Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Otavalo with a View

This morning we went on the Ecuadorian adventure that I have been looking forward to for months: Shopping at the Otavalo mercardo (market). According to our Lonely Planet, "For hundreds of years, Otavalo has hosted one of the most important markets in the Andes, a weekly fiesta that celebrates the gods of commerce... The tradition of swapping money for goods here stretches back to pre-Incan times, when traders would emerge from the jungle on foot, ready to conduct business." Now most people emerge from their hotels...but anyways... Thankfully, I brought my Spanish interpreter/bartering partner along, aka J. We couldn't even dream of starting this exhausting adventure without some energy. So we stopped and picked up two ice cream bars. Mine was coconut and J's was chocolate. Of course I had some of J's, too.

First stop was the animal market- maybe we'd want to purchase a cow to ride around the market on? I've always wanted a sheep...think about it dad: you would never have to cut the grass again! We entered a chaotic world of squealing pigs, sheep on leashes and cows tethered to stakes in the ground awaiting their fate. There are cardboard boxes stuffed with chicks, chickens and guinea pigs in mesh bags being thrown over shoulders, and puppies in crates. A couple is literally dragging a big, pink pig to their pick up truck. The woman, in the traditional long black skirt and white embroidered top is holding this (massive) pig off the ground by its tail while the man has the rope tightly wound around his hand and the pig's neck and is putting all his weight into yanking this very un-cooperative pig through the muddy field. I have never seen a pig in so much distress. He's digging his piggy paws into the dirt and flailing about and making the most horrible, high pitch, tortured pig scream that I couldn't even have imagined existed. Its like a horrible, disturbing car crash and I can't look away. We move on to the poultry section where chickens are being plucked out of cartons by their feet, wings flapping when they are then either stuffed into mesh bags, or given to the children to carry home by their feet, chicken heads bobbing along the sidewalk. There are opaque bags rustling and moving and making noises I can't quite discern. Sheep are being led along like dogs to their new homes. It's crazy and wonderful... and a little bit smelly.

This little piggy went to the market
Otavalo's main market is situated in the aptly named Plaza de Ponchos. Its not even official market day and the square is jammed with stalls displaying colourful ponchos, scarves, socks, blankets, hammocks, sweaters, etc. Wandering through the maze of stalls is wonderful and exotic...and tempting! Its like a dreamland, I think. From my toes to above my head I am swadled in colours, textures, fabrics.. Oh la la! AND, best of all- I'm allowed to touch EVERYTHING. In fact, running my sticky hands all over the soft alpaca goodness is actually encouraged! It really can't get much better than this. Plus, I (technically) could afford to buy almost anything I want! Maybe not as many as I want- like I might not be able to get that luxurious alpaca scarf in ALL 100 shades- but I could probably get away with my top 10 favs.... If stick-in-the-mud J weren't hanging over my shoulder... Merchants are hollering the 'best' prices at your back and thrusting silky smooth Alpaca wares into my not-unwilling hands in front of me. Turns out Alpaca wool is oh-so-soft and quite irresistable. (J: Bonus points for anyone who knows the difference between an alpaca and a llama). J and I spent hours bargaining with the hockers, meticulously choosing exactly what "we" wanted and making sure we got it for a price that everyone could be happy with. The ginormous two-person hammocks were by far the best deal of the day. J bargained down from $42 for one to $30 for two! I hummed and hawwed over exactly what colours of alpaca scarves I needed most. I also tried on various versions of the exact same llama-printed alpaca sweater to make sure I ended up with the right one.

Now that the shopping fun was done, we needed to figure out how to get all this junk (K:NOT junk- precious, precious lovelies) back to Canada. Laden down with five exquisite kilos of merchandise (funny how five kilos always feels more like two when you're taking it to the post office) we trudged up to the second floor office with our bags overflowing with vibrant alpaca productos. We held our bags up to the post office lady hoping that the rest of the process will be easy, straight-forward and cheap. Wrong, wrong and wrong. "You need a box and some tape," she tells us in broken Spanglish.

One of these hammocks will be ours!

