Ecuador is Awesome – Part 8

Indigenous dolls

Indigenous Dolls at Otavalo Market

Ecuador is one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. The unique diversity of nature, cultures, geography, foods, activities, holiday destinations, people and languages makes this tiny country straddled either side of latitude zero a definite standout destination in South America. You might think I’m biased just because I have lived here for years, but I have also traveled through, lived in or visited 45 other countries over the last 30+ years, and Ecuador is the only country on Earth that has ever inspired me to build a house and grow roots.

When I began to consider some of the great things I love about Ecuador that I’d also like to share with people who are thinking about visiting, or even staying a while, I learned that many of my friends and acquaintances feel the same way about the same things. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, before I sat down to write this ten-part series, I asked everyone I know who lives now or has lived or traveled in Ecuador this one simple question: “What is/was the best thing about your experience of Ecuador?” This series of posts are all about what they said.

Spice Market

Spice Market

We all agree that the markets in Ecuador are some of the best on the planet. Otavalo’s Indigenous Craft Market has a world renowned reputation and is the Number One destination for just about everyone who visits Ecuador. The indigenous Otavaleños are famous for weaving textiles, mostly wool, which they sell at the famous Saturday market. The largest market is held on Saturday; a maze spreading out from Plaza de los Ponchos, and stretching out through the streets all around. You can find is a vast range of brightly colored stalls throughout the market and also explore the local stores.

Wandering around the stalls selling handmade blankets, tablecloths, tagua jewelry, musical instruments, dream catchers, leather goods, fake shrunken heads, indigenous costumes, hand-painted platters and trays, purses, clothing, spices, raw foods, and spools of brightly dyed wool just to name a few, can become mind-boggling. A Dutch architect named Tonny Zwollo designed the original Otavalo market in 1970, using ninety mushroom-shaped concrete umbrellas with benches which quickly became known as Plaza de los Ponchos. But fantastic markets are not limited to Otavalo’s famous vegetable-dyed and hand-woven textiles. Many of the nearby villages and towns are renowned for their own particular crafts. The small village of Cotacachi is the heart of Ecuador’s leather industry. In San Antonio, where the local specialty is wood carving, prominent displays of carved statues, picture frames, and intricately carved furniture can be seen everywhere. Nearby in tiny villages, rainbows of flowers which are grown for export fill markets stalls and streets with irresistible perfumes.

flowers

Grown for export, these seconds are sold at the market.

One of my favorite markets is Santa Clara in Quito. On three floors, vendors sell every kind of food you could never even imagine from fresh babaco to pickled pigs feet. There is a section for alternative medicines, rumored to be favored by witches. An entire floor is dedicated to fresh fruits and vegetables. Pitajaya can be found here, alongside the pineapples and dozens of varieties of bananas. Fresh green achocha sits between the snake beans and fresh broccoli heads. Upstairs, sliced octopus nestles beside a bucket of clams. A whole pig roasted over a spit smiles as we pass, beckoning us to come and sample some of the tender meat. Blenders whizz fruit and vegetables into healthy juices. It’s an assault on the senses in every sense, but well worth taking the time to visit for an hour or so. Whenever visitors come to Ecuador, the first place I take them is to Santa Clara where the sites, sounds and smells are an integral part of daily Ecuadorian life. Although much smaller, Cuenca has a fabulous fresh produce market too, with the entire top floor dedicated to local foods. I can recommend grabbing a plate of whatever smells wonderful and digging in.

