We left Bahia promptly at 8 am Wednesday morning, and I rode most of the eight-hour , 10,000-foot ascent to Quito with my face plastered to the window like a little kid. Inland of Bahia the river edge has been cordoned off into ponds for shrimp aquaculture. The Lonely Planet Guide blasts the destruction of the mangrove environments this has wrought, but as catfish farmers we found it pretty interesting. The next major stage was a swampy plateau that brought to mind images of southeast Asia, and indeed many of the cane houses were built on stilts above standing water that may or may not have been planted in rice. Next came a land of very steep convoluted hills covered in grassland and topped with luck by a single palm tree. Then a big agricultural plateau where we saw trucks and stands full of fruit and vegetables. And finally the long climb up into and over the Andes themselves. I don't know what was more amazing: the mountains, the road, or the amount of heavy commercial trucking - like large flatbed trucks of cement blocks, not to mention all the busses - going both ways and passing! on this serpentine, two-lane highway! We went over the top in the clouds, and descended out of them again into Ecuador's central valley, dubbed the Avenue of the Volcanoes, down which runs the Pan American Highway.
Quito is really one of the most amazing cities you will ever lay eyes on. Even though it is 2850 meters above sea level (about 9400 feet), huge mountains loom over it. Imagine a bunch of woks crowded together, and you'll have an idea of the steep bowl-like formations of its urban sprawl. And, then, when that sprawl ends, picture orderly fields continuing on towards the summits! Come to think of it, make a perimeter of upside-down woks, and you'll have an idea of the immense flanks of the surrounding volcanoes!
The bus station is in Old Quito, which is packed especially tight into some gorges. Throughout it are colonial buildings of great historical significance and charm. However, old Quito is where most reports of pick-pocketing and mugging take place, and our desire to avoid THAT negative experience, along with a mutual indifference about historical buildings, made the bus station the only part of old Quito we spent any time in. We promptly grabbed a cab (which over-charged us handsomely before we discovered they have two settings on their meters!) to Hostel Nassau, our B&C recommended hostel, in a part of New Quito known informally as "Gringolandia." Gringolandia is a seventy (or so) square-block area of hostels, cosmopolitan restaurants (something other than beef and ceviche!), T-shirt shops, tour agencies, and Internet cafés in which the population is mostly Euro-American and younger than thirty!
One more thing about Quito. The guides describe its high mountain climate as perpetually spring-like. Well, on a bright sunny day it's delightful, but overcast after a thunderstorm as it was upon our arrival, it can get downright chill. Brrrrr!
Fortunately, the next morning dawned bright and sunny for our excursion to Mitad del Mundo. This is the site where a French expedition in the late 18th century madethe measurements that determined the location of the Earth's equator, as well as the fact that the Earth isn't exactly round, but flattened at the poles, and, incidentally laid the foundations of the metric system. It is also one of the few places in the world you can actually stand on the equator, as much of the rest of Mother Earth's middle is lost in jungle or ocean. The monument at Mitad del Mundo takes you up in an elevator to a lookout that gives a good view of the surrounding territory, the landscape of which is pretty much a scrubby desert. Descent inside the monument winds down through exhibits of all the various indigenous peoples - their customs, their history, their special crafts and their distinctive dress (they prefer "indigenes" to "Indians") - that make Ecuador so culturally diverse. This would have been really interesting if more than four of the twenty or thirty placards had been in English! A side exhibit at the park displayed a current scientific/archaeological research project being done that suggests that a very early pre-Inca people had located the "Center of World" even more accurately than the French, about 800 yards away. This culture had built temples on sites precisely equidistant from one another at angles of 23 ½ degrees, accurately lining up the declination of the winter and summer solstices in the geometric star pattern that we see depicted over and over in traditional weavings. The description of this project and its findings was presented in a rapid-fire delivery by a multi-lingual scholar who gave the same spiel all over to the next couple in French! A piece of geographic trivia this fellow pointed out was that Ecuador's highest volcano Chimborazo, albeit slightly lower than Everest in height above sea-level is actually higher when measured from the center of the Earth, since the Earth is fatter at the Equat After Mitad del Mundo, our taxi driver convinced us to let him show us La Virgin of Quito (our initially well-bargained fare now going down the tubes!). This is a monument in the fashion of the Statue of Liberty that was given to Quito from Spain. The hollow figure sports a crown of stars, eagle's wings (that give her an uncomfortable-looking hunched posture) and a chained dragon something Biblical. While smaller than Ms Liberty, the Virgin is set high up on a hill above the Old City, which gave us a fabulous 360-degree panorama of the entire Quito metropolitan area from her observation platform. Would that we'd dared to go back at night!
