Otavalo Saturday Market

I’ve been writing about our adventures in Ecuador for the last three weeks. Yet, I feel compelled to write one last post to complete the series. Our trip was rather short, but each of its  segments was so distinct from the other, and they were all so interesting and fun, that I just couldn’t fit them all into one post.

When we planned our trip and read the guide books, I noticed a mention of the Otavalo Saturday Market, which the books described as the biggest handicraft market in South America. Well, there was no way I was going to miss that! And so we made sure to leave time for Market Day.

The morning after our stay at Maquipucuna Cloud Forest, a Friday,  we headed about two hours north of Quito to the area of San Pablo Lake. We stopped for a quick visit to Cotacachi, a small town filled with leathercraft artisans, where we walked (in my case, limped) up and down the main street, admiring beautiful hand-made leather goods in  local stores. From there we headed to Condor Park, where we saw an impressive bird show, and then drove to where we were to stay for the night, a traditional country hacienda in one of the little towns near the lake.

I didn’t expect much of the hacienda, which I imagined to be a rustic, simple country lodge. When we arrived to find a gorgeous, meticulously-decorated Spanish colonial estate, my jaw literally dropped. Hacienda Cusin was the country estate of a powerful Spanish family for over three hundred and fifty years. The family sold it in the 1970’s. In the 1990’s an English teacher bought the by-then dilapidated structure, and renovated it. He has been running it as a hotel ever since. The original building is now one part of a rather large complex. The rest include several buildings of different sizes scattered among amazingly-spectacular gardens. Even the new buildings look very authentic, and could easily be mistaken for hundreds-of-years-old structures. Had I not read the detailed history brochure, I would not have known the difference!

This is the original building, the oldest part of the complex:

And this is the area near our room, which was actually a new-ish structure, yet looked really old nonetheless:

There was much attention to detail throughout the compound, both inside and out. This, for example, is a decoration to an outside wall, one of many:

And this is the main sitting room, one of several common areas:

This gate to one of the gardens reminded me of The Secret Garden. When I crossed it, I wasn’t disappointed! The other side was the closest thing I’ve seen to the Garden of Eden (hint: it was a fruit and vegetable garden, complete with a couple of grazing alpacas…):

I was deeply saddened that we only had one night to enjoy this magnificent place. And Oh, did I wish I could bring my bags there for a little photo-shoot! This could have been an amazing background for Any Texture products!

The next morning, Saturday, I took a huge dose of ibuprofen to calm my back pain, and we headed off to Otavalo. We first went to the animal market, where locals buy and sell livestock. We arrived around 9:00 am, by which time most of the action was over.  It was a bit disappointing, though my kids marveled at the concept of being able to buy a live animal at a market:

They felt so bad for these sheep, that I’m pretty sure we would have had a problem had we been a little closer to home…

The crafts market, however, was everything I had hoped it would be! Otavalo Market is a big maze of stalls carrying loads of products of all kinds, mostly for tourists. A local guide told us that everything was hand made by local tribes people living in the mountains. I really wanted to believe that (a part of me, though, suspected some items might have arrived from China). Still, it was fun to see the incredible burst of color, life and creativity.

This is what the market looked like:

And here are close-ups of some of the stalls. There were so many different crafts that it was quite overwhelming. There were stalls with paintings, some on  wood:

Stalls with jewelry, in this case all made out of tagua nuts, which I love:

Stalls with different kinds of masks:

And lots and lots of various  kinds of textiles:

Raw wool and woolen products were prolific.

Among the latter I especially enjoyed the many carpets, both wall and floor carpets, all hand woven. Just looking at them made me drool:

Needless to say, we loaded up on gifts, and didn’t dodge the occasional impulse-purchase. I am now the proud owner of a gorgeous hand-woven woollen carpet, which I have absolutely no place to put…

Maquipucuna Cloud Forest

The next stop on our Ecuador trip was the Maquipucuna Eco Lodge, a mere hour and a half away from Quito. Already on the bus we learned just how lucky we were: a few days prior to our arrival a few wandering Andean Spectacled Bears arrived at the Maquipucuna Cloud Forest surrounding the lodge!

Unfortunately, this third segment of our Ecuador trip started on a sour note. When I settled into my airplane seat for the flight from the Galapagos back to Quito, I pinched a nerve in my lower back. It sent piercing pain down my leg. Henceforth, the remainder of the trip, for me, was clouded by excruciating pain and very limited mobility. Luckily I managed to enjoy it nonetheless!

The Spectacled Bears are an endangered species, with only a few thousand individuals remaining in the wild. They continuously migrate in search of food, so predicting when they will arrive at a certain location is nearly impossible. Some bear researches spent a lifetime studying these bears without ever seeing one. Bears started visiting Maquipucuna forest in 2009. They have been arriving every year since for a visit that can range from two weeks to three months. Arriving at the lodge in bear season, therefore, was a real stroke of luck.

