Quito, Otavalo and Mitad del Mundo
I sadly waved goodbye to the Ecuadorian jungle and headed to Quito, the bustling heart of Ecuador! For tourists there are two parts to the capital of Ecuador; Old Town and New Town. I was still with Yvette and Jan and we decided to stay at the Secret Garden Hostel. I had been hearing amazing tales about this hostel on my way up South America from other travellers. I had heard it was great to volunteer there because they have an organic vegetable garden, bar and reception work and free Spanish lessons, as well as being a very chilled out, funky hostel.
It was a long, but scenic bus journey and we arrived in Quito at about 8:30pm and got a taxi to the hostel. Although we had made a reservation it seems our booking had been scrawled on a scrap of paper and left by the computer. The girl at the desk worried us for a moment saying the dorms were all full or being painted. We proceeded to stand there waiting for a more acceptable answer and she eventually told us we could have a private triple room for the same price. The room was colourful and spacious but the bathroom was a toilet in a cupboard hole space and no shower. The breakfasts were very tasty and but not included! The view over Old Town and beyond from the top floor bar/reception and great and I enjoyed sitting up there enjoying the free cups of herbal tea and at night the same view was all lit up. The only bad side was that the upstairs area closed at 11pm so after that there wasn’t a great deal to do. I also found out that the Secret Garden also had another hostel near Cotopaxi Mountain and I think this was the tranquil, relaxing, getaway hostel I had heard of and been picturing. I also discovered that the volunteers had to work 6 full days a week getting only 1 meal a day included as well as lodging. This is quite a bit more than most other hostels ask.
The view over Quito
Quito Old Town
Our first night once we were settled we went to go find some dinner. We quickly realised that almost everything in Old Town shuts down by about 6pm. We found a couple of fried chicken shops that seem to be a South American favourite but not an option when you are travelling with a vegetarian. After asking a few different pedestrians and security guards we eventually found an expensive rooftop terrace restaurant called Vista Hermosa. The view was incredible and the atmosphere very romantic. I decided to treat myself to a tasty pork steak with apple sauce and other trimmings (nothing like a roast from mum but it beat the usual rice and potato with a side of fried meat).
The next day we decided to venture out to Mitad del Mundo or “The Centre of the World”. It was surprisingly cheap and easy to get to. We jumped on a Metro Bus to Ofelia Station, one of the two northern bus terminals. After wandering around the station for a bit we finally found a clearly marked bus and travelled on it for a further hour until we came to a big round about. I was speculating whether this might be our stop when a young local girl sitting next to me obviously guessing my destination, elbowed me and said, “aka”, meaning “here”. We rushed off the bus and looked at the museum entrance with its centre of the world monument up ahead of us. There is quite a funny story surrounding this museum. It was built a number of years ago and it was a novelty (and still is) for all tourists to visit the Equator line. Then about 12 years ago tourists started arriving with their modern, handheld GPS units and arguing that it wasn’t actually the Equator. Eventually the military came and took measurements with their state of the art GPS systems and found the Equator line was actually 200m to the right, passing right through the neighbouring Solar Museum. The Solar Museum had long ago used natural science (the sun) to measure the Equator and built their little museum there. So it felt rather pointless visiting a monument that was a lie and we went to the Solar Museum instead. For $3 entry it was actually a great little museum. Not only did it have information about the sun and the Equator, but also about the history and culture of Ecuador, especially from the Orient (jungle).
Jan Yvette and I on the Equator line (the real one!!)