On Friday morning we boarded another bus, this time for a two-hour trip east and north out of Quito. Initially the landscape was more mountainous desert cut by deeply etched gorges that the bus had to negotiate, but then, abruptly we came over a rise into lush green farm land. The central purpose to this excursion was the world-famous Saturday morning market in Otavalo, but, based on Cindy & Baker's recommendations, we had decided to stay in the nearby provincial capital of Ibarra. Both these communities, along with a string of others, have grown up on the lower flanks of the majestically Buddah-like extinct volcano Imbaburra (4609m), which we learned later the Indians call the Sleeping Father. We thought, as the bus pulled in to Ibarra, that we had made a mistake, for it looked like just a crowded noisy town. We grew more worried after B&C's recommended hostel was full. We needn't have fretted. There are probably several dozen hostels in Ibarra. The one our cab driver took us to was the Hostel Madrid, where we were welcomed in English by a young girl who'd spent a year as an au pair in North Carolina. There we got a nice bright room (like our Quito hostel @$5 pp/nite!) only this one with a TV! We got settled in, had a nice "almuerzo" in the downstairs restaurant (the only restaurant we've been in with cloth napkins in lieu of the notably puny paper napkings endemic to this country!) and then set out boldly on our tourist "To Do" list. Unexpectedly this was the beginning of a very special sequence of events.
First stop was the village of Cotacachi. We have to take a moment here to admit that the tourist "To Do" list for this part of the world almost reads like a shopping list to a bunch of outlet malls. The Indians of these highlands have specialized in a variety of crafts, and these specialties seem to get concentrated in particular towns. Therefore, to go to Cotacachi means you are going to look at leather goods. Leather is not something particularly practical for a couple of tropically-inclined yachties, and we really are talking LEATHER: jackets, pants, belts, bags, briefcases, shoes, hats (tried, but failed, to talk Don into a suede ball cap!) PLUS a whole range of goods made with leather and woven or knit combinations, shawls, dresses, vests, more bags .. It was endless! Still we enjoyed wandering the streets, and Don did buy a horse-hair hatband for his Panama hat plus a sweater jacket of llama wool (which he has worn non-stop since!) while I bought a CD of Andean folk music.
Back in Ibarra, Don felt he deserved a cold beer so we went looking for the El Encuentro, a bar recommended in the Lonely Planet Guide. How convenient that it turned out to be around the corner from our hostel. The bar is in an inner courtyard, with rooms filled with antique ranching equipment jigsawed in around the center. If we haven't mentioned it before, the beer, called simply Pilsener, comes in over-size 600ml bottles for between 65 cents and a $1@. We were racking up a few when a group of young professionals arrived at the table near us. One of their party, hearing English, instantly came over and introduced himself. An English teacher at the college, despite never having been to an English-speaking country, Victor was keen on taking advantage of the chance to speak with us. But, the cultural exchange was hardly one way. To start with he invited us to a concert that night. We went expecting something traditional, possibly Spanish, perhaps even classical, but were astounded to get a performance of quite progressive original New Age style music, as well as several modern dance performances. We parted late with a pledge to come meet his family the next afternoon.
Saturday morning dawned very early for the 2Cs and apparently too early for any Ibarra breakfast establishment, so, coffee-less we boarded yet another bus (hopefully, you are getting the very valid impression that public transportation is well-developed in Ecuador) back to Otavalo. We were rewarded by stumbling on the best breakfast we had anywhere in Ecuador at a cheerful café a block from the market. Good thing Don was fortified, because the market could have otherwise been overwhelming. Hundreds of stalls teeming with the handicrafts of local Indians fill a large open square and spill onto adjoining side streets. The Otalaveño Indians in particular are renowned for their weaving and there was stall after stall of sweaters, hats, gloves, socks, bags, purses, ponchos, blankets, hammocks, and wall hangings. There were tiny painted boxes, dolls, bracelets, wood carvings, embroidered shirts, music instruments and on and on and on! The sheer volume of wool (from llamas as well as sheep) was awesome. The people selling were as fascinating as what was being sold. The men wear white pants that stop mid-calf with ponchos on top, a long braid down their back and the ubiquitous felt hat. The women wear a cream wool full-length skirt with a second black or navy skirt over it, embroidered blouses, shawls, a neck-full of gold beads and either the felt hat or a elaborately folded headscarf. These are just the Otalaveños; there were probably another dozen groups represented each with their own distinctive dress. Babies were everywhere, often strapped to their back with a crisscross of sheeting, sometimes left to amuse themselves in a pile of product, and quite often nursing openly! We tried very hard to peruse all the offerings before any buying took place, but suffice it to say it to say we surely have at least one of everything! And although we tried hard to bargain, I'm sure we paid half-again what we needed to. The good thing about this is the stuff is so cheap, everybody thinks they did well by the deal.
