Two days ago, the Baron and I were hiking in the Andes at an altitude of 13,400 feet, so high we were able to look down on clouds below us. A day later, we were back in New York City with snowbanks two feet high, the Iowa caucuses looming and a dead cockroach on our living room floor. Onward we shuffle, however, with profoundly grateful hearts at having experienced even the smallest slice of magical, ethereal Ecuador. Here are some of our favorite moments.
1. Quito, weird and wonderful, just the way I like it
Quito has all the pastel-bridesmaid-dress charm you’d want in a former Spanish colony with all the grit and weirdness of Times Square, circa 1975. By charm, I mean kids playing soccer with an empty water bottle in the town square under the backdrop of the Andes and by weird, I mean prostitutes populating that very same square on a bright Sunday afternoon during a family-friendly concert. The ladies propositioned both me and the Baron with a friendly, “hey babies…” and I appreciated their progressive, equal-opportunity approach. Favorite spots in Quito: Museo Guayasamín and Capilla del Hombre, El Centro de Arte Contemporáneo (where has Pilar Flores been all my life?), the Fluz Quito exhibition at Centro Cultural Metropolitano and La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. Best restaurants/cafes: Bandido Brewing (hi Ryan, Edison and Tatiana!), Los Arrieros, Cosa Nostra.
2. La Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World City) and Museo Solar Intiñan
In preparation for the trip, the Baron and I both read the brilliant book “The Mapmaker’s Wife: A True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in the Amazon” which covers the 1735 French expedition to mark the equator line and establish the circumference of the earth. It was amusing to find out that the French needn’t have wasted 10 years and several lives on the task when they could have just asked the indigenous people who had accurately marked it over 700 years prior, based on their intimate knowledge of the sun. Still, the Frenchies were only 240 meters off and it was a fun day with the best plantain empanadas, a beautiful views of the Pululahua Volcano and this sweet ride in the parking lot.
Otavalo came in two parts: firstly, the exquisite Cabañas del Lago on San Pablo lake where we slept for the very first time in a room with a fireplace in it. Our fire sputtered and smoldered for an hour or so with worrisome plumes of smoke billowing out of the chimney but the Baron, undeterred, gave a final, authoritative nudge to a problematic log and soon, toes and cheeks were aglow in firelight. Part two was the town itself with its famous craft market which, not being shoppers, we skipped in favor of crashing a couple of very interesting church services including one with a wild dog in the aisle and a baptism in the second. Feeling extra holy, we spent the rest of the day admiring sun-faded facades and the elaborate traditional garments of the local indigenous people, and lastly, by being doused with a squirt gun by a young, gun-slinging Otavaleño. Also: waterfall alert #1: Peguche.
4. Roadside Llamas and Landscapes in General
We met these two dudes on the road between Otavalo and Papallacta and I have to say they were the best portrait subjects I’ve ever worked with in terms of patience, beauty and sense of symmetry and composition. They know their good sides. Also, the Andean landscapes in this region are not to be believed.
5. Termas de Papallacta
We are not really spa people, but we couldn’t pass up the chance to dip our road-weary bodies in the bubbling thermal waters that spring from the Cayambe and Antisana Volcanos at an altitude of 10,824 feet. Translation: it was hot tub time and we booked a spa package at the beautiful Termas de Papallacta, which is especially good for people in their golden years, which we are apparently rapidly approaching. Also: waterfall alert #2-4: Las Tres Marias, milk-carrying donkey included.
6. Amazon, The Lodge
I didn’t think the Amazon was a place you could just go to unless you were Tarzan or a monkey, however, we quickly learned, while being whisked from place to place in a motorized canoe, it’s not only a place you could go to, you MUST go to. We stayed at Casa del Suizo, perched high in the Amazon jungle with the most beautiful views of the Napo River, a tributary to the mighty Amazon, with the ever-looming Andes in the distance.
