It’s my first trip to South America, a continent that had been entirely off my travel radar until recently. Then, a few months ago, my friend Celeste sent me the link to a piece the ABC Evening News had done about ex-pats loving living in Cuenca – a city in the mountains in southern Ecuador – and how great the cost of living was down there. It looked like a match for me: a warm climate, Pacific Ocean beaches galore, a fruit-lover’s paradise, and health care that appears to work in a free market – or if not free, at least freer. Celeste and I have come to Ecuador for two weeks to explore this paradise and see if it really is our cup of tea. First stop, Quito, the capital of Ecuador.
Miraculously, we’d managed to book ourselves on a flight out of Boston on a day when flights weren’t being cancelled because of snow, a not-uncommon occurrence this winter in the Northeast. But it was a clear, albeit cold, day in Boston, all systems go. Except for one major glitch: We ‘re checking in at the Copa Airlines counter, with our biggest concern being whether they’ll let us treat our bulging backpacks as carry-on luggage. Little did we know, the backpacks were the least of the problem, at least in terms of getting them on the plane. It was getting Celeste on the plane that was the problem. It’s her passport, which expires in less than five months. The lady at the counter tells us that Ecuador requires your passport to be good for at least six months. Colombia is three, Ecuador is six. There was nothing for it but to have Celeste stay for an extra day in Boston, sorting out a new passport, having to lug around her bulging backpack everywhere she went, because, of course, thanks to Homeland Security, there are no lockers at the airport. So I head off to Ecuador on my own, with Celeste booked to follow me 24 hours later.
The Boston flight goes to Panama City, Panama, then it’s a connecting flight to Quito that lands just before dinnertime; we’ve arranged to get picked up by a cab sent from our hostel, Posada del Maple (pronounced map-lay). The cab costs $25, but it seems a lot easier than taking the bus (for $8) to the city – an hour’s drive at least – and then have to grab a cab from the bus station to the hostel. The cab ride gives me my first opportunity to try out my virtually nonexistent Spanish. I don’t do so well, but that doesn’t stop the driver from talking a blue streak, all about
Quito and its surrounding mountains, the huge improvement to the roads in Ecuador in the past few years, and how great the new Quito international airport is. Oh, and what a big fan he is of the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, a president for the people. He points out the proliferation of flags with the presidential party colors, flying atop the buildings that line our route into town. There are a few posters, but mostly it’s flags – much different than the lawn signs we’re accustomed to in the States. The election is coming up in about a month – it’s not a presidential election year; this display is for local elections.
After settling in at the hostel, I headed over toward Plaza Foche – party central, with bars and
restaurants galore – grab some sustenance to go, and head back to the hostel for some Internet time. I take my job with me on the road, and the good Internet connection at Posada del Maple lets me work the night away.
In the morning, over a breakfast of a tall glass of fruit juice, huevas, toast, and cafe con leche, I get into a conversation with a young couple from Canada, Chelsea and Andrew, who are traveling all over the place for a year, and this month they’re in Ecuador before heading off to Peru. They’re keeping a travelog at Two Bein’ Chili and it’s good reading. We’re joined over a second cafe con leche by Priscilla and Danny from San Francisco, although they’ll tell you where they’re really from is wherever they’re hanging their hat. They’ve just come from a trip to the spectacular Galapagos Islands, and that, along with the rest of their travels can be found at Oil and Blood. That’s one of the major pluses about staying at a hostel on your travels – you meet a lot of interesting folks who’ve been to some amazing places.
The first thing everyone will tell you if you’re traveling to Ecuador is to learn Spanish. Back in college I took a semester of Spanish, and that’s it. Both Celeste and I were making a feeble attempt to learn more, and then all of a sudden, we were given a great gift: Our mutual friend Viviana decided a few weeks earlier to move back to Ecuador from New Hampshire for an extended visit with her parents, who live in Quito. And she speaks Spanish. And on top of it, she was up to join Celeste and me on our trip around Ecuador. Who needs Spanish lessons when you can have your own personal translator?
And your own personal Quito tour guide. After breakfast with my new friends at the hostel, Viviana showed up and off we went to the city center and the majestic historic district. Founded by the Spanish in 1534 on the ruins of an ancient Inca settlement, Quito’s most striking buildings are the more than 40 churches and cathedrals that fill any view. But it’s not just the churches; wherever you turn, there are splendid examples of well-preserved colonial architecture, starting at the Plaza Grande.
We went into our fair share of churches, all of them overflowing with ornateness, but none surpassed, in terms of opulence, Iglisia de El Sagrario, a 17th-century chapel attached to the Quito Cathedral. Spectacular! The seats aren’t covered in gold, but pretty much everything else is.