We got to see shrunken heads, huts, hunting methods and a man weaving traditional fabrics on a loom. The end of the tour we came to the Equator line and did the experiments that you have to do when you are standing on the Equator. We used a bucket of water, some leaves and a sink to demonstrate the difference in the coreolis effect. It’s amazing that just 2m away the water spins in a different direction and 1m away in the middle on the Equator the water just goes straight down! Did you know that you are also weaker on the Equator? We stood either side of the Equator line with our arms raised just above our heads and our hands bundled together in a fist while another person tried to pull our arms down. However when attempting the same exercise on the Equator we had much less resistance and our arms came down quickly making us feel like pathetic weaklings! We also tried walking down the Equator line with our eyes shut and for some strange reason we found it very difficult to go straight. The exercise was easy either side of the Equator! The last exercise was trying to balance an egg on the head of a nail. Apparently this is only possible on the Equator most people had trouble with this one but yours truely managed it in about 10 seconds! I even got a certificate to prove it
Balanced the egg...Wooo
No I am not drunk, it's the effect of the Equator line I promise!
Traditional weaving demonstration
On the way back it was peak hour and we were crammed into the rail bus with many locals. When we neared our stop we struggled to the doors and out onto the platform trying to avoid the oncoming stampede of people determined to get on the bus. I made it and looked to the other doors where Jan and Yvette were supposed to exit. I saw Jan standing on the platform alone and as the bus took off I saw Yvette squashed in amongst all the other passengers with her sad, desperate face pressed up against the glass. I panicked first then burst out laughing. It really was a hilarious situation. We waited at the platform for Yvette who had to get out at the next stop (which thankfully wasn’t too far away) and walk back to us.
Pics from solar museum
Our second day in Quito we decided to explore some of the famous historic buildings of Old Town. We started with the Presidential Palace. It was all very official and we had to hand in our passports for the tour. Unfortunately the tour was in Spanish so I didn’t understand a great deal and insead trailed behind admiring the ornately decorated conference rooms and the assorted traditional gifts from heads of other countries.
Entering the Presidential Palace
When we came out we saw some markets had been set up around the corner and naturally Yvette and I were drawn to them like a bee to honey, much to Jan’s frustration. I browsed the stalls, checking out the local handcrafts but resisted the urge to buy much as I new we would be heading to Otavalo the following day. One of the biggest and most famous markets in South America. Suddenly it started to pour with rain. Although we had our raincoast we knew they wouldn’t do much against such a downpour. We loitered around the markets a little longer and eventually decided to make a dash for it. It’s funny in most South American cities, the moment it starts raining all these little men appear out of nowhere with umbrellas to sell. I wonder what they do when it’s not raining?
The biggest day of the Otavalan market is Saturday so the following day we got a taxi to the other northern bus station and then a 2 hour bus to Otavalo. I have discovered on my bus journeys through Ecuador that Ecuadorians love crappy films, especially cheap asian action films where the sound effects during a fight are exaggerated and delayed and when a man suddenly turns his head the sequence is replayed 5 times just so you know it’s really dramatic. This is when I am ever so thankful to have my laptop and my external hard drive and watch my own movies.
We arrived in the afternoon and checked into a lovely little hostel called Hostel Valle de Amanecer (Valley of Dawn). For $11USD a night we I got a private with a double bed, shared bathroom and breakfast included. For dinner we ended up at a little Mexican vegetarian restaurant at the end of the road and had some delicious quesadillas and banana split desserts.
The next day we were up early to have breakie at 7:30am. We wanted to get to the animal market, which is all happening in the morning, before heading to the main market. But as we approached the restaurant kitchen about 30 Ecuadorians obviously fresh off the bus that morning charged in front of us and ordered food. The poor man was rushed off his feet with the sudden influx of guests and we unfortunately had to wait while these people got their eggs and bread (hold the fruit salad) before we could get our chocolate pancakes (with fruit salad).
Finally a little later than planned we walked to the animal market. There were domestic animals everywhere and men calling out prices. Unfortunately we had missed most of the auctions and chaos and a lot of locals were leaving with their purchases: a group of piglets tied together, a cow being led by a small child, bags of chickens and guinea pigs, puppies etc. It wasn’t as bad as I thought but some the animals were crammed together in cages in the heat without water. Animal welfare just isn’t really recognised in these parts of the world as it is back home!