"Where do we get a box?" I inquire. The only word I understand is supermercado. So back to the supermarket we go. We bypass the ice cream fridge and asked the lady at the till for a box. We point to a pile of boxes behind us, which are sitting beside twenty-seven pound bags of animal crackers (no joke). There is a bit of confusion, but ultimately we end up with a cardboard box of perfect proportions. We jam all of our goodies into the box, the bottom of which is not taped closed, and head off in search of tape. We bought an entire roll of packing tape and were convinced that we are now fully prepared to mail our five kilos of bargoons, we carry our box back up to the second floor postal office. The security guard (a 15 year old boy with a gun approximately the length of his leg) shows us into a back room. We are about to start taping our box closed when the security guard announces that the police need to inspect our package. A man in jeans, sweater and a small backpack comes into the room and proceeds to unroll, and thoroughly smoosh through all of our items making sure that we weren't stashing any cocaine with our llama sweater (don't worry, we weren't). His radio was droning on from some obscure place on his person and we are keeping our eyes peeled, always wary of any funny-business. Once he is satisfied that our stuff is drug free, he proceeds in rolling the majority of the packing tape around and around the box, nearly making the box bulletproof. Our alpaca goods are bulging at the seams of the box and are quite determined not to be held up in the box for their trip to their new home in Canada. 'Round and around more tape went until the alpaca had no choice but to surrender. It is then that we placed our package on the scale and realized that our two kilos of goods are either five kilos or are sealed in with three kilos of tape. I'm voting for the latter. Either way we are paying to ship 4.98 kilos home to the Great White North, eh?. Oh boy. We wait in line for half and hour while other people are either picking up or sending off variously sized (yet smaller than ours) packages. I filled out three identical forms (which are all carbon-copied). The lady rips apart the three page forms and makes me sign and date all nine copies individually. "I need your passport," she says. J hands over my passport. "No, I need a copy of your passport," she says next. So J zips off down the street to get a copy of my passport for our lady.

Pile of shrunken heads!
A pile of treasures, a free supermarket box, a roll of packing tape, a photocopy of the passport and half an hour later we are five kilos lighter and $89 poorer. And hopefully our dear alpaca (products) arrive in Canada in twelve days or less. Yes, we spent nearly as much on the shipping itself as we did on the actual goods. Thankfully, we didn't have to mail anything over an ocean.

After a very exciting, expensive and quite tiring morning we were in desperate need of almuerzo completo (a big lunch). We came across a cute little local restaurant in the corner of a colonial square and it seemed like a hopping place. There were friendly staff, good prices and no sign of a fanny pack anywhere...score! I got a bowl of soup, fresh fruit juice (with a refill) and a plate with a quarter chicken, potatoes, rice and salad plus dessert (and a complimentary banana...we'll take it!) for $2.50. The chicken and potatoes were covered in a delicious sauce and there was a whole bottle of aji (which is sort of like a chili/coriander sauce) for us to slather everything in. PS we LOVE this sauce. J got a vegetarian version of all of that for $1.50. By far this was the tastiest and best value meal we have eaten in Ecuador. See you tomorrow Bachoky Restaurante!

p.s. Don't be expecting post cards this time. At $2 a pop just for a stamp to North America (and even more so to Europe) it is cheaper to mail a postcard from Canada to India than it is to mail one from here up a few thousand kilometers to Canada!

Where we stayed: Outside Otavalo in the beautiful countryside (3km)- Hosteria Rose Cottage $42/night incl. tax and continental breakfast. Cute little private cabana with ensuite in a really fantastic setting-lots of hammocks! $3 taxi ride from town.

In town: Hotel Riviera-Sucre- $18 night for private room, shared bathroom. Nice place with welcoming courtyard and garden, helpful staff, good location for the market- good deal!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mindo with a View

Mindo is a cute little tourist village in Northern Ecuador closed in by towering hills covered by a cloud forest. A cloud forest is as lush as it sounds. And that's because its a forest that, because of it's high-ish altitude, is often shrouded in clouds and mist, adding a mystical atmosphere and lots of condensation to feed the plants. It is dense and green and exotic with hundreds of species of birds (including some pretty cool hummingbirds) and bright colourful flowers everywhere. Look in any direction and the super-sized plants are exploding with life and colour. We are staying at a hostel right by a swift moving river, a tranquil setting perfect for relaxing and watching vibrant birds flit in and out of the bird feeders.

As we didn't accomplish much in Mindo other than hiking down winding, muddy roads back into the serenity of the cloud forest, I thought I'd talk about a topic close to my heart: food. Mindo is the first town in Ecuador where we actually had the opportunity to find a little local restaurant, order in Spanish and try to figure out what exactly local food is in these parts. Everywhere we have stayed so far has had most of the food included and its hard to say whether or not what the hostels were serving is local food, or what they thought us gringos would like- or a combination of both. Other than a few choice places, no one has served us anything with much flavour. Plain pasta, rice and potatoes for dinner. Fried eggs and bread for breakfast. When we got fruit- it was delicious- bananas with much more flavour than at home, watermelon and papaya. Veggies seem to be mostly tomatoes mixed with a few shreds of lettuce. The few times we stayed somewhere where dinner wasn't included we got so distracted by all the delicious fried snacks mid-afternoon and were too full for dinner. What I thought were 'empandas' were actually 'llapingacho'- small fried corn pancakes stuffed with melted cheese.  Fancier places even have this delicious chili-tomato-cilantro-onion sauce for dipping them in. Emapandas are more like pizza pockets, only filled with chicken and various other veggies/flavour. Apparently cheese empanadas do exist- we just haven't found them yet- our eyes are peeled.

