The border crossing between Colombia and Ecuador was a comparative breeze. Our main difficulty was that we were done too quickly to buy insurance, the office didn’t open till 9 am and we were done and dusted by 8, thanks to Steve’s hyper efficiency.
Our first stop, as both fuel tanks were intentionally on red, was to fill up with diesel. At US$1.02 a gallon (about £0.17 a litre). It cost us $65 (under £40) to fill a tank, compared with about £300 in Europe. Steve was a happy man!
The Andean town of Otavalo is known for its Saturday market where people come from far and wide from across the mountains to trade. Staying in a hostel car park a few kilometres above town, we made the most of the glorious views. They had to be viewed in quick snippets as the clouds only lifted for a short time, the rainy season is definitely upon us. Friday saw us hiking through steep farmlands filled with maize, cows and lots of mud to an overflowing waterfall. We got lost passing through small farmyards and fields where every inch of land, however steep the slope.
We awoke early on Saturday morning and headed down to town to the livestock market first. It was an absolute feast for the eyes, it was packed with people wearing their local costumes. There were ladies with white lacy blouses embroidered with multicoloured flowers. In the cool morning climes this was covered by a navy shawl knotted over one shoulder. Ropes of gold beads glinted at their necks and stings of coral beads could be glimpsed on their wrists. The skirts were cut long and with slits either side, made of dark material a white petticoat could be seen as they stepped out with their goods. The temperature fluctuations are extreme at this altitude on the equator. Shawls that had been earlier wrapped around bodies were now neatly folded and balanced on the top of the head to protect from the sun’s harsh rays. On the feet both men and women wore canvas sandals tied at the ankle. Many of the men wore their hair long in a smooth jet black plait down their back. Their white cotton shirts and trousers covered by dark ponchos. Another group of women from a different area wore dark homburg hats, much like the one my Grandpa used to wear, but with a jaunty peacock feather tucked in the band. Their skirts were more colourful, knee length and densely folded.
The livestock market was bustling with distinct sections for cows, pigs and poultry. Perusing the market were obvious experts with high cheekbones and skin a beautiful tan colour with dark rosy cheeks, a colour that seems to only come from living at high altitudes. There was much discussion, poking to check for plumpness and battering before purchases were made. Reluctant squealing pigs were walked home on leads and bulging sacks clucked and squawked.
In the poultry and small animal section we saw something more usually found in a pet shop, rather than a livestock market at home. Guinea pigs, known as cuy, is a popular dish here grilled over a fire. Needless to say, the girls have threatened never to speak to Steve again if he orders one. He tried it over a decade ago when we were in Peru, his verdict: not much meat and too many bones, so no loss there.
Lucy fell in love with the baby rabbits and was most upset when we explained that although we had told her she could spend her pocket money on anything at the market, we didn’t mean a pet.
We followed the crowds of people as we left the dirt lot and made our way into town. Plaza de Poncho and it’s surrounding streets host a bewildering array of goods for sale on Saturday from fake crocs to a whole host of different types of maize. It is the textiles and weaving that are the biggest draw for outsiders though. Famed throughout Ecuador for their brightly coloured, high quality textiles made using traditional looms. The weavers from the surrounding villages flood in with their wares.
We are not big shoppers usually because we can’t carry everything but we were beguiled by the array of colours and softness of the alpaca wool. We came away with ponchos, shawls and Lucy splurged on the softest, fluffiest alpaca wool lama as a surrogate pet.
Lunch was at a bustling stand selling roasted pork on top of a maize stew, it was absolutely delicious.
Ecuador is named for its position on the equator, so there was no way we were going to miss the opportunity to mark our transition from the northern to southern hemisphere. We actually crossed it first on a wiggly road heading to Quito, completely unrecognised bar the countdown on the sat-nav. The Ecuadorians celebrate it with style though with a dedicated theme park: Midad del Mundo (Middle of the Earth), so we took a detour via the outskirts of Quito. We took the classic straddling the equator photos and had a good nose around the museum. Although actually the line is not quite on the equator which is a couple of hundred metres away.
Heading east of Quito we headed up into the mountains again, we hit our highest point yet at 4070m before we descended to the small village of Papallacta and the thermal springs a few km above. We didn’t go in as soon as we arrived, as it was Sunday afternoon and looked busy. Camped in their car park we were surrounded by hills shrouded in mists, the drizzle started and the temperature dropped. We questioned how good the springs would be in the freezing wet. However the following morning we weren’t disappointed. Despite it raining and being 11 degrees centigrade outside, the pools were delightfully warm. There were about 25 spotless pools of a variety of size and temperature. The only problem was getting out of them to run to the next. Steve, Lucy and I even briefly braved the icy pool with water straight from the top of the mountain, to get the full benefits. It was so good and as the ticket lasted all day, we returned again in the afternoon and a brief after dark visit. It was very atmospheric bathing in the dark pools watching the steam rise from the hot water and joining the mist from above.