We arrived mid day, and pretty much immediately went on a short hike to search for bears. I could barely walk and almost gave up. Luckily, one of the guides, Luis, volunteered to stay with me. He let me walk very slowly and rest whenever the pain was too much. I managed to limp for about two miles before seeing a bear climbing up a tree, eating its way while breaking large branches. The sight was well worth the effort!!

Spectacled Bear climbing a tree

For the rest of our two-night, three-day visit I mostly stayed at the Maquipucuna lodge. Every now and then I took very short walks. My family, meanwhile, went searching for more bears and ended up seeing quite a few. But I found the lodge to be such a pleasant place, that I didn’t mind staying behind all that much. This is what it looked like, the main building (where our rooms were located) being on the left:

Maquipucuna Eco Lodge

This is the dining room, where we dined on delicious, fresh, cooked-on-site meals:

The dining area at Maquipucuna Eco Lodge

And the ceiling in our room, unlike any other ceiling I have ever slept under:

Our room's ceiling at Maquipucuna Eco Lodge

There was also a second floor for lounging and relaxation:

The lounge are at Maquipucuna Eco Lodge

We started our days early, at 6:15 am, with a strong cup of Ecuadorian coffee made of beans grown on the premises. After coffee we went on a short birdwatching hike, and enjoyed seeing the many birds our guide located. We then feasted on a tasty breakfast, followed by a morning hike. Every day there was also an afternoon hike following lunch. One day we went on a night hike after dinner. We immediately realized that the Maquipucuna forest looks completely different after dark, including the animals one can spot!

This is what the secondary cloud forest looks like:

Maquipucuna cloud forest

And, yes, there were Pokemons there, too:

Pokemons at Maquipucuna cloud forest

The Maquipucuna cloud forest was one of the first nature reserves in Ecuador, and is now home to nearly 400 species of birds, and a vast variety of plants, including hundreds of orchids (and other beautiful flowers!).

Orchids at Maquipucuna cloud forest

Flower in Maquipucuna cloud forest

Even when I couldn’t go hiking, therefore, all I had to do was sit on the terrace and wait. Sooner or later an amazing bird showed up:

Bird in Maquipucuna Eco Lodge

Beautiful bird in Maquipucuna cloud forest

Our stay at the Maquipucuna Lodge was memorable not only because of the surroundings and nature, but also because of the human interactions we experienced. We met a crew of dedicated local guides; a very nice family from Canada, and a two-person documentary crew from the BBC, who came to Maquipucuna to film the bears (one of the two used to work for National Geographic, and hearing about some of his adventures was very interesting!). We also met Santiago, Ecuador’s leading bear researcher and conservationist, who gave an interesting presentation about the bears. Nancy, an Entomologist (bug expert) volunteer, lived at the lodge and also gave talks. She has a degree in introducing bugs to the general population, and her presentation about bugs was so interesting, that we all  forced her to give yet a second one.  This is Nancy showing us a spectacular bug she caught:

A colorful bug in Maquipucuna cloud forest

Nancy helps run a website that answeres bug questions, so if you are interested in bugs check it out: https://askentomologists.com

The Galapagos Islands: A Family Trip

What brought us to Ecuador in the first place was my years-long desire to see the Galapagos Islands. After extensive reading and consulting with friends who recently traveled there, we settled on a four-night, five-day cruise to the Southern Islands. We decided to go on the biggest boat possible, the Galapagos Legend. We hoped that its size would reduce the chance of sea sickness (it did!), and figured that a big boat might offer more activities for the kids (did that, too :-)).

Despite thinking I knew what to expect, the surprises started coming while we were still on the plane from Quito to San Cristobal:

The first unexpected occurrence was an announcement by the flight crew that they will spray us with disinfectant. Apparently, this is part of an attempt to protect the islands from invasive pathogens. In the end, they sprayed only the overhead compartments, but it still felt a bit weird. I don’t recall ever being disinfected on a plane before!

When we started landing, all I could see from the window was the blue of the ocean, getting closer, and closer, and closer yet… Right when I felt the first pang of panic, the wheels mercifully touched down on land. The plane managed to stop shortly before the runway ended, a very short distance from where the ocean started again…

We deplaned on San Cristobal, which–after a ten-hour trip from San Francisco to Quito, followed by an additional four-hour flight from Quito–felt like the end of the world. Yet, when we arrived at the airport my son was thrilled to find … Pokemons on the Island! They were all over the place, it later turned out, to his great joy and my annoyance…

On the short bus-ride from the airport to the pier I imagined myself walking leisurely onto the boat, only to find … a rubber zodiac waiting with a big pile of life vests.

