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Ecuadorean Highlights

ECUADOR | Thursday, 2 August 2012 | Views [576]

Cotapaxi and the Quilotoa Loop

After arriving into Ecuador, we realised that our time was short and we still had to see Ecuador! The schedule for Ecuador was based on the fact that we had to be in Otavalo for the Saturday market, reputedly the biggest in South America. Luckily Ecuador is pretty small compared to the rest of South America, and most places are only a few hours by bus from Quito.

We headed South to Latacunga and the volcanic landscape around there. Cotopaxi is the 2nd tallest volcano in Ecuador, at 5,897 metres, and is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. It is a huge, perfect cone, and dominates the landscape south of Quito. It's possible to climb it (/walk it) but we'd been told the success rate is low, so we contented ourself with a day trip to the park and a trek up to the refuge, at about 4,800 metres above sea level. The car park was above the plant line, but with the swirling dust shooting past at high speed, you could see it was very windy. As I stepped out of the jeep, I was blown about 10 metres downhill before I worked out how to walk in the wind. It wasn't just dust that was being picked up by the wind - it was strong enough to whip up small pebbles into your face. It was a type of exfoliation my face could have done without! I had noticed that the supermarket had a large display of kites - apparently it is the windy time of year.

We then spent 3 days walking the Quilotoa Loop, which walks through some villages and canyons in the mountains near Latacunga. In the morning at the hostel, we had met two Spanish ladies who were heading out onto the Loop on the same day, so we did the walk with them. We started with a local bus, and then a jeep transfer (sitting on the back) out to Quilotoa Lake, another active volcanic crater. We began by walking around the rim of the crater, which was quite a narrow path to be attempting in high wind, but it gave lovely views. The path went through little native villages, where we were often escorted by the local kids, as it was school holidays. Each day we crossed the canyon, sometimes following the river. On the first day it steeply down, then straight back up the other side. Walking the Quilotoa Loop was really dusty. I thought it was sand, but apparently it was all ash from a huge eruption hundreds of years ago, which churned out enough ash to completely fill all of the valleys and canyons. The walking days were quite short. At other times of the year the cloud comes in for the afternoon, and they are keen for everyone to reach their destinations early. We stayed at some lovely hostels on the walk. One of which had a designer composting toilet, with a large glass window looking over the hill side, a flower bed, and a family of kittens living in the cubicle too.

Otavalo

Otavalo is on the Andean plateau, and is famous for its Saturday market, but the town itself is nothing special. As it was Phil's birthday we stayed in a lovely hostel perched on the mountainside a few kilometres out of town. Apparently you can see 4 volcanos from the hostel - we could mainly see cloud! Otavalo is such a big tourist drawcard that some touristy stalls are there all the week, and on the Friday we went into town to assess the goods and get an idea of the starting prices. We are not good shoppers, and it's actually meant to be cheaper in the week as there are less rich American tourists/buyers, so we bought a few things on Friday. On Saturday the first point of call was the animal market, but you have to get there before 8 or you miss all the fun. Phil would not let me buy anything, despite how cute some of the puppies were, and I wouldn't let him buy a llama! The pigs seemed to be particularly problematic, and we saw plenty being dragged along as they locked all 4 legs and refused to budge. There was a line of ladies in traditional dress with large sacks. As I brushed past one of the sacks, it started to squeak. The bags were full of guinea pigs that were unceremoniously lifted out by the scruff of the neck for inspection and sales. We walked back into town through the real bit of the market, the part for locals, not tourists: fake Gap hoodies (presumably because this is a very easy logo to copy), lots of tupperware, and then onto the centre of the craft market. We had been told to bargain hard, but this was challenging when the American tourists just paid the first asking price! Why sell to us, when you can sell to them for more!

Mindo

From Otavalo we were heading to Mindo on the Western slopes of the Andes. Another group at the hostel were paying for a direct private transfer (rather than 2 taxis and 2 buses) and we were able to help with the cost by taking up 2 spare seats. We got it at a good price as the driver brought all of his family along too for a Sunday day trip! Mindo is a small town nestled in cloud forest surrounded by exclusive lodges. The area is famous for its bird watching. Apparently there are more than 400 species in this area. We did a birding tour, which started at 5:30am. After a short transfer and a 20 minute walk uphill, through thick forest, we found ourselves at a Cock-of-the-Rock Lek for sunrise. A cock-of-the-rock is a bird with very red colouring and a comedy red crest. Every day the male birds perform and sing for the females. For some reason they all go to the same place to display, a lek. Although there were a dozen birds within 5 metres of us, the forest was so thick you could barely see them. The guide then took us to another part of the cloud forest, and with the help of his telescope, we found birds of all colours and all sizes, and had an amazing crystal clear view through the scope. If we'd been by ourselves we may have found 5 of them, but he found toucans, hawks, bright blue and golden tanagers, and many many more.

The landscape around Mindo is generally steep forested valleys, and we also did another canopy tour. 13 zip lines covering a distance of 3.5km, the longest of which was 400m long high over the valley and tree tops! Our last day in Ecuador we went to the cascades near Mindo. The cascades were nestled in lush tropical forest at the bottom of one of the steep sided valleys that cut through the area. To get there you have to get a mini cable car across the valley, the engine used for the cable car is taken straight out of a truck with accelerator, brake and a gear stick.! In the afternoon we headed back to Quito for our flight back to London the day after. After 5 months I am definitely ready for a cup of Tetley tea!

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