Otavalo animal market
Rabbits, kittens, puppies, guinea pigs, chickens all thrown into the same cage to sell!
Next we walked back towards town to explore the actual market. Almost every street in town was taken up by market stalls of everything and anything. Beautiful handicrafts and artisans. It was a maze. I had $120 on me and I gradually managed to spend all of it!! Mostly on paintings as the artwork was beautiful and often unique. I also succumbed to my weakness to earrings and bought some beautiful silvery jewellery. At 2:30pm I realised I was parched. In my shopping frenzy I had blocked all essential bodily needs out! I found a grocery store and bought water and chocolate to satisfy my cravings then decided to head back. This was a little harder than I anticipated. Although I was only a few blocks away, I got completely lost and ended up wondering up and down the market streets before I found and area I recognised and stumbled back, arms loaded with bags, back into the hostel. That night we went back to the same restaurant with some other tourists staying at the hostel. All us ladies ended up sharing a chocolate fondue!
Fruit and Vege stall
Some of the artwork in a stall
One of the paintings I purchased. The man holding it is the artist!
The next day we went on a trek around some of the nearby villages and to the waterfall just outside of the town. On the way we stopped at what we thought was a weaver’s house (we had been told there were traditional weavers in the villages and he had a sign out the front saying so). We stood outside and called out for a while but no one came. As we were walking away a man ran out and invited us inside. It turned out that he didn’t weave but made wooden pan-flutes: a very popular musical instrument used in most traditional music styles of South America. He explained that he was in a band and gave us demonstrations in construction and playing of the flutes. Yvette and Jan ended up buying one each. It wouldn’t be much use to me unless we needed to evacuate a hostel in a hurry so I bought the CD instead. I actually never got a chance to listen to it before I sent it back to Aus so hopefully it can console me when I return and have post-travel depression!
Testing the pan flutes in the musicians house
Having a break to watch a local Ecuvolley game. This game is played all over Ecuador, especially on weekends and differs a bit from normal volleyball as you are allowed to hold the ball for a second and the net is hire preventing spikes.
Walking through the tiny villages
At the waterfall outside Otavalo
Some of the local women playing basketball, not bothering to change out of their traditional dress
I am not sure if I have mentioned already but I was really keen to do some conservation volunteer work in while Ecuador. I had applied for spots with 2 organisations The first preference was to work at Merazonia Animal Sanctuary: $100/week including lodging and food. Unfortunately they were full until the end of May and I lost hope as I was even less optimistic of getting a place at my second preference: radio tracking Andean Bears with the Andean Bear Foundation. According to their website they were full for April but still had limited spots for the start of May. I emailed them and got a prompt reply saying they had one spot left for 2 weeks starting on the 2nd May. This volunteer work was a lot more expensive at $390 for the 2 weeks (hence why it was my second choice). But it was an experience to trek through the Andes Mountains, track bears and experience living in a village of about 60 people in a remote Ecuadorian village. So I reserved my spot.
The base for the project was in the tiny village of Pucara, about 2 hours from Otavalo. I was told by the project that the group of volunteers due to start in May would meet in Quito, then stop in Otavalo to buy groceries before heading onto Pucara. As I was already in Otavalo I asked if I could meet the group there to save me a trip back to Quito for one night only to get up at 6am. I was told however that I would be needed to carry extra bags for the project from Quito. So I had to say goodbye to Jan and my dearest Yvette who were going to Columbia. I got an afternoon bus back. Not difficult as the buses run all the time and there is always at least one man in th4e bus terminal yelling “QUITO, QUITO QUITO!!!”
I found a lovely little hostel in New Town called Casa Agua Canela. I had my own room with chair, desk and bedside for $8 a night, very good value. Unfortunately like Old Town everything nearby was closed so I went hungry that night haha and just got ready for the next stage of my journey. But thats for the next chapter!
By the way the extra things I ended up carrying was a bag with 2 other empty bags in! Definitely worth a mission back to Quito haha!!