Come D-day, merchants take over the market plaza and its adjacent streets. Otavalo is my first sight of Ecuador and it has already surprised me
Ecuador holds a promise at its doors for me. A promise for more convenient commutes. In a short two hours I will be at destination: Otavalo, a small village in the North of the country, famous for its artesanal markets. It will be my first stop here.
For first impression, Ecuador offers a mix of wet, rugged green terrain and uninspiring towns. Beautiful nature on one hand, basic architecture on the other. We drive on curvy roads, stopping at multiple police checkpoints, and finally we reach the small town.
Otavalo is faithful to the linear urban layouts of the post-colonial Americas. I walk around the different blocks in search for the famous artisanal market. Only on Saturday will it take over the numerous street circling the market plaza, and until then, I wander to a viewpoint or walk around alimentary markets.
Come D-day, merchants take over the market plaza and its adjacent streets. Otavalo is my first sight of Ecuador and it has already surprised me with a people whose roots seem to bear witness to the Indigenous origins of the Continent. The outfits also are a lot more traditional than in Colombia for the most part. Now, the many merchants have converged to the market for a beautiful display of alpaca-made garnements and smaller handicrafts. The road to Ecuador has brought me to a whole new universe without any transition. And what better place to take a cultural dive than Otavalo?!
After a few days, I take another delightfully short bus ride to Quito. As we progress further South along the curvy Ecuadorian Panamericana, I have the feeling to be traveling along the country's backbone.
In the ten and a half months that have led me to the Ecuadorian capital, not once have I suspected the city was so beautiful. Upon my arrival, I find myself walking passed some of its old buildings, and up into its incredibly steep streets, in search for my accommodation. Unfortunately, after a somewhat uncomfortable night, I decide to change hostel first thing in the morning.
Settled at a B&B run by a Quitoan painter who seem to come straight out of a Woody Allen movie, I have a chance to explore the capital. For the first few days however, I decide to catch up on some work and laundry, leaving the hotel only for the famous almuerzos (lunches for the workers, at the comidas) or to treat myself to some coffee.
Faithful to my Colombian strategy, I decide to join a walking tour to learn about Quito. We walk around the old town, which is the biggest and best preserved colonial center in all of Latin America. The guide spoils us with stories of the different Christian fractions of Europe who have erected this or that of the numerous churches in the city. We learn about political turmoil and assassinations. We are shown typical candies and major monuments. The tour teaches us a great deal about Quito and Ecuador which, we are explained at the Plaza de Independencia, is called La Luz del America because it was the first country to fight for Independence. And it comes as no surprise then, the statue on this square is that of a condor prevailing over a lion. Ecuador prevailed over Spain.
In the ten and a half months that have led me to the Ecuadorian capital, not once have I suspected the city was so beautiful
The three days walk makes the Quilotoa crater a real treat. I finally arrive and the breathtaking laguna appears before my eyes. It is much larger that I had foreseen, and I grant myself a good while to contemplate it
If the unique history of Ecuador is one face of a coin, flipping this coin would make it read 'nature'. Because one who is told the name of the country instantly thinks of a sea of green and beautiful volcanoes, yes. But also because Ecuador doesn't fail to confirm its reputation right at its doors. I have traveled further South on the Andeous backbone, another two hours, and I have seen beautiful landscape. Now I am ready for a little adventure. Namely, a three day hike to the crater of Quilotoa!
From the small town of Sigchos, I start walking along mountain paths and dusty roads, granadillas in the pocket and ready to take in the mountainous views of central Ecuador. I walk in the quietness of this special place for about four hours, losing my way here and there for lack of signals, and reaching eventually the smaller town of Isinlivi. And what should await me but local festivities... The villagers have gathers for bull fights, they announce a ball for the night. I am befriended by a group of forty-something men who explain the reason for the festivities: a saint of course. They are curious about one of the foreigners crossing through their town, and offer me shots of an artisanal liqueur made in the Amazon region, out of sugar cane. I politely accept the "trago" (liquor) to the best of my capacity, given the long hike and the altitude. But the "trago" eventually wins and I have to be reasonable. I arrange accommodation for the night and start searching some diner.
