Travelblog SA#3: Quito (Part 2) & Otavalo

14th-17th June 2018

Back in Quito again. Although, this time I opted to stay in the Centro Historico; an area abandoned by most of the backpacker community who now prefer to stay in La Mariscal, with its modernised bars and international restaurants. Quito’s older district is a place most people dare to only venture during the daytime these days, and tourists, in particular, are warned not to wander around at night because knife-point muggings are common.

I have found it to be fine so far. When I venture out at night, I just take a few dollars in my pocket and nothing else. Nobody has given me any bother, apart from the occasional prostitute trying to lure me. The restaurants, shops, and just about everything are cheaper here and, even though it is a bit seedy, it has an atmosphere. It is a facet of Quito, and part of the experience.

I have been staying at Quito Backpacker Hostel. It has a friendly atmosphere, good wifi, and a terrace bar. It is quiet, but I didn’t mind, as I have spent much of the last few days relaxing and catching up with my blog. When I first arrived, I was their sole guest, but now we number almost in the double digits. I don’t understand why more people don’t stay here though; I checked out some of the other hostels nearby, and this place is much cleaner and better maintained, and yet it doesn’t receive as many guests as it deserves.

My evenings have often been spent visiting a vegetarian place a few blocks away called Govindas. It is run by a group of Hari Krishnas who have been helping me practice my Spanish. I also get to listen to them chanting their prayers from upstairs while I eat.

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Over the weekend I made an overnight trip to Otavalo. A town to the north with a thriving market community going back hundreds of years. It is mostly known for its handicrafts and clothes but I didn’t buy anything because it is too early in my trip to be carrying excess stuff. I did enjoy wandering around though; soaking up the atmosphere and trying some of the street food.

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I ventured to its animal market too. It was a little challenging, seeing all those chickens, guinea pigs, rabbits, and all sorts of creatures crammed in tight little cages while still alive, and sold like produce.

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I guess one thing you need to remember when seeing sights like this is that, as a privileged person from the first world, it is problematic to judge. A lot of these people do not have luxuries we take for granted, such as fridges, so any meat they do eat has to be taken home alive so it doesn’t spoil. If you eat meat and live in a modern country, the only difference between you and them is that, for you, the cruelty occurs out of sight and mind.

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The animal market wasn’t all a completely uncomfortable experience. There were some light moments there too. Such as seeing a young boy being taken there by his father to buy his first puppy, and seeing the smile on his face as he held the nervous creature for the first time. And not all of the animals were in cages, either. Some of them, even though they were being sold as food, seemed as though they had been well cared for.

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I also went to see a waterfall in a village called Peguche, just outside of Otavalo. A place which is still, to this day, sacred to the local Indians.

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And, finally, I went to yet another museum. Although this one was not quite like any I had been to before. Museo del Pueblo Kichwa is set within a complex of old, abandoned buildings which used to be a textile factory. The Kichwa people were forced to work in horrible conditions there but, when it was closed (over a decade ago), a group of them bought it and turned it into a living museum.

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I think I somewhat surprised them, coming on a Friday instead of the weekend, and thus the only person available to give me a tour who spoke any English was the young son of one of the owners. He wasn’t fluent, but his English was certainly much better than my Spanish. Sometimes, when he didn’t know the English words for what he was trying to explain, he gave it to me in Spanish, and I caught the general gist. He told me about their festivals, which seemed to always take place on the 21st of the month. And traditions such as the giving of twelve lashes to both parties as the penance for couples who divorce. He also told me about the yachacs; Kichwa shamans who have knowledge of herbs and will rub an egg across your forehead to diagnose ills.

I appreciated how hard he tried and, even though he couldn’t quite explain everything to my full understanding, it was still a rewarding visit. He and the rest of the people there were very warm, and I left there feeling like I’d had a genuine experience.

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Venturing back to Quito again, I spent my last day there preparing. Tomorrow I fly to the Galapagos Islands.

 

For more photos of Otavalo, click here.

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Travelblog SA#2: The Quilotoa Loop – Ecuador

10th-13th June 2018

After a few days of exploring Quito’s museums and churches, I felt the call of the Andes (and a need for a change of scenery) so I hopped onto a bus – taking just a small bag of basic necessities with me – and headed towards the starting point for my first South American trek.