A few exciting minutes of holding tight passed before the mothership came to view. Whew! But then I wondered whether I would have to climb up that flimsy-looking rope-ladder…

Luckily for me, I didn’t have to. The other side of the boat revealed a real door, with more stable metal steps :-):

By the end of the trip. of course, I was a pro at getting on and off zodiacs. Needless to say, I became an expert in doing both dry and wet shore landings (the later of which called for getting off the boat into shallow water).

On our tour of San Cristobal I wondered what happened to the trees. Somehow they all looked rather dead:

To my relief it turned out they weren’t. They were very much alive, our guide assured us, just conserving water while waiting for the rains. Our guide promised that In a couple of weeks they will be covered in green foliage.

On San Cristobal we saw our first sea lion:

As well as our first crabs:

However, it was only when we sailed to the uninhabited island Espanola, that we started to feel the real magic of the Galapagos. There was the magic of life itself, in the form of both flora and fauna, clinging desperately to a harsh, inhospitable environment. It was truly amazing to see how much life a flat, infertile volcanic island can support.

Hundreds of sea lions of all ages were sprawled everywhere, the only representatives of the mammalian family. The kids enjoyed to see their playful interactions:

Reptiles were represented by small Lava Lizards with perfect camouflage:

By the much bigger Marine iguanas:

And, in the ocean, by sea turtles:

However, the majority of the Galapagos inhabitants are of the bird family. We saw seabirds:

A beautiful hawk:

Nazca Boobies, some with chicks:

And also albatrosses, a few of which were engaged in their lengthy courting dance:

We also met a fly catcher:

And a beautiful little finch:

There was also a powerful magic that comes from being very close to wildlife. We were not used to wild animals that are not at the least afraid of humans. The park rangers told us to stay a couple of meters away from the animals. However, the animals, it turned out, were not aware of that rule. They seemed just as curious about us as we were about them. Perhaps they have never seen anything like my Galapagos hair due:

Then there was, of course, the magic of life adaptability. The realization of this struck Darwin when he first visited the islands almost two hundred years ago. It was his visit to the Galapagos Islands that probed him to come up with his evolution theory. To us, this adaptability became even more apparent after visiting several of the islands.

Finally, the last kind of magic came from the openly laid-out fact that death is very much a part of life. Carcasses were visible everywhere. They were as much a part of the place as the live animals were. Furthermore, they integrated back into the environment by the weather, other animals and by decomposition, thus making a contribution to the cycle of life:

The next day, on the island of Floreana, we learned about the history of the first crazy German settlers and the mystery surrounding them. There, we were super excited to see our first Blue-footed Boobie:

We also saw a few flamingos from afar:

Before we left the island we made sure to deposit postcards in the local “post office.” This “post office,” a wine barrel where people put letters, was established by the first Western visitors to Floreana. According to tradition, visitors go through the piles of letters, and pick the ones address to people living close to them. Once home, they are expected to contact the addressees, and deliver the letters in person. It could take a few days for a letter to leave the island, or many years… Only time will tell if our postcards will ever arrive:

On Santa Cruz Island, the least-wild of them all, we saw the famed giant Galapagos land tortoises. Before Western sailors arrived in the Galapagos Islands, distinct kinds of tortoises inhabited each of the islands. Sadly, early sailors collected so many for food, that some became extinct:

At the Darwin Center, an animal research and rehabilitation facility located on Santa Cruz, we also saw our only land iguana:

We left the Galapagos Islands with a heavy heart. We felt like we could have stayed much longer, and wished we could have seen the reminder of the islands. A reason to come back, perhaps?

Inspiration: Ecuador

My family and I have been traveling a lot, but our trip to Ecuador this winter break was our first-ever foray to South America. The trip lasted only eleven days (not including travel), but felt a lot longer, being packed as it was with an array of experiences. I find it impossible to summarize everything into one post, so today I will share only my impressions of Quito, the capital, which we visited on our first day, and to which we kept returning.

The Old City of Quito

We landed in Quito in the wee hours of the night. I was surprised (and maybe just a little bit disappointed) to find a brand-new, top-notch modern airport. It looked just like any other airport anywhere else in the world. We took a cab to the old part of town, driving through dark, deserted and foggy roads. When we arrived at our hotel, utterly exhausted, we barely noticed our surroundings and went straight to bed.

At 9,350 feet above sea level, Quito is the highest capital in the world. In the morning, therefore, I woke up with a searing, altitude-induced headache (luckily ibuprofen worked!). In daylight, we could fully appreciate the beauty of our hotel. It was a magnificently-restored sixteenth-century Spanish colonial house, seeping with atmosphere. We so much enjoyed eating breakfast at the courtyard dining hall (see below), that I truly wished I could keep eating forever…

The kids were full of energy, however, and eager to explore. And so, I tore myself away from the Ecuadorian coffee and delicious croissants and ventured out.

