Otavalo Highs

Monday, March 15, 2010

The moment you cross the border from Colombia to Ecuador you start climbing. I was doing so in the truck of a farmer who had offered to give me a lift to the nearby (7km) town of Tulcan as he was going past there anyway. I thanked him any number of times and was grateful not to have had to find the collectivos nor to have walked up this path on my own. In Saskatchewan, they say you can see your dog run away for two weeks because it’s flat. Here, you could probably see your goat run away for about the same amount of time as all you have to do is look up. Finally, we came to the top of the hills and the highlands beyond and the farmer turned off the highway (I offered to walk at this point as going into town was no longer on his way) but he just kept driving. We got to the bus terminal and I thought it polite to ask him if I could give him a bit of cash for the lift. “$1.50,” he answered. Collectivos from the border cost $0.75. So I realized too late that he was taking me for a different kind of ride too and was asking far more that the three minutes out of his way was worth (remember, remember, this is Ecuador and, for example, the 3.5 hour bus ride to Otavalo only cost $2.50). I told him I had no change and gave him the $1 thinking it more than enough but then he went to the bus and asked them for fifty cents which they could get from me when I paid my fare. “Not,” I reflected, “a great welcome to Ecuador.”

I quickly forgot this minor event as the bus drove on and I gazed out at the brilliant hillsides and the setting sun. It was already late afternoon and I was still curious whether the bus ride would be 3 hours or 8 as I’d been told both, but given the price, I assumed 3 was closer. I arrived at last, probably around 8 PM, in the town of Otavalo, on a Friday night. Friday is important because the town is famous (and often booked solid) for its Saturday markets but I figured I’d chance finding a place and, worst case, grab a bus to nearby Ibarra or even Quito (30 mins/2 hours) if I didn’t find one. The first place I tried was full but the second, a hotel rather than hostel, had plenty of space and I got a private room there for $7 which they later bumped down to $6. I hadn’t eaten since the bus station on the Colombia side of the border which seemed quite long ago so after putting my stuff in the room I left immediately to grab a bite. My first meal in Ecuador, accidentally, was Chinese food and I didn’t even have Phil to blame. I ordered a “medium-sized” (LARGE) mixed plate which had noodles, chicken, beef, shrimp, and rice as well as a Coke and the equivalent of two bottles of beer for... are you ready? $3.25. Coming from Colombia where I was spending about $38/day, it was looking like I would be spending about $15/day here in Ecuador and that was very welcome indeed.

As I mentioned, the reason I stopped in Otavalo aside from border proximity was the Saturday markets. In the wee hours of the morning, traders stream in from all the nearby indigenous towns to join their Otavalo friends and set up stalls on almost every street in the centre. Mazes of handwoven wool products are unravelled and definitely are the main attraction, some from llama and others from alpaca, but in addition to this there are all the usual market attractions: paintings, traditional dress, jewellery, fruits, spices, t-shirts, and so forth. I was out and exploring the markets by 9 AM and already they were bustling with activity. The first item I noticed didn’t fall into the usual item category. Hats, hats, and more hats of every shape, style, and colour and in every direction. Panama hats, for example, are actually from Ecuador (each vendor is proud to remind you) and there was no shortage of them here. I left my fedora behind on a bus in Colombia so I was on the lookout but nothing jumped out at me. However, with the higher altitudes, I realized I’d probably need some warmer gear (despite being a stone’s throw north of the equator, Otavalo is at 2550m above sea level and the evenings get cool if not chilly. So I added an alpaca wool sweater, scarf, and pair of gloves to my wardrobe for $8, $4, and $2 respectively.

The vendors were all really friendly and I wound up chatting with a few of them for some time, which was a lot of fun. I always have to look for ways to keep working on the Spanish and getting to know a local is the best way by miles. I also grabbed some blackberry-guanabana juice (mmm, good!) and a few snacks while I walked around and browsed the wares. For lunch, I found a place with a spit-roasted pig’s head smiling at me and decided I’d accept his invitation. Another item of note: a ukulele/guitar that uses an armadillo’s shell as the sounding board rather than wood. Apparently this is quite a traditional musical instrument here and were I heading home from here I may have brought one. In fact, there were any number of items I came across that made me think of people back home but I’m sure there will be plenty more further south and closer to the end. I then walked around what little part of the town wasn’t covered in market stalls, picked up some fresh strawberries, a bottle of water, and went to recuperate. That is also how I spent the following day: studying Spanish and finishing Twilight (I found it at a book exchange and as much as I thought I was on track to hate it at the beginning I found it irresistible by the end).

