here as well as balancing an egg on a nail and watching water flush in opposite directions on either side of the equator, you can learn a little about Ecuadorian history – from how to make a shrunken head to seeing replicas of the different houses and weapons used by various peoples throughout the country’s history.
While it may not have the highest altitude, the prettiest churches or the most important historical sites, Quito by day is an attractive city in which it is very easy to feel at home. And after travelling for a while sometimes you just need to go visit a place where there is no obligation to tick off lists – just somewhere pretty to have a cup of coffee and watch the world go by.
There are more pictures from Quito available in the gallery
We didn’t really go straight from Cusco to Baños. First we spent a little time lying by a pool in scorching Mancora in Northern Peru with our three new friends – two of which, Darragh and Elaine from Dublin, we had stolen from Mark and one of which, Will from Ascot, had stumbled into our gang by mistake thinking for all the world that he was going straight to Columbia. We told him that he wasn’t. We reckoned we deserved a bit of down time after Colca Canyon and the Lares Trek although what really happened in/on that bar in Loki after a few too many rum squishies is a story for an entirely different blog.
What would fit in this blog was our next (very brief) stop at Cuenca in southern Ecuador. Cuenca was the town that gave us the first indication of just how great Ecuador was going to be. There we learned just how friendly Ecuadorians are, how fun it was to walk all day amongst tiny mafia Don lookalikes, and just how lovely low key colonial buildings could be. And get this, in Ecuador there is no gringo price – just the same reasonable charge everyone else is paying with a big old welcoming smile. Yep, Ecuador was going to be good.
The move from Cuenca to Baños was as good an example as any of how diverse this tiny country is. In a matter of hours we traded flat colonial splendour for a small, hotch-potch town plonked above the Amazon and surrounded by mountains and waterfalls. On a Sunday afternoon it was thronged with people. Women roasted guinea pigs on spits in streetside restaurants, kids clutched onto the strings of their Spiderman balloons, men in sweetshops expertly pulled taffy before a captive audience – hanging it off a wooden peg on the wall, stretching it and then casually looping it back on itself, a big sugary lasoo.
Baños had more to offer than just a seaside town atmosphere though. The list of adventure sports on offer was as long as your arm – ziplining, white water rafting, quad biking, canoeing, hiking and rock climbing to name but a few. We decided on one of the less adrenaline charged (and less expensive options), cycling. It was all downhill we were assured by the rental company. An easy cycle down into the depths of the dense cloud forest past waterfalls and across rivers and through some of the most beautiful scenery the area had to offer. It sounded just marvellous.
Now might be a good time to mention that we only hired four bikes. Having twisted his ankle two weeks ago Darragh was still on crutches – living proof that you should never go to a South American hospital unless completely necessary. Instead of an x-ray and a lollipop, the staff had insisted that Darragh stay overnight to rest his ankle, housing him in their most exclusive room, sticking a cast on his leg and furnishing him with a newly bought set of toiletries – all courtesy of his insurance of course. And the gang that removed the cast a week later weren’t a whole lot better, insisting that the antedote to his particular problem was an injection in the bum and some expensive drugs. So Darragh, good sport that he is, was resting his broken slightly twisted ankle in the lovely Plantos y Blanco hostel while we pedalled our way into the Amazon.
Well as it turns out, cloud forest is so called because it is constantly in the clouds, usually drizzly and always humid. Also, we were quickly learning that “all downhill” actually meant mostly uphill.
Never mind, the cycle was every inch as beautiful as we had been promised. The road, cut out of the mountain, was surrounded by thick foliage – short squat palm trees and Amazonian giants – and ran alongside a river that sometimes murmered far below us and sometimes thundered only feet away.
There were plenty of stops for our tired/unfit legs too. Every few kilometers we would come to a huge majestic valley where we would dismount and pay $1 to ride a cable car down to the valley floor and to the base of a huge waterfall. The best was Pailon Falls where we were able to climb in behind the roaring beast or face it head on on the splash deck. The further we cycled the less tourists we saw and the thicker the forest became. After one blessed twenty minute downhill spiral we found ourselves pedalling past a tiny clapboard village and into a huge open valley. Awestruck, it finally hit us. We really were in the Amazon. Unfortunately that was about as far as our legs would take us so after 40km and with 20km left before our intended end point, Puyo, we finally gave up and hailed a bus back to Baños.
The next morning we discovered another of Baños’s famous assets – the hot springs. The natural springs are the origin of the town’s name and the best hangover activity ever. In fact they were so good that we had to do them twice in one day. From our favourite spot in the hot pool we couldn’t see the town at all, just the patchwork mountains that surrounded us and the waterfall that crashed down only metres away, feeding the freezing showers and cold pool. If only we could ignore the octogenarians making out in the corner and the large man in the speedos who was inadvertently exposing himself it would have been almost romantic. There must be something in the water…
There are more pictures from Baños available in the gallery