Despite being laden with our purchases we hopped off the bus short of home to take in the tourist luncheon featured at the Hostelria Chorlavi. This is a working Hacienda which doubles as an upscale resort for wealthy Ecuadorians. There's a pool, tennis court, and stables, and all the ground between the buildings is planted for home-grown vegetables. On Saturdays after the market they feature a traditional band and young folk dancers for entertainment during lunch, served in the beautiful Spanish-style central courtyard. Ironically, food-wise, it was the meal we enjoyed the least of our trip, and I blame it for the beginnings of a long bout of tourista. We barely had time for a short rest back at the room before we were collected by Victor and his friend Anabel. The walk took us out of crowded downtown through some very beautiful older parts of town. Victor's home was relatively large and contemporary, and six members of his family - (we should have anticipated this) were present and dressed as for church! Now you need to realize that Victor was the only truly bi-lingual person there. Anabel and Victor's brother Ivan spoke a smattering of English, and we all know the extent of Don's Spanish (although he is making great strides), but if I thought Victor was going to interpret I was mistaken. Teacher that he is, he left me to present our story on my own. You could feel the room swell with group support as I would reach for a word or a particular verb conjugation! Victor's Aunt Maria, in turn, tried to tell us about a big church chorale concert she was involved in, and when it came clear that we had just missed it that very morning, she gave us a personal reprise of her performance. This turned out to be a quite lengthy recitation of a poem celebrating, I think, "my beloved countryside". It was a very dramatic presentation, and one didn't have to understand a word to be impressed! This was followed by a round of sweet pink wine in tiny crystal glasses, which was then followed by coffee with bread, biscuits and cheese at the dining room table. Afterwards, after having heard all about our Otavalo shopping spree, Victor's brother Ivan packed us into his car to take us to San Antonio de Ibarra, a community famous for its wood carvings, predominately of religious motifs. Only a few shops were still open at this hour, and I hope we were not a grave disappointment as we could not bring ourselves to buy one more thing. All in all, it was one of the most special evenings we have yet enjoyed in our travels.
The next day we packed up to leave, but hopped off the bus one more time at the cross-road for the community called Peguche. There was some enticing talk about some Cascades in the guidebook, but our real motivation for the extra effort was to get a special T-shirt Cindy was regretting not buying from the Hostal Aya Huma, where she and Baker had gotten married. It was a fortuitous stop, and, had we to do it all again, given that so much of our great experience in Ibarra was entirely accidental, we would plan to base ourselves here. As it was we stayed one night only, but it is the first place we stayed that was not urban. The Hostal Aya Huma , (email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website (not working at the moment) is ww.otavalo.com.ec/ayahuma .), owned by a Dutch-Ecuadorian couple, is built straddling an abandoned railroad track that is now a de facto road. The original family building is now the restaurant/bar, which has a delightful chalet-like atmosphere and fire-place, as well as sunny courtyard out front. The rooms are built down the side of a wooded gorge filled with bird chatter, at the base of which was a trickle of a stream and two hammocks. It was a little pricier than our other hostels at $10pp/nite, but it was a place you could happily spend a lot more time, as we later found out many people do. We spent several hours reading in hammocks before lunchtime, and then, in the afternoon took the walk to the Cascades. The path led through park-like woodland (in fact it is a park) to a right nice waterfall where many locals were enjoying the Sunday afternoon. We branched off onto a side path hoping to gain an overlook, which we found, but we had to negotiate a couple of cows with whom we got into a shoving match. The next couple up actually got chased delusions of el toro!
In the evening we met Ali, a young Dutch woman on her last night of a month-long stay. Ali had been there so long she had acquired a pet piglet -Knorry - with wiry red hair, with whom she was spending her last afternoon. Later, we joined her to sip wine on a stone wall from which we could watch the winding up of a typical Otalaveño Sunday -- the women and girls herding home the cows, the old men staggering home under the influence of their once-a-week indulgence, the boys in American garb, strutting their stuff -- all against a backdrop of a fantastic evening light weaving through thick piles of cloud over the beautiful valley. We moved the wine inside to the fire place and a good dinner, which made a perfect cap to the day before a deep quiet sleep under a pile of five Otavaleño blankets.
We woke to a parrot in the branches outside our window. After breakfast we took a walk through town, where weekday life was already under way. Throughout the town we could hear, if not see, the thunder of looms. We caught a glimpse of an old man spinning wool at a wheel right out of Sleeping Beauty. What we consider one our really special moments came went we stumbled upon several young women making hammock yarn. They were up a side road, across was strung wires at about 20'ft intervals. Giant skeins of white yarn were dumped in a big basket, out of which were drawn several strands which ran up through a wire hanger attached to the eave of a house. One girl walked the "U" of the strand over the wires some 300 feet up the road. The ends were attached to an electric motor where we stood watching which then wound the whole length into a single piece in about 60 seconds! This was pegged over to the side until another length was wound, when the two were spun together. Then one of the girls would wind up the whole into a ball about the size of a basketball and the process would repeat itself. Beneath the winding yarns, children and dogs played happily in the dirt. This is not tourist stuff. This is real, everyday work.
We could have, and would have, stayed on, except that we had had an email from our young Peace Corps friend in Bahia relaying a message from our Port Captain that he was unable to secure permission for us to sail on to the Galapagos and that we would have to pursue it ourselves in Quito. Fearing a bureaucratic snafu - and a totally illogical one at that, since every cruiser we knew had sailed directly to the Galapagos from Panama without any special permission - we hurried back to Quito. Needlessly, as it turned out, as we determined that, despite the Port Captain's beliefs, no permission was needed at all for us to go. And, better luck, we found that out in one stop! Still, once back in the big city, we found we were ready to go home. A week away from the boat, without the boat being secure in at least a marina, was a record for these two captains, and all the bus travel, chilly climates, altitude, and foreign diet were starting to take their toll on these tropical bodies. Home, James!