From mountains to the seas in Ecuador: Part 2

By Michael Carignan

In part one of this three-part series I talked about our stay in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city of 2.1 million people. In part two I will talk about leaving the city and traveling through the countryside to the city of Otavalo, home to what is consider South America’s most famous outdoor market place and Indian fair.

Otavalo is a city of 50,000 inhabitants and is the capital of Otavalo Canton in Imbabura Province. Ecuador is divided into provinces and cantons similar to how the U.S. is divided into states and counties or parishes within that state.

Provinces, as our guide, Marco, pointed out, especially in the mountains, are named for one of the main volcanic peaks in the province. In this case Mt. Imbabura at 15,050 ft. above sea level and not nearby Mt. Cotacachi at 16,235 ft. Cantons are often named after the indigenous people of the region. In this case the Otavalenos people.

The Otavalenos are well known for weaving textiles, mainly of wool and linen from alpaca and sheep. The most noticeable trait of these people is their small stature. A tall Otavalena male only reaches a height of about five feet. Many of the women were barely four and a half feet tall.

Typical dress for a male consists of trousers and a dark poncho. Women wear white, embroidered blouses with flared sleeves and dark colored skirts. Both sexes have long black hair usually tied back with a multi-colored woven band. A type of fedora adorns the male’s head. Again according to Marco, a Ecuadorian’s dress has a style distinctive of their tribe.

An Otavalanos woman in traditional dress at the meat sale in Otavalo.
An Otavalanos woman in traditional dress at the meat sale in Otavalo.

Otavalo is about 60 miles north of Quito. Its market place operates seven days a week but on Saturday it is at its peak with the number of vendors, types of goods and visitors at the maximum. Our tour was scheduled for Saturday.

We were picked up very early by Marco and driver in a van. Marco spoke very fluent English and was as knowledgeable as he was nice. The only other members of our group for the day was a couple, I would guess in their early 40s. They were from the Canary Islands off the north coast of Africa, which is own by Spain. She was a federal judge and he was a lawyer. She spoke a fair amount of English but his English was much like our Spanish, a word here and there. Even with the difficulty in communicating it was easy to make friends.

It took awhile to get out of the city and on to the Panamerican Highway but soon we were on the rural mountainsides. As expected with the abundant rain and warm temperatures of the equator region there was lush greenery.

On distant mountainsides we began noticing rows of whitish buildings in clusters here and there. Marco explained that they are greenhouses for raising roses. Ecuador’s number one industry is growing decorative roses for export primarily to the U.S. but to other world markets as well.

Roses are grown in these white buildings in mountains of Ecuador and exported around the world, especially to the U.S.
Roses are grown in these white buildings in mountains of Ecuador and exported around the world, especially to the U.S.

That statement brought about a discussion of Ecuadorian economics, which I found very interesting. Growing shrimp for export is the number two industry in Ecuador. That of course takes place along the coastal regions.

Oil was discovered in the tropical rain forests in the northeast part of the country and oil has become the number three industry. The oil is piped over the mountains to the Pacific coast where it is loaded on ships and taken to the U.S. for refining. The gas is then shipped back to Ecuador where it is subsidized by the federal government. Regular unleaded gas sells for $1.38 per gallon. Premium for $1.45 per gallon and diesel was cheap at $1.05 per gallon. And those prices were the same everywhere, even on the Galapagos Islands.

Tourism ranks fourth as an industry in Ecuador and then comes textiles.

Along the way to Otavalo we had to cross from the southern hemisphere back into the northern hemisphere. We stopped in a tiny village that had a square with a monument commemorating the site and a line of red bricks through the square marked the equator. (Marco said it was only symbolic and the real location was still another 300 ft. north.)

Here I am with Dawn at the monument supposedly marking the equator. I am in the southern hemisphere and Dawn is in the northern. I say supposedly because the actual equator runs about 300 feet to the north of this spot.
Here I am with Dawn at the monument supposedly marking the equator. I am in the southern hemisphere and Dawn is in the northern. I say supposedly because the actual equator runs about 300 feet to the north of this spot.

We continued our journey until we made a pit stop at a tiny wayside business. A small store was the main business where they offered coffee and other drinks along with a variety of foods. The place also had restrooms, of sorts. Located down the hill behind the store were the facilities. A woman stood at the top of the stairs to reach them and requested a quarter each to use them. No paper was allowed in the toilets. If you used paper it went in a separate receptacle.

The property had a magnificent view of a distant lake and one of the volcanic peaks. A young girl dressed in mountain garb and leading an alpaca was available for photos as were three cut out figurines featuring indigenous dress that you could stick your face in the opening for a photo of yourself in native clothes.

At a potty stop on our way to Otavalo a magnificent view of the mountains and a distant lake could be seen. In the foreground a young woman dressed in local garb mingles with tourists. Her alpaca is also shown.
At a potty stop on our way to Otavalo a magnificent view of the mountains and a distant lake could be seen. In the foreground a young woman dressed in local garb mingles with tourists. Her alpaca is also shown.

