Central Highlands // Ecuador

Change is the biggest constant in our lives right now and the tented market city in Otavalo’s Plaza de los Panchos constantly changes- rain flaps up and down, vendors here one day and gone the next, new wares bought and sold.  We were part of the mayhem- friendly bartering for the van full of items we purchased for #24HourBazaar!  If you would like to get on the list to receive our curated PDF of artisan crafted goods- please email us your information to contact@ouropenroad.com 

At camp sorting orders for 24 Hour Bazaar, ready to depart Otavalo.Nobody rides for free… The drive south to Quito wound up and down the PanAm, passing rising conical peaks, with gingham farms dotting the towering sides, until the angle and altitude made it inaccessible to farm any higher up.  Down and down we drove into the bustling Quito valley.

We arrived in Quito on Friday, heading to FedEx to ship out some packages… well it turns out FedEx only has ‘express’ shipping from Ecuador, making in prohibitively expensive to use their service, so there we were in a massive mall, lugging around boxes that we would not ship.

Heading to the food court for lunch seemed the best choice after the let-down, and upon seeing a Mexican restaurant with a line, we nodded to each other and waited our turn.  Our food came, and looked… well, it looked suspicious; we tasted our food and, well, it tasted suspicious.  Emily’s enchiladas were bland as could be, with watery-cheese oozing from the sides of over-thick corn tortillas doused in a flavorless orange sauce that was supposed to be red.  Adam’s burrito was fried- he likes a chimmichunga, so was not too alarmed- but inside was a liquidy bean-meat mixture that resembled diarrhea, and fried diarrhea at that.  Colette’s beans and guacamole were equally ‘off’ with a pale green slime that was closer to pus than anything derived from an avocado and the beans were just strange.  The tortilla chips were 7-times fried nuggets that had a slight frito-flavor, but leaned more to fried toenails.  Note- DO NOT attempt to eat Mexican food in an Ecuadorian food court!  This warning may seem self-explanitory, but to those of us that subsist on southern-California’s adopted cuisine, this obvious statement can be easily dismissed when presented with the option after long periods of deprivation!

So there we were, half full on disgusting food, having not shipped a thing.  We headed to Correos del Ecuador and started the arduous undertaking of shipping out our first round of 24 Hour Bazaar.  Having used several rolls of packing tape in a maniacal fashion to assure the goods arrive safely, we made copies of our passports, searched a 4 square block radius for a functioning ATM- as the post office ONLY accepts cash (!) and filled out the multiple sets of the customs forms.  Hours, seriously hours, later we departed, exhilarated that the first round of goods were on their way across the ocean to their new homes!Keep an eye out for your Colette Nova original postcard, you know who you are.
In Old Town Quito, narrow one-way streets wound up and down the hills flanked in white colonial buildings.  We set off into the streets to explore the majestic city by night, our deep breaths only partly filled with oxygen, this being the highest capital city in the world at 9,350 feet.  Centuries old buildings were bottom lit like spooky faces at camp, casting long shadows along the dramatic architecture.  Eight magnificent churches occupy the skyline and heart of the quarter, along with monestaries and plazas.  In front of the “Plaza Grande” we urban-camped for the night, in front of the municipal police station, at their suggestion.
Saturday morning in the Plaza is a bustling affair, with old men reading newspapers, amorous couples strolling arm in arm, young boys shining shoes, geriatric tour groups playing games and boisterous children, including Colette, running from fountain to fountain.  Electric blue skies were dappled with translucent strokes of white clouds and we set out for a day in the bustling center, freshly fried street bought samosa’s in hand.
Quito has free wifi in some of the major parks, which is pretty helpful!There is one of these guys in every town, right?  His exuberance reminded me of our local Silverlake ‘mayor’ who parades Sunset Blvd in pink denim hot shorts & Panama hat (rarely a shirt) while walking his little Chihuahua named “Oprah.”  This *very* enthusiastic tour guide was also a big fan of newly re-elected President Correa, and naturally- his rabbit was too.  In the churches, the devout gather and wealth of the Andes was displayed by the heavy gold leif covering the intricately carved baroque architecture.  Rose petals and candles are sold near the entrance, to adorn the alters of saints from the hand of sinners.“Papa, I kiss the baby aaayn-juhlll!”  In the morning light, the gilded chambers reflected the decadently bedazzled bling.  Amen.  This lady had the evangelical fire!
Free entrance to the Museo Ciudad, lured us in for a peek.  The numerous dioramas of the lengthy history of the city were well executed and kept all 3 entertained.

