Friday, December 11, 2009

Ecuador, Day 4

Today I traveled to Otavalo, a town of roughly 50,000 people, of whom more than 50% are indigenous persons. There are two extinct volcanoes nearby – Volcán Imbabura and Volcán Cotacachi – and, with a third mountain in the vicinity, they dominate the landscape. Otavalo is perhaps most famous for its weekend market, which the Indians in Otavalo have been holding since before pre-Incan times. Commercially, though, Otavalo is perhaps better known for producing some of the world’s best quality roses. Two dozen here cost a dollar – next time you buy some, ask your florist where they came from. There’s a good chance they’ll say Ecuador.

Otavalo is only a two-hour bus ride from Quito, however I had horrible problems this morning getting on one. First, I scarfed down a quick breakfast at my hotel and said goodbye to two travelers there who were also from Oahu, then I hit the pavement and started looking for a taxi.

One of the hotel employees ran out to find me and insisted on getting me a taxi, perhaps so he could explain where to take me. However, the taxi driver took me to the wrong station, and the employees there weren’t the least bit helpful about setting me straight. I ended up finding the right station eventually, but the ticket-seller there, who obviously wanted to be anywhere BUT there, told me there was only one bus to Otavalo and it left at 3 p.m. Looking at the clock behind her I saw I had 6 1/2 hours. I asked her where else I could catch a bus to Otavalo but she just shrugged and pointed at a chair where I could sit and wait. I paid $2 for the ticket and decided to get another taxi back to my hotel. However, none of the taxis would agree to use their meter and tried to charge me two or three times what I paid to get there in the first place. Finally I flagged down a driver who automatically used a meter, and after questioning him about my options I asked how much he’d charge to take me there directly. It took me a few minutes to agree, but in the end I decided to pay him $50 for the trip. I basically reasoned that by taxi I’d get there by 10:30 a.m., whereas the 3 p.m. bus would get me into Otavalo at around 5:30. That’s a seven-hour difference, and I figured that my time is worth $7/hour. The trip was great. The driver explained a great number of things we passed on the way to Otavalo.

Upon checking in to my hotel, the first place I decided to go was the Parque Condor (entrance fee $3.25), a Dutch-run foundation that takes in injured birds and helps them recuperate. I was a little late for the free condor flight demonstration, but as you’ll see in one of the photos below I got a demonstration anyway – straight from the bird.

The drive to the park is spectacular, as you climb a steep hill called Pucara Alto, which is populated by local Indians, offering expansive views of the green, rolling valley.

I was amazed by the variety of birds of prey and owls that they keep.

Not surprisingly, the condors were the big draw, although there were only four that I saw there. The weirdest bird I saw was a harpy eagle.

It had the body of an eagle but the face of an owl and the ears of a cat. That’s one bird I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.

Following the Parque Condor I headed for El Lechero, a famous tree in Otavalo – and apparently the only one of its kind in the town – that the Indians believe has special healing powers and treat as being sacred.

It’s perched on a mound atop a hill, with the valley sprawling in every direction around it, and Ecuador’s largest lake, Laguna San Pablo, stretching out on one side. There are many farm plots around, and one sees fields of maize, potatoes, tomatoes, and quinoa growing all over the place. It’s a beautiful spot.

By the time I got back to town I decided to have lunch. After circling the Plaza de Ponchos a couple times, I ventured down Sucre Street and was lured into Restaurante Mi Otavalito by a roasted pig’s head to the side of the entrance.

I was given a menu as soon as I sat down, and I quickly realized that I didn’t know any of the selections on it. I asked what a few items were, and when I pointed to “Llopingocho de Otavalo” ($5) and the waitress rattled off a long explanation of various things it came with, I knew I found what I wanted.

I started off with crème de hongos ($1.80), which is a cream of mushroom soup. Not much to it – it was warm and creamy, and the mushrooms were predictably scant.

However, when my entrée came out I was amazed. I had no idea what was before me, but it sure looked and smelled good.

The dish came with stewed beef, two fried eggs, steamed white maize, a fried plantain, sliced avocado, a small salad, and two pulverized yellow potato patties. I had to ask what the meat, maize, and potatoes patties were, everything was so new to me. This was an exotic meal, for sure, and it was absolutely fantastic.

Mi Otavalito can be found at Calle Sucre 11-19 y Morales. Tel: 920-176. Hours: 8 a.m. – 11 p.m. daily.

As if that weren’t enough, on my way back toward Plaza de Ponchos I came across Shenandoah Pie Shop.

I’m such a sucker for pies, or anything sweet, so I went inside and ordered a cup of coffee and a piece of homemade blackberry pie with ice cream.

I had no idea how much pie and ice cream I was actually going to get – Ecuadorians definitely love their sweets – but I was pretty happy. The pie was unbelievably good. The crust was maybe the best I’ve ever had, and the blackberry innards were moist and fruity and sweet. Combined with those two scoops of vanilla ice cream, this was a serious treat, and one that I really didn’t deserve. But oh well. I’m hardly complaining! Altogether my dessert and coffee were well under $3 (I don’t remember the exact price), which is a great deal considering how much you get and how darned good it is.

Shenandoah Pie Shop is right on the Plaza de Ponchos: Calle Salinas (y Modesto Jaramillo) 5-15. Hours: 7:30 a.m. – 9 p.m. daily.

Although I was about to explode by this point, I still had to pass a number of Indian vendors to get back to my hotel, and I was drawn in fairly quickly by two women who were selling ponchos, scarves, throws, and blankets.

Although I had no intention of buying anything before coming here, and I’d promised myself prior to coming to South America that I wouldn’t weigh myself down with souvenirs, I couldn’t help myself. These women were selling high quality baby alpaca scarves for $5 – that a pre-bargain price! The baby alpaca blankets, which were sizeable, were $22 or $23. So what could I do? I bought two blankets after feebly bargaining them down to $20 each.

In the U.S., these blankets would have probably cost me six times that, at least. I have no idea what I’m going to do with them now, or how I’ll get them home. But no matter. I’ll deal with that when the time comes.

After a short rest I wandered through Otavalo and took some random photographs. I’ll put some of them below and try to add captions later.

By the time I finished wandering, the sun had gone down and I decided I should have dinner – though I can’t say I was particularly hungry. At the Plaza de Ponchos vendors were setting up tents in which they were cooking all kinds of stews, hot drinks, and exotic looking snacks.

I ended up taking a seat at a stand where a woman was cooking humas and something called quimbolitos.

The humas, as I wrote in a previous post, is basically pulverized maize steamed in a maize husk. Again, it tasted something like corn bread, but the quimbolito, with an airier texture than the humas, was sweet.

I also ordered hot milk sweetened with sugar and – the Otavalo answer to bobolo – containing something that was like cooked rice. Good stuff! And the damage to my wallet was a mere $1.25.

After I returned to my hotel I decided that I really needed a salad. My body wasn’t telling me this, but I knew that I would do well with some greens, which are hard to come by in a lot of the restaurants and virtually unseen in street stands.

The salad with a glass of red wine cost me $8.10. The range in food prices here and in Peru has been amazing. But since it’s a hotel restaurant – and a good one, apparently – the price isn’t surprising.

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  1. Thi is one of the best posts on traveling in Ecuador I've seen. We're headed to Otavalo and Cotacachi at the end of this month. Thanks very much!

  2. Caroline: I can't believe I forgot to respond until now -- sorry! I hope you had a great time in Otavalo and Cotacachi. I'm in Chile now, and have been for two weeks, but Otavalo remains one of my favorite trips in South America so far. Thanks for your kind words, and buen dia!