“Luis, what do you call that plant?” I asked, pointing to one of the hundreds of Century plants dotting the countryside.
“That? Just ‘cactus’.”
“I can’t believe there are so many of them. They are a treasure in many American gardener’s collections.”
“Here, they are a nuisance.”
After a Jumbo breakfast we took a road trip to the north of Ecuador. Along the way to our first destination we stopped at one of the many equator lines. We would find that there is some dispute regarding the actual location of the equator, and the Quitsato organization had set up shop near Cayambe to make their point. Based on ancient ruins, a large circle with lines marking the crossing of the sun at both elliptic extremes, the exact center should mark the location of the equator, which is drawn boldly in stone across the floor of the site. Cary and I took the requisite feet-in-both-hemispheres picture before moving on to the hot springs.
Ecuador, with it’s volcanic activity is dotted with thermal hot springs. Along the road to Otavalo we paid a visit to a local hot spring. The springs are public, which made for a unique opportunity to rub elbows with the locals as they enjoy the thermal baths and accompanying cold pools. When I say baths, I mean that literally. The locals don’t just soak, they lather, rinse and repeat here as well. And when I say rub elbows, I mean that literally too. We had to wait a while for a few square inches to open up in the 8’ by 8’ tub for a soak. After about 30 minutes in the human soup we were ready to move on.
Quito, Guayaquil, and Cuenca house most of the citizens of Ecuador, the rest of the country is dominated by jungle, the Andes, or farmland. The latter made up the majority of the scenery on our journey through the North. Cows, goats, chickens and sheep roam the country side, and anything not cultivated by man is taken care of by nature. The Century plants, apparently a nuisance in Ecuador, grow anywhere they can find a foothold on the steep Andean , many of them featuring stalks over 25 feet.
Although Otavalo was our final destination, we had several stops in between. After the baths we drove up the road towards Condor Park just outside of the city. Condor Park is a reserve for raptors. The staff of the park takes in wounded birds from around the world, but especially in Ecuador, and nurtures them back to health. The park’s most prized birds are of course a pair of Andean Condors, but everything from Harpies to American Bald Eagles call the park home.
When we arrived a falconing demonstration had just begun, and a leather-gloved trainer walked out with a Gray-breasted Falcon perched on his arm. He gave the bird a command and it floated off into the distance, while he gave some information about the bird in Spanish. The bird was called back a few times before moving off out of sight. The trainer spent some time trying to call him back as a pair of wild birds descended towards his pet. One of the wild pair dove towards his falcon. Frightened, he flew safely back to his trainer’s outstretched arm in a hurry.
“Are you ready for lunch?” Luis asked as we left Condor Park.
Luis was excited about lunch. The night before he mentioned we would be trying a Ecuadorian specialty. Cuy. Oh you don’t know what cuy is? Cuy is Guinea Pig.
There are as many opinions about how to cook Cuy as there are equators. Along the road we passed several cuy restaurants advertising the best roasted, braised, or grilled cuy, oftentimes in the form of a cute cartoon character. Like using a cartoon pig as the mascot of a barbeque joint. Luis took us to a town far North of Otavalo to make sure we had the best Cuy in Ecuador: Whole, deep fried. The guinea pig arrived at the table splayed spread-eagle on a bed of potatoes and mote, and we tore in. The skin was crispy and thick like pork. The meat tasted like gamey chicken. It was fantastic. The organs are included if you’re interested, but even Luis skipped snacking on the lungs or liver. I munched on the heart and the kidneys but left the rest. There may have been some cerveza involved. Satisfied, we left and headed on to Otavalo, but only after a surprise stop at the local ice cream store, which specialized in fresh avocado, tomate de arbol, and mango. The mango and tomate were great, but the avocado sealed the deal.
The largest city to the north of Quito is Otavalo, inhabited by the descendants of tribes that pre-date the Incan expansion. With their own culture, customs and religion, the Otavalenos and other nearby tribes create the country’s wool and alpaca textile works. We were lucky enough to be taking the trip to Otavalo on market day, when the weavers and yarn-workers would be showing off their wares.
When we arrived it was getting late in the day, and many stall owners were closing early to head off to Carnival celebrations. If even 50% of the market were closed it would still be too much to see in one day. The stalls are packed close together creating narrow hallways through the market, and the high stacks of textiles block your view from hall to hall. There isn’t any real organization, creating something more akin to a maze than a super market. Walking down one narrow path, you might reach a dead end. Down another you might find a round about with three new paths leading away, and one lucky stall owner running the center. All in all the market is a fantastic place to buy woolen goods; sweaters, hats, gloves, and socks all hand-knit from sheep or alpaca wool. You can also buy yourself one of the Otavalenos’ signature fedoras.
Cascada de Peguge
After leaving the market we had some daylight to burn so we went to hiked to the nearby Cascada de Peguche, a magnificent waterfall on a sacred site for the local people.
We were beginning to learn a lot about the Otavalenos on this trip into the north. 90% of Ecuadorians are catholic; the other 10% are a mix of tribal customs and nature worship. Referred to as being “without god” by the Catholics of the country, some of the tribes adhere to a religious creed that is in some ways secret. Luis, a resident of Quito didn’t know much about what their beliefs entailed, but could spot a prayer circle when he saw one as we passed by during the hike. A few moments later the same group sprinted by, shouting something down a steep path and across a bridge back into the mountain forest. Later we would hear that several of the Otavalenos in the forest that night were using a drug, probably produced locally, as was their custom.
“They are hard workers, but on the weekends they are wild.” Luis told us.
“Work hard, play harder?” We asked.
“Yes, that’s exactly right.”
Luis appeared to have a great respect for the Otavalenos, guiding us through the market and conversing with the locals. Many of the tribes are closed off about in regards to their tribal customs; Luis told us that the Otavalenos are “too kind”.
Despite the all of activity the park was peaceful and relaxing. The smell of Eucalyptus pervaded the path up to the waterfall, to the lookouts and eventually behind it. There are a dozen paths leading to different areas; one requires you to climb up a vertical cliff to reach the mouth of the waterfall itself, which you have to jump over to reach the other side. It’s a breath taking experience to be at the top looking into the source of such a magnificent cascade. We carefully climbed back down and around the collection pools and the rest of the mountain park before beginning our journey back to Quito.
It was dark as we left. Without the landscape to keep our eyes busy Luis exercised our minds with Spanish lessons. We could speak a little when we arrived, and Luis would be kicking us out of the nest for the first time on our own tomorrow as we made our way to our next destination by bus; He wanted to make sure we knew enough Spanish to get ourselves there and back. We expanded beyond the simple “What is the bus number and platform?” to more conversational topics. Music, movies, travel, etc. Luis drilled us the entire way home before dropping us off at the Vista Hermosa for dinner. We dined on a balcony overlooking the city before turning in for the night. We had an early morning coming again as we tackled our most daunting obstacle on the trip: