08.06.2013 - 08.06.2013
Upon arriving back on the mainland of Ecuador, in the capital Quito, we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted with warm weather and sunny skies as we found ourselves yet again at a high altitude city. We quickly regretted booking in 5 nights at our hostel which had the worst bed we have ever slept in, poor wifi, cold showers and a depressing atmosphere with no common room. It was however conveniently located between Quito´s lively new town and it's beautiful old town. As we arrived on a Saturday and we proudly realised we hadn´t had a drop of alcohol in 2 weeks we decided to have a night out in the new town. There was plently going on and while the nightlife wasn´t really our scene, we eventually found a few bars to our liking and had a good night out.
The next day we were scraping the barrel for things to do as Quito (even more so than other South American cities) completely shuts down on Sundays. We found online that the house of Ecuador´s most famous artist, Oswaldo Guayasamín, was not only open but free to visit on Sundays. We were sold! The house and its exterior were quite fascinating with unique architecture and furniture. We quickly lost count of the number of rooms and the guy had enough armchairs and sofas to sit somewhere different every day of the year. The master bedroom was the biggest we have ever seen. The walls of every room dispayed his works some of which we weren´t particularly taken with (depicting human pain and suffering) but he was obviously very talented. Unfortunately, like most of these places we could not take photos inside.
On Monday the rest of the town awoke from their day long Sunday siesta and we ventured into the old town of Quito which we read is the largest in all of the Americas. We spent much of the day just wandering the streets admiring the dozens of plazas, churches and cathedrals. After so much travel around Europe and South America, it takes quite a lot for us to be really impressed by a cathedral (we often are saying 'oh look, another cathedral') but the gothic style Basilica on the northern end of the old town was something special and the steep climb to the top was worth it with 360 degree views of the city. Despite the beauty and grandeur of Quito´s old town, there was a distinct lack of restaurants, cafes, bars and shops and the area is renowned for muggings even in seemingly safe areas. At one stage we were told by a local to turn around and go back and we realised we were heading up safe looking steps our guide book had specifically told us to avoid. One day in the old town was enough and we didn´t really venture back in. That night Scott went into the new town for a poker night at a bar called Dirty Sanchez that we had been to on Saturday night. It was good fun and had a nice mix of local, expats and gringos.
Most tourists who go to Quito make the hour trip out of town to be at the exact line of the equator, locally known as ´Mitad del Mundo´ (middle of the world). It seemed like a fair bit of effort just to go and stand on a line but we set out to do it really just to be able to say we´ve had one foot on each hemisphere. The journey out there and back was entertaining (as most local South American busses are) as people hop on try to sell anything and everything. One lady on the way there was trying to flog a product that we believe she was trying to claim was a cure for cancer and on the way back we were ammused by a duo of busking black Ecuadorian rappers with a beatbox on ones shoulder. Anyway, the site itself was made up of the obligatory touristy shops and restaurants, a large monument built around a museum with the world perched on top and the long yellow line of the equator. After spending forever taking photos for other tourists who wanted pictures of themselves on the line we eventually got some of ourselves. We then got a nice guided tour in English around the museum which had absolutely nothing to with the equator but had a lot of interesting things on the cultures and traditions of the different provinces of Ecuador. We had heard that a mistake was made and after the line and monument had been constructed, it was decided that the equator was infact a few hundred metres further north. Before we left we set out to settle it ourselves. Scott found some toilets 10m north of the line and the water flushed anti-clockwise and then found a toilet about 20m south of the line and it flushed clockwise! That was proof enough. He did a quick google search when we got back and discovered this toilet flushing theory that we had learnt from an episode of The Simpsons was actually a myth and the way the water flushes is simply determined by the design of the toilet but we still choose to believe that we stood on the equator.
On our final day in Quito we took the teleferico (cable car) up to a view point of the city. It took us so high up that the city became so far away that it took a bit away from the view but we could appreciate just how large it was. There was a hike we could do at the top through the mountains but it was a 5 hour trail, it was cold and we hadn't yet fully readjusted to the altitude so we happily agreed to give that one a miss. That evening we went out for dinner and drinks with Jade and Paul who had just arrived back in Quito from the Galapagos so we had plenty of stories to share. It was also their final night in South America before heading back to Aus (via a cheeky few days in NYC!). It has been great catching up with them on numerous occasions since we met in the jungle.