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As the bus climbed through the mountains, my ears kept popping. Quilotoa sits at an altitude of almost 4,000 meters. More than a thousand of what I had been acclimatised to previously in Quito.

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After checking into a hostel, there were still a few hours of daylight left, so I made my way down to the lake. Day-trippers, by the dozen, all had the same idea. Many of them carried by horseback. I felt sorry for the horses. You could tell some of them were tired. Although, to be fair, I noticed that the Kichwa women – clad in their traditional pleated shirts and dark hats – were handling their steeds with far more care and respect than the men, who whipped them whenever they showed strain and seemed – from both the features of their faces and attire – like they had moved to this area from cities, seeing an opportunity in the tourist boom.

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On my way down I passed a girl suffering from altitude sickness. She was barely conscious, and her father was trying to wake her up. I and some of the other passersby gave her water and coca sweets and eventually, she seemed to recover.

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It was a remarkable transition, how quiet the village became later on when all of the buses drove off. There were only two other people staying in the guest house with me, and it was very cold that night. I was feeling a little light-headed because I wasn’t quite acclimatised, so I went to bed early.

 

The Quilotoa Loop

Day 1

By the morning I was feeling fresh and invigorated. I got up at the crack of dawn, ate breakfast, and set off early.

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The first hour of the trek skirts around the rim of the crater, so I got to see more of Quilotoa. A dog followed me out of the village and became my companion for the journey. I called him Frank.

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They say to carry a stick with you around this trek, and I found that to be sound advice. Not only was it good support for the steep descents, but I also used it to fend off dogs. I passed lots of them during the route and not all of them were as friendly as Frank. Some of them were very territorial and tried to block my path. I think I got hassled a bit less than most people though. Frank was a good ambassador. Often when we were approached he would intercede, they would sniff each other, and we would be allowed to pass. But on other occasions, I needed to wave my stick at them to get them to budge.

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Climbing down the mountain towards a village called Guayama, the trail became difficult. We had to make our way down the canyon via a narrow series of ledges snaking down the face of a precipice. Apparently, this route was the new ‘safe’ one – the old one was destroyed in a landslide a year ago. I found myself fighting the same battle I am often faced when mountaineering; my sense of adventure in conflict with my fear of heights.

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At its most terrifying – when I had to climb a steep and narrow section of a rather crumbly-looking ridge – I abandoned my dignity and resorted to crawling on my hands and knees. Shortly after, a young boy raced passed me and put me to shame. I realised that, to him, this was just a casual wander.

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I guess you have to earn views like this though.

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When I reached the bottom, Frank was waiting for me. I grew concerned for him as the day wore on. I didn’t know if he was a stray or belonged to someone. If he did have a home back in Quilotoa he had wandered quite far. It was a difficult thing to do – as I enjoyed his company – but eventually I tried to shoo him away, but it was no use. He remained loyal.

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We clambered up the other side of the ravine. It was around midday, so the sun was strong. I took my time, reaching Chugchilan in the early afternoon. I claimed a bed at Cloud Forest Hostel. Aptly named, for that was the terrain I would be passing through the next day.

 

Day 2

The following morning I set off again, but this time alone. I’d fed Frank the previous evening, and he’d lingered around the hostel but, by dawn, he was gone. I never found out if he had an owner. No one I asked seemed to recognise him. Perhaps he did have a home, and made his way back there during in the night. Maybe he had latched onto another hiker, and such was his wandering, nomadic lifestyle. I guess I will never know.

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After a steep, downward climb, I was back into the ravine again, but a different part of it that day. I reached Itualo – a small village with a school – about two hours in and rested behind the shade of its church for a while.

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Snaking my way along the river – with mountains, farms, and patches of cloud forest on either side of me – I eventually reached a bridge, and it was time for a gruelling slog back up.

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Once I reached the top I crossed paths with a French couple who were on their way down. We took pictures at the Mirador and swapped tips for the terrain which lay ahead of each other.