By nightfall the fog had settled over this city between two mountain ranges, but even so, it’s easy to see what dominates the skyline …
Back at the hostel later that night, Celeste arrived, with fully compliant passport in hand and dead tired. Morning came soon enough, and after a few rounds of cafe con leche and saying goodbye to Priscilla and Danny, who are off to Baños in Central Ecuador, Celeste and I meet Viviana and her parents out by the curb and we’re off to Otavalo, north of Quito.
There are rules about when you can drive in Quito. With this particular form of restriction, the last digit on your license plate determines when you’re not allowed to drive inside city limits; if your license plate ends in 1 or 2, on Mondays you can’t drive in the city during morning and evening rush hours, if it ends in 3 or 4, Tuesday is your day off, and so on. Called the Pico y Placa program, it ostensibly was begun to help reduce emissions, but as the city grows, its other motive is to reduce congestion. Quito is growing by leaps and bounds, and until some better idea comes along, this is the coping mechanism they’re using. As Señor Figueroa explains when asked, “So what do the people do who have to go to work?”:
“They buy another car.” Of course they do. That’s government planning for you.
It’s Wednesday, and that means 5 and 6 are in play for Señor Figueroa, but post rush hour is good for us – it gives Celeste and me a chance to explore the Plaza Foche before the Figueroas arrive in their car. Speaking of driving, we get our first experience of what it’s really like to drive on Ecuadorian roads outside the city, to confirm the stuff we’ve been reading about – that’s it’s crazy out here. Let’s just say that you have to be on your toes. If you’re driving, you’re probably better off playing along with the bulk of the drivers, who pass at every opportunity, without paying particular attention to speed limits and solid yellow lines. I take that back: When they pass on a solid line, they generally honk their horn. The best is on two-lane roads when there’s an oncoming car in your lane whose driver is hustling to get in front of the speeding car in front of him before he hits us. Every time this happens, there’s a great hue and cry in our car about stupid drivers. Then, it’s Señor Figueroa’s turn to pull the same trick. This is huge fun and keeps us well entertained on the ride to Otavalo. The two-lane roads take us through the countryside, dotted with farmhouses and small towns.
It takes us a little over two hours to reach Otavalo, which includes a stop for coffee and biscochos at a roadside cafe in Cayambe. Building up our strength for the shopping expedition that awaits us in the market in Otavalo.
Otavalo is surrounded by three volcanoes and because of its rich volcanic soil, was originally thriving farmland. But with the increase in tourism, today the city is known for its textiles. The indigenous Otavaleños have turned to weaving textiles in various colors and textures and selling them to all the gringos at the Plaza de los Ponchos in the central square and in the shops that line the streets that spread out from the plaza. Alpaca scarves, hats, blankets, socks, handbags, and skeins of wool, alpaca everything, all in gorgeous colors. I know alpacas live in the Andes, and here we are, so although I don’t see any real alpacas (although there are oodles of stuffed alpaca animals for sale), I imagine the countryside outside of town is alpaca country.
Saturday is the big day for the market, when the tour buses and their occupants pour into town, but today is Wednesday, so there is still a spot to be found to park the car on the street, a short stroll over to the market. I’ve been told that the prices in Otavalo are somewhat inflated, that if I want to buy something, the prices will be better in the markets in other towns. And that may very well be true, but Otavalo is a good place to hone your haggling skills, and if you do it well enough, you’ll come out with some pretty good bargains.
Nearby Otavalo are other towns with their own specialties. Cotacachi is known for its leather, and San Antonio de Ibarra for its wood carvings. We’ll have to save Cotacachi for another trip, but there’s enough time to see the wood carvings after stopping for lunch at Fritatas Amazonas in Atuntaqui. It’s my second day eating in Ecuador, and what I’ve noticed so far is there is a lot of rice and beans and twice as much corn, or maize; maize done every which way to become a big staple of the Ecuadorian diet, it seems.
It’s a quiet day in San Antonio, and we wander along the main street, popping in and out of stores with all manner of wood pieces, and then over to the park with pieces on display, not least of which is the dragon slide. It’s not until we get to San Antonio that I realize it’s an overcast day; in Otavalo I had been blinded by all the colors, but it’s definitely a gray day.
Because of the license plate issue, we can’t return to the city until after evening rush hour, which allows time for us to visit the Figueroa’s home in the country, north of Quito, for late afternoon tea, or cafe con leche as the case may be, and a stroll around the property, cadging a few almost-ripe blackberries off the bushes.
At dusk, we head back into the city and end up making it a relatively early night. No rest for the wicked – we have to be up at 4 in the morning to catch a cab to the airport for a 6 o’clock flight to the coast. Sweet dreams!