The next morning we hopped on a bus 2 hours north to the town of Otavalo. This town makes it on the map due to its famous Saturday market which Lonely Planet rates as the best in the continent. We got in around midday and after lunch we caught a short taxi ride out to the Condor Park just out of town that looks after rescued birds. We saw all sorts of eagles, condors and owls. Just before we left we watched a bird show where one of the staff brought out 4 or 5 different well trained birds. At one stage one of the eagles flew off into the distance out of sight and we thought he wasn't coming back but after 10 minutes or so she did. It was quite an enjoyable afternoon and the views over Otavalo and it's surrounding towns and mountain were an added bonus.
We still had another day before the Saturday markets so we made our way 45 minutes out of town to Laguna Cuicocha. We first took a local bus out to the tiny rural town of Quiropa and then had to take a taxi from there. The drive out there was really nice with some of the best and most remote countryside we have seen in South America. Everything lush and green including the impressive mountains.
The taxi driver dropped us off at a spot near the lake and told us to climb through a wired fence straight towards it where we assumed the trail was. Despite there being a sign saying that access this way was prohibited, he insisted this was the right way so off we went. When we caught site of the lake it was hard not to be impressed. It is actually an active crater lake with two small islands that occupy the heart of the lake. A really spectacular sight which we suspect very few tourist actually go to.
After admiring the lake we set out to find the trail to hike around it which is meant to take 4 to 5 hours. Problem was we couldn't find it and we now suspect that the taxi driver dropped us at the point of the best view, not realizing we wanted to find the trail for the hike. We walked around for about an hour getting much closer to the lake than we were probably supposed to as we climbed two barbed wire fences. Eventually we realised we were not in the right place as there was no track in sight but by this stage it was a long way to go back so we went bushbashing uphill to try and get back up on the road. This was another poor choice as we spent the majority of our time climbing on our hands and knees and when we were very close we had to give up as the 2 metre high vertical rock that we had to climb to reach the top was so eroded we had no chance of going any further. Finally we made the tough decision to head back to our start point.
When we made it back to where the taxi dropped us off, we made our way around about 25% of the lake (without any views of it) on the dirt road until we reached the only development on its perimeter; two restaurants. From there we could hop on a small boat ride through the lake which we did with a small group of the first tourists we had seen all day. The ride was a bit fresh and windy but we were kept entertained by a loud American behind us who looked and sounded just like Mr. Garrison off South Park. We left the lake happy with our find off the beaten track despite our day not going exactly to plan.
On the way back to Otalvalo we had to go via Quiropa again and as we looked for some lunch it was quite interesting watching the locals who probably aren't used to seeing gringos. In the restaurant (where we got our standard Ecuadorian $2 set lunch with a two course meal and drink) two children ran out of the kitchen and into the dining area, took one look at Scott's beard, and ran straight back into the kitchen. Many of the local kids are more curious of the beard and just the other day a youngster reached out to touch it in an Internet cafe. It's a big hit with the other gringos too. On more than one occasion someone has stopped us on the street to say 'nice beard!' That night we watched Ecuador play Peru in a bar for the World Cup qualifiers. The packed bar of Ecuadorians left disappointed after Peru caused a big upset but the one Peruvian in the bar was extatic despite telling me he´ll probably get beaten up when he leaves the bar.
On Saturday we stepped out of our hostel to watch this sleepy old town become overrun with locals and tourists alike for market day. We wandered down to the outskirts of town to check out the animal market. We had a bit of trouble finding it but when we saw people walking down the street carrying two chickens in each hand, upside-down by the legs, we guessed we were going in the right direction. Things seemed to be wrapping up a bit once we got there as people were leaving the market with their purchases; goats, cows, ducks, chickens, pigs, guinea pigs, dogs, cats - you name it! The strangest sight was seeing an old lady walking off with a lamb strapped in a bag to her back (pictured below). The treatment of the animals was pretty poor, especially of the chickens. We went there expecting this but was still pretty sad to see.
We then made our way back into the centre where the majority of the streets were taken up with stalls and vendors selling all kinds of things. We spent the best part of the day wandering around the markets and still didn´t see it all. Plenty of locals didn´t have their own stall but didn´t let that stop them as they just roamed the streets selling everything from electronics to wheelbarrows of grapes. Ecuador´s currency is the US dollar which made things quite easy for us. We had a pretty successful day of shopping although we had to be careful with what we bought as our bags are already bursting at the seems. Haggling at the market is very accepted and we managed to get most items around half of the orginally quoted price except for one 10 year old girl manning a stall who completely refused to budge and we were forced to pay full price.
Scott: 'Cuanto cuesta para los beanies?'
10y/o girl: '$4'
10y/o girl: '$4'
10y/o girl: '$4'
Scott: 'ok, $4'
Tomorrow morning we make our way to our final country which happens to be the country we have most been looking forward to - Colombia!