Ecuador day three
27.10.2012 - 27.10.2012
… To buy a fat pig?
Maybe not, but Otavalo market is still, despite being very “touristy”, a must for most visitors to Quito. To be honest, when planning our Ecuador trip, a visit here wasn’t one of my top priorities and with relatively little time in Quito I had considered giving it a miss as we’d seen many colourful markets elsewhere. But then I had second thoughts and when our tour company proposed including it I went along with the suggestion. On balance, I think it was good decision as we enjoyed our visit and it is one of the sights of northern Ecuador. But we opted for a half-day visit rather than the more usual full day and packed some other sights into our day out, as you will see. And although a guided excursion is not for everyone, we decided that while not cheap it would be the most efficient way to fit several of the major sights near Quito into just one day of our limited time there. We were very pleased with the arrangement as we had an excellent guide in Jose Luiz, working for local company Surtrek.
We left Quito after an early breakfast, driving north. We stopped in the town of Cayambe to take photos of the volcano of that name and to taste custard apples bought from one of the several fruit stalls along the roadside.
Posing for a photo
We also stopped at a roadside gift-shop and café near Lago San Pablo, El Miralago, which is clearly strategically positioned to catch the tourist trade, with super views from its garden and local children posing with alpacas and llamas in return for a coin or two. But you can hardly blame them for cashing in like this, and since it gave us a chance to pause for refreshment as well as photos, and to help the local economy, I had no complaints!
Lago San Pablo
Here we were able to try the local treat of biscochos (biscuits, served with dulce de leche) and queso de hoja (a haloumi-like white cheese, served in cubes on a banana leaf). The views were great and it was a restful spot, despite the steady stream of other visitors. We didn’t buy anything in the shop, other than a couple of postage stamps, but it looked to have a range of souvenirs towards the tackier end of the spectrum, although as I didn’t have a proper look round I may be doing them a disservice!
From here we continued to Otavalo, where Jose Luiz dropped us off not far from the Plaza de Ponchos where the market is held. He showed us where to go, but after that left us to our own devices for a couple of hours, for which I was thankful, as we were happier wandering around on our own than following a guide everywhere.
Plaza de Ponchos
The tourist-focused market takes place in this large central square. There are markets in every Ecuadorean town, small or large, so what is so special about Otavalo? Well, for one thing, its size. It has to be one of the largest markets not just in Ecuador but possibly in South America – at least on a Saturday, the principal market day, when not only the Plaza de Ponchos is jammed with those selling and those buying, but also the surrounding streets. The other factor in its popularity is its location - only 145 kilometres, and therefore an easy day trip, from Quito.
Scarves for sale
The people of Otavalo and the surrounding area have been making textiles for centuries. As tourism to Ecuador has grown, their goods have become well-known and popular, and the market has grown because of this, and also because the local people have spotted a good opportunity and made the most of it! They are recognised as the most prosperous indigenous group in Ecuador, and perhaps in all Latin America.
The textiles are mainly of the practical variety, such as blankets, thick jumpers, ponchos, scarves, hats and so on, rather than the purely decorative wall-hangings that you see in other cultures. But it is not only textiles that you will find for sale here. We saw pictures (lots of Guayasamin reproductions of varying qualities, and some interesting paintings based on pre-Columbian motifs, one of which we bought); musical instruments (mainly the ubiquitous pan-pipes, but also drums and other percussion instruments); hats; jewellery; wood-carvings and tagua nut carvings; leather handbags and larger woven bags; hammocks and cushions and more.
On one side of the square are a few stalls selling simple meals such as roast pork, corn and soups, but otherwise the emphasis is very much on handicrafts (there is an animal and food market elsewhere in town but we didn’t visit that).
Of course the sellers are hoping that you will buy, but we didn’t experience too much pressure, although when I stopped to look at a stall for any length of time I would raise their hopes and there would be a rapid explanation of the goods and how wonderful they were!
