Cloud forest, shopping and an active volcano

Trip Start Feb 06, 2011
Trip End Jul 24, 2011

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Flag of Ecuador  ,
Thursday, April 28, 2011

There are some great places to visit within a few hours bus from Quito – and what a contrast to the capital! We started with Mindo which is right in the middle of the cloud forest. Imagine palm trees, humidity and – of course – clouds that creep in and then sit stubbornly on the hilltops. There is not much tourism in Mindo which was a refreshing change to central Quito, though the town is trying to establish itself as a tourist destination for zip lining – speeding down a high wire through the cloud forest canopy. James gave it a go and raved about it, though afraid to say I satisfied myself with appreciating the cloud forest from ground level!

Otherwise Mindo is mainly a destination for dedicated twitchers who get up at 5am to seek out the region's exotic birdlife. Needless to say James and I opted for a later wake-up but did manage to see many of the area’s most beautiful birds (in our opinion at least!): the hummingbird. We also visited an amazing little butterfly sanctuary where bright blue butterflies as big as your hand swoop and flutter around you. The sanctuary breeds the butterflies and we were lucky enough to see three butterflies emerging from their chrysalis.

A slightly odder excursion was to a local waterfall, which had been adapted by a local family to attract tourists by adding a couple of concrete pools, a bar, a waterslide and a tarzan swing. It wasn’t as grotesque as it sounds – just very odd, made worse by the fact that James and I were the only people there! Also the water was absolutely freezing and despite protestations from the owner that "it’s fine once you’re in" we didn’t spent very long there! On the way back to the town we hopped onto a handcranked cable car (luckily handcranked by someone else, not us!) and got some incredible if not slightly vertigo-inducing views of the forest canopy.

From Mindo we headed onto a place called Otavalo which is well known for having South America’s largest market. We started at 8am with Otavalo’s animal market where people from all over the region come ready to buy and sell all kinds of animals from cows and pigs, to chickens and geese, down to puppies, kittens and guinea pigs. It was certainly not a place for an animal lover – we arrived to find a piglet squealing for its life while being lowered head first into a rice sack – but James managed to avoid me leaving with any new brothers and sisters for Claude and Winston. For reference, a llama costs around US$80 – so not cheap, but probably a fair comparison to a new lawn mower if you need to keep your grass in check!

Then came the real market. After months’ of careful budgeting and measured souvenir buying, James and I lost our minds slightly and left laden with goods: jewellery, bags, cushion covers to name but a few. Our ambition to create the most ethnic flat in Shepherd’s Bush is well on its way to being achieved! James also picked up some rather grotesque gifts, which will be making their way to their new happy owners once we return (watch out Adam and Phatt Walk!). After we’d recovered from our market-induced delirium, we decided to stay in Otavalo for a few days. It’s a really pretty town set up high in the mountains affording incredible vistas of the surrounding countryside. We had a little excursion to a nearby Laguna called Cuicocha, or guinea pig lake, which was formed many years ago by a series of volcanic eruptions that created two huge spikes of islands and dramatic sheer banks. As sulphur continues to bubble up through the lake from the volcanic fissures there is no marine life but the islands themselves are home to many wild guinea pigs (hence the name!)

Our final excursion took us to a place called Baņos which is 3.5h south east of Quito. We had a little nervous excitement about going as we had heard from fellow travellers that the volcano there was currently spouting out lots of ash. In fact the UK Foreign Office was even advising travellers not to visit. Of course James and I laugh in the face of danger (kind of…) so we went anyway. We needn’t have worried! We didn’t even catch a glimpse of volcanic activity. We even went on a weird late night party bus (kind of like a brightly coloured cattle truck pumping out Latino dance music) up the volcano – which was eminently disappointing as we couldn’t even see the top of the volcano, never mind any lava! We’re hoping Central America might prove more exciting on the volcano front!

Nonetheless Baņos was a great little town, set again in some great countryside. James and I went our separate ways for one day: James went to explore the surrounding area by bike while I had a relaxing day in one of the town’s many spas. We also discovered Baņos’ greatest attribute: a Swiss bistro where James and I enjoyed a fantastic raclette and settled into a very happy cheese-induced coma!
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