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Curving across the side of one mountain, and then onto another, I came across a stream. It was the perfect opportunity to use my water filter for the first time.

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And, shortly after, I caught my first sight of Islinivi; my destination that day.

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I reached there just after lunch and claimed a pallet at Llullu Llama Hostel, which was one of the best places I have ever stayed. Not only did it have wonderful views of the mountains, but it also came with a free steam room, Jacuzzi, dinner, and breakfast. All of the food was homemade (even the bread and cakes) and they kept filling our plates over and over again until we were full.

 

Day 3

During most of the trek I had been suffering from hayfever – and for the first few days it had been bearable – but something happened during that night and it suddenly got really bad. I probably annoyed the hell out of the rest of the people in the dorm I was sleeping in, with my sniffing and sneezing.  By the morning, my eyes were all red and puffy. I had not slept much at all. I was tired, fed up, and felt like clawing my face off.

It was a shame because Llullu Llama was such a nice place I would have otherwise been tempted to stay a little longer, but instead I was forced to set off. It was the final day of the trek.

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Perhaps it was because I was in a rush to get out of there, but this last day was the shortest yet and I arrived in Sigchos just three hours after leaving Islinivi. Most of the trail that day was through a scenic valley, but I wasn’t feeling very well and I’d been somewhat spoilt for scenery over the last few days, so I found this final stretch of the Quilotoa Loop a little underwhelming.

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As soon as I reached the town, I marched straight to the bus terminal and bought a ticket back to Quito, hoping that the smog of the city might dilute the spawn of pollen sweeping through the Andes.

 

For more amazing photos from the Quilotoa Loop, click here!

Travelblog SA#1: Quito (Part 1) – Ecuador

6th-9th June 2018

I arrived in Quito in the afternoon. During my flight I made a friend called Stacey, and together we made our way out of the airport and towards the city. We got onto a crowded bus which kept lurching violently as the driver switched between the break and accelerate with full throttle. The locals seemed accustomed to it and were suitably braced. Stacey and I were holding onto the rails for dear life and swinging around like monkeys.

At one point a pair of young men got onto the bus and began to rap. Nobody seemed too fazed by it. I began to wonder what would happen if a pair of youngsters from my own country did such a thing. They were actually quite good, and Stacey and I applauded when they finished. And then it occurred to me that I had no idea what they were actually rapping about (and thus, what cause had I just inadvertently supported?). I trust it was a good one. The two young men seemed nice enough. After we got off, one of them helped Stacey get her suitcase through the turnstyle.

I didn’t do much that first day. I was tired and jetlagged. Stacey and I checked into a hostel and had a couple of beers. The next day, however, I got up early the next day and began exploring.

 

Day 1

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It seems rather fitting that the first photo I took during my travels in South America was a statue of Simon Bolivar. I passed it whilst on my way to Quito’s Old Town that first morning. Bolivar is a name I am going to encounter many times during the following months. He is a figure who echoes within the cultural consciousness of Latin America. Museums, streets, buildings, and even countries are named after him. Like many national heroes, he was far from perfect – there are episodes from his history which make him somewhat a grey figure to historians – but, in popular legend, he is mostly remembered as a hero.

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Upon reaching the Old Town, I began with the Plaza Grande. Quito’s main cultural square encompassing the President’s Palace, the former Archbishop’s Palace (now renovated into shops and restaurants), and a cathedral.

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After that, I made a detour to the Centro de Salud where I got vaccinated for yellow fever. In Ecuador it is free. It doesn’t matter where you are from; all you need to do is just turn up at one of their nationally run clinics and show your passport.

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Quito’s clinic is conveniently located next door to the Museu de Cuidad. Held within a former hospital run by monks, it details the area’s history all the way from the first signs of human habitation thousands of years ago, the mysterious Quito people who gave the city its name, the Incas, colonial times, all the way to present. Most of the exhibitions weren’t in English, but I have been learning Spanish for the last few months and was surprised how much I understood. I even found myself learning new words, as many of the ones I didn’t know I could guess through context. I realised going to such exhibitions would be a good way to improve my vocabulary.