The Banana Market

The Banana Market

All over Ecuador, there are markets in every town, usually held once a week, where vendors spread out their wares, from cooking pots to pan pipes, earrings to zapotes, live goats to blender blades, and everything else in between. Meeting the locals is definitely an essential part of the entire Ecuadorian experience, and one of the best ways to meet the people who carry the nation on their shoulders is by heading to the nearest market and striking up a friendly conversation. An old woman selling strawberries tells of her childhood in the mountains before electricity and potable water were even heard of in her village. A wizened man carrying a basket of peanuts says that his father used to get up before dawn every weekend to walk into town with the farm’s weekly harvest strapped to the donkey’s back to make it to market in time, a trail of small children tagging along behind. A little girl shows me her new dress, twirling and smiling as proud as can be. The bright dress is hand-made, embroidered by her mother. A lady selling papayas gives me a tip about growing achochas; they don’t like wet weather, she says, you have to plant them when it’s dry. A shy, giggling teenage girl asks to interview me in English for five minutes. It’s for her school project. We talk about my country. A trip to the market in Ecuador is not just about the shopping. It’s about the experience. It’s about integration and exchanging cultures. It’s about learning more about where you are, and understanding that these people are the essence of what makes it so. If you are in Ecuador, get yourself to a local market. You won’t regret it.

The live animal market

The live animal market

For more ideas about what to do while you are traveling in Ecuador, get in touch with Footprints.

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Pampered at Papallacta

Hot springs naturally heated by Antisana Volcano in the Andes Ranges

Hot springs naturally heated by Antisana Volcano in the Andes Ranges

It’s early when we drive out of Quito, just as the city is beginning to wake for another business day. We choose to do a mid-week trip because we’ve heard that Papallacta Thermal Springs is not just a routine tourist stop, but that it’s also a very popular getaway for the locals, and can get quite busy on weekends. We wanted to avoid the crowds. Out of Quito, we ascend the Andes Mountain range, stopping briefly at a lookout at the top of the range, at an altitude of around 4800 meters at its highest point. It’s quite chilly up there. We grab our warm jackets as we alight to take in the magnificent view. Volcanoes and mountains run north and south along a massive jagged range stretching almost the entire length of South America. It’s a bit mind-blowing.

Not long afterwards, descending towards the village, we pass a lake which provides potable water to the surrounding area. A narrow twisting road leads us through a tangle of forest until we finally arrive in the small mountain village of Papallacta (pronounced: Pap-ay-act-a). We navigate around the village and follow another mountain road, passing a number of trout farms and several grazing llamas along the way. Finally, we arrive at the hot springs and day spa center. Our reservation is quickly confirmed and we are shown to our very comfortable cabin.

A semi-circle of cabins overlooks four private pools, each one decreasing in temperature, soothing your body as you move from one to the other, until you reach the cold one. Not wasting time, we strip and dip our toes into the hottest pool. It’s glorious. There is no one else there. For now, we have the whole place to ourselves. After a few minutes, our skin tingling from the hot water, we change to a slightly cooler pool, taking our large bottles of water and towels as we move between the large shallow pools. The second pool is wonderful. We linger longer. Luxuriating up to our necks in volcanic waters, we lean against the side and relax, Antisana Volcano looming right in front of us with her bright snowcap and stark slopes. Her heart bubbling and brewing, she is the source of our pleasure. After a short while, we plunge into the cold pool, gasping for breath and giggling as the freezing water slaps against our steaming hot skin.

After a tepid shower in the cabin, we dress and wander around the grounds. There is a series of larger heated pools winding around the forest path at the end of the compound. For a $20 entrance fee, day visitors can bathe in the public pools. A few people relax in the steaming mineral waters, greeting us as we pass on our walking tour. Further along, we find a path running along the foot of the mountains. Feeling energetic, we follow the path, but notice how quickly we feel out of breath. It’s the altitude: less oxygen in the air.  Undeterred, we meander along the dirt path for about half an hour or so, taking in the wonderful scenery and enjoying the blissful tranquility, and then turn back. At the day spa, we book massages for the following morning, and then take a long leisurely siesta, waking ourselves up later in the wonderful hot tubs.