UNESCO chose the old city of Quito as one of the first World Heritage Sites. Today, people consider it to be the best preserved colonial city in the Americas. As a result, I had great expectations from the city. Initially, however, the city disappointed me. The narrow streets had old and pretty buildings on both sides, but these consisted of mostly high walls interrupted by small doors and windows. Even early in the morning cars and people already packed the streets.

Only once we started visiting some of the numerous churches and museums did I finally understand the city’s secret: the non-distinct, high walls and small doors hide spectacular inner-courtyards and former palaces. Much of the beauty of this city, it turned out, like so much else in life, lies within.

We visited “La Compañia” Church, heavily decorated with  lavish gold-leaf-covered motifs. We then went to a few museums, like the Museo de la Ciudad, housed in a former hospital, which chronicled the city’s daily life throughout the centuries:

There, we first learned about the complex relations local people have historically had with textiles. The indigenous people, it turned out, were good weavers before the Inca and Spanish conquests. The conquerors, however, forced them into a harsh, cruel weaving-servitude. Thus, the brutality of slavery tinted the art of weaving in people’s minds.

In one of the display cabinets I saw a 500-year-old sling. It looked incredibly modern:

In another museum I was happy to encounter an old sewing/crafts table:

And in the house of Maria Augusta Urrutia–a 19th-century home of a noblewoman now turned museum–I was even more thrilled (and a bit jealous) to find an entire sewing room. The room contained several sewing machines. It was also lavishly decorated (alas, picture-taking was forbidden).

Further wandering brought us to some beautiful streets, impressive architecture, and nice vistas. Not all of the city’s beauty was hidden after all. This, for example, is the Church of St. Francis:

And a street close to it:

This is a nice view of the monument of the Madonna on El Panecillo hill:

Fabric and yarn stores were spread all over Old Quito. They easily put the humble offering of such stores in my hometown to shame. I was very excited to see them, until I realized that most of their inventory came from China… Still, I took their presence to be an indication to the craftiness of the local population.

Street Art, Graffiti and Other Surprises

When we drove around, I was struck by the abundance of graffiti. It seemed that every flat surface was an irresistible blank canvas for graffiti artists, calligraphers … or maybe just plain vandals?

Another surprise were the hundreds of eucalyptus trees, which I did not expect in this part of the world. I later learned that people brought these trees to Ecuador to dry swamps. The eucalyptuses adapted so well, that they soon spread like wildfire, competing for resources with local flora. Apparently they are now a pest.

Culinary Discoveries

A fun Quito discovery was the Pacari chocolate store, where we enjoyed a decadent afternoon cup of hot chocolate, and loaded up on a variety of amazing Ecuadorian bars.

An additional gastronomical revelation was that of Locro de Papa, the tasty Ecuadorian potato soup. We later realized it tastes slightly different in every restaurant, but somehow always hit the spot. This is definitely a dish I plan to adopt and add to my family’s winter-soup rotation.

If you are curious to try it, here is a recipe I found online:

  • 1 large onion, chopped

  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

  • 2 tablespoons butter

  • 1 tablespoons aji amarillo paste (optional)

  • 1 teaspoon cumin

  • 2 pounds yellow potatoes

  • 2 cups chicken stock (I will replace this with vegetable stock)

  • 2 cups water

  • 1/2 cup cream

  • 1/2 cup milk

  • 1 egg

  • 5 ounces monterey jack cheese, grated

  • Diced avocado for garnish (optional but highly recommended)

  • Crumbled queso fresco cheese, for garnish (optional)

  • Aji sauce (optional)

  1. Melt 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a heavy soup pot. Add the chopped onion and garlic, and optional aji amarillo paste. Sauté onions over low heat until soft.

  2. While the onions are cooking, peel the potatoes and cut into 1 inch cubes. Set aside.

  3. When the onions are soft and golden, add 1 cup of stock. Remove mixture to a blender and process until you have a smooth puree. Set aside.

  4. Add the potatoes to the soup pot along with 1 tablespoon butter. Sauté until potatoes are fragrant and just start to turn golden.

  5. Add onion liquid back to the pot with the potatoes, along with another cup of stock and 2 cups of water. Bring liquid to a simmer, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook potatoes until they are very tender, about 20-25 minutes.

  6. Mash the potatoes thoroughly in the pot with a potato masher.

  7. In a small bowl, whisk the egg together with the cream and milk. Whisk a cup of the hot soup mixture into the milk and cream, then add it all to the soup, whisking to blend.

  8. Whisk in the grated cheese until melted. Season soup with salt and pepper to taste.

  9. Serve soup hot, garnished with chopped avocado and crumbled queso fresco cheese.