23 Feb-2 March 2014. Reading the Lonely Planet descriptions of Quito four months after the fact my reaction is: We were there? Really? How did we miss all that splendour and beauty and things to see and do? Quito for us was something quite different and a bit difficult. It is the second highest capital city in the world, and we’d been suddenly flung, once again, from sea level (in the Amazon) to nearly 3000 metres, and our bodies were objecting. Also we’d read online how very dangerous Ecuador is, and uncharacteristically for us we had believed it, so we were feeling wary. There are many places in the world that are described on the Internet as dangerous, and all kinds of dire warnings are given. Usually we decide that we will discover our own experience and not let ourselves be limited by the experience of others. With Ecuador, for some inexplicable reason, we took the warnings to heart and felt constrained by them. Plus the weather was mostly atrocious.
Quito is surrounded by Andes volcanoes. Located in the Guayllabamba River basin, it also spreads itself over several ridges and valleys. The layout of the city is complex and difficult to navigate. Roads wind down and all along the length on one side of a valley and then up and back along the other. There are few direct routes anywhere. Except in the central old town, a Unesco World Heritage site since 1978.
Wandering around this beautiful area of the city: a chance meeting and a chat with a couple of its more captivating residents, who were delighted to be photographed as they sat eating their lunch.
My one enduring memory of Quito from the last time I visited South America, in 1978, is of a heart-stopping golden church, so naturally it was at the top of our list of things to see. The Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesus is one of the best and most important examples of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America. Begun in 1605 it was not completed until 1765. The astonishing gold-leaf-covered altars, and the sheer ornate golden extravagance of the interior took our breath away. It didn’t matter that I’d seen this place before; we walked in and were immediately entranced by its splendor and beauty.
The first photo is a sneaky shot from Don. The second is my photograph of a postcard that was not a good photograph to begin with, but at least gives some idea of the dazzling glory of the place.
From Don’s journal: 28 Feb 2014. Well, we sure didn’t see that coming: a hike over a moonscape from the parking lot at 4,500 meters to the refugio at 4,864 meters and from there up to 4,900 meters before the cold, fog, wind and hail drove us back down again. Our guide, Cristian Daniel Erazo Garcia, who is a mountain climber, set a very slow pace for us, which made the climb possible at all. I’d hoped to make it to 5,000 meters, which is where the Cotopaxi glacier begins, but I just didn’t have it in me to do that last 100 meters, which didn’t sound like much until I looked at the path going up and up ahead of us. It was 100 vertical metres over a winding track, not just 100 metres along the path, and probably would have taken another hour or more. We could both have done with a layer of silk underwear to keep us warm enough. As it was I was just warm enough with what I had on and Ali not quite. On the positive side we made a climb that there is no way we could have done when we first went up to altitude in Bolivia, or even in Puno when we went back there for Candelaria. So that’s good for us: we’re much fitter and more acclimated to the altitude than we were in those locations. After we got back in Cristian’s vehicle my heartbeat became irregular and continued until after I’d had a cup of mate de coca at a café on the way back down the mountain.
We did get high enough to see the glacier.
A new refuge is being built part way up the volcano. Everything needed for construction is hauled up by donkeys.
A brief break in the clouds gave us a view of the valley below.
On the way driving up to the starting point of the hike we saw clusters of the Flower of the Andes. It is very particular about altitude, and only grows within a specific range.
Driving down we saw an Andean wolf. Unlike the ubiquitous Flower of the Andes, Andean wolves are quite rare. Cristian said there are only two in the area, and here was one of them hanging out right by the side of the road, seemingly just waiting for us. These kinds of magical encounters with wildlife still, and will always, leave me feeling both mystified and blessed. It was so completely unexpected. We couldn’t believe our luck.
From Don’s journal: 1 March 2014. We began what ended up being a very long day by going to the animal market in Otavalo: a fascinating slice of Ecuadorian life with one llama, one turkey, and masses of goats, cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, rabbits, and guinea pigs for sale. The chickens looked to be having the worst time of it, often being carried around upside down by their feet and then stuffed into a bag once they’d been sold: not much of a life. Though of course the same could just as easily be said for all the other animals there, given their eventual fate.
Guinea pigs are a substantial part of the diet of the people of the Andes. They need little food and attention to survive, reproduce rapidly, and provide a protein rich meal. The Andean people both keep guinea pigs as pets, and eat them for dinner, a tradition going back hundreds of years. Just about every restaurant we went to throughout the Andes offered guinea pig on the menu, and we frequently saw them for sale at the markets, both alive, and roasted whole. We might have tried it had it been served in some way disguised, but a whole roast guinea pig sitting on the plate before you was a little more than we could swallow. It’s all a matter of conditioning I suppose.
What we did eat was bizcochos. Bizcochos is a Spanish generic term for pastries, but in the small town of Cayambe, just north of Quito, they have perfected a buttery crumbly log-shaped to-die-for shortbread treat that’s typically eaten with cheese, or with dulce de leche. We chose the dulce de leche and ate them fresh, still hot from the oven, dipped in the rich smooth caramel. I think Don thought they were okay. I thought they were one of the most delicious things I’d eaten in all of South America.
From the animal market we drove to the large and very beautiful Cuicocha Crater Lake at the foot of the Cotacachi Volcano and spent some time walking around the lake.
The Otavalo textile and artisan market is huge, filling the entire town square, a main street, and several side streets. Although Otavalo Canton used to be largely a farming area the main industry now is tourism. Crafts are produced in many of the surrounding villages and sold at the market. The area is best known for textiles and weaving of such high quality that they are sold worldwide, and many Otavaleños are quite wealthy. Apparently they are the most prosperous ethnic group in Latin America.
It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that indigenous people in traditional dress in developing countries are by definition quite poor. There’s no doubt that some Otavaleños are, but many of them are quite affluent, and some very wealthy. I’m saying this because I am aware that I do fall into this trap, and the result is a subtle unconscious ‘pigeonholing’. If I look from outside this box a different reality is obvious. They’re not poor they’re just different. One would think this is self-evident, and yet I think we all have unconscious conditioning that affects how we experience the world, and breaking free from it opens up a whole new perception.
Despite the influence of tourism, and the adoption of modern technology, the Otavaleños are proud of their heritage and have retained their traditional customs and dress. We could see the two worlds living side by side.
Wandering on from the textiles we came to the fruit and vegetable market on one of the side streets. As always we preferred getting away from the artisan market and discovering where the locals go to shop for shoes and clothes, food and produce.
Around the town of Otavalo
And so our time in Quito came to an end. On March 3rd we flew, with great excitement, to the Galapagos Islands. We expected it to be pretty fabulous, but we really had no idea how utterly amazing it would be. Galapagos Islands next.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.