I’m writing you now from a quiet and (relatively speaking) boring location, my own bedroom! I say “boring,” but I must admit it’s welcomingly so, after the near-perpetual excitement of sound and color that was/is Ecuador. Yesterday was a truly ugly flying day as well, stretching from 4:30 am Tuesday to 1:30 am Wednesday, from literally one side of the world to another. So it’s nice to be here at home, rested and feeling good. Apparently I’m supposed to “get a job” and “get on with my life” now, but, I’ve never been much for getting on with anything, so we’ll see what happens. Enough about that. Let’s backtrack and see what Our Intrepid Explorers did for the remainder of their trip in Ecuador!
After returning from the Galapagos and a quick stopover in Quito, Drew and I headed up to the small mountain town of Otavalo, about two hours by bus north of Quito. Otavalo’s claim to fame is its Saturday Market, where the indigenous population from the city and the surrounding villages comes into the town square and sets up shop, selling everything from blankets to pants to alpaca sweaters to corn to spices. Otavalo is a beautiful little city; the people here are fairly well-off (by Ecuadorian standards), bolstered by the money coming in from the market and gringos like us. The streets are all cobbled and clean, the buildings small and white, and like everywhere else in the country, the people are excessively friendly and outgoing. Roberto, who ran our hotel, was practically falling over himself to let it be known he was at our service. Anything you need, he said, just stick your head out the door and yell “Roberto!” To top it off, Otavalo is nestled in an incredible mountain valley, surrounded on all sides by major (but dormant (maybe)) volcanoes. Friday afternoon Drew and I walked around town, had a little siesta, and went back out again in the evening in search of food and fun. We found both. As we headed into town, it dawned on us that something big and weird was going on; when we hit one of the squares “downtown,” we found out it was a giant mass of people out in the streets, mostly kids with a few adults, clustered together and walking and spinning feverishly in a circle. This wasn’t quite the sleepy little town we saw earlier. Some girls wore indigenous garb, blue skirts and frilly blouses, some of the boys wore Halloween masks and the rest were just there, spinning and dancing and singing. There were a few older kids playing guitar, flute, and trumpet, leading the whole group around Pied Piper-like and setting the rhythm for the evening. The mass circled the square, stopping for a minute or so at each intersection, or until the cars trying to go through got fed up, then they moved on to the next intersection. The two of us were the only extranjeros (foreigners) there, and it felt very much like something we shouldn’t be seeing, like something just for the locals. Still, we stayed and watched for awhile and no one seemed to mind. After that we got some tasty empanadas (a snack like a Hot Pocket, except delicious instead of disgusting) and a couple bottles of Fanta to make perhaps one of our best meals. We washed that down with a couple slices of pie. As we walked home we got one more clue that there was more to Otavalo than met the eye; spraypaint on a wall across from the church proclaimed that “El Hip Hop Es Vida;” “Hip Hop Is Life.”
Saturday morning we got up early and got out market on. First we headed out to the animal market, where folks bought, sold, and auctioned animals (cow, pig, chicken, sheep, guinea pig), meat, and cheese. After that we made our way back to the textile market which was lively even at 8 am. There we walked through stall after stall of scarves, blankets, sweaters, pants, ponchos, and hats, every color and every pattern and every size, each item as unique and interesting as the last. We got all sorts of goodies there…the pictures (coming soon) show our ware better than I can explain them. It’s a great experience, especially if you like having “a la orden!” (“at your service!”) shouted at you from every direction, constantly. I even managed to use my Spanish skillz to get a couple 2-for-1 deals. After lunch (meat from a whole-roasted pig, yummmm) we walked to Laguna San Pablo, a nice little lake that has a nearby mountain with a heart-shaped scar in the side. Siesta, more empanandas, sleep.
Sunday we rested in Quito and waited for our 10 pm bus to Cuenca, in the southern part of the country. The bus took all night driving over the Panamericana, the Pan-American Highway. When I say “Pan American Highway” you might picture a major thoroughfare, carrying goods and people all up and down the spine of the Andes. You’re partly right. It does carry quite a bit of traffic, but for a large portion of its run through Ecuador the highway is unpredicatable at best. From Quito to Riobamba, about the halfway point, it’s smooth sailing; but as you enter the Southern Highlands, the Austro, it gets pretty ugly pretty quick. Pavement turns to dirt and back to pavement and back to dirt, and it seemed that some of the most treacherous sections were the least maintained. Some sections were down to one lane; the other lane covered by a rockslide or washed away by erosion (which begs the questions: When will the other side erode away? What if it happens as we’re driving over it?). But we made it to Cuenca about 7 am, found our hotel, and promptly slept until noon. Even though it was an overnight bus we found it nearly impossible to sleep any more than a few minutes at a time.