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I then ventured on to see some of Quito’s churches. The golden-painted, baroque-style Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús is the most well known – and regarded as the most beautiful in the city – and it is certainly impressive, but the staff who charge you $5 for admission are a bit abrasive.

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I found Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco a much warmer experience. It is free entry, the churchgoers there are friendly and, as it doesn’t receive as many visitors, they don’t seem to mind people taking photos (as long you are respectful and discreet). Next door, there is a museum with fine examples of some of the church’s paintings and sculptures. It doesn’t seem to get many visitors either, but the ones who come are given a free tour.

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One of the highlights of the tour included this sculpture, which has an actual human skull inside it.

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What I also enjoyed about this museum was being informed about some of the local folklore. Such as the story of Cantuña; an indigenous man who was hired by the Franciscans in the 17th century to build the atrium of the church. When it seemed he wasn’t going to be able to complete it in time, the devil was said to appear to him and offer to finish it in exchange for his soul. Cantuña agreed, but after, just before the sun rose at dawn, he pried one of the stones loose and hid it. To this very day, Iglesia San Franciso remains incomplete, and Cantuña managed to keep his soul.

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My guide also told me about the Virgin of Quito, who is a popular cult image in this area. She is a carnation of the biblical Woman of the Apocalypse, and is depicted with a moon below her feet, twelve stars on her head, and grappling a snake (representing the devil) with a large silver chain. Effigies of her are in almost every church, and there is even a large statue of her overlooking the city on El Panecillo hill.

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I finished off the day by visiting Museo Nacional within the Casa de la Cultura. Which is huge and filled with artefacts, colonial antiques, information about indigenous history, and exhibitions of contemporary art.

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Day 2

My second day in Quito I hopped on a bus and headed over to Mitad del Mundo (‘The Centre of the World’), the place which was estimated as being the location of the equator in 1736, by Charles Marie de La Condamine as part of the French Geodesic Mission.

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To be honest, it was a bit of a tourist trap. The grounds around the monument have been scattered with a collection of small museums which gloss over titbits of Ecuadorian history, astrophysics, and even the production of chocolate, but none of them are particularly informing. There is also, of course, tonnes of shops selling very expensive tat. The only worthwhile feature of this place is catching the elevator to the top of the monument and seeing the Andes.

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I ventured on to the nearby Intiñan Solar Museum. Built later, when it was discovered (through the advent of technology) that actual line of the equator was two hundred meters away from Mitad del Mundo.

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Entry comes with a free tour and was assimilated with a group. Our guide gave us a rather sensationalised rendition of some indigenous traditions – such as the Shuar custom of shrinking the heads of their enemies and kin to keep for ritual purposes and trophies.

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And she also showed us the corpse of the infamous candiru fish. The reason why I am considering wearing a condom when I swim in the Amazon later this trip…

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Eventually, we were taken to the main feature; Intiñan Solar Museum’s exact equatorial line. Our guide demonstrated some of its strange phenomenon’s. One curious example was that she drained a sink of water three times: first on the line (where it poured directly downwards), and then a few meters to the south (where it swirled clockwise) and north (anti-clockwise).

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We were each given a chance to try to walk along the line with our eyes closed and arms extended. A video of my attempt can be found here. It was a very odd experience. You can actually feel your body being pulled in two directions and, no matter how hard you try to keep your balance, you eventually stumble and are pulled to one side.

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To finish off the day, I flagged down a bus and went to the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve; an extinct volcanic crater. When I arrived it was shrouded with mist but it eventually cleared.

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I hiked down via a steep trail to a quaint village at the bottom which was filled with farms. It was my first experience of seeing rural life in Ecuador.

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Day 3

For my final day in Quito, I mostly relaxed. I did squeeze in a jaunt to the Minadalae Museum which was near my hotel and focussed mostly upon the shamanic traditions of native tribes of Ecuador.

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In the evening I saw Stacey and said farewell. Since befriending each other at the airport that first day we had mostly done our own separate things during the daytime – as we had different itineraries – but we always met up in the evening to swap stories. We were both leaving Quito the following morning. Stacy was destined for the Galapagos islands, whereas I was venturing to the Quilotoa region.

 

For more photos, click here.