For the most part we were happy to wander up and down, soaking up the atmosphere and taking lots of photos. A few people were OK about posing, especially stall-holders hoping we might make a purchase, but they tend to do so quite stiffly so you don’t get a natural look and a sense of the bustle and activity of the market. So mainly I used my zoom lens to grab candid shots as I find these more natural and wanted to capture the activity as much as the individuals.
As I wandered around the market stalls taking my photos I began to realise that all the women were dressed in a similar style, rather different from the indigenous people I had seen in Quito. This is the traditional dress of the Otavaleña. It consists of white blouses, with coloured embroidery (usually of flowers) and flared lace sleeves, worn with black or dark skirts. They wear their hair long, but instead of plaiting it, as I had seen the women of Quito do, they tie it back with coloured braid in a loose ponytail. They usually have many strings of gold beads around their necks, and strings of coral beads around their wrists. Many of the older ones fold a cloth over their heads, known as a fachalina, like those in some of my photos.
Women in traditional Otavalan dress
The men traditionally wear white trousers, cut off just below the knee, with dark blue ponchos and felt hats. Their hair too is worn long. We saw relatively few men in this costume compared to the number of women wearing the traditional dress, but many had the long hair and felt hat, albeit often combined with modern jeans and t-shirts.
Shopping at the market
While I always like to bring back a souvenir or two from our travels, neither Chris nor I see shopping as a major holiday activity, and we hadn’t expected to buy a lot at Otavalo, being more interested in taking photos of the activity than participating in it. However a number of things did catch my eye and I couldn’t resist making a few purchases in the market. These were:
~ A pretty silver necklace with inlays of different coloured bits of shell, depicting a bird (a quetzal I suspect), for which, after some haggling, I paid $20, having brought the vendor down from $26 and got him to throw in the silver chain
~ A small picture executed on leather in a style we saw on a few stalls, based on indigenous (pre-Columbian) mythology and symbolism – we paid $8 for this, which we thought so reasonable that we didn’t bother to haggle
In need of refreshment and a sit-down after an hour or so of wandering around the market, we looked for somewhere where we might also get a view of the action, and found it at the Buena Vista, which lived up to its name! We climbed the stairs to the first floor room which is quite cosy – lots of wood, a small library of travel guides to browse, and bright cushions on the chairs. We secured a table near the window (there was just one other small group of people here at the time, though a couple more arrived before we left) and were pleased to find a good list of fresh juices on the menu, as by then we had already realised that no other cold drink came close to these for taste and refreshment in Ecuador! Chris chose orange juice and I had passion-fruit, and both were delicious and served in large glasses. As we drank we were able to step out onto the tiny balcony and take some photos of the market from above and all the activity going on beneath us. Just the break from browsing and shopping that we had needed!
After another wander around and a few more photos it was time to head to the point Jose Luiz had designated to pick us up. Arriving there five minutes early we were easy prey for a couple of sellers operating on the streets outside the market! Although attracted by the colourful scarves I’d seen on many stalls I hadn’t planned on buying one, as I had a pile of scarves at home, but one older lady who approached us had a good selection, and they were so bright and cheerful, and she was quite interesting (showing us photos of her home near Lago San Pablo), so I cracked and bought one for $2.50 (she had wanted $3 but I had seen similar at two for $5 in Quito so refused to pay more).
And I have to say that I have worn it regularly every winter since, it has retained its bright colours and is often admired by friends and colleagues, so it has more than justified the impulse purchase!
Church in Cotacachi
On the church steps
From Otavalo we drove to Cotacachi, a town a little to the north. The town is known throughout Ecuador for its leather work, on items such as clothing, footwear, bags, belts and wallets. We strolled the length of the main street, where every shop it seemed was selling these leather goods – everything from tiny coin purses for a couple of dollars to very stylish handbags, jackets and even small pieces of furniture. Had we wanted to shop, we could have spent ages choosing, but as it was we soon tired of every shop looking the same! However, a detour off the main road along Avenida Bolivar offered us a glimpse of this striking church which we were pleased to have seen, though there was no time to see if the interior was as interesting as the exterior.