  For lunch we headed over to the Central Mercado, which hosts a plethora of small restaurants to choose from.  Walking up to the entrance, a smell crept into our nostrils, and upon entering the building- it was undeniably a stench.  This stench was, respectively, the butchers of Quito, where bags of chicken feet, piles of pig ears and boiled sheep heads lay next to whole feathered chickens, steaks and stacks of fresh-made sausage… that all had not been refrigerated for God knows how long.  Emily, powered past the initial repulsion, and we meandered to the herbal section, where the fragrant piles of bundled greenery were prepared into herbal bath sachets and horchata tea – which is quite different than the version we are used to!  The Ecuadorian version may include chamomile, mint, lemon verbena, lemon grass, and lemon balm and is colored red by ataco (red amaranth) or escancel (bloodleaf).  The pleasant aroma of this section was much preferred to the meat zone…

The lavender clad lunch ladies of Quito stood in front of their stalls calling their specials to all the passersby.  After examining 15 or 20 vendors with nary a veggie option in sight, an angel in pastel polyester said, in English, “Vegetarian potato soup.”  After some nosing around her stand to confirm that the said soup did not have floating animal parts in it, Emily excitedly ordered a bowl of Locro de Papa soup that came with half an avocado, lime marinated red onions, whole boiled egg and hot sauce that was so delicious we asked if they sold it to go.  Adam, after investigating the much-hyped roasted guinea pig platter known as cuy, passed and ordered a plate with fried egg, cheese filled potato croquettes, and blood sausage.  We washed it down with a ‘health’ drink with mora, tamarindo, egg whites, alfalfa juice and enough sugar to make anything palatable to an Ecuadorian.  At the equator, Ecuador’s namesake, we walk the line…As you may know, we are on Instagram, on online picture-sharing forum.  We ‘follow’ National Geographic, and Adam noticed that one photographer in particular, had posted many images from Ecuador.  National Geographic ‘follows’ 42, and Ivan is one of them.  Adam emailed him and struck up conversation, and after several emails back & forth, Ivan invited the three of us to join him for a barbeque at his friends’ house.  Obviously, YES we want to hang out with a National Geographic photographer!  In our opinion, that is one of the world’s most interesting jobs and therefore almost guarantees some amazing stories to be shared.  We headed out of Quito to the valley adjacent to Tumbaco, where when not traveling the globe both working as photojournalists, Ivan and his wife Karla reside.  She was out of town on assignment and Ivan met us at his gate with a big smile and a hearty welcome.  We chatted for a few, before crossing the lawn to his neighbors.  It was the first time we had heard more than a few English speakers gathered in one place, and the easy flow of conversation was a welcome way to unwind on a Saturday night.  Most gathered worked at an English school- kindergarten, art class, second grade, computers or were the spouses of the staff.  British, Irish and American accents drifted across the valley as we swayed to some Nigerian tunes.  We enjoyed grilled steak and eggplant, guacamole and oregano dusted Greek cheese melted into a stringy delight, almost as much as the spirits & spliffs.  It was a late night filled with laughter.

We spent the morning with Ivan, enjoying hot showers and his easy company.  Emily prepared a hearty hangover breakfast while Adam and Ivan geeked out on photo talk as Colette rambled about the beautiful garden picking flowers and chasing cats. It was several hours later than expected before we departed, heading back to Otavalo for more 24 Hour Bazaar shopping and shipping.