The restaurant has such an extensive menu that it’s hard to choose what to eat. Determined to enjoy the local cuisine wherever we travel, we order the trout. “Delicious” does not nearly describe our dinner. In fact, the only way to truly appreciate such a meal is to go there and try it yourself. Words seem inadequate. Sated, wined and dined, (and desserted and hot chocolated) we head back to our cabin to enjoy a quick evening dip in our private thermal pools before retiring for the night. Another couple have arrived while we were out. Friendly greetings are exchanged as they hail us from the hot tub. They invite us to join them for a dip and a glass of wine. More wine? Why not? Once again, we strip and immerse ourselves up to our necks in mineral-rich healing waters, each sipping a glass of red wine; smooth on the palate and very fruity, but not too sweet. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the vineyard’s name. Somewhere in Chile. This heady mix instantly makes us all chatty for the first half an hour, and then quickly makes us sleepy.

Dressed in thick white bathrobes and disposable paper slippers, we pass through the day spa and let the masseurs boss us around while they order us to strip and then pummel and pound the painful knots from our shoulders and backs. Essential oils are rubbed from head to toe. Hot rocks sear the pain from our stiff spines. Mud is smeared around. During the neck and facial massage, I feel so good that I fall asleep. Some time later, we emerge with goofy faces, both so pampered that our facial muscles still don’t feel like making expressions. Our bodies zing, delighted at this amazing treatment. Despite our floppiness, we make an important decision; just one more dip before the scenic drive back to the city. It’s even better. After our massages, the hot tub is truly amazing. It’s hard to get out. Reluctantly, we dress and get in the car. Back in Quito, we head straight to bed for one last siesta. Next time, we plan to stay longer.

Feel like being pampered in Papallacta? Ask me how.

The Freedom Train

The 30km track from Ibarra to Salinas goes through six hand-built tunnels

The 30km track from Ibarra to Salinas goes through six hand-built tunnels

After a leisurely breakfast at the hacienda in Otavalo, our driver took us along a newly built highway through villages and small towns on the way to Ibarra, at the base of the impressive Imbabura Volcano. Twenty-five minutes later, we arrived at the newly restored train station, renovated after years of neglect and disused railway services that began over a century ago. The train was an almost forgotten historic achievement until it was resurrected and enthusiastically restored by the Ecuadorian government two years ago. Our tickets had been reserved and purchased online several weeks previously, and we exchanged our payment receipt for a paper ticket at the Customer Service desk. Half an hour before departure time, we were called to board the Freedom Train (Tren de la Libertad) which celebrates both the freedom of the African slaves and Ecuador’s liberation from Spain. We alighted the charming colonial-style Carriage Number 207, a comfortable polished wood coach with adjustable upholstered seats – although slightly narrow to fit two larger western posteriors – and got comfortable. The air of excitement and anticipation throughout the carriage was tangible. We were accompanied by twenty giggling nuns, and four families with curious young children. Two other carriages, both painted bright red, were then boarded and the train driver tooted loudly, ready to go.

Before we departed from Ibarra, our guide Jaime introduced himself and, after a quick safety announcement, began to speak about the history of Ibarra and surrounds in both Spanish and English. Unfortunately, the English translations were a little shorter than the Spanish, and we heard less than half the information in English. When we commented about this to Jaime, he improved his translations. The train took us on a fun ride  through lush green valleys and towering volcanoes, and the arid Andean savannah lining either side of the Andean River, all the while descending from an altitude of 2,210m at Ibarra to 1545m at Salinas. On the route from Ibarra to Salinas the landscapes are as diverse as they are picturesque; one of the country’s most fascinating ecosystems extends over the protected páramo El Ángel, a high-altitude forest of [native Australian] paper-bark trees and wild expanses of intriguing frailejón plants. We chugged past farmland dotted with fields of cabbages, cauliflower, lettuce and broccoli where farmers tilled their fields with horse-driven plows, cattle pastures, hillsides covered in wildflowers of all colors and varieties, medicinal herbs and flowers, prickly pears, several species of cactus and many pretty flowering succulents, alongside sugar cane fields, as well as spectacular waterfalls and the historical cotton fields, and finally the long-abandoned cotton processing plant on the edge of town. Over narrow bridges perched breathtakingly high above the river, and through half a dozen hand-built tunnels ranging from 26m to 300m which threw us all into pitch darkness for a few moments, and we arrived in Salinas two hours later.

