Straddling the Middle of the World

Thursday, 5 July (Part I)

Today we fell in love with Ecuador ♥♥♥  After touring in the highlands, we now understand the attraction this country has for expats.  I mean … gorgeous scenery, spring-like climate year-round, friendly locals, low cost-of living, good infrastructure and services … what more could one want.  We even checked out a couple of houses.  Had this one house still been on the market, we might now be the proud owners of property in Ecuador.  No kidding!

It was this house situated across from the Imbabura Volcano that stole both our hearts.
Don’t worry, it’s inactive — though that’s not the same as saying it’s extinct :-)

But that dream is for the future — maybe.  In the meantime, let’s get to our day.

Months ago, I’d gotten the name of a guide that came highly recommended on the TripAdvisor forums.  When I contacted him, Lincoln Guaman promptly responded with options for private day-tours, as well as a picture of his vehicle, a Hyundai SUV.

It was difficult to narrow down the list as each trip offered something unique and fun, but we only had two days to go exploring with Lincoln.  In the end, we opted to go north one day, and south the next day.  Today was the day to visit the highlands north of Quito.  (Click map to the right for a larger version.)

(The photo of Lincoln and Mui was taken the next day when we were at a much higher elevation, and a brutal wind coming off a glacier was making the air a bit nippy!)

I will tell you now that we’re very pleased with Lincoln’s services, and recommend him highly.  He’s a charming, personable guide, and his extensive knowledge of his country helped us to better understand what we were seeing and experiencing.  (Contact Info: lincolnjabra@hotmail.com.)

Accommodating our early bird tendencies, Lincoln picked us up from the Marriott promptly at 7:00a.  As we threaded our way through the early morning traffic, we spent the time getting to know each other.  Soon, he and Mui were laughing and joking as though they’d been friends for years.  In the back seat, awed by the grand landscape of the Andes, I was quietly enjoying myself.  So much so that I even forgot to take notes, so we’ll see just how well this post is going to come together!

Our first stop at Calderón was a bust.  We were too early and the shops where they make the famous bread-dough figurines were still shuttered.  That sometimes happens when you’re an early bird!  So, we quickly moved on from there, hoping to stop on the way back to Quito.  Didn’t happen; we got sidetracked into doing other things.  Next time!

You just can’t go to Ecuador, which means equator in Spanish, and not visit that imaginary line that runs around the fatest and fastest part of the globe.  Yes, our Celebrity city tour was going to take us to the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World), but from everything I had read, the line there was not quite on the ‘actual’ equator.  So, Lincoln took us to Quitsato (website in Spanish) instead.  This is where the equator crosses the Pan American Highway (which, by the way, runs all the way from the tip of Argentina to the top of Alaska).

Who says you can’t be in two places at the same time!
Our right feet are in the northern hemisphere; our left feet are in the southern hemisphere.

Quitsato is where ongoing research is being done into astronomy, history, and archaeology of equatorial observations.  The additional highlight here is the giant 177-foot (54 m) walk-on sundial, which casts no shadow at noon.  We were there too early to hear the talk given on pre-Columbian peoples’ use of the sun in measurements, which is probably a good thing as our schedule would have been completely shot if we’d dallied further at this stop.  Still, it might have been interesting to hear their reason for why they think the concept up north being up, and south being down is wrong!

Yes, we’re at 0° Latitude.
Can you find Mui?  And no, that’s not him in the bottom right; that’s lincoln.

So, onto the next stop — and a yummy one it