So, we were on a mission. We walked up and down the one street in town, lined with restaurants and travel agents. There was a place with a big white concrete sign, the name painted on the front in blocky letters. It's open to the street, as every store is, and inside was lined with plastic tables and chairs. Locals were hunched over enormous portions and fresh fruit juice brightened up the tables. There was a huge banner-sign on the wall with faded pictures of food-filled plates, the names in Spanish and little price stickers by each picture. Our bellies were doing the happy dance. It was perfect. The old woman smiled at us as we studied the banner. J asked if there were any vegetarian options and the woman listed in Spanish the different combinations of rice, fries, beans, avacado etc... She pointed to the images of each choice on the plate pictures combining different sides around the meats. I picked the chicken version. She asked if we wanted to $2 or the $4 size. We picked the $4- we were hungry. It didn't take long before a massive plate of rice, beans, french fries and salad was placed in front of J and myself (mine with chicken instead of beans). Then came the fresh pineapple juice! yum! Everything tasted wonderful and we were stuffed. Woohoo! Mission successful!

We went back for breakfast. Everywhere serves a continental breakfast for $2.50. Tea, juice, a bun and an egg. I'm not sure why this is a good deal when you can get what the locals seem to eat for breakfast (although more research is needed)- fries, rice, salad, egg (although probably chicken instead of egg) and tea- for $2. A little unorthodox, but way more filling and a way better value than the boring western breakfast. Completed with a frozen mango fruit bar- and we were good to go off on another day of hiking through Mindo's magical cloud forest!

Lunch: All that hiking made us hungry. We went back to our new fav spot for food in Mindo. There was a picture of something called
'patacones con quesa.' By the picture and what I could translate, the dish was going to be whatever 'patacones' were, fried with cheese. Turns out patacones are plantains. They were sliced thinly and I think they were coated in a thin corn-based batter before being fried. Then there were chunks of cheese, in the Laughing Cow family, crumbled on top. With the tomato-cilantro salsa- they made for quite the different meal- for $1.50.

Fast forward to the bakery where I discovered 3 delicious buns this afternoon:
#3- the famed 'empanada con queso'- cheese baked into a bun/ turnover -yum
#2- a  big round bun baked with cheese and brown sugar in the middle- interesting, but pretty good
#1- and the winning bun, in my opinion, a longish bun with layers of dulce-de-luche baked into the folds. Essentially- it was a carmel bun and boy do I wish I bought more than one! Don't bother asking J how it tasted- he didn't even get a bite!

Where we stayed: La Casa de Cecilia - $16 for the room for the night. Great deal and really nice sitting area beside the river.

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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Quilotoa Loop with a View