The first narrow steel bridge over the Andean River

The first narrow steel bridge stretches high over the Andean River and valley.

The wonderful Freedom Train excursion is complemented by an interesting community-tourism twist that allows the Afro-Ecuadorian residents of Salinas to demonstrate their culture and history through dance and music. We are then refreshed by a delicious glass of chilled cactus juice in the station cafe and have time to wander through the craft shop at the train station before heading into the town square with a native guide for a peek inside the local church, which is 189 years old, and the community produce store, founded by a cooperative of growers who produce jams, sauces, chocolates, nuts, liquors and natural ice-creams from their own harvests. After sampling the Salinas version of Pina Colada and buying an ice-cream each, we wandered through the streets to our lunch stop. The Northern Andean village of Salinas has a population of around 2000 inhabitants, all descended from the slaves of the Spanish conquistadors who were stolen from Africa to work the cotton fields. Most of the inhabitants carve out a living from agriculture; cotton, sugar cane, and fruit for wines and preserves, retaining many of their original African traditions such as the ‘bomba’ music and dance.

Lunch is served in a large restaurant on the edge of the village, overlooking the fields with views of the mountains behind. A traditional almuerzo (set lunch) offered a choice of soups and chicken or meat dishes with rice, as well as a fresh fruit juice and small dessert for $5.00 per person. Chatter filled the room as people discussed the journey so far with great pleasure and satisfaction. Our local guide returned to give us a tour of the Salt Museum where he made a fascinating presentation of the mining and production of salt from the nearby mines, demonstrating how his ancestors used age-old methods and antique equipment to extract the salt and the excess iodine from the final product. After a taste of Salinas’ mountain salt, we wandered back through town to the train station via another route to board the train for the return trip home. Jaime took a break from guiding for the trip back and many dozed as we passed by the same landscape filled with numerous species of bromeliads, flowering prickly pear and other colorfully flowering plants and grasses. Our driver was there to meet us and return us to the hacienda, something we were grateful for after a long but wonderful day touring the Northern Andes.

If you are visiting Ecuador, a train tour on the newly renovated railways is highly recommended.

Point Break – Mompiche

Many people come to Mompiche just to surf the Point Break. In the season – November to April – this tiny remote fishing village that barely earns its spot on the Ecuadorian map, becomes a haven for surfers from all over the world. Hostels fill up, restaurants are teeming with diners, and the pristine beach is smattered with the bright sarongs of rapidly reddening sunbathers. Vendors walk up and down the white sand hawking fresh coconuts, tropical fruits and tasty ceviches. The rest of the time, it’s pretty quiet. Don’t be fooled by its reputation as solely a surf beach. Aside from surfing, there are many other activities and tours you can do in Mompiche.

Wakeboarding, Mompiche style when the wave-action is a little slow.

Wakeboarding Mompiche-style when the wave-action is a little slow on The Point.

Naturally, there are plenty of water sports on offer along the 7km white sand beach. Body-boarding and surfing aside, you can also go kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, motor-boating and fishing. All year round, you can see the colony of Blue-footed Boobies on The Point, as well as Brown pelicans, Great and Magnificent frigate birds and even the odd Pink flamingo. From June to September, during the annual migration of the Humpback Whales, local fishermen offer trips out to San Francisco Peninsular to view these enormous marine creatures as they make their way south on the Humboldt Current. Lucky visitors often see mothers and their calves playing in the sea as they travel past Mompiche bay. Frequently during the whale-watching season, leaping whales can even be spotted from the beach. On public holidays and fiestas, a para-sailing outfit sets up shop on the beach and sometimes there are bay tours on a catamaran.

