Otavalo, Ecuador

Latitude 0.22863°N Longitude 78.26131°W

Saturday, December 7, 2002

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Otavalo was another charming little town about 100km north of Quito which we visited for a few days while waiting for FedEx to deliver.

One of Otavalo's main attractions is the Saturday Market which dates back to pre-Inca times. On this day, almost the entire town is transformed into a thriving market place where livestock, food and handicrafts are all traded.

We arose at 5am and walked across town in an early morning mist and drizzle to catch the first action at the animal market. All the usual farm animals were there being bought and sold - cows, bulls, chickens, squealing pigs - but there were also some more unusual beasts like llamas, prized for their wool.

The locals were also quite a sight in their traditional dress: men with their hair in long single pigtails, ponchos and dark felt hats; women with white satiny embroidered blouses, long black skirts, shawls, head cloths and gleaming strands of gold beads around their necks (we learned later that the number of gold beads worn by the women was proportional to their family's wealth or social standing).

While we were milling about in the early morning gloom, who should we meet but Martin and Angelika, whom we last saw in Baños, and their two friends Amy and Craig Tucker. We all soon retreated from the animal markets and found a cosy cafe for breakfast. There we got to know Craig and Amy better and, having many common interests, became immediate friends. They were both molecular biologists originally from Maine and South Carolina now living in Sacramento, and were in Ecuador celebrating their honeymoon! Craig worked as an organizer for Friends of the River, a non-profit grass roots organization, while Amy had just finished her Ph.D. dissertation.

The six of us - Martin and Angelika, Craig and Amy, and ourselves - formed a group and ended up doing many things in Otavalo together over the few days we were all there. One of the unexpected highlights was visiting a local club - "Peña Jampa" - on Saturday night where all the local and regional attendees of the big market day wound down the day and kicked back to a great local band playing wonderful folk music all night long. Drinking and dancing were the prominent activities in the tiny venue and it was so uplifting to see these local people reveling with such natural and unpretentious abandon. The band's line up were flutes, pan pipes, spanish guitars, a mandolin-like guitar, a bass, drum machine, lots of percussion and a wall of gorgeously harmonizing male vocals. The music was authentic and vibrant and very much evoked a strong Andean feeling. As the evening drew on our little group started to diminish as tired individuals retreated to their hotels, leaving the ultimate party animals Martin and Angelika drinking and dancing with the locals until the wee small hours.

On Sunday Craig and Amy and Keiko and I went hiking for the day at the crater lake Laguna Cuicocha, part of the Reserva Ecológica Cotocachi-Cayapas. We caught a bus from Otavalo to Quiroga, then camioneta (a flatbed pickup truck!) to the park entrance. We asked the camioneta driver to pick us up again at 3pm. It was a five hour hike around the crater's rim, peaking at 3495m with spectacular views of the lake at every turn. Towards the end it got cold, misty and rainy, so we were wonderfully surprised to come across a brand new posada "Los Pinos de Cuicocha" where we were beckoned inside to rest, warm ourselves before a large open fireplace, and perhaps eat lunch? We ordered Inca rice soup and fresh trout, and everything that came out was sublime. The total cost came to about $5.00 each, and it just seemed wrong! Afterwards the owner showed us around the new property before giving us a lift back to the park entrance where the camioneta driver was anxiously waiting for us.

That night, over a cozy dinner of pizza and vino tinto del casa at Hostal Doña Esther, Keiko started persuading Craig and Amy to visit the Galápagos Islands while they were here in Ecuador. After thinking about it for a while, they realized the issue came down to choosing between renovating their kitchen or visiting the islands. It didn't take them long to decide after that!

The next day, Craig, Amy, Keiko and I left Otavalo early to head back to Quito. It was a brilliantly clear, sunny day and fresh snow from the previous night dusted the tops of all the volcanic peaks along the route. The views of Cotopaxi and the twin peaks of Iliniza Sur and Norte were spectacular. We were expecting FedEx to be delivering our camera "any day now" ("an act of purest optimisim", if ever there was one), which would then free us up for our Galápagos tour. Craig and Amy were meanwhile going to depart immediately on their five day Galápagos tour before heading off to the luxury resort Hostería Luna Runtún in Baños for some more conventional honeymoon R&R!

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