7. Amazon, The People
People actually live in the Amazon, you ask? Yes, they do, and we were lucky to meet Marta, her beautiful daughter, and other Quechua Indian children who live a 10 minutes hike into the jungle. They live in open cabin-like structures without windows and their relationship with nature and all that is good in life is something I will be thinking about for awhile. Marta works much harder than I do, and even so, she shared her family’s stash of chicha, a fermented yucca beverage she makes by grinding yucca and fermenting it with the sugars in grated sweet potatoes. Despite having 6 children (probably natural births and standing up, which is the custom), she had the loveliest demeanor and a smile as wide as the Napo. On leaving Marta’s house, I came across this little Quechuan boy on the banks of the river and I rather liked his “whatchoo looking at, gringo?” attitude.
8. Amazon, The Wildlife
I secretly harbored a wish that I would see real monkeys flying through the jungle and although I equally thought that was madcap and improbable, an eagle-eyed gal in our group spotted a family of spider monkeys flinging themselves through the jungle canopy on our way to the Amazonico Animal Rescue Center. Our boatswain, Jonathan killed our canoe’s motor and we drifted, awestruck at the monkey show and I could be wrong, but I think they were showing off for us, doing backflips and flinging themselves about using only their tails. Crazy monkeys. The day also included a hike in the Misicocha Natural Reserve after which, dripping with sweat, we floated down the river on a balsa raft and at one point abandoned the raft altogether and floated down in our clothes and life vests. It was the kind of experience that had the Baron and I looking at each other and saying, “what did we do to deserve this?” An experience we’ll never forget.
9. Baños & Hacienda Manteles
We only had a few hours in Baños, yet it still managed to charm us entirely. We stopped off at their marvelously painted church, Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Agua Santa and Arte Cafe y Té, which is run by Juan, a fabulous Columbian guy, who roasts his coffee beans on the spot. We picked up a half pound of organic Ecuadorian beans which came in handy later during a surprise national police inspection at the airport*. That night, we stayed in the positively exquisite Hacienda Manteles in the valley of Patate, situated under the Tungurahua volcano, an active beast who was sputtering steam and ash right in our faces. If there was any place in Ecuador I would move to tomorrow, it would be the valley of Patate. It is unforgettably beautiful. Also: waterfall alert #5: El Pilon del Diablo, “The Devil’s Cauldron.”
10. Rose Success Farm and Hacienda La Cienega
I’m not the kind of girl who goes crazy for roses, but I go crazy for interesting people in interesting situations and the Rose Success Farm was one of them. The workers cultivate, cut, and prepare for shipment the more than a quarter billion dollars worth of flowers that go out to the world every year. Because of the nutrient rich soil from Ecuador’s many volcanos, cut flowers are one of their biggest exports. I’m not sure how well paid the workers in this industry are, so I reserve judgement on their quality of life, but the farm was beautiful to see and they handed out roses to us as freely as if they were bodega carnations. We had lunch in our Hacienda La Cienega which was as lovely and hacienda-like as one could hope.
Bonus Quito Moment: Andean Hike in Pichincha Volcano
We had an extra day and a half in Quito at the end of our trip and I will flatly admit we pooped out halfway through the first day, went back to the hotel and plotzed in the heated pool. Completely revivified the next day, we took the TelefériQo up to the 13,400 foot high Pichincha Volcano and hiked around for a couple of hours in the clouds. Once again, the landscape positively blew our minds and we enjoyed being outdoors, breathing the high altitude and catching clouds in our hands, which is rather hard to do.
Voila, a completely wonderful, life-altering trip! Who knew Ecuador had so much to offer?! Now you do, so what are you waiting for!
*About that surprise inspection…our suitcase was randomly selected to be searched by the anti drug-trafficking police at the airport and upon unzipping our bag, the previously gruff-looking dude breathed in and said ‘mmmmmmm, coffee…”, had a quiet moment of reverie, closed the bag with a smile and sent me on my way.
That's all for now! I'll be back soon with another trip report!