We had done some reading up on Otavalo and my wife, Dawn, asked Marco if we were too late to catch the animal market at Otavalo. The market is split into three parts, the live animal market, the foods market and the handicrafts market. The live animal market is usually just on Saturdays and starts early in the morning and is usually over by late morning. Marco agreed to make it our first stop.

Upon arrival we had to park some distance from the market. Once we entered the grounds it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The grounds were just an open, fenced in, muddy field. Scattered all around were indigenous people with their animals. There were small animals such as puppies, kittens, chicken and duckling, rabbits and guinea pigs. They eat guinea pigs in Ecuador and the species they grow are much larger than we see here. Their intent is to feed the entire family on one. For larger animals there were sheep, goats, pigs, cows, ponies and, of course, alpacas.

Guinea pigs are staple of the Ecuadoran diet. Here a gentleman sells them at the meat sale in Otavalo.
Guinea pigs are staple of the Ecuadoran diet. Here a gentleman sells them at the meat sale in Otavalo.

There were a few folks selling handicrafts as well but only a very small amount.

From there we went to the center of town. After being dropped off in the town square we walked about a block to where the foods market began. Just guessing I would say the foods market was five times larger than the farmer’s market we’re accustomed to held on the Capital Square in Madison, Wisconsin and maybe 10 times larger than the one we frequent in Olympia when we’re in Washington. They offered every type of fruit and vegetable you could imagine along with dried and cooked meats, soups and stews, you name it. One big local item was a plastic bag full of cooked snails with lime juice squeeze into the bag. The locals love it. We didn’t try it.

Ecuador food sale 2 done

A scene at the food market in Otavalo.
A scene at the food market in Otavalo.

The handicraft market was primarily textiles but also leather crafts, woodcarvings and other trinkets.

Women selling textiles at the marketplace in Otavalo.
Women selling textiles at the marketplace in Otavalo.

We left the marketplace and traveled to Peguche, a village nearby, to visit a weaver’s workshop. We were allowed to watch him work and looked at the many items he had made, which were for sale.

This weaver allowed us to visit him at work in his shop.
This weaver allowed us to visit him at work in his shop.

From there we traveled to one of the many haciendas in the area for lunch. The haciendas were the centerpiece of large Spanish ranches of years gone by. Now, in order to keep them maintained they are used as restaurants for tourists. This particular one had gorgeous gardens all around the outside.

The inside of the hacienda where we ate lunch.
The inside of the hacienda where we ate lunch.
A typical Ecuadorian group of musicians performed at the hacienda.
A typical Ecuadorian group of musicians performed at the hacienda.

For lunch I tried ceviche as an appetizer for the first time. The dish is typically made from fresh raw fish or seafood marinated in citrus juices such as lemon or lime and spiced with chili peppers. It is not cooked but served fresh. It is quite popular with the locals who like to garnish it with freshly popped popcorn. Mine was made with shrimp and it was very tasty.

When we returned to the van we were joined by a young lady, an Otavalenos, who rode with us for a ways and sang for us a couple of songs in her native Quichua tongue. She stood in the van while she sang. There was at least six inches clearance from the top of her head to the ceiling of the van. We guessed her age at maybe 12 years old but later found out she was 18 and likely full grown. She gave each of us a small gift to thank us for visiting her country.

From there we returned to Quito. Along the way Marco showed interest in where we were from and we told him they were expecting snow back home that night. He said it never snows around Quito because they are on the equator. When we arrived back in Quite we were greeted by a two-block stretch that was covered in white. It had just hailed and there was as much as four inches of hail in spots. Marco was speechless.

Next we travel to the islands.

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From the mountains to the seas in Ecuador Part 1

By Michael Carignan

To mark the occasion of our 25th wedding anniversary in 2010, my wife, Dawn, and I decided to fulfill an item from our bucket list and so we decided to take a trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

The Galapagos have been number one for a long time on Dawn’s list of places to visit and also ranked quite high on my list. With encouragement from friends and family along with many, many questions of “where?” we decided this was the time to make it happen.

The Galapagos Islands are not considered a prime destination for tourism but in recent years it has become known for its’ ecotourism because of the diversity of animals, a number of which can be found nowhere else in the world. I will return to that topic later on.

In order to get to the Galapagos Islands we had to either fly into Quito, the capitol of Ecuador, or to Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city, located on the Pacific coast. From there we would have to catch a flight to Baltra Island in the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles west of the mainland. Quito proved to be the most cost effective of the choices.

Different this trip from all the others we have taken over the years is that we decided to have a travel agency book our trip and to be part of a tour group instead of being on our own. Spanish is the primary language of Ecuador and neither of us knew more than a few words in Spanish. Plus, not having to drive in an unfamiliar country as we did the previous year in the British Isles had a huge appeal.

It cost us a little more than it could have, but that was because we chose to go with a tour company that specialized in smaller and even sometimes, private tours. It was a great decision and money well spent.

