I have a really bad feeling that this is just going to be thousands of words that aren’t in the least bit interesting to anybody but me. Sorry about that, but the moment that I found myself writing the odd note here and there at the end of a day, I just knew that this day was going to come. You can take the blogger away from a computer, but apparently you can’t stop the urge to blog.
I’ll try to make this as painless as possible, otherwise it will take me all night to write, and you all day to read. It's going to be in several parts, I'm afraid... and given that we lost most of the photos we took in the first week when C's memory card went mental, there aren't going to be too many pictures either.
Ready? Here we go.
Ecuador Trip - Part one.
[Part one - Part two - Part three - Part four - Part five - Part six - Part seven - Part eight]
Friday 2nd March
A 4am start to make it down to Heathrow for a flight at 9am. It sounds bad enough as it is, but if we hadn’t driven down that extra 70 miles down the motorway to my parents’ house straight after work yesterday, then we’d have been starting at 3am. Besides, it gives me a chance to see my Dad in hospital before we go away. Needless to say, I was extremely relieved to see that he’s doing okay and should be home in the next few days.
After 9 hours we land in Miami. Ah, US Customs. With their attention to detail, America is assured of winning the War on Terror. In order to catch our connection to Quito, we are required to fill out a visa waiver form for entry to the USA, go through Immigration, pick up our bags, go through customs, drop our bags off, go back through security and get on the plane. At the immigration desk, C. is given a major grilling about the stamps in her passport. She has visited countries like China, Taiwan and Korea in the last seven years, and the US needs to know why she has been there in order to assess if she is a threat to national security. I have no such problems. My passport is brand new and has no stamps to be admired. Of course, in my last passport I had stamps to Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Cuba and to Hades itself, but apparently they’re not interested in that, only in what they can see. Thank God that all terrorists have that fact stamped as their occupation in their travel documents, eh?
We finally arrive in Quito and are met by our guide for the next 2 weeks – Ivan. Ivan greets us warmly, introduces us to his wife and then takes us out to his Land Cruiser for the 90 minute trip to Otavalo. We arrive there about 24 hours after we initially set out for Heathrow, so all we can do is find our way to our room and to collapse into bed. It’s market day tomorrow, so Ivan tells us we’ll have to make an early start if we want to catch the livestock market.
Saturday 3rd March
Otavalo is a lovely little town, but its real claim to fame is that it has probably the most famous market in South America. It’s actually three completely separate markets: the livestock market, the food market and the textiles market. The latter is the most famous and is the one that is mentioned in all of the guidebooks and attracts all of the gringos (many with horrible dreadlocks, 'ethnic' trousers that no ethnic person would be seen dead in, and carrying backpacks), but the first two are probably more interesting. We spend a happy couple of hours wandering around the market watching cows being loaded onto the back of trucks and sampling fruits I have never heard of before, never mind tasted before (my favourite is the Grenadilla – a member of the passion fruit family that you split open with your hands and suck all the seeds out).
The textile market is interesting though, and I manage to pick up the mandatory Panama Hat (here it’s more properly called a “Montechristi”) and we both pick up nice thick woolly sweaters to keep us warm in the mountains. The asking price for a handmade wool sweater? About $8.
Otavalo is at about 3200m, so it’s a good chance for us to acclimatise to the altitude before we head out on our trek. In the afternoon we take a gentle stroll up past a waterfall at the edge of town and out towards a big lake. It’s not far or very arduous, but somehow it takes much longer than it should as we all seem to be walking very slowly. We reach the lake and hop onto an absolutely banging bus back into town – literally… there is a band hitching a ride into town with all of their instruments and they play all the way back to the town centre. It’s aces!
Calzone for tea. Not very traditional, I know, but tasty.
Sunday 4th March
Our breakfast is cooked for us by the hotel’s armed guard. He wears a natty little uniform and a beret with the hotel’s name on, but to be honest he doesn’t look like he’s ever fired a gun in anger in the whole of his long life. I think they reckon it makes the guests feel safer. I must say, he looks quite the picture in the kitchen with his pinny on.