The 'Quilotoa Loop' refers to a VERY bumpy, cliff hugging "road" that winds off the main highway and high into gorgeous back- country of the indigenous Kichwa-speaking people. This loop, however, is not as easily circumnavigated as one my hope it would be. The mysterious bus 'schedule' seems to baffle even the locals. "Well, there's probably a bus at 3am and then maybe another one at 4pm... and there very well be one at noon, but I wouldn't count on that one.." And that would be only for the largest town. The smaller towns have one bus a day- at 4am. For our bus from the town of Quilotoa to Chugchilan we were told to be there (in 2 different locations) a half hour early and that the bus would come at 1:20 or 1:30 or 2:00. It eventually arrived in a cloud of dust at 2:15. It was the single most terrifying bus ride I had ever been on. Not only were the roads more like suggestive dirt paths, but they were perched literally on the very edge of sheer cliffs that dropped hundreds of meters without so much of a tree to break the fall of a tumbling bus. Believe me- I pictured it. By the time we made it to Chugchilan, about an hour later (after unloading a stereo system through the back window) I was convinced I deserved my $1 bus ticket back. But, really, the scenery was spectacular and we did make it safely to the destination. So, I guess it was worth the $1. Who cares if we had been waiting on the side of the road for the bus since noon and I to pee the entire hour and the bus was hopping up and down like Jiffy Pop? It was like a discount roller coaster, only we weren't strapped in and we certainly weren't at Fantasy Island. Not to complain.
But back to the beginning. We left Cotopaxi with our new German friends, Martina, Bozi and Armin. Conveniently all of our new friends, and pretty much everyone else travelling in Ecuador except us, speak Spanish. We were dropped at the side of the Pan-America highway by the taxi and told to flag a passing bus to the next big town, Latacunga. It took about 5 seconds for one to pass. We all piled on with the locals and their chickens, gas tanks, paper wrapped bundles and babies. The scenery was beautiful and other than the ubiquitous teenager slumped in the very back corner of the bus playing that horrible screaming music so loud through his earbuds that everyone in the vicinity suffered, it was an uneventful journey. With luck we caught the only bus going all the way to Quilota that day and reserved the whole back row for the 2 hour mountain journey. By the time we arrived in Quilota, the famous village of the turquoise Laguna Quilotoa, a volcano crater that is now a shimmering lake, surrounded on all sides by steep mountain walls, we were starving. Being a town with exactly one street it was easy to find a little restaurant serving traditional Ecuadorian fare. Lunch was $3 and included a soup, and a plate piled with fries, rice, fried chicken and a piece of lettuce or 'salad' and hot tea (coca- as in cocaine tea- if we fancied). J- being a vegetarian, of course, was the only person out of the 5 of us to get a chunk of chicken in his 'vegetarian' soup. Instead of fried chicken he got a slice of fried banana. We picked the hostel next door to stay for the sweeping views of the valley. Quilotoa was cold and damp. Morning was clear and gorgeous, but by mid afternoon thick clouds rolled in, obscuring anything further than 5 feet away and leaving us chilled to the bone. We cuddled by the fire, sipping mint tea and chatting. Dinner rolled around. Soup, of course, to start.Then a plate piled with spaghetti (no sauce), boiled potatoes (no sauce), a slice of tomato and another piece of fried chicken. "What do you call this?" Our new Japanese friend asked us motioning to his plate. 'A whole lot of carbs!' We told him, and all had a friendly laugh as he tried to wrap his tongue around the word 'carbohydrates.' Needless to say, so far, we haven't fallen in love with Ecuadorian food, except the fried chicken- who doesn't love fried chicken? There are these little snacks served street side, however, 'cheese empanadas'- some sort of fried dough, probably corn or potato based, stuffed with melty cheese- pretty delicious and totally not diet friendly. The next morning we were up with the sun, eating fried eggs, bread and, surprisingly, some fresh fruit. Just the start we needed for our 5 1/2 hour hike around the rim of the Quilotoa crater. It was a spectacular hike and it felt good to be burning some of the bagillion carbs we had been eating. There were some major ups, and steep downs, the hike involved a bit of scrambling and a lot of narrow causeways with the land falling away dramatically inches from the edge of the path. It was a great day out with Martina, Bozi and Armin and we feel very lucky to have met all three of them and that we had the opportunity to spend so much time with them. But, as all good things come to an end, after our epic hike, we parted ways. Everyone was headed south, to the jungle and our plan was to stay a bit longer in the mountains. Thankfully, before they left Martina taught J a couple really long/complicated German words- which he repeated over and over again, trying to get them right. That night I woke up to J talking in his sleep- in German. Thanks, guys!

We continued on to the next town on the 'loop,' Chuggchilan via the terrifying bus ride mentioned at the beginning of this blog entry. Still high up in the (green) mountains with spectacular views of the canyon, mountains and steep farmers fields. We stayed at a wonderfully atmospheric hostel that offered the best food we've had so far in Ecuador. The hiking was awesome and the strategically hung hammocks offered such views while swinging in the blissful breeze. We had working internet for the first time since arriving AND there was the most adorable cuddle-y cat 'Felipe' whom won even J over- although he won't admit it (J: I couldn't stand the flea-bag).

A note on dogs here: They seem to fall into one of two categories- either they are horribly terrifying, or they are little love bugs who run up to you on the street like you are their most favourite person in the world, and try to kiss you everywhere and share all their precious fleas with you.