If you’re not a water baby, but enjoy spending time on the beach anyway, Doña Fabiola offers horses for rent. Mompiche’s version of Mrs Doolittle, Fabiola takes very good care of her horses, as well as her ever-growing menagerie of dogs, cats, ducks, chickens, turkeys, geese and an abandoned calf named Anabel, which she hand-feeds thrice daily. The well-maintained horses are in lovely condition and can by hired by the hour or for a half- or full-day tour with a guide. There are two tour options: a leisurely walk along the beach and back, or a more adventurous tour through the mountains behind Mompiche, passing by lakes, through dense jungle trails and spotting plenty of wildlife. Depending on the fruit seasons, you can even pick and eat exotic tropical fruits directly from the trees.

You can also go with a Native Guide and hike along Mompiche’s fascinating river, learning along the way about all the exotic water plants, tropical fruit trees you didn’t even know existed, and the magical medicinal herbs the ancient Chachi tribes used and the modern locals currently use to cure their ills, also visiting the Secret Waterfall and taking dips in refreshing pools as you go. A hike along the river takes most of the day and is an education in Mompiche’s jungle flora and fauna in itself.

Miguel, who has lived in the mountains his whole life, takes half-day hiking tours through the jungle. With intimate knowledge of every tree, plant and flower, as well as all the species of wildlife in the area, hiking with him is truly an eye-opener. Sometimes he just stops mid-step. Using sign language, he tells you not to move. Then, straight away so as not to alarm you, he tells you to listen. And then he’ll point out the creature making the sounds he heard while you were noisily opening your water bottle. He will also protect you from any danger long before you even know it’s there. En route, he’ll cut coconuts out of the palm trees to drink and feed you with seeds and weeds, roots and shoots you did not even imagine were edible. Most of the trails are moderate to difficult. But even if you’re a novice hiker, and enjoy the solitude of the jungle, a trip into the wilds with Miguel is definitely for you!

If you are lucky, you can see families of Howler Monkeys in the trees along the path.

If you are lucky, you can see and hear families of Howler Monkeys calling from the jungle.

There are numerous hotels and restaurants of all grades and varieties, as well as kiosks selling freshly made fruit juices and milkshakes made from all the wonderful tropical fruits available in the area. The best “superfruit” juices to try are Papaya, Borojo, Jackfruit and Guanabana (Soursop). Bananas, naturally, are a staple food on the coast and fresh juice blended with a banana is more like a milkshake without the milk. Of course, just like everywhere there are reputable places to stay and eat – and some not so great. Some of the local delicacies not to miss are Corviche, Muchin, Encebollado, Encocado and Ceviche.

If too much action is not your scene, there are also some wonderful options that don’t cost a penny: a leisurely stroll north along the gloriously unpopulated white sand beach, followed by a spot of hammock-surfing and a siesta are also “activities” in which you can heartily participate while visiting Mompiche. If relaxation is your thing, shiatsu massage, relaxation massage and yoga are also possible in this tiny village.

A short hike southwards will take you to either the Cemetery on top of The Point, which has a spectacular view of the bay, or go further to Black Beach, a short cove covered in shimmering black titanium sand. Further south, the islands of Portete and Bolivar can be explored on foot (with a river crossing), or visit Jupiter by boat.

Towards evening, people-watching and sunset-gazing along Mompiche’s ever-changing beach-front promenade can also be extremely educational and entertaining, and also breath-takingly relaxing.

Sound good? Ask Footprints how to get to Mompiche.