Today we head out towards the Cotacachi volcano and walk around the lower crater lake at Cuicocha. It takes about 4 hours in all to walk the 10km around and climb up as far as about 3420m. It’s a beautiful spot, no?
I see my first hummingbirds here as well as an American Kestrel. Ivan seems thrilled that C. and I both show some interest in the birdlife, so we begin THE LIST. Every day from now until we go home, I am more or less forced to write down in my notebook a list of all of the birds that we have seen. Apparently nobody is as interested in birds as the British – especially not the French Canadians. I like birds (I used to be in the YOC, you know) so I decide it’s probably better not to tell Ivan that the British are probably just too polite / repressed to tell their enthusiastic guide that they don’t really need to have a comprehensive list of every bird they see over the next three weeks. I made the list. Email me if you’re interested. No one’s interested? Damn your eyes! I didn’t write them all down for nothing, did I? Did I?
We have a leisurely lunch afterwards in a restaurant with Ivan’s family: Alexsita his wife and his two kids, Juan and Pablo (I simply had to ask him if he was planning on calling his next two sons Jorge and Ringo. Apparently not.)
We then wander around the town itself, which appears to sell nothing but leather goods. Tempted though I am to buy a pair of chaps, I content myself with buying a band for my wrist made out of horse hair. When I have a shower later on, I realise that the whole bathroom honks of wet horse. Oh well. What can you do?
I’m not sure what else we did with the day, to be honest. I’ve just looked in my notebook, and the only thing I have written down about the afternoon is (and I quote) “lovely spicy chilli sauces”.
Make of that what you will.
Monday 5th March
An 8am start to head up the cobbled road to the lagoon at Cariocha de Mojanda (passing a bit of the Inca trail on the way up) and a hike to the summit of Mount Fuya-Fuya. At 4275m, it’s our highest peak yet and it gives Ivan a chance to see how the two of us are handling the altitude before we head out on the trek tomorrow.
On the whole, I don’t think we’re doing too badly – I had been warned about the nagging headaches before we arrived, and Ivan has been watching us like a hawk and making sure that we drink lots of water and stop regularly for breaks for nuts and Guava jelly to keep our energy up. I feel a bit breathless, but basically okay. In fact, the most noticeable thing happening to me is that all the water and coca tea I’m drinking is making me want to pee all of the time (but what else is new, right?).
It’s cloudy and cold at the top, but the exhilaration and sense of achievement is fantastic. We climb down (slowly) and head back into Otavalo to gather our bags and set out for the starting point of the trek in the Land Cruiser. On the way out of the town we stop in an untidy little shanty town off the main road to pay a visit to Don Carlito. For the last 60 years, Don Carlito has been buying wool on the market, carding it by hand, spinning it out into a thread on a spinning wheel and then using a back-strap loom that predates the Spanish Conquest to painstakingly create the most beautiful clothes. It’s a painstaking process and as I watch him doing it, I can’t quite believe how much effort goes into it. A scarf – a simple scarf – will be woven from a single piece of wool in this way, it will be dyed using natural pigments (the brown is made from crushed walnuts, for example) and then brushed with a dried thistle head to soften the wool. And how much would one of those scarves set you back? All those long hours of painstaking craftsmanship? Why, that would be $5.
We buy two, and leave with a new appreciation for something that Don Carlito does in his spare time from running his smallholding.
We climb back in the Land Cruiser and head on to the Chachimbiro thermal springs. This is a beautiful spot nestled against a dormant volcano where the water comes out with a natural temperature of up to 50 degrees Celsius. With the help of the local government, the community here has constructed a lovely set of pools, together with some Turkish baths, some hydrotherapy rooms and a few rooms. The hope is that this will provide a steady source of income for some 450 indigenous families in the local community. It seems to be working, with up to 3000 people paying $3 for access every weekend. It’s a bit quieter than that when we are there, and we have the pools more or less to ourselves, give or take the local mayor and his bodyguards and three gringas who sit and talk earnestly with each other about re-birthing experiences (oh yes - literally spending time in "Lake Me"). We spend an hour or so wallowing in the pools before dinner and an early night.
We start the 5 day Pinyan trek tomorrow.
to be continued........... (sorry, it's going to be a series)