Upon Ivan’s recommendation, we headed north from Otavalo to Ibarra, where we cut south-east off the Pan-Am into what he described as some of the most accessible and beautiful Andes in Ecuador.  From the valley we rambled up and over the cobblestone streets.  Colette said “Wow, so many rocks!”  Emily replied “Yeah, it’s cobblestone, the whole street is made from rocks” to which she exclaimed “Waaaat duh fuckkkk, man!” We laughed so hard we almost cried…

Some bomberos, firemen, flagged us down and after a brief chat, we decided to follow their directions for a good view.  “Woohoo, bumpy road,” Colette said as we rambled higher and higher. Farmers working their fields of potato and quinoa stopped to stare, cows and sheep jumped at the noise, and playing children stopped to wave.   Finally, there was no going any further, the cobbled road had turned green covered in moss, as surely few cars used this road.  The steep incline was just too much for the van, loaded with us and all our crap.  Adam miraculously reversed us to safety, where we then asked if the road we were on was to Esperanza, the teen, confusedly replied “No, that is Imbabura!!”  AHA!  So, we had just tried to summit Volcan Imbabura by van, at an imposing 15,190 feet.  Back on the right road again, around a corner we turned and ran smack dab into the brightest, most intense rainbow we have ever seen!  The days last rays exploded through the fine mist that lazily fell into the pastures.  The auspicious second rainbow, a pastel transparency floating in the mist.  Jaws agape, we stared at the magical scene, and smiled at the simple beauty of it all.

Adam had a vision to make it to the snowline of Cayambe, which is the third highest peak in Ecuador at a massive 18,996 feet.  A snow covered monolith, in the hours we spent driving towards it, we glimpsed only a few moments of actually seeing the beauty, which usually is hidden behind a veil of clouds.  Dark came, and Adam was still searching for THE perfect camp site, one that when we woke up, Cayambe would be starting at us in the face, clear and glistening, looming larger than life over our small camp.  That camp was not found, but what Adam discovered was a small side road that would do just fine.  The rain fell in thick notes, dancing on the strong breeze and miraculously, a view opened up in the night for an hour as the rain took a break in the moonlight.  In the morning, our dream view of mighty Cayambe never surfaced, so we relish that Adam braved the wind and rain for the above pictures.   Chores in this kind of setting are so much more bearable, so we busted out the armor-all and whiskbroom for an after breakfast tidy. In Olmedo an avocado vendor asked if we had visited the hotsprings at Oyacache. We had read about it, but somehow forgot it was nearby!  Adam and Colette had woken up with runny noses, so this seemed just what the doctor ordered.   So, nearby as the crow flies, is not nearby at the cobblestone road leads… After driving half an hour, we bumped and bobbed through another 30+km of stunning agricultural lands before we descended into the mighty valley of Oyacache, known as the land of water.  Green peaks surrounded the deep valley in 360 degrees of verdant abundance- numerous waterfalls burst off high peaks as we descended into small hamlet.  One road in, one road out.There was a troll guarding the bridge to enter the community run thermal baths.  From behind the locked gate and from under his yellow plastic poncho he grunted “$3 per person” and half-smiled revealing 4 gold teeth.  “Yes, no problem” we replied, shielding ourselves from the rain, but he did not budge towards opening the gate until Adam placed the dollars into his hand.  He carefully inspected the $5 and $1 for authenticity (since we clearly look like international counterfeiters), returning the $1 to Adam, sneering that is was torn. Luckily, there was a crisp, perfect $1 bill to replace the ever-so-slightly damaged bill, so we were granted passage.