Otavalo is famous for its markets but aside from that it is situated beautifully for exploring nearby towns, lakes, and the countryside. I mentioned to the hotel manager on Sunday that I was heading around to look at these towns and he said it was his day off and if I wanted he wouldn’t mind getting out of town a bit. After the guy at the border, I was definitely regretting opening my big mouth and asked as politely as possible if he was expecting money or anything. “No no, I just like to go and see the country”. I still wasn’t convinced there wasn’t some ulterior motive but we agreed to meet at 10 AM the next morning and I was kind of grateful when he wasn’t there. It might have been really cool to walk through the hills and towns with a local (or that was my initial thought, not to mention Spanish practice and having company) but I wasn’t ready to be misled again quite so soon. So I set out by 10:30 and made my way towards the town of Peguche, just up in the hills from Otavalo. On the way I had a local woman who was doing laundry in the stream see me and point me upstream to where there was a waterfall. Heading up across fields and small paths I found myself following an indigenous man and then chatting with him en route. He too was very nice and, it turned out, an author of some indigenous book or other about the Quichwa tribe of Inca that live here. And from where I left him at his museum (where he explained the significance of certain symbols in Inca mythology) I soon came across a classroom of young kids playing on the rocks near the waterfall and got to visiting with their teacher.

So I definitely haven’t written off Ecuadoreans despite earlier jokes and even worries at first. The people here in the hills all seemed very friendly and would say hello or good morning unprompted. After the waterfall I found myself in Peguche which was a nice little town and then noticed on my cartoon map that San Pablo, a lakeside town, was along this same road and set out walking. I passed a girl on the road up and asked for confirmation and she said it was, but it was very far. I should turn around and get a bus. But I hate to backtrack and I’d make it there one way or the other so I pressed on. The next truck that came by stopped and gave me a lift up the hill to their hometown of Agato from which I could also catch a bus so it didn’t give me much time to question my stubbornness. Rather than stand and wait for a bus, however, I decided to walk along the road the bus takes and flag it down but by the time the bus came by I was too enchanted with my walk to be interested. Farmers, field upon field of corn, pickup trucks passing by loaded with 20-something school kids, the distant volcanoes poking out from the clouds, and more were on offer, not to mention a nice walk through the countryside. I decided to just walk all the way to San Pablo de Laguna and it is one of the better things I’ve done in some time. I absolutely loved walking from town to town where you could tell that few travellers venture and being greeted and waved at constantly.

When I was in the Otavalo markets I had a little part of me that wondered if all the people really dressed so traditionally or if it was a show for the tourists. Having walked in the middle of nowhere, I can tell you that it is definitely NOT a show. Everybody dresses traditionally, and it is such a stark change from the very modern Colombia that I could scarcely believe it even seeing it. The border, after all, is not all that far away. The only slightly negative thing I have to say about the whole 6 hour excursion was that I got a bit sunburned (it’s usually clouded over by afternoon and rainy so I brought a rain jacket rather than sunscreen). Eventually I came over a rise and there was the lake below me. It still took me quite some time to reach San Pablo but I passed through some other nice towns and walked for quite a while along the lakeside. When I did get there, I was starving and forked out $4 for breaded shrimp on rice with a fried egg, diced tomatoes, and cilantro. It probably sounds better than it was, but it definitely hit the spot after such a big day. I caught the bus back to Otavalo which cost $0.25 and I thought that the travellers that paid the 25 cents to get there by bus as well paid a lot more in missed experience. Well, OK, I never thought that. But now that I’m typing it, it seemed like a good way to cap that adventure. Tomorrow, at long last, I cross the equator heading to Quito and finally the southern hemisphere. But don’t envy me the warmth yet – Quito is the second highest capital city in the world at 2850m. That high, and in the middle of the earth, maybe I can see both poles?

Otavalo Photos

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