Puffing up Cotopaxi, shopping mad in Otavalo
Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
103Trip End Apr 05, 2006
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Casa Helbling, our place in Quito, was a tidy, friendly hostel-style joint... a bit of a step down from the four-star Torremayor in Santiago but homely and welcoming nonetheless (the kind of place Rich and I consider luxurious!). Fearful of falling prey to the notorious petty criminals who stalk Quito's streets at night (and boy, had we been warned about this), we nipped across the road to a Brazilian parillada where we chewed on tough meat and tasty salads.
We hadn't made any firm plans for the Thursday but were toying with the idea of visiting Cotopaxi National Park. Over breakfast we decided to go for it and hastily arranged a guide/driver for the day with the help of the hostel staff. An hour later we were on the road with a friendly chap named Carlos and by noon we were there. The weather was less than ideal - very cloudy - so unfortunately we were not able to glimpse the perfect cone shape of this active volcano, Ecuador's second highest peak at 5,897m.
But the weather was no deterrent to our intrepid party. Carlos drove us to the car park on the flank of the volcano, from where we tackled the short but steep path up to the refugio at 4,890m. It's literally a breathtaking walk... not only were the views over the arid, desolate plains below and up to the snowline fantastic, but it left us totally out of breath. Having arrived in Quito just the day before, we'd had little time to acclimatise to the altitude, so we found ourselves puffing and panting all the way up. Mum Jen's approach to the challenge led her to describe the ingenious law of one hundreds - 100 paces, then rest, 100 then rest...
And so after a couple of hours we reached 4,890m
Friday morning we all spent a little time organising - Pete confirmed arrangements for our Galapagos and jungle tours with the agent, Kempery, and Rich and I hunted out diving options for Galapagos - before enjoying a cheap and cheerful South American set lunch near our hotel. At 2-ish we caught the trolley bus, or 'El Trole' (jam packed but dirt cheap) to the bus terminal, and hopped onto a bus to Otavalo.
Though we were the only passengers to embark at the terminal, the bus was crammed full by the time it hit the open road out of Quito... most locals jump on buses at intersections rather than go to the terminal. Jen and Pete watched in amazement as more and more people piled on (it reminded us of our sardine-tin bus trips in Indonesia!). The drive to Otavalo took us down a dramatic escarpment and along gorges through landscapes that were surprisingly arid
We arrived in Otavalo in the late afternoon and found our pre-booked hotel, Rincon De Belem, to be very pleasant, with an unbeatable price tag of $12 a room! We took a stroll through the town and up to the plaza where the famous handicrafts market was to take place the next morning. We immediately liked Otavalo: it had a friendly country town feel, some ppretty buildings and was brimming with local Otavaleno Indians in traditional dress - women in long navy-blue skirts and frilly, embroidered white blouses, with plenty of beads around their necks; men in white trousers, blue ponchos and hair in long plaits; both sexes wearing felt hats.
On Saturday we were up early for our big day at the market. At 8.30 or so, Rich, Pete and I headed to the livestock market while Jen hit the craft stalls. The livestock market was a noisy, smelly bustle of squealing piglets, a few goats and all manner of cattle. Sellers stood around the dusty field, keeping their animals closely tethered, while prospective buyers browsed among them, inspecting teeth and backsides. A very rustic affair, fascinating. We watched a brave little piglet escape twice from the back of a truck before being closed up for good, with a goat for company!
We spent the rest of the day wandering among the hundreds of stalls, doing Chrismas shopping and gawping at the colourful textiles and the characters who were selling them. The market stretched from the plaza down all the surrounding side-streets; though many down the side streets were selling cheap junk to the villagers - shoes, clothes, bags and plastics from China and the like - most of the stalls around the plaza displayed the most wonderfully colourful array of local weaving and knitting, traditional hats, woodwork and bead jewellery
Needless to say the place was crawling with gringos, and the vendors were wise to Western tourists' unfamiliarity with bargaining... though it was possible to bargain a bit, the prices certainly didn't go to rock-bottom. Nevertheless, we loved the day's shopping and made some super purchases for Christmas... several stall-holders certainly did well out of us! Exhausted by our shopping spree, we rounded off the day with a terrible Italian meal (Pete was served a salty ready-meal lasagna still in its foil tray) and some wine back at the hotel.
The plan for Sunday was to exlore some of the surrounding coutryside. We had arranged to be picked up from the hotel by another guide, who would show us sights in the area and drive us back to Quito. First stop was Cotacachi, a nearby village renowned for its leather goods, sold in small shops rather than an outdoor market. We strolled from shop to shop, browsing among beautifully crafted bags, jackets, belts and hats. Pete bought himself a stunning suede waistcoat, so by the end of the weekend he totally looked the part, with poncho and Otavaleno felt hat purchased at the market!
From the village we drove up into hills to Reserva Cotacachi-Cayapas, where we gazed out over Laguna Cuicocha, a beautiful crater lake dotted by two large islands and surrounded by interesting montane vegetation, including stunning magenta orchids. There is a path all around the rim of the crater - a super day walk - but we had to settle for a short walk to a viewpoint.
The final stop on our day itinerary was Lago de San Pablo, just outside Otavalo. Though the lake is frequently used for watersports such as jet-skiing and sailing, there was no activity on the water that day, and our views of the surrounding mountains were obscured by ever-present cloud. Nevertheless, we had a lovely lunch at the inn on the lake shore before heading back to Quito. On Sunday evening, back at Casa Helbling, we repacked our gear in preparation for the next day's departure to... Galapagos!