Saturday, February 05, 2011

Otavalo and Cuicocha Lake, Ecuador

Another volcano in Ecuador. I'm sure this isn't the case, but every mountain seemed like it was an extinct volcano.

After our educational visit to the Equator, we were off to the town of Otavalo. Otavalo is famous for holding onto its indigenous roots even though a lot of money has swept into the town thanks to the success of exporting their hand made goods. Almost anyone who got presents from me got them from this town's central market. The market was a maze of jewelry, llama and alpaca clothes, blankets, paintings, wood carvings, and who knows what else. The big market is on the weekend. We were there on a weekday and it was still huge. When I was not getting lost in the market trying to buy presents, we strolled around town.

Central market.

Mountain towering over town.

San Pablo Lake just outside of Otavalo.

View from out hotel.

In town, most of the women wore traditional garb. The men, less so. The most modern were the teenagers. The town itself didn't seem that traditional even if the people were. I am coming up short on details about what else we did. I remember walking and walking to find a restaurant that was traditional and had something vegetarian before ending up back at our hotel's restaurant. It had great food. It wasn't fancy. It was down to Earth. There was lots of wood and an open air courtyard that let us hear rain fall all evening and night.

Del Jordan Church.

The Dona Esther hotel, our hotel, courtyard and rooms in Otavalo

This dog is playing it smart and hanging out at the food market.

The next morning, we caught an early ride up to Cuicocha (Guinea Pig Lake), a 3km wide volcanic crater lake. It reminded me a lot of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, but Oregon had a lot more snow. We had wet. I don't think it was raining, but it was still pretty overcast while we hiked. We had heard numerous times to beware of bandits in the area. However, lots of locals said it was safe. We didn't have any problems.


Cuicocha Lake.

We did have a great four hour hike though. We got dropped off at the visitor's center and went around anticlockwise. First, we climbed a ridge to the highest point on the lake. There was a little gazebo there, but we didn't stop to rest because we had to keep moving to make sure we met our ride on time. At two-thirds of the way, we left the rim and started on switchbacks off the ridge and back up the other side. In the valleys, there was puddles. We got wet feet and clothes that were definitely not drying off anytime soon. Eventually, we found ourselves back on the ridge among pine trees that Tina couldn't stop sniffing. Then, we hit private property and finished the hike on a road without the lake in sight. I kept wondering if we had missed a turn to get back over to the lake, but there wasn't one. By the time we got back, our ride back had been waiting for 30 minutes. I felt guilty, but he didn't seem to care. Life moves at a different speed there.

The two islands, Yerov and Teodoro Wolf, in Cuicocha Lake.

For Betty . . .

When we got back to the hostel, we walked up to the bus station and finally traveled the way locals do. I loved getting back in touch with my slow travel ways. Instead of paying $40 or more dollars, we paid $4 to get pack to Quito plus an extra $6 to get grab a cab to our hotel instead of walking in the pouring rain. I loved it. I also think I slept through a lot of it.

I thought it funny that policeman with 'Driver education' written on their uniforms had batons.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Ecuator - Mitad del Mundo

El Mitad del Mundo.

Tina and my original plan was to take a bus back into Quito and then back up to Otavalo. However, our hosts said they could arrange direct transport for us and that we could get two free stops on the way, including one at the Equator. It cost quite a bit more than the buses, but it would save us a lot of time to not cut through Quito. With limited time, we opted to spend the extra money again.

Mountains on our drive.

I love how the mountains tower over the populated valley.

We were supposed to stop at a crater overlook and the actual Equator. While our hosts did a great job making sure our driver would not give us another white knuckled experience, they did not convey that we were supposed to stop. By the time we asked our driver about stopping, we had already missed the first stop. Then, he took us to the Equator monument called Mitad del Mundo. However, this isn't where we wanted to go. That amazing monument and its surrounding tourist infrastructure went up in 1979, but is built on the spot where the French said the Equator was located in the 1700s. They were off by 600m.

Cuy - guinea pig.

The monument at the Mitad del Mundo.

