Encountering Ecuador

September 2, 2016

We came to Ecuador, our last country on nearly a year of travel, with zero plans.  I had not even begun to read our guidebook on this destination until we were on a bus within its perimeter. Our border crossing and subsequent onward transportation plans fell on a holiday (unbeknownst to ourselves) which meant that our first impressions of general organization when buying a bus ticket were dismally low.  Standing in long lines for over an hour, with equally frustrated and anxious travelers, mired in confusion about IF the queue was the “right” one to begin with, didn’t get us off to a great start. We were starting to panic that we might not even get out of Ecuador’s questionable border town and on our way to Otavalo that same evening. Thankfully, we eventually garnered tickets at at least three times the price we had been used to paying in Colombia, and made it to our destination in the dark of night.  Dropped off on the side of the highway, we cautiously crossed into what appeared to be the direction of the city, starving for some sustenance and assurance of safety.

As it was our first night in a new country, I used this fact as an excuse to bump up our accommodation budget, and reserved our stay in a very comfortable guesthouse called Hostal Curinan. Situated up a steep hillside, we were rewarded with a glittering vista of Otavalo’s city center twinkling below, and a comfortable family room with four individual beds covered in colorful Ecuadorian textiles.  The children were ecstatic that the owners had a house mascot, Valentina, the fluffy, playful dog, and comfortable spaces for them to run and play.

Arriving late on Sunday, meant that we missed the Saturday Market, Otavalo’s most famous weekly event and opportunity to stock up on indigenous artisanal products. At least one-third of the towns streets, fanning out from the main Plaza de los Ponchos, are closed to automobiles and filled with stalls selling everything from woven blankets, silver and beaded jewelry, musical instruments, woolen sweaters, leather & fabric purses, finely painted wooden trays and frames, dried spices and fresh veggies, and cheap touristic souvenirs. Although we did not witness this full-scale production of commerce, a smaller version of the market continues every day, with the second largest market scheduled on Wednesdays. We are definitely not big shoppers on the road.  When you carry the weight of your possessions on your back it makes you think good and hard about adding any unnecessary items to your load.  Here we were, with almost two more months to go, faced with some of the best gift shopping we were likely to encounter. The pressure was too much.  We succumbed to temptation and bought some little presents for our California family.

Other than strolling through scenic plazas, eating our share of corn, potatoes and quinoa, and haggling for goods, we planned excursions to the immediate surrounding countryside, for hikes and contemplation.  The new, crisp temperatures of higher altitude had us breathing deeply and applauding the fresh air.  Big blue skies would open up, revealing volcanic peaks, and shining bright sunlight on the rolling green farms below. The weather was erratic, clear one hour, then rippling with fast-moving rain clouds within mere minutes.  Ill-prepared for this type of sudden change, our first day hiking left us vulnerable to the elements.  The day started with warmth and vast heavens of true blue. Occasional puffy white clouds passed in the distance, as we began a four-hour hike around the edge of a water-filled caldera, Lake Cuicocha.  Halfway through our fast-paced trek, stopping only to take ANOTHER photo of the same lagoon, different angle, and we were bribing the kids to “keep up” with promises of sugary treats or laptop movies.  The clouds appeared to be gathering quickly and ominously grey. “Pick up the pace!” we entreated, “Looks like rain is on its way.”  Without a droplet to complain of, but the temperature dropping, we circumnavigated most of the Andean caldera and exited through a wheat field to a paved side road. Concerned about the weather, we hitchhiked a quick ride down the road in the back of an agricultural truck, but due to a language misunderstanding, we were let off far from the park’s entry, where we had a prearranged taxi pickup. Within minutes, the wind picked up, and a CRAZY hail storm descended upon us. Quarter-size pellets were hammering on our heads and body, hurting Stella’s ears and leading to tears. Hail soon changed to icy slush, then torrential rain, thoroughly saturating our clothes and chilling our bodies.  Walking as briskly as we could, teeth chattering, and rain drops clouding our vision, we finally made out a distant shelter.  There, we encountered another couple doing likewise, as they had been traveling via motorbike, and we all stomped away trying to huff heat back into our frozen hands and limbs.  After waiting hopelessly for over a half hour, we finally flagged down another car to drive us to the spot for our taxi rendezvous. Finally warming up, safely in the cabin of the car, we drove into dry and sunny Otavalo, blissfully free of stormy weather.

Not wanting to be caught out in another unexpected storm, our next excursion was to the nearer Parque Condor. Here we encountered rehabilitated Andean birds, such as condors, eagles, hawks, owls and falcons, and watched a spanish demonstration on their flight and hunting accuracy.

After our first soft stop in Ecuador, we headed to the populous and sprawling capital of Quito.  This became a transit point in our Ecuadorian travels many times over the course of the next 6 weeks. I will encapsulate those stories all in one coming post, but I do want to end with another  destination that actually falls between Otavalo and Quito – La Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World).

Ecuador’s name is the spanish word for equator, because the equatorial divide/line runs specifically through this country (in addition to Colombia and Brazil in South America).  Much is made of the original 18th century expedition of French scientists, on their Geodesic Mission to Ecuador, in order to determine the exact location of the equator. This exact latitude was once again confirmed in the late 19th century, using new, more advanced tools for measurement. The surprising discovery was just how close to accurate the original study was. In commemoration of this significant scientific undertaking and the results, a monument to the center of the world was built at Mitad del Mundo.  What is really screwed up about this landmark, that millions of people flock to for that quintessential staged photo on the equatorial line, is that the location is NOT accurate. The monument is about 240 meters away from the true equator.  I did not find anywhere at the sight that addresses this known fact, while hundreds of fellow tourists were posing in blissful ignorance.  Dan loathed the expense, commercialization and Disneyland-like packaging of the Ecuadorian culture that we encountered here, but he was most angered by the misconception of the true location of the equator that it brushed over.  The only honesty that we found was in the small museum that dispelled some of the rumors about the equator, such as the direction that water will spin and drain down a flushed toilet, depending on proximity, or the ease of balancing an egg on a nail.  If you would feel equally duped by visiting the Mitad del Mundo park, there is an alternative. Go to the Intinan Solar Museum (something we did not do) and see the “real” line. Of course, with GPS, even this is now disputed and might be another tourist trap!

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  • Reply Julie j September 9, 2016 at 9:18 am

    If you like pins coladas, getting caught in the rain

  • Reply Kristina September 9, 2016 at 5:08 pm

    Guinea pig: it’s what’s for dinner. (Brought to you by the National Small Furry Animal Council)

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