Example #1- We got off the bus (and not a minute too soon) in Chugchilan and there were literally more dogs than people. They were mostly distracted by each other or eating or sleeping, scrounging or fighting or mating. Stray dog drama is hilarious. We started walking down the street and there was a medium-large dog sitting beside a little girl on a stoop. As we neared, his tail was wagging- then, all of the sudden, he was half way across the street, crouched in anger, teeth bared, growling and and snarling at us. It was so scary. J lifted the water bottle and pretended to throw it at him and he stayed back- but seriously. Why do people want dogs like this? Then we went out for a walk and passed a dilapidated house with a long drive way. Just as we got in front of the driveway, 2 dogs barreled out at us, barking and growling and generally being very ill-mannered (and really scary).  Its not like they have leashes or gates to prevent these dogs from eating me. I leapt behind J, literally shrieking (ok-twice) and he raised his hand with the rock he'd been carrying around in his pocket for this exact reason and pretended to throw it at the lunatic man-eating dogs that were barely keeping to their side of the street. The effect was immediate. The larger dog turned and scurried away with his tail between his legs and the smaller dog literally started crying in fear as he retreated back down the driveway. Its nice to know that we have a solution to the problem- but the way your heart stops when a dog rushes at you, teeth barred and very aggressive is really not nice. At all.

On the other hand Example #2- In that same town, on a different walk a smaller dog flew up from behind us. Right at our heels. My heart stopped but just before J spun around and kicked the thing, I realized that actually his tail was wagging so much that the whole back half of his body was shaking with it. He ran up around and between our legs and jumped up, slathering us with kisses. Full of love and affection. Even when J tried to convince him to chase a gaggle of very attainable piglets, he stayed right at our feet- heeling better than any dog I had ever seen trained to do so. He followed us the rest of the walk and then when we got back to our room, he slept outside our door for hours, waiting for us to resurface. The next day was the exact same. It was like he'd never been happier in his whole life then when he saw us walking up the street.

J's Spanish has improved exponentially in the last week. Still, of course, there are times when our lack of language skills leads to some pretty confusing moments. This morning, for example, we had just finished a massive breakfast. We had fried eggs, bread, cheese, fruit, yogurt, coccoa puffs and tea with warm milk. Breakfast was included, and we certainly ate our fill. We were stuffed. We had just finished when Mama Hilda, the Grandmother patroness, and for whom the hostel was named came into the breakfast room. She asked what we were doing today, and some other basic questions that that we understood and could answer in basic terms. Then she asked how we liked our eggs done and left to go into the kitchen. 'That was a random question,' J noted. And then we heard the oil bubbling in the pan. 'She's making us more eggs!' I realized and groaned. Sure enough, out she came, with a broad smile and placed two more fried eggs in front of us. Oh boy. We rolled out of breakfast and into the hammock. Later, we were paying for our room and were trying to ask for the receptionist/cook/maid to change our $20 for $5 bills. I wasn't quite convinced that we had gotten our point across. When Mama Hilda came ambering down the stairs with her hands cradling her hands like she was holding a fly and a huge smile on her face I was intrigued. When she poured a handful of nickels into J's pocket, probably 40, as change I couldn't help but laugh. When J later dumped the entire contents of our change purse of dimes and nickels onto the counter in a corner store to pay for the ice cream bars we had chosen, all six local towns-people milling about the store couldn't help but laugh.

We made it to our final town on the loop, Isinlivi, this morning about 10am. We went on a great hike up through a little tree-canopied alley lined with curious sheep, adorable lambs, snorting pigs and wandering piglets all munching away. We hiked up to a ridge above town (missing the actual trail at first and scaling a 45degree potato field, and narrowly avoiding being spat on by an alpaca) but we eventually found our way to the top and were rewarded with glorious 360 views stretching all the way back to Quilotoa. Our hostel here in Isinlivi is cute with hammocks and comfy couches arranged around the fireplace, and as with every town on this loop, magical views. This hostel also a puppy, a constant parade of stray dogs, a mommy cat and her two cute tiny kittens and an adorable two year old named Melanie, who is currently sitting on J's lap, taking all the bookmarks out of his Spanish phrasebook, doing her best to avoid her mother, who is chasing her around with an errant sock Melanie refuses to put on. Put all these players together- and you have an adventure.