The suspension bridge led us over the raging river to a manicured hillside with several thermal pools.  We quickly changed and slipped into the steaming water… Ahhhhhh!  Our feet had become frozen on the short walk from changing room to pool, so pins & needles melted the cold away.  Colette, always the water lover, was splashing and leaping with a shit-eating grin plastered upon her tiny face.  A stairwell and steps led into the icy river- only Adam gained his polar bear badge with a quick dunk.  Only two of the many pools were open in the labrynth of half built ideas, but we still had a pool to ourselves and lounged for hours in the steamy pools.  When you can see your breath, your meal should steam to match…
The next morning, we departed up the muddy road out of the magical valley.  From the apex, the breathtaking paramo (high grasslands) glimmered in the bright cloud-filtered light of morn.  The mighty Andes are filled with a rural population of farmers; above each valley town is the green grid of working farms.  The indigenous ladies of this area dress in fedora hats and brightly colored ¾ length pleated skirts, socks pulled up if it is cold, down when it is warm- a simple solution for an all purpose outfit.From the high farmlands, we viewed the white tents covering the town of Cayambe, which is a top flower-producing town in Ecuador.  At the equator, roses, the top export, do not lean towards the light and grow straight up towards the sun the whole year round.  We spotted a huge castle, and decided a flower baron must live there, drink rosewater tea, sleep on a bed of rose petals and bath in rose water.  We looked for the entrance, hoping to be invited for a stay, but alas, no castle could be found.  Acres and acres of plastic tented flower huts filled the hillsides split into two by the PanAm Highway.  We passed this dramatic mining operation, which hours later the rambling road led us right next to.  The landscape had changed again, and cactus sprouted up amongst the vibrant yellow bromileads.  A vista from the dusty dirt road revealed a yellow polka-dotted landscape, a vibrant difference from the whispering grasslands we saw at daybreak.  Searching for the scenic road to cloud forest town Mindo, we took a few ‘detours.’  When asking directions in South America, everyone has the same simple advice “todo recto” meaning “straight all the way”… this set of directions does not always lead you to the desired destination, but almost always to somewhere nice.  As premium gas is $2 per gallon, as opposed to the painful $6.50 p/g in Colombia, we are much more relaxed when we discover we have taken the scenic route to the scenic route. Mindo is a little town between Quito & the Pacific coast, up in the cloud forest.  The afternoons are rainy, but the mornings are usually clear, which make it the time to explore the lush landscape.  We set out to take the “Tarabita” cable car across the ravine where you can access several waterfalls, but upon arrival found the tiny car suspended halfway between the coming and going sides.  The setup is basically a deconstructed car engine and transmission pulling the cable, so Adam used his volt-meter to test the alternator and batteries, which deemed the alternator no good.   Someone would have to drive 2.5 hours to Quito to purchase a new part.

So we drove up stream to another spot where, Emily having contacted Coco & Adams’ sniffles, took a solo nap while Papa & daughter had a little hiking time.

Adam sherpa-ed Colette to the Nambillo falls, where the mix of man-made elements worked in harmonious contrast with the orgainc features.  As Colette snoozed, Adam longingly watched the cliff-jumpers get some air-time.The next day we were the first to test the precarious looking cable across the plunging canyon.  The operator threw us a big thumbs up, so we climbed into the steel cage.  We asked to go slow so we could capture some nice shots… he nodded yes, pulled the trigger and off we glided faster and faster towards the middle.  The dense rain forest was divided by the slim break of rushing river cutting the heavy emerald blanket.  Traversing the muddy trail, we discussed the similarities in the lush Mindo-Nambillo forest to the other rainforests we had hiked, and took simple joy in searching for the uniqueness.Adam rocking a serious moss-stache.
Cool but not cold, humid but not sweltering, we deemed Mindo the climate perfect for hiking.  Along the way we discovered butterflies, lizards, birds, millipede and an endless array of flora.The trail ended at Cascada Reina (Queen Waterfall) which was a two-part event- the first ring a small landing with a staircase made of a felled tree, steps notched into the log, covered in cement and a moss covered bannister on one side.  Beside the staircase the lower falls ricochayed the fast moving river through a small channel, spraying the steam out.  At the stairs top, a larger pool carved into the tall canyon walls, encircled the 50 foot cascada.  The air was cool, and a light rain fell as Adam disrobed for a solo skinny dip in the brisk waters while Colette conked out for a power-nap having climbed the whole trail in.  We are so LOVING these times together, reminding ourselves daily at the exquisite beauty we are able to see and share.  Grateful, truly grateful we are.  Time to leave the jungle for a little beach time.  Sending you all our love!