We wanted to visit the actual Equator. Near the Mitad del Mundo, there is a museum supposedly on the actual line. You can balance an egg. You can see water drain both clockwise and counterclockwise. The museum is apparently a bunch of tricks that can actually be replicated at any latitude, but people love it anyway. However, this was not where we, really I, wanted to go. We wanted to go to another monument that was on the main road to Otavalo. We thought no problem.

I love that these kids have, what I think, are FC Barcelona jerseys for their cement soccer match.

Our driver thought otherwise which led into a frustration that I knew well from the Middle East. I felt like the guy was trying to take advantage of us, but he said that we were taking a different road up to Otavalo which was fair. We called our hostel who had arranged the ride and talked to them. Our host said to choose somewhere else to stop. We chose Cuicocha Lake, a crater lake just past Otavalo. At first out driver agreed and then an hour later, he changed his mind. He explained that it was also too far. A little bit later, we saw the a sign saying that the town where we wanted to go originally was only 6km from where we were. We asked our driver about it and told him we didn't think 12-20km round trip was too far out of the way. He still didn't want to, but we called our hostel again and they righted the ship. We were off to the actual Equator line.

The actual center of the world.

The battle to get what we were promised drives me crazy. I get way to caught up in the principle of the matter. Tina was willing to do whatever. I definitely admire her ability to just let it go. On the positive side, I could not understand our driver's English very well so we eventually switched to my broken Spanish which actually worked out alright.

Me at the Quitsato sundial, the actual Equator.

Quitsato sundial.

The Equator monument we went to, the Quitsato sundial, had two guides and two people selling stuff. It was super quiet. It wasn't flashy. I loved it. It reminded me of something like Stonehenge even though they have no relation and this monument was built with in the last 25 years. The monument was a huge area of smooth stones. They had different colored stones in a line to indicate this or that line. They had other boulders to indicate other stuff as well. In the middle, they had a huge gaudy orange needle to create the shadows for the sundial. The whole scene worked for me. At the beginning our driver was even interested, but he soon got distracted by his cell phone.

After our quick pit stop, we were finally off to the Northern Hemisphere and the famous Otavalo market in the Plaza de los Ponchos.

Me at Mitad del Mundo.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Mindo, Ecuador - New Years in the Cloud Forest

Mindo, Ecuador

Our drive to Mindo was scary for me. Our driver was happy to take us, but wanted it to take as little time as possible. He put the pedal to the metal and flew down the Pan-American Highway. From time to time, the tires let out a screech. When I wasn't wondering if we were going to roll off the road, I was admiring the huge mountains and incredible drop offs beside the highway. The valley floor was dedicated to Quito and its suburbs. The major road was regulated to the mountains.

Gas was cheap. $1.48 a gallon.

Great scenery on the drive to Mindo.

After we passed Quito, we started to descend into the cloud forest. This required going over 30km of the windy back roads. Our driver continued to hurry to our destination. That meant more screeching tires and trying to pass as many people as possible. I was used to some of this from the Middle East, but that was just among other drivers. This trip added in the twisty roads. I tried to just admire the scenery, but I couldn't ignore the lurching car and squeals of the tire. It was white knuckled riding. I felt confident that our driver knew what he was doing, but when the rain started, I wish he would have slowed down. I loved when we got caught behind a bus for a while.

Descending into the cloud forest.

Cloud forest.

The entire drive there, I kept wishing I was on my bicycle. The scenery was amazing and there was such a celebratory atmosphere. Since it was the afternoon of New Year's Eve, people were getting ready for that evenings festivities. One tradition was for kids to dress up in costume or drag and demand a toll from cars passing by. They stopped the cars by stringing a rope across the road. Unfortunately, we were insulated from the fun atmosphere in the back of the truck The driver talked to everyone who stopped us. We just rode along. If I had been on my bike, it would have taken times as long, but I would have experienced more than three times as much.

New Year's supplies were on sale at every major intersection.

Sometimes kids, dressed in costume, and even drag, put a rope across the road. You have to pay them to pass.