Like this afternoon when I finally convinced J to take a shower. I was sitting out on the back patio, all by myself, writing this blog, minding my own business, when two small dogs race around the edge of the patio and immediately start freaking out at the sight of me. Their tails are wagging a mile a minute, they are throwing kisses out on any and all surfaces and they are litterally climbing up the bench, onto my lap and are halfway onto the table as I am frantically trying trying to shove the computer and my cameras and the variety of things I have scattered around - out of paws way. The littlest, and female dog is SO excited that she is crying- loudly- and running circles on the bench. The black male dog is jumping about, his tail sending stuff flying about. The suddenness of this love onslaught has me overwhelmed and I really don't want fleas. Or rabid kisses, for that matter. Just then I hear wailing from inside the hostel. The dog's crying must have woken Melanie up from her nap. Assuming her mother is on it, I continue to try and get the dogs off the table. Then, there is a little screaming girl, on the edge of the garden, crying for her mother, who is no where in sight. I'm not sure if she's scared of me so I slowly approach, dogs darting between my legs. Her rosy cheeks are stained with tears and she's only wearing one shoe. When I'm close, she holds her arms up-so I pick her up and she immediately stops crying and clings to my neck. She's really cute. We just settle down, dogs lying under the benches instead of on the table and Melanie cuddled in my lap- when the cat appears. More commotion. The dog wants to play, the cat wants to claw his eyes out. She flattens her ears, hisses and arches her back and he continues to dumbly approach, tail wagging. The other dog is barking and I'm trying to drag Melanie and her appendages further into my lap as the action heats up at my feet, yelling at the dogs I don't know (who probably don't speak English) and trying to shoo the cat. AHHH! J comes out of the shower and the dogs turn their attention to slathering him with kisses and rubbing their flea-fur all over him- long enough for the cat to slink back into the garden shadows. Sigh. So, there we are. My self with a two year old Ecuadorian kid on my lap (who I thought understood some English but turns out she was just nodding at everything I said), flea ridden, but cute, stray dogs lying on our feet (most of the time- when we can keep them off our laps) , mommy cat and her kittens watching from beneath the geraniums- and J, wet hair hanging in his face, serendaing us all with the communal guitar. Just picture it.

And now, Im sitting here, by the cozy fire, with the cat settled on my lap. The computer used to be on my lap- but cat wasn't happy about the set up and shoved it off my knees to make room to stretch. Guess cats are the same 'round the world.

Where we stayed:
Quilotoa: Hostel Chukirawa $15 per night/per person with breakfast and dinner included (and private bathroom)
Chugchilan: Mama Hilda $19 per night/per person with breakfast and dinner (really great place with really good food)
Isinlivi: Llullu Llama: $19 per night/per person with breakfast and dinner

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cotopaxi with a View

Cotopaxi National Park's namesake is a glorious, snow covered 5897 m tall volcano that last erupted 120 years ago. There are 3 volcanoes in the area. According to local legend, the 3 volcanoes are the spirits of a mother, father and baby. First the little baby volcano starts whimpering (aka the baby volcano erupts) then the bigger mother volcano gets all upset and starts crying (aka she erupts) and finally, the massive father volcano, fed up with all the carrying-on, explodes in anger (aka the biggest eruption). The baby has started crying, the mother is losing it, and now, for the last 120 years, locals have been awaiting the father's angry explosion....

Other than the impending doom of Father Volcano's eruption, Cotopaxi National Park is breathtaking. We are staying a few kilometres outside the park in a fantastic hostel (at 3500m) that has wonderful views of Cotopaxi along with lots of other imposing volcanoes/mountains around the 5000m mark. If the mountains/volcanoes are temporarily cloud covered, there are always endless green pastures, foothills, llama and cows to entertain. We are staying in a tent. Its a great setup with a tent at the end of a little boardwalk, on a big platform and covered by a corregated roof. Our tent has a big mattress, duvet and lots of extra blankets. No electricity though- good thing U Dan gave us mag-lights for Christmas! We are tucked back into the bushes in a private little alcove with our very own perfect view of Cotopaxi. We can literally lay in our tent and look out at one of the most majestic panoramas I've ever seen. Actually, right now, I am sitting in our tent, typing this and J is serenading me with the communal guitar from the bench on our little patio. 'I don't like you... but I love you..' he's singing. Seriously. In reality, he's practicing because all the girls in the hostel are in love with him (surprise, surprise) and they want another night of live music by the fireplace tonight after dinner. Last night J and a new Swedish friend named Mollin sang 'Hallelujah' in a very moving duet.

Our tent includes 3 delicious meals a day, pet llamas, three household puppies, mountain bikes and a guided hike to a nearby waterfalls. There are hammocks hanging out front, a wood burning fireplace that's lit every evening over appetizers and a hostel guitar for nightly sing-alongs. Its the kind of place where candlelight is preferred over electricity and there is a sign over the only flush toilet, encouraging you to use the outside toilet, that reads "Be a trooper and use the composting pooper" and "If you need #2, Use the Room with the View." (the composting toilet has a fantastic view of the volcano). The composting toilet itself is painted with "Composting Toilet- contribute to the fertility of our garden.' Naturally we love it here and have already extended our stay another night.

