Ecuador, Week 7+

Our final week and a bit. Thus a long post. Full of extreme adventure (and shopping!)

Saturday, Feb. 27

Time to leave the coast and head back inland for our final week and a bit before flying home. We’re up early and hear a bus horn sounding from the main street in Mompiche. We were told there was an 8am bus but it’s coming on 7am and we race out the door. The conductor sees us coming and holds the bus while we cart our luggage down the dusty road. We’ve heard that we can make it to Mindo in a day, without having to spend a night in either Esmeraldas or Santa Domingo and we’re going for it. A morning mist hangs in the valleys.

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We spend half an hour in Esmeraldas between buses and then we start inland, gradually rising into the Andes. As we get closer to Mindo we ascend into the mist and rain. We’re let off at the crossroads with five other people and we all load into an SUV for a crowded, bumpy ride into town. Sue and I are dropped at Las Luciernaga where Willy greets us with “Welcome home!”. We’re only there for a couple of nights but it does feel like a homecoming. When we wander into town for a meal we first bump into Patricia, who’d joined us for a day on the Quilatoa Loop, and then a UK couple we’d also met on the Loop. I was also reunited with my Gore-Tex jacket, a handy thing in rain soaked Mindo.

Sunday, February 28

After a day on the bus we needed to walk so meandered out of town to the Mariposas de Mindo, a hostel and butterfly farm. Although we’d seen butterflies in the wild we’d heard about this great opportunity to see several varieties in one place and also see the stages of butterfly development. And it was way easier to get good photos in the enclosed environment (I’d not had a lot of luck photographing butterflies in the wild).

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After leaving there we spent the rest of the day walking around parts of Mindo we’d missed on our previous visit, including a walk along a lane with a wonderful variety of plants.

 

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Monday, February 29

The next morning we managed a quick walk before catching the bus. Along the way we saw this huge wasp nest up a tree. It looked to be almost two feet long and we could see little specks hovering around it.

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We’d decided to go to Otavalo for five nights, making it our base for highlands north of Quito and for our last shopping spree before leaving. Once again on the bus ride to Quito I was amazed at how quickly the vegetation changed and then from Quito to Otavalo at the rugged, dry landscape.

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However, as we move north the landscape becomes greener again. This is where much of Ecuador’s flower production happens, in huge greenhouses. Ecuador is the world’s third largest exporter of cut flowers, about 75% of which are roses.

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In Otavalo we stay at the Flying Donkey; a hostel with very cool interior design and great staff. One issue we’ve had this trip is with the Lonely Planet Ecuador guidebook. Besides most prices being out-of-date (which is understandable, even for the most recent issue) quite a few reviews sound like the writers haven’t visited for a while. The Flying Donkey is a case in point: LP states there’s no lounge area (the shared kitchen has a large lounge area plus there’s a rooftop terrace and a small lounge area by the front desk); LP says the hostel is noisy (not true; we had a street facing room and the noise was totally within reason. For a downtown hostel it was actually fairly quiet. Even the Andean music from down the street on Friday night was quite lovely and shutdown before midnight). End of rant. (I’ll list some great websites we used in my summary of our Ecuador trip.)

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After about 5 hours on buses we were a bit hungry. Lonely Planet mentions there’s a lack of restaurants in Otavalo, despite its tourism economy. Sure enough, we did have a bit of a time finding one that was open. But when we found one it became our go-to eatery: Sabor Vazco (the link is to maps.google – I think the restaurant is so new there is a lack of info on the net.)

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For the first time in Ecuador we abandoned local cuisine and succumbed to pizza (the above pic is of our last breakfast in Otavalo). What really hooked us was a juice they gave us to sample and we loved: ginger, lemon and mint (we drank it by the pitcher).

Otavalo is surrounded by three volcanic peaks: Imbabura, Cotacachi and Mojanda. Unfortunately we never clearly saw any of the peaks due to the clouds, although we had some tempting glimpses.

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We had decided to spend five nights in Otavalo. Our primary reason was to shop; Otavalo is famous for its Saturday morning market which takes over about a third of the town, sprawling from its host square into neighbouring streets. We figured by arriving earlier in the week we could get some shopping done before the hordes arrived by the busload from Quito on Saturday (we were proved right). Also we thought the town would be a good base from which to explore the surrounding highlands (right again!).

Tuesday, March 1

The best laid travel plans can be waylaid by illness. Tuesday morning and Sue is under the weather with a cold we suspect she picked up in Mompiche (thanks to a coughing server maybe). She snoozes while I do a recon of the neighbourhood, find the market and pick up a town map. Later in the day we both get out and start getting a grip on the overwhelming selection of goods available. And discovering what a laid-back, friendly place Otavalo is, despite massive tourism. The town and surrounding area is home to a large indigenous population who have become very successful at producing and selling textiles (Otavalo), leather goods (Cotacachi) and woodworks (San Antonio). The indigenous people have a distinctive style: the women wear incredible embroidered shirts, multiple stranded gold beads, layered dresses and the men generally have long, braided hair.