When we finally arrived in the town of Mindo, our driver didn't trust our directions. He asked a local whose sister happened to work at our lodge. She hopped in the back of the truck and showed us the way. Later, our hosts relayed that the woman also said our driver was crazy and for an Ecuadorian to say that was a big thing because they have lower standards of what constitutes safe driving.

A neat plant.

A flower that looks like it has upside down pink bananas reaching for it.

A frog on our night hike.

The hostel was run by a man who had lived in Mindo since before it became a tourist town and his wife, a woman from California. That night, we enjoyed a fun New Year's meal with the other guests. It had more Western influence than I would have liked, but all the guests were Western and the cook was too. It made sense. After dinner, we went out on a nature hike where our host could show us whatever he was able to find. I remember glow in the dark algae, frogs, a couple spiders, and lots of fruit trees.

Fireworks are part of every New Year's celebration that I know of.

Some leftover Christmas, and possible Hanukkah, decorations.

After the walk, I was ready to go to sleep. We had already done a big hike that morning, then rode in the car which always tires me out, eaten a big meal, and gone for a second short hike. I really wanted to go to sleep, but I also wanted to experience the celebratory atmosphere that I had seen all day through the car windows. Our hosts were headed to the town center to pick up their kids and would return just after midnight. Even though I was tired, it seemed like a great opportunity. I am a sucker for taking advantage of opportunities.

These effigies represented the Old Year. You put your bad energy in them and burn them when the clocks strikes midnight.

At midnight, you burn the effigies.

Unfortunately, I didn't experience New Year's in Mindo as much as I watched it. It was still fun though. It really is a family affair. I saw very little drinking. Families are out. Five year old kids are running around on their own. People are setting off fireworks. They ate. They danced. They celebrated. They put last minute decorations on their effigies and at midnight, they lit 'em up.

Watching all their bad mojo go up in smoke.

Not everyone comes to the town center to celebrate. Each home might have their own effigy.

The effigies each represent El Viejo Ano (the old year), even if there is the face of a famous person on them. You could see them strapped to the front of cars while we were driving to Mindo. Each El Viejo Ano is dressed up and decorated. The things put on the effigy usually represent something from the past year that the decorator wants to leave behind. Then, when the New Year comes, they burn the effigy and send all that bad mojo up in smoke. This tradition reminds me of the Xoxobra festival in Santa Fe, NM where they create a 100 foot Old Man Gloom and burn him around Labor Day.

Mating butterflies.

Another colorful butterfly.

A questionable bridge over to the local swimming hole.

The local swimming hole.

The next day, we did another waterfall hike. Unfortunately, very little of it was hiking. Mostly, we followed the road. It was billed to us a waterfall hike that you could swim in at the end, but there was no swimming in this waterfall. They said people can't even boat down it. However, 20m upstream from the waterfall was a nice family spot to spend the day and you can get in the water there. In that area, they have changing rooms, a little restaurant, a great view of the waterfall, and a couple man made rock pools to soak in the water on a hot day. Unfortunately, it was drizzling and definitely not a hot day. That didn't seem to be stopping anyone from enjoying it though.

Huge leaves make Tina look small.

I don't think this is a bromeliad, but it is growing off the trunk of a tree.

Unrolling Fern fiddleheads.

I'm not sure, but I think this is star fruit.

On the way back, we were supposed to stop and do a canopy tour, but I was kind of tuckered and really wanted a nap after too many nights of bad sleep. We ended up doing a couple hikes right around the lodge that were actual hikes in the woods. It was wet, but it was great. After that, we passed the night away doing crosswords and chatting with another traveling couple. They had been on the road for five years following the husband's oil work to the North Sea and Eastern Russia with lots of fun vacations in between.

That furry thing will be come a leaf, just like the one to its right.

Another fun flower in the cloud forest.

The next morning, we were booked into a birding tour. Neither Tina or I are birders, but I felt like we should take advantage of it since the area is famous for it. When we woke up for our 5am tour, it was pouring rain. No tour. Back to bed. After another fantastic breakfast, we were off to the Center of the World, the Equator!

Huge leaves or a little me.