After a good night sleep, I set out for a second day of hike through this land: a compromise between farming and wild. Cows or sheep are tied to a tree here and a tree there, in the shade of imposing cliffs. Horses are 'parked' on the path and I have the feeling that here the people make themselves a discreet place in nature rather than modify it for their own convenience. And on this day, in the four hours that lead me to Chugchilan, something strikes me even more. I have been to all types of countrysides, especially on this journey, and yet never have I sensed so clearly how there is a humbling sense of uncertainty in the the livelihood of those who live off the land. Here in the valleys and plateaux of Ecuador, Mother Nature really is the one who deals all the cards.
My first and last day of hike is the most strenuous. I leave the hotel at six in the morning for a last four hours of hike that will conclude the forty kilometers way to Quilotoa. As I approach the crater, I look back on the three days and my walking between heights of two-thousands and four-thousands meters above sea level. Strangely, I have the feeling that it makes for a fair representation of my experience in Ecuador, and it's all about the heights.
The three days walk makes the Quilotoa crater a real treat. I finally arrive and the breathtaking laguna appears before my eyes. It is much larger that I had foreseen, and I grant myself a good while to contemplate it. Besides, the walk around the edge of the crater promises to be a real vertigo trigger and I still can't believe that the three days of walking were only one of the tests.
After a relaxing visit to Banos and its thermal waters, I make an ultimate stop in Ecuador, to the colonial city of Cuenca. I stop in a hostel where the staff is not the most friendly, and change for a charming place owned by a Colombian couple. The hostel is run by friendly travelers on a break in Cuenca, including Ross and Jayro from Peru.
I take a few days to visit the city and its colonial streets, which are beautiful but can be crowded with traffic. Interestingly, I come across the flyer of a recommended walk that shows me the "French road." During the colonial era, French scientists were sent to Ecuador in order to take measurements and try to locate a meridian. They settled in Cuenca and later, French architecture and decoration became popular in the city. As for the experiments, they took the tower of one of the numerous churches in Cuenca as a point of measurement, leaving behind a cross mark on the floor. To this day, the mark fuels theories according to which the metric system was invented in Cuenca.
After a few days, I join people from the hostel on a day trip to the Cajas national park. The place is famous for its brownish-green landscapes and its numerous lakes. In fact, it is considered the national park with the highest density of lakes in the world. But Cajas is also known to be cold and wet, and we are unlucky with weather. We arrive at the refuge and learn that only one of the trails is open. It goes around the main lake, right outside the refuge. A lake we can barely see through the thick layer of fog. Regardless, we embark on the small hike, enjoying a few clearer moments, and soon heading back to the building in order to take refuge by the fireplace.
During the colonial era, French scientists were sent to Ecuador in order to take measurements and try to locate a meridian. They settled in Cuenca and later, French architecture and decoration became popular in the city
All things considered however, I would say my visit to Ecuador has been rich, for I have seen one of the country's three famous landscape, and it was something new to me. And more importantly, I have seen a unique people, rich in difference and dressed in typical outfits
Cuenca is yet another city I have to leave, Ecuador yet another country. My time in the country has been short and yet what awaits me might be even shorter. That is the price I have to pay for my affair with Colombia.
All things considered however, I would say my visit to Ecuador has been rich, for I have seen one of the country's three famous landscape, and it was something new to me. And more importantly, I have seen a unique people, rich in difference and dressed in typical outfits. It gives me the impression that Ecuador has a striking identity and I can say now: I understand why ‘Ecuador’ is a name I often heard.
There are a great many things the journey has taught me so far, one being that a traveler is nothing more than a person with a bag on their back. Yes, they learn some of the many lessons of the world but they truly are only a person with a bag on their back. And the bag, it carries strengths and weaknesses along. Hopes and pitfalls that follow them to the most uncanny places on earth I can assure you, and in this context Ecuador has been my shelter. After the ups and downs of Colombian, for all I have struggled, and how intensely I have loved it, I left it with a simple promise to myself: that I would start again on better grounds. For this I am forever indebted to Ecuador and the people I have met here.
Ecuador has shown me the natural beauty I expected, just as it has surprised me with its rich history. I have learned what a strategic place it was for the conquistadores, how they have forced the Indigenous people to convert to a different religion, and how the oppressed have incorporated gold and other symbols into Christian representations in order for their faith to survive secretely. I have learned a little of the political background in Ecuador, and the famous change to the dollar currency at the beginning of the new century. All in all, I leave now with the feeling that I have seen a real blend of people and nature. I do not doubt a minute that Ecuador faces its own challenge of the human footprint, but I have felt a real consideration for nature here. Or rather, I have seen a real awareness.