The Back Road to Otavalo

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, July 12, 2004

Most normal people travel north from Quito to the famous market town of Otavalo by the very modern (albeit steep and windy) Panamerican Highway. But of course, the Channers opted to take the back road! First we stopped to plant one foot in each of the north and south hemispheres at La Mitad del Mundo - the exact site of the equator, determined by a French expedition in 1736 - and then continued north on the old road.

Although blinded by the dusty trucks travelling to and from the nearby gravel pits, we were assured by locals along the way that we were on the right road, and that it would get better. Perhaps they hadn't travelled the road recently, as we eventually found ourselves on little more than a dirt track, winding down, down, down to the river and up, up the other side through a very dry and barren landscape. Then after climbing to greener but quite remote areas above the clouds at over 9,000 feet, we dropped down to Otavalo, passing through delightfully lush dairy farm countryside, and finally found ourselves back on a well-used highway. Another major car wash was definitely in order!

We had a couple of days to wait until the main market on Saturday, so we took the opportunity to visit several of the nearby villages and lakes. After making our way up the rough cobblestone track to Ilumán, we spent a rewarding morning getting acquainted with several of the local inhabitants: a family of weavers preparing the famous cloth for the market; a young apprentice attempting to get the curve on the traditional felt hats just right; a group of school girls raising funds by selling raffle tickets for a colour TV; a public servant in traditional dress - pony-tail, calf-length white pants, rope sandals and a dark felt hat. Finally, we had a chat with a young woman preparing a large cauldron of Caldo de Cabeza de Rez (cow's head soup) on a fire by the sidewalk. Her recipe was quite simple - add water, a little salt, and boil it all up for a couple of hours. It was almost lunchtime and several customers were already sitting beside the pot, anticipating their delicious treat!

Walking side by side with busloads of school children through mature eucalyptus forests, we reached the popular site of the Peguche Waterfalls. Although the falls weren't very spectacular, observing the antics of the young people (the same the world over!) kept us pleasantly occupied for an hour or so. Many of them were enthralled with the idea of actually driving from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, and at one point our van was filled with a dozen giggling schoolgirls, wanting to see how everything worked - from the pop-up roof to the portable toilet!

Passing through Cotacachi - a small village noted for its high-quality leatherwork - we climbed another 3,000 feet to an ancient, eroded volcanic crater filled with the deep blue waters of Laguna de Cuicocha. Unfortunately, the clouds had rolled in before our arrival, so we were unable to see the snow peaks of the extinct volcano behind the lake. The distinctive peak did appear later in the day - at least long enough for us to get a quick peek. Much more remote, the Lagunas de Mojanda at over 11,000 feet were accessible only after negotiating a rugged 17 km cobblestone road through eerie fog-bound páramo scenery, reminiscent of the Scottish highlands. The jagged peaks of Volcán Fuya Fuya stood guard over us as we had a picnic lunch by the lake - we were thankful that this volcano, like most in the area, is extinct.

Before heading back to Otavalo, we spent an afternoon in the charming, somnolent colonial town of Ibarra, the provincial capital of Imbabura. It is easy to spend several hours sitting in the central plaza, watching life go by. There was quite a contrast between the proper old gentlemen in their dark suits discussing the days events, and the young colourful families savouring their ice cream cones. All the while, horse-drawn carriages clattered over the cobblestone streets.

By Friday evening we had finished out wanderings around this picturesque area of northern Ecuador and were back in Otavalo, ready for the big weekly event. If you can imagine Herbfest multiplied by fifty, then you might be close to picturing this huge and diverse market. We were awakened at 4 am by the clanking poles of the vendors, setting up their colourful stalls. All in traditional attire, the very successful entrepreneurs from the surrounding Indian villages brought in their weavings, clothing and handicrafts, together with food and other essential items aimed more at the local population. We were in awe of their patience as they spent hours unpacking bags and bags of items for sale, only to repack everything remaining at day's end. Fortunately, busses packed with tourists from Quito were arriving by the minute, so we could only assume that the day's take made it all worthwhile. Definitely one of the largest indigenous markets we've ever experienced, we found the Saturday Otavalo market to be quite remarkable.

After a short drive around the densely populated Laguna de San Pablo, with massive Volcán Imbabura looming in the background, we headed back to Quito - this time by the regular route. We reminisced about the incredible experiences of the past week, but already were planning our next foray - this time to the hot springs of Papallacta.
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