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Wednesday, March 2

My turn: I wake up woozy and spend the morning with cold shakes. I spend most of the day sleeping while Sue picks up drugs for me and checks out the markets. By the end of the day I’m feeling much better.

Thursday, March 3

Time to get out of town and explore. We decide to visit Peguche which is only a few kilometres away (just in case either of us has a relapse). We take a taxi to the waterfalls which are located in a lovely park. On our way to the falls we discover the campground which features interesting huts and pyramid-shaped concrete structures on top of which one can have a campfire.

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We first stop at the bottom of the falls. A fine mist blows towards us (as you can see it coated my camera lens filter).

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Then we walk to the top of the falls where we discover an interesting alcove eroded into the rock. When we look into it we find a very short tunnel. By using my camera flash I follow it around a corner and pop out about 3 or 4 metres upstream from the alcove.

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I return and Sue checks it out:

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After exploring the park we walk to the village of Peguche, where we had read there were numerous textile workshops. Sure enough there are but many are closed and we only find one gallery open. We do hear looms rattling away in buildings and see signs of a busy industry.

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Although it’s raining off and on we decide to walk out of the village and into the hills to visit the Parque Condor, a bird rehabilitation centre.

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Yes, that’s an Andean Condor. It was huge. Its wingspan was in the neighbourhood of 3 metres. Although we really prefer to see wildlife in the wild we sometimes succumbed to opportunities to see what we could in sanctuaries or rehabilitation  centres. We saw a selection of really interesting birds including a Harpy Eagle and a Stygian Owl. The Parque Condor presented us with an ambiguous experience. On one hand it does provide a refuge and rehabilitates birds which, when possible, are re-introduced to the wild. None of the birds have been taken directly from the wild to the park but are rescued from poachers or illegal environments. On the other hand they have a link with falconry and do flight exhibitions using birds which we saw chained to perches. Although we were visiting at a time when we could have stayed to see the demonstrations seeing two Bald Eagles chained prompted us to leave. We live in an area where there are many Bald Eagles and I’ve had the experience of helping rescue an injured Eagle, and then sitting with it while it warmed up before sending it along to a raptor rescue centre. However, I thought I would get a close-up photo of one of the Eagles at Parque Condor. As I focused on the bird it turned its head away from me. I took that as a sign that the Eagle had enough with tourists and cameras.

We walked back along the stone road, enjoying the view and discussing our feelings.

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The clouds drifted off and there it was! A volcano peak! Weary but happy we flagged a camionetta (truck taxi) and were soon back in Otavalo.

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Friday, March 4

This was our last day for some hiking and we decided on Laguna Cuicocha which is about a half hour ride from Otavalo (via Cotacachi). We were dropped at the park info centre and started on the trail around the volcanic lake rim from there. A mist hung over the scene but we decided to start out on the trail (we knew it would take about 4-5 hours to complete the trail – more on this as we progress) and see how things shaped up. A feature of the crater lake are the two islands, formed by a lava flow. Hence its name, Cuicocha, which translates as ‘Guinea Pig’, referring to their humped back shape.

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We loved this hike. The combination of mist, which came and went, the varying landscape and vegetation was fairytale-like. And after a few days in town, sometimes not feeling so great, it was wonderful walking in the fresh air, re-experiencing that Andean feeling.

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Yep, that’s the trail disappearing into the mist.

We were unsure whether this plant was coming into bloom or going out of. Whichever, the blue was stunning.

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The sun started to break through the mist as we hit the high points of the rim.

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At some points we were walking through high grasses, typical of paramo (a high altitude ecosystem).

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Other times we’d be in high-walled channels, similar to some of our Quilatoa Loop walk.

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As we walked the incredible views forced me to stop and take yet another photo or two.

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The trail did not always follow the rim but sometimes went further back, avoiding steep bluffs or dangerous sandy edges. When it went down the vegetation radically changed.

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This plant is over two metres high. The lake is located in Reserva Ecologica Cotacachi – Cayapas, a protected zone.

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So there we were, enjoying the trail, the lovely views, everything…

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… when we encountered a sign directing us off to the right along a fenced in path, through what looked like a pine beetle devastated area.

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And the next thing we know we’re being dumped onto a paved road. The cow obviously had the right idea (“get me off this road”). We spent the next hour walking on the hard, hard pavement; trying to figure out when we could return to the rim trail. Never. We eventually came to a crossroads, one road going back to the park entrance. We caught a taxi back to Cotacachi, sad that our wonderful hike had so brutally come to an end.

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Cotacachi is renown for its leather products. After refreshing with juice we took a stroll around the leather craft stores. My love of all things bovine though interfered with my shopping instincts (you may have noted my daughter’s astonished comment on an earlier post where I confessed to eating my first hamburger in about 20 years).