The tour package suggested arriving in Quito at least one day prior to continuing on to the Galapagos so there were no problems with flight connections. We decided as long as were going to be in Quito for at least a day we would do some touring in the city and out in the mountainside as well.

We began our trip by driving to Chicago and leaving our car at the motel on their park and fly program. The following day we flew from Chicago to Miami and then on to Quito, arriving around 5:45 p.m. Quito is in the same time zone as Wisconsin even though it is further east.

We were met at the airport by an English-speaking tour guide. He accompanied us to our hotel, Quito Hilton Colon, and made sure check-in went all right. By that time it was going on 7 p.m. so we went to dinner at one of the hotel restaurants.

Here we had our first taste of Ecuadorian cuisine. It was different but very good. I tried ceviche for the first time. Ceviche is kind of a cold soup of sorts that is made with fresh raw fish or seafood such as shrimp, in a citrus juice, usually as lemon or lime, seasoned with chili peppers and sometimes a tomato base. They serve it with fresh popped popcorn. Traditionally one would put a small scoop of the popcorn right into the ceviche.

We had booked a tour of what is known as “the old city” for the following afternoon beginning at 2:30 p.m. The hotel offered massages at its spa at a very reasonable rate so we immediately booked one for the morning.

The skyline of Quito overlooking the "old city" with its many churches.
The skyline of Quito overlooking the “old city” with its many churches.

Across the street from our hotel was a large park and after breakfast we went exploring there first. The park was lively with activity. Venders had set up carts here and there selling everything from fruit to artwork. In one spot grown men were playing volleyball before an audience of around 50 people. We later found out that volleyball competition in the park are taken very seriously and competition is tough. In another part of the park a soccer team was practicing amidst the trees. It seemed odd but I realize that as in Wisconsin field space is limited and teams will practice wherever they can.

Three Ecuadorian women sit on a bench in the park across from our hotel. In the distant background you can see some of the many venders stationed around the park.
Three Ecuadorian women sit on a bench in the park across from our hotel. In the distant background you can see some of the many venders stationed around the park.
Dawn with a wood sculpture in the park.
Dawn with a wood sculpture in the park.

Soon it was time for our tour. Our guide was a native of Quito but had spent a year as a foreign exchange student in the U.S., in fact in Grafton, Wisconsin. She was very knowledgeable on both history and current events in Ecuador.

Quito is a city of 2.1 million people but as little as 100 years ago Quito’s population was only about 40,000 according to her. It is in the Andes Mountains and sits at 9,200 feet above sea level. That took some getting used to by us lowlanders. Because it sits on the side of a mountain it is a long and narrow city, relatively speaking, at 25 miles long and 15 miles wide. Traffic was crazy. The old city is the area where the 40,000 had originally settled.

Houses are strewn across the hillsides of the mountain valley.
Houses are strewn across the hillsides of the mountain valley.

For many years Ecuador was its own independent country with small tribes of indigenous people ruling their own small portion of the country. In 1463 the Incas conquered the mountainous regions of Ecuador and united it under one empire. The Incas’ rule was short lived because in 1532 the Spanish Conquistadors conquered the Incas and took over rule of Ecuador. In 1822 Ecuador achieved independence from Spain.

Much of the old city dates back to the early days of the Spaniards. On our tour we visited several churches. Ecuador is predominantly a Catholic country. The oldest church we visited was the Church of San Francisco, which was built in 1535. Adjoining the Church of San Francisco was a monastery, which we were able to go inside.

Another church we visited began construction in 1607 and took 16 years to complete.

My favorite church was La Compania. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside. Inside was completely covered in gold. The altars were gold and even the walls were covered in gold leaf. Hanging on the walls were numerous pieces of artwork dating back many years. I have visited many churches in my 60 years and I think this was by far the most magnificent.

Also on our tour was a visit to the presidential palace. We were allowed to go inside and walk through the courtyard.

Guards stationed at the entrance to the presidential palace.
Guards stationed at the entrance to the presidential palace.

On the basement level of nearly all of the buildings were numerous, tiny shops, each with access from the street. Some of the shops were located in nothing more than hallways.

One of the many tiny shops found in the basements of most of the buildings in the "old city."
One of the many tiny shops found in the basements of most of the buildings in the “old city.”

By the time we finished our tour it was getting dark. Ecuador, as the name implies, is located on the equator. As a result sunrise and sunset are always the same, 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., and there are no seasons except perhaps the rainy season and the dry season. Temperatures stay fairly close to the same. In Quito that means daytime highs in the mid to upper 60s and lows in the mid to upper 50s year round.

A typical day while we were there was a clear to partly cloudy morning with no rain. In the afternoon it would cloud over and rain lightly for a few hours and then the rain would stop but the clouds would remain.

After dinner and a brief visit to the casino located in the hotel we called it a night in order to get up early to travel 60 miles north to Otavalo.

I will tell of our adventures there in part two.