The Magic of Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi

The 4WD picks us up early in the morning. We climb into the vehicle with the blankets of sleep still covering our faces. Yawning and floppy, we bump southwards out of Quito though the winding mountain range. Three and a half hours later, after stopping for breakfast somewhere along the Avenue of Volcanoes, we arrive at the Cotopaxi National Park Entrance where there are several stalls selling hand-knitted gloves, socks and balaclavas for anyone who has forgotten to dress warm. There are also brightly colored blankets, jackets and sweaters made from hand-dyed alpaca wool on sale. It’s warm at the entrance, the sun shines brightly, lighting up the snow-capped peaks of the surrounding volcanoes, the Illinizas (17,213ft) and Chimborazo (20,560ft),

Following a dirt trail that leads into the 36,000 hectares of pristine forests, rolling mountains, and serene lakes, as well as the treeless plains of the Andean páramo, which are also home to herds of llamas, wild horses, deer, and large lizards. On our way we see the Andean gull, blue-billed ducks, some large hummingbirds and a pair of (endangered) Andean condors circling high in the clear blue sky. We don’t see any pumas, spectacled bears, Andean foxes, or orange-headed caracaras that day, but are assured by our naturalist guide that they exist in the park. Shortly, we arrive at the Mariscal Sucre Museum and Visitor’s Center to drink a steaming cup of herbal coca leaf tea, which helps combat altitude sickness, and inspect the native garden in the grounds before checking out the relief map inside the tiny center, which also has a public bathroom at the back.

A quick stop to admire the reflection of majestic Rumiñahui (15,489ft) in the cold, clear waters of Limpiopungo Lake, and the spectacular view of snow-capped Cotopaxi on this brilliant sunny day leads into a photography frenzy when some rare black-faced Ibis and a small herd of llamas turn up to do a quick show.

The drive up to the carpark on Cotopaxi (14,924ft) reveals an incredible view of the surrounding plains and ranges, and our guide points out nearby volcanoes along the way. According to our guide, the Quechua meaning of the name Cotopaxi is Neck of the Moon, so called for the position of the volcano under a rising full moon. Dressed like so many Michelin men in many layers of wool and cotton, we spend the next forty-five minutes ascending the rocky path to the José Ribas mountain refuge (15,780ft) on the Cotopaxi snowline. At the yellow-roofed refuge, sipping more hot coca leaf tea, wrapping our freezing hands around the mugs to warm them, we’re not sure if we were lightheaded from bliss or the thin air at that altitude. For today, at least, we have no plans to climb to the summit of Cotopaxi (19,347ft).

In the Cueva del Búho (Owl Caves) great horned owls peek out from high above, blinking wisely as we eat a picnic lunch of home-made spinach pie, pasta salad and brownies, with brimming mugs of coca tea. Our guide points out native wildflowers as we lean against volcanic rocks and enjoy the warmth of the midday sun. After lunch, we’re off again, bumping over dirt trails until we come to Pucará El Salitre. After a snack of wild black currants from a nearby bush, we enter and explore the stoney ruins of this sprawling Inca military fortress which was used to monitor the movement of its armies and supplies, and keep look out for the enemy.

We leave the picturesque archeological site and drive over the grassy volcanic plain, spotting herds of wild horses and a flock of Andean gulls as we head towards Santo Domingo Lake via the Manantiales (natural springs). Inca stone walls surround the tranquil lake which gives us a glimpse of a traditional hacienda and boasts excellent views of the vast volcanic plateaus all around. The whole vista gives us a wonderful sense of feeling spiritually enhanced and celebrates our deepening love for the spectacular nature to be found in the Ecuadorian wilds.

Most of us are dozing lightly as we pull up outside the hotel in Quito at the end of the day. As we disembark, we fully understand the proud claim that Cotopaxi is the second most popular adventure destination in Ecuador. It’s definitely an unforgettable adventure.

Fancy a trip to Cotopaxi? You can take a day trip to visit the National Park and Volcano, or Climb right to the Summit!

Ask Footprints how!

Footprints Ecuador

  • Footprints Ecuador: Cotopaxi Tour
    Footprints Ecuador will help you custom design and plan your trip to Ecuador, inc. Galapagos Cruises, Island Hopping, Scuba Diving, and also travel on the mainland inc. Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Mindo, Quito, Cuenca & more. Take a Day Trip to Cotopaxi or Climb right to the summit!
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