Yesterday we went on a tour into the actual National Park. The closer we got to the volcano, the more impressive it was. To start our guide stopped at a massive boulder that was probably 5 meters tall. He challenged anyone to try to climb to the top on their own "to acclimatize". When no one succeeded in scaling up the steep rock face he tied a rope around our waists and between 2 guides on the bottom and a strapping young Englishman on the top of the rock, each of us shimmy to the top. Well everyone shimmied except for me and Jonathan really. I was literally dragged up the rock. The two guides were at the bottom, each holding one of my feet and the rest of our group was already at the top, pulling the end of the rope that was tied around my waist. I tried to find a foothold to push myself up with, but me being incredibly uncoordinated every feeble attempt I made failed and, quite embarrassingly, with Jonathan laughing from the ground, my team successfully dragged me up the rock face and onto the flat top. Jonathan was last. He took hold of the rope and literally walked vertically up the rock. What a show off. Anyways, the pictures are great and no one is any the wiser as to how we all managed to get on top the boulder. Well, except everyone who has read this blog, I guess.

Next stop was an alpine flora lesson. We learned about various high altitude flowers, a long white fern called "rabbits ears" that are as soft and silky as rabbits ears, I imagine, and most importantly miniature flowers that are used to make important decisions. 'So, lets say you have 2 girlfriends,' our guide explains, 'and you need to pick which one you have to dump. You pick two of these little flowers, name one after each girlfriend, and hold them up to your face. Both flowers will start closing up almost immediately. Whichever flower closes first, that's the girl you like better!' Easy Peasy. Decision made. Apparently this is how our driver Carlos ended up with his wife! Not really, probably.

We made it to the parking lot of Refugio Jose Rivas (4800m), a rustic mountain hut and highest accommodation in the park. Its mostly used for 'locos' (my opinion) who want to make the midnight ascent up to peak of Cotopaxi. From the parking lot, there is a 200m climb to the actual refugio, which, because of the extreme altitude, takes about an hour to walk up (don't worry, I didn't believe it either until I was actually there). We ascended super slow, and it felt like a huge accomplishment to make it through the clouds and to the top. We were rewarded by intermittently spectacular views and complete white-outs, courtesy of the thick mountain clouds. We stopped for a warm drink and then climbed even higher to the glacier. Unlike most glaciers in the world, the Cotopaxi glacier is actually getting larger, and has been since the lava completely melted it 120 years ago. Its been growing back. Our guide grabbed a piece of plastic from somewhere and encouraged some good ole fashioned glacier tobogganing. Unfortunately the 1500m in elevation we had gained in the previous few hours really started to impact Jonathan and myself and the early signs of altitude sickness started to set in. We both had headaches and knew we needed to start descending back down to the parking lot. By the time we got back down the volcano (last, as usual, but certainly not least) I had a full on pounding headache by the time our jeep was bouncing back over the uneven road and I was pretty sure I was going to toss my cookies every time our Nascar driver, Carlos, tumbled into a pothole (every 5 feet). Poor J was wedged in the middle of the back seat of the jeep between my myself and Martina, both of us whom were pretty much passed out and drooling all over him (J: Actually K was the only drooling). Thankfully Carlos had to make a pit-stop at his mother's house (or something) and I took advantage of the opportunity to fling open the jeep door and rid my stomach of everything I'd consumed in the previous day. All to the audience of two stray dogs (who seemed pretty happy about the snack), a family of locals, (who were appalled), an American and a German I had known for less than 24 hours (who seemed genuinely concerned, and were polite enough to hide their disgust) and J, who always the good husband, rubbed my back through the window and procured a water bottle on my behalf. I felt bad for all parties who had the misfortune of witnessing the event, particularly my shoes.
Thankfully a couple hours nap (conveniently during the daily afternoon rain showers, so I didn't have to miss anything fun) sorted out all our altitude issues. When we woke up in our tent the skies were clearing and we had the most wonderfully clear view of the volcano. The late afternoon sun bathed the rolling green hills gold and turned the white snowy Cotopaxi almost luminescent. I propped myself up on the pillows and watched as the passing clouds constantly changed the scene through my open tent door for an entire hour. For an entire hour I lay there and thought about absolutely nothing and stared at a snowy volcano. Man, I miss this travelling lifestyle. Its only day four and I'm already in love with this continent.
In other exciting news, there was apparently an earthquake last night. At least it explains the 'raccoon' J was convinced was jumping around on our tent platform in the middle of the night.
We've already met some awesome people too! Martina is our newest German friend. She was actually on the flight with us from Atlanta-Quito and we shared a taxi to the hostel our first night. We are probably going to travel with Martina and another great German/Zorbian girl, Bozi (pronounced "Bo-Gee") for the next few days. We met Abbey, a super fun kiwi who was volunteering in Peru for the last little while and is studying to be a doctor. We met a couple really interesting Americans who work in Ecuador,  and J befriended a nice Argentinian couple, even attempting to speak some Spanish with them. Its really hard to believe so much has
happened in the last four days.