Cotacachi is also considered to be a good place to get a taste of traditional Ecuadorean food. We spotted several places that looked tempting, but as lunch was included in our tour we had to go where Jose Luiz took us. I was at first disappointed to see that the large restaurant he stopped at was apparently catering just for tourists visiting with their guides, but I have to admit that the lunch we had there was excellent – a really good shrimp ceviche to start with, pork (grilled outside in the garden) to follow, and we could also have had desert though both Chris and I were too full and declined this. It was a pleasant, relaxing meal after the bustle of Otavalo market.
Apparently Cotacachi is becoming a popular place for Americans to retire to, and I could see why it might appeal, set in the scenic highlands of northern Ecuador and with a good standard of living for relatively low prices. Too quiet for me though!
Mural in the town
El Mitad del Mundo
Monument at El Mitad del Mundo
Our afternoon was spent at the Middle of the World! You might imagine that this is at the centre of the earth’s core! But no. El Mitad del Mundo is the name given to both a monument near Quito, and the area immediately around it which was erected to mark the line of the equator. Rather than cause confusion, as “Ecuador” means “Equator” in Spanish, it was given this more fanciful name.
Today we know that in any case the monument stands not on the equator but very near it instead, but that is because we now have more sophisticated means of measuring such things than did those whose exploits are commemorated here. The monument here commemorates the work of the French Geodesic Mission in 1736. In that year a multi-national team – Spanish, French and Ecuadorean – was sent to this region to try to scientifically verify the roundness of the Earth, and to establish whether its circumference were greater around its equator or around the poles. In doing this they needed to establish the exact line of the equator, and this is where they determined it lay – close, but not quite accurate, although impressive for that day and age.
Around the monument various museums and attractions have sprung up, aimed at the many visitors who come here, and it was to one of these that we headed first.
Museo de Sitio Intiñan
Inti Nan is a tourist attraction in the vicinity of the Mitad del Mundo monument. Depending on your perspective it is either a tourist trap or a lot of fun. We took it all with a pinch of salt and thoroughly enjoyed our visit, but whether it lives up to the grand claim made on its website of being “an educational centre of culture and promotion of our nation” is debatable!
It actually seems to be a bit unsure of what it is, exactly, and the result is a bit of a hotch-potch of exhibits. You go around with a guide (independent wandering seems not to be allowed) – ours was very good but had a rather unfortunate squeaky voice that added to the oddness of the place.
We went first to an area which focuses on the Amazonian region of Ecuador, with exhibits covering the wildlife (snakes and spiders for the most part), the typical lives of its people (there’s a mock-up of a traditional dwelling) and the custom of shrinking heads. This was explained to us in some detail and their prized “real shrunken head” pointed out with pride. Our guide was keen to reassure this that this is thought to be the head of the twelve year old son of a chief who died of natural causes (there are no signs of violence, and heads were traditionally shrunk to preserve an important person for posterity as well as to celebrate a victory over an enemy).
A nearby area is devoted to a collection of totem poles from the various indigenous peoples of the Americas, including Chile, Mexico and of course Ecuador. But the main attraction is an Equator line that the owners of the museum claim is the true line, and although others dispute that it seems to be generally agreed that this is closer than Mitad del Mundo at least. Of course, everyone wants to stand on the line and the guides are happy to take your photo while you do so.
On the Equator?
They will also demonstrate a series of “scientific” experiments demonstrated to “prove” that it is genuinely the equator. Some say the experiments are fake, and some certainly seemed likely to be so to me, such as the demonstration of the difficulty in walking in a straight line with eyes closed, or our apparent lack of strength here. Others were more convincing, such as the water changing direction as it swirls through a plug-hole (attributed to the “Coriolis effect”, a scientific principle to which our guide referred several times). But even so, when I got home and looked more closely at my video of this last one I started to wonder whether that too might not be faked. Wikipedia would seem to back up my suspicions:
“Water rotation in home bathrooms under normal circumstances is not related to the Coriolis effect or to the rotation of the earth, and no consistent difference in rotation direction between toilets in the northern and southern hemispheres can be observed.” See the full Wikipedia article for a more detailed explanation, and have a look at my video for yourself to see if you share my doubts.
