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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Otavalo, Ecuador

Five market videos at: http://picasaweb.google.com/svnakia/OtavaloMarket

The electricity is on again after being off since 6 AM when we got up to go to the animal market here in Otavalo, so I´ll try to catch up with the last couple of days. We spent Friday on three buses getting from Chugchilan to Otavalo. We got up at 3:15 AM to catch the 4 AM bus to Latacunga with our friends from Bonaire. John and I got to the town square first to find a very nice bus with its engine running and passengers already boarding so we hopped on it and got comfortable. But then the bus put the engine in gear and started rolling down the hill past our hostel. We got the bus driver to wait while John ran in to get the other couple, but when Frank came out he noted that the bus was going in the opposite direction (to Sigchos and then to Latacunga) that we had planned. It was the 3:00 bus! John and I apologized to the driver and hopped off to go wait for the next bus which was waiting, cold and dark, in the square.

We began to fear that this bus was not going to leave until 6:00, but well after 4:00 we heard the driver and conductor stirring inside the bus where they apparently had spent the night. It took awhile but eventually the engine fired up and was warm enough for the four of us and one other passenger to head out on the dirt road towards Quilotoa, Zumbahua, and Latacunga. We stopped for everyone waiting alongside the road in the dark, and we could see lights on in several of the houses dotted on the hillsides. We had an almost full moon and when it began to get light we could see the ground was covered in frost and it was a beautiful clear morning.

In Latacunga the bus dropped us off on streets outside the terminal at 8:00, but as soon as we got to the loading area there were people calling out destinations and we had about five minutes to go to the bathroom before the next bus to Quito was leaving. We´ve never really had to buy tickets at a sales window like you do in Mexico. The bus line conductors all stand outside their buses hawking their destinations and you pay your fare after the bus is on its way. You still have to know a bit about what you´re doing though because they are very competitive and will sometimes lie about bus routing/schedules/availability if their bus line doesn´t go where you want to go.

We saw several snow capped volcano peaks on both buses until we got closer to Quito and it started to get cloudy. We don´t understand why buses don´t let you ride to the terminal, but instead insist on dropping you off on the street. Maybe the connections are better that way? When we got to Quito at 10:00 we were told when to get off and were pointed to another bus (completely different line) that was about two blocks up the road. Only this bus started moving before we had reached it and I had to run to let them know we wanted to board. All went well and two hours later we were in Otavalo.

Let me backtrack a little to say that as soon we we boarded the bus in Latacunga we started experiencing culture shock. The paved road started at Quilotoa, so were had already been off the dirt roads for a couple of hours. But this was a four lane busy highway with lots of slow traffic to pass. As we got closer to Quito it got worse with almost freeway style roads, and we were getting a sinking feeling in our stomachs over having left so much beauty and tranquility for the dirt and crime of the big city. Otavalo is as big a city as we can handle right now, so we´ve decided to skip Quito entirely this time.

We checked into the Rincon del Viajero based on the recommendation in the Footprint Guide, and were sorely disappointed. Maybe we were spoiled by our three nights at Mama Hilda´s but this place is not worth the $12pp they charged us for a doble (not a matrimonial which is one bed). The other reason we chose it was because of the comment in Footprint about the ¨good breakfast.¨ Well, yeah, if you pay extra. The breakfast included in the price consisted of coffee or tea, a roll with butter, and two fried eggs (or you could get a bowl of fruit instead of eggs) - that was it. I had even tried negotiating a $10pp price w/o breakfast but they wouldn´t budge. I would not recommend this place unless you are a hard core budget traveler. On the other hand we looked at a room at El Indio, where the rooms were bright and new. Breakfast is not included but for $25/night/doble we would have been happier there. Unfortunately they were fully booked with an American tour group or we would have moved.

Otavalo is the most heavily touristed place we´ve seen since Mexico. It´s crawling with foreigners here for the Saturday market. There are handicraft sales all week in one of the plazas but on Saturdays even more vendors set up on the side streets. We walked the plaza yesterday to get an idea of what´s available and waited to shop today. It was overwhelming. There is too much of mostly the same things, and even though the prices ranged from reasonable to dirt cheap (which makes you wonder how much of it is mass manufactured in China), it was too much for a non-shopper like me to handle and I had to take a break mid-day to gather my wits before venturing out for more bargaining in the afternoon.

The absolute most fun was the animal market early in the morning where guinea pigs, rabbits, ducks, chickens, quail, puppies, kittens, goats, sheep, pigs of all ages, cows, and even a couple of horses were for sale. It was fascinating to watch the bargaining One woman had a heated argument with a man over a pig. She eventually sent her son for a policeman who spoke a few words to the man, and he then handed over some more money to the woman. John got a great video clip of two bulls starting a fight. People scattered in a hurry when one of them broke away from its stake and ran loose. Having had a guinea pig for a pet when I was a child I was a little sad to see them being held up to see how plump they are, but cuy (¨kwee¨) is a delicacy here...

We sat in a plaza this afternoon and admired the local traditional dress. The men wear white pants and dark blue wool ponchos (which we learned cost over $100) and a small fedora hat. The women wear black skirts and white lacy blouses with a shawl across one shoulder and around their waist. Children were held up to the slow trickling fountain to have the hands and faces washed or to drink from it, teenagers washed their hands and slicked back their hair, and dogs drank from the overflow at the bottom.

It´s been a wonderful vacation although now I wish we´d started here and ended in the Quilotoa Loop so that we could have finished with the best part of the trip. We´re both anxious to get home again to the boat. We plan to catch the first bus out of here to Quito at 6 AM tomorrow morning, and hope to make the 8 AM bus from Quito back to Bahia. It will be a close connection but if we miss that one, there´s another at 1 PM.

We´ll try to post some pictures after we get back.

Linda and John