Where we stayed: Secret Garden Cotopaxi- $70 night for a private tent with a view, all food and good times.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Quito with a View

We've arrived in Quito, Ecuador! Yay! We haven't been here 24 hours yet, but so far, everything has been super easy and wonderful.. Our flights were on time last night (and included movies and food!), landing us in Quito just after 11pm. The Ecuadorian Immigration Officer welcomed us here (actually said "welcome"), there was a sign with our names on it held by our hotel's taxi and we were promptly delivered and showed to our cute private room decorated with pictures of the Galapagos. Its probably almost 30 degrees Celsius here today and when we woke up this morning the thunderstorms forecasted turned out to be gorgeous blue skies and fluffy white clouds. We stumbled out of bed early this morning, not wanting to waste any time on our first day in South America. We climbed up to the third (and top) floor open terrace of our hostel (at 2728m!) in the Old Town and I literally lost my breath. The view from up here on the terrace, where we are again hanging out now, writing this, is simply spectacular. Seriously. Top 2 on my "World's Best Terraces" list. Ok, so the list doesn't actually exist, but it should, and today I just may be inspired to create it. Back to the view. We're hemmed in by mountains (the green kind) on all sides. In front of us sprawls the colourful old colonial section of town, complete with narrow cobbled streets, wrought iron balconies and gleaming white ornate trim. To the right a massive Gothic cathedral (actually its a Basilica) rises up above the coloured facades and to the left a hill, topped by a huge angel statue. Pastel painted houses cling to the valley walls, perched precariously on the steep green hillside. The most perfect breeze is keeping us just cool enough as we sit here and try to grasp the reality of actually being here.
Our taxi was halfway to the hotel last night before I realized that I wasnt even paying attention to the city streets we were passing through. Granted, it was late and there was not a single person on the streets. But as I looked around at the graffitied shops, spanish signs, and.. it all just felt 'normal', whatever that means. I was actually a little bit disappointed that I didnt feel that awe or culture shock that we experienced that first night we flew into Bali all those months ago. So far, everything, no matter how different it is from home, is kind of familiar to us. The fact that red lights are merely a suggestion to drivers. Scanning the sidewalk for a group of people to join with in a street crossing venture- to lessen the chance of getting smoked. Still almost happened though. The city bus playing an electronic-midi version of 'Rudolf the Rednose Reindeer' as its "watch out Im coming through" music. All quirky things that were normalized for us while travelling in Asia and that still make us smile today. Not to say that South America
feels like Asia, there are just a few entertaining similarities we've noticed.
Completely different than Asia are the hidden, although not terribly far from the surface, security issues. It seems as though every other person on the street is a policeman, traffic cop or army person. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't feel dangerous- at all (mothers), its just that the presence of law enforcement is obvious. That being said, we were hassled (in the vaguely annoying tout-tourist manner) FAR more in any given Asian town than we were out walking in Quito today. Speaking of, though, this morning, after breakfast we were asking the hotelier about the city and he told us to absolutely not try to walk up to the hill with the angel on it. He suggested we take a taxi, because of so many pick-pocket stories on the way up. Its the first time we've been anywhere and told specifically not to go a certain place because of danger/robbery. He also told us to never wear backpacks on our back (front only) and keep my purse at the front too. "If someone throws liquid poo at you, don't let them help clean you up. They are trying too distract you so that thay can rob you." He tells us. "Liquid what?" The German girl beside us clarifies. "Liquid poo," he confirms. "Liquid poo?" she asks in disbelief. "Yes, dont get distracted by the liquid poo." He helpfully confirms again. Oh boy.
With that wisdom in our back pocket we headed out on the town. Happily, we managed all the way through our first whole day in South America sans poo of any variety. Although there were some pigeons in the main square that did try their darndest to sabotage our poo-free day.
Quito is a city of 1.8 million people. Its 51km long by 8km (ish) long! There is a new town and old town, lush parks, delicious smelling restaurants, and lots of smiling faces. In other news, J has been testing out his Spanish skills and it has been met with nothing but smiling Ecuadorians with lots of patience. I got a sunburn in my first 4hours and there are a LOT of Canadians here. Tomorrow we are headed to Cotopaxi National Park for some hiking and biking and chillaxing.
Where we stayed in Quito: Secret Garden Quito, Old town. Double room with shared bathroom $33.60 (incl tax). Really great.
We know it has been a bit troublesome in the past for some of you, but we are putting some more photos in our Photostream to the right. Hope you enjoy them!