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Saturday, March 5

Our last day in Otavalo and its Market Day. We’re up early, packed and ready to go after our last shopping spree. All week we’d been accumulating goodies to take home: scarves, hats, trinkets and assorted Stuff. I go for breakfast and then hit the streets. Vendors are everywhere. I’ve got my camera strapped to my wrist for quick action shots. A curious small dog gives it a sniff and I hit the shutter… (Ecuadorian dogs come in a wonderful variety, from tiny to huge).

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We start at one end of the market, the smallish food section…

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… but quickly enter the fray of textiles, textiles and more textiles.

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I have a weakness for T-shirts and spend some time negotiating with this patient man.

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We’ve spent so much time shopping though, and the tour buses are disgorging touristic masses, that we start up the street, back towards the Flying Donkey. But some bowls catch Sue’s eye and she does a deal with the vendor (who obligingly poses for a photo while I sort out camera settings).

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And then we’re on the bus, back to Quito, back to Aleida’s Hostal for our last couple of nights before flying home. Back to Frida’s (remember Frida’s? The amazing Margaritas?).

Sunday, March 6

Sunday morning. The perfect time for an art museum. We take a bus to the Bellavista district and walk uphill, past apartment towers and into the high residential area where Fundación Guayasamín is located.

 

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The site consists of two buildings, and the grounds. One building is La Capilla del Hombre (The Chapel of Man), featuring the artwork of Oswaldo Guayasamín, one of Ecuador’s premier artists (he passed away in 1999). The other is his home, carefully preserved just as it was when he passed. I was not able to photograph inside either building but a web search of his work will show the artwork of a man of great talent. Although obviously influenced by Picasso Guayasamín was a very talented, dedicated and energetic artist. He was a mestizo (mixed race) artist who focussed on the history and suffering of Latin Americans. Some very powerful paintings are housed in this building. Unfortunately many of his works sold outside of Ecuador so only a limited selection are available to be seen in Quito. Fortunately Guayasamín realized this before his death and bequeathed what works he had to the state and had La Capilla del Hombre constructed to house many of them.

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La Capilla del Hombre features a light shaft piercing the centre of the roof which goes down to a giant bowl with an ‘eternal flame’ (made of cloth) in the middle. At the equinox the sun’s rays pass directly through the shaft. We joined an excellent tour of the museum, given by a woman who obviously knew, and enjoyed, Guayasamín’s work.

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His home, situated just above La Capilla del Hombre houses Guayasamín’s large personal collection of art and antiques (including many of Goya’s The Disasters of War prints). In his studio I longed to pick up his brushes. To have that much space to work! We watched a video of Guayasamín painting a portrait of Paco de Lucía, which stood on an easel just behind us.

We returned to our neighbourhood in search of a late lunch and walked to the adjoining Mariscal  District where many of the backpacker hostels and bars are located. Being a Sunday it was eerily deserted. The Casa Quebecua was closed so no poutine for us.

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We found a Tex-Mex restaurant open, with reasonable prices, and returned to our room happy with our day.

Monday, March 7

This is it. Our last day in Ecuador. Our bags are packed and tucked away for pick-up in the evening.

There was one museum we’d been unable to find before but now we had good directions and so walked to the north end of Mariscal to El Museo Etnohistórico de Artesanías del Ecuador “Mindalae” , which features the work of the indigenous peoples of Ecuador. Once again I was stunned by the design of a building – this one smaller than La Capilla del Hombre, but also exquisitely designed.

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It too had a light shaft going from the roof to the lowest floor. The photo below shows the opening in the top floor, which housed displays of shamanic objects.

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The stairwell also reflected the same design principle. The light shaft or tunnel features in many indigenous peoples’ structures (e.g. the kivas of the Puebloan people of the American SouthWest).

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I was fascinated by the similarities and differences of the works of Ecuadorian indigenous groups and to those of North American tribes.

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And then there were the hats…

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I’ve developed a real weakness for Ecuadorian hats. If I hadn’t already bought a hat in Otavalo and had room for more in my luggage I would’ve gone on a hat buying binge. Next time…

As it was we walked towards the historic centre of Quito for a last visit and along the way found a small market with mostly tools and other utilitarian objects. And there I saw stacks of vinyl, one of my weaknesses. Once again due to space I could only buy one 45.

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We walked and walked and popped into a couple of churches (including La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús aka The Golden Church, renown for its extensive interior coating of gold leaf – no photos allowed). But eventually we wearied and had to face the fact our time in Ecuador was rapidly coming to an end. We grabbed a last meal (a last meal of pollo, aka chicken) and then taxied out to the airport. We were there by 9pm for our 2am flight (where else could we go with all our luggage?) and then…

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… yep, that’s us: American Airlines to DFW. Delayed. Now leaving at 4:25.

Well, we eventually made it home. About 14 hours later than we planned but that’s air travel for you. We’re home. The sun’s come out finally (it has been raining for over 24 hours). We climbed our local mountain (ha ha) and discovered it was a cruise after the Andes. And I have my Mac back so I can make Huge Posts easily ;0)

A summary will be posted very soonish!

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