The tour ends with a demonstration of traditional dancing, which I found more laughable than authentic, but that might just have been the incongruous setting. Generally though it was all good fun – and we even got our passports stamped to show that we had been right at the equator!
Mitad del Mundo monument
The monument that bears the name Mitad del Mundo is a 30 metre tall stone pyramid topped with a globe 4.5 metres in diameter, so it’s hard to miss! It can hardly be considered beautiful but it is certainly impressive. It would be all the more so perhaps if the painted line on which it stands, and which crosses the plaza beneath to feature in so many tourist photos, really did mark the equator, but sadly this is not the case.
The French Geodesic Mission arrived in what is today Ecuador in 1736. It was undertaken by a multi-national team – Spanish, French and Ecuadorean. The purpose was to scientifically verify the roundness of the Earth, and to establish whether its circumference was greater around its equator or around the poles. The team measured arcs of the Earth’s curvature from the plains near Quito to the southern city of Cuenca. These measurements enabled them to establish accurately for the first time the true size of the Earth, which eventual led to the development of the international metric system of measurement. As part of their work it was of course necessary to ascertain where the equator fell, and they made a pretty good job of it considering that they were working in an age before computers, GPS and so on. But we now know that they were off by a few degrees, and that all those who pose so enthusiastically on this line are not quite where they maybe think they are!
There is a lot more to do here than pose for that photo, but we were short of time after our busy day at Otavalo market and Intiñan. If you wanted, you could probably spend the best part of a day here. There is a museum inside the monument itself, which exhibits a variety of objects relating to indigenous Ecuadorian culture, such as clothing of the different ethnic groups, and in the area immediately around you can visit a planetarium, see a miniature model of Quito, and walk through a mock-up of a small colonial town complete with handicraft shops and cafés. But we contended ourselves with a few photos before rejoining Jose Luis and our driver for the journey back to Quito.
Back in Quito for the evening
That evening we decided to return to La Ronda where we had enjoyed a drink the previous day and look for a restaurant there for dinner. Our choice was La Primera Casa, which is popular but which we found a little disappointing. It was a Saturday evening, when La Ronda was at its busiest and the restaurant pretty busy too, although not completely full. Perhaps that explains, but doesn’t justify, the incredibly slow service. Now, I don’t want to be hurried over a meal when I’m on holiday, and I’d rather that service were a little slow than too quick. But to sit for 15 minutes between ordering our first beer and its arrival, and 30 minutes before the empanadas we’d ordered to go with it appeared, is a bit too much! A shame, as the interior of this restaurant is lovely, with several small rooms decorated with interesting folk items such as colourful masks and a central fire – though we were to find that the latter did not give off enough heat to counter the chill air coming through the door.
In La Primera Casa
When the empanadas did eventually arrive they were very good – light and crisp, with a tasty filling and a hot salsa aji (chilli sauce) for dipping. Unfortunately though, my main course didn’t live up to this promising start. I had ordered fritada, a traditional dish of pork with different accompaniments – corn (both the local white corn or moté and corn on the cob), lima beans, avocado, white cheese, plantain, my favourite llapingachos (potato patties) and salsa. The meat seemed over-cooked to my taste (though as I found this in a number of Ecuadorean restaurants I started to wonder if locals prefer their meat served dry like this?) The corn and beans were lacking in flavour too, though the llapingachos were very good and the salsa delicious. Chris was somewhat happier with his choice of chicken Cordon Bleu (a popular, albeit international, dish here), but overall we found the meal disappointing and, by the end of it, the restaurant uncomfortably cold.
So, back to the hotel to warm up, and to prepare for tomorrow’s adventure which was to be an overnight trip out of town …