Cuenca is a beautiful city, very old and well-preserved from its colonial days. “The Athens of Ecuador,” named so for it’s charm and its wealth of universities. The heart of town is all cobbled streets and old buildings, with a church nearly on every corner. The smell of food and fresh-baked bread is ubiquitous. Our hotel/hostel was perched right at the top of La Escalinata, the stairs that lead from downtown down to the Tomebamba River, where people still fish and wash and dry their clothes during the day. We spent a good deal of time just wandering around town, checking out museums, walking past this church or that church, sitting in the park or on the Stairs people-watching, getting ice cream (for whatever reason our sweet-tooths (sweet-teeth?) went into overdrive and we found ourselves eating a lot of ice cream). I found it very easy to lose myself in this city, and without any schedules getting in the way were guided only by our desires to eat, or sleep, or get exercise. One night we did try “cuy,” or guinea pig. It was a bit strange, eating something that’s considered a pet here, but there it’s food, and quite a delicacy at that. It was pretty good; gamey, and very salty, and a little creepy, since it was served whole, but all in all a tasty meal.
One day we went up to Ingapirca, a ruin site nearby that has both Inca and Canari (a local tribe) ruins. Ingapirca is interesting because the Inca and Canari lived side-by-side here, instead of the Inca dominating and subordinating the locals. One of the coolest things here was the Canari calendar, a huge rock with 13 holes (one for each lunar month), and a series of smaller rocks to mark off days, weeks, seasons, and years. The holes were filled with water to catch the moon’s reflection on specific days. Unfortunately the calendar doesn’t work anymore, since early archaeologists moved the stones and no one has figured out yet where they really belong. It’s funny. They figured out this whole thing so precisely, calculating it out, and in one fell swoop some explorer throws the whole thing off.
The next day we went to El Cajas National Park, just a short drive out from Cuenca. This is the Andes at its most gnarly and its most beautiful. I thought the park would be similar to mountains I’ve visited before, like the Rockies, but it wasn’t at all. Since most of the park is above 4000 meters (13,000 feet), most of it is grassland, here called “paramo.” But it’s not like American alpine grass. Here the grass shoots up in big, bushy, thick clumps. The scenery is dominated by this grass, and by lakes, thousands of lakes rising our of nowhere and feeding each other in an intricate web of streams. The mountains and big and burly and rocky, volcanic upthrusts and eroded peaks, so the park is a weird combination of rocky, craggy mountains, fuzzy paramo grass, and pristine lakes. And then there are the polylepis forests. The polylepis is one of the highest-altitude growing trees in the world, and here their forests, which look dry and dusty from the outside, actually hide an incredible landscape. The earth underneath these trees is wet and peaty, and the rocks and trees are covered in moss and ferns and lichen. The air is humid and whenever you put your hand down to steady yourself it comes away dripping wet. A complete 180 from the dry, arid world outside the forest.
On Saturday we left Cuenca for Alausi, a small town with one claim to fame (as far as tourists are concerned), El Nariz del Diablo, the Devil’s Nose, a bizarre little feat of railroad engineering. Every Sunday a train leaves Alausi and heads down, down, down to the abandoned outpost of Sibambe, first through a narrow valley and then through a series of switchbacks, coming to rest at the valley floor and an old station with no town connected to it. The whole trip, which only goes a few miles, takes almost two hours there and back. Usually the train comes all the way down from Riobamba, the nearest big city, but mudslides prevented that from happening. Because of the mudslide we got another interesting glimpse into Ecuadorian life, as we watched a group of workers and engineers orchestrate the moving of a train car (basically a bus on rails) from the back of a flatbed truck down on to the rails in Alausi. Again this was a locals-only show, but they were just as captivated as we were; I think pretty much everyone in the audience expected a disaster, but in fact the whole thing went smoothly, with only a little bit of shouting. Everyone cheered and the workers took a bow when the train car was safely on the tracks. Later that night Alausi was in the midst of its Fiesta de San Pedro, with basically the whole town gathered in the square to dance, sing, drink shots of zhumir (a kind of aguardiente, made from sugarcane but with a different taste from rum) mixed with hot cinnamon tea (20 cents a shot!), and listen to long, rambling speeches from the mayor and other officials. We went to bed while the party was still going; I woke up about 3:30 and the fiesta was still going strong. The next morning, Sunday, we went down to the station (the street lined with passed-out revelers) and took the train through the Devil’s Nose. Now the city was stuffed with tourists which we took as our cue to leave. We headed to Riobamba on the Pana (through the section with dirt and erosion mentioned earlier) and spent a fairly dull night there. We had Ecuadorian Chinese food (they love it more than we do here). They put ketchup on their fried rice. And you thought eating guinea pig was gross!
Monday we were back in Quito. We celebrated our last night at a steakhouse, gorging outselves on incredible cuts of meat, and went to sleep early in anticipation of our early start time on Tuesday. After a series of delays and setbacks and a too-long stopover in Houston, we were home, finally, tired and a little disoriented, but happy to be back.
So there you have it. Ecuador. Even though we had three weeks in the third-smallest country in South America, we hardly saw it all. We didn’t make it to the jungle (anybody wanna buy some malaria pills?) or to the coast, but we were always doing something and we were never bored. This isn’t like traveling in Europe where you can just hit the sights, this is a different kind of traveling that asks you to be a bit more aware and open to opportunities, and open to being less of a tourist, more out of your element. I can understand why all the people we met were there not for a couple weeks but rather a couple months, or half a year, because it just takes longer to see everything, to feel everything, to understand the places, and to get into the groove of this different kind of traveling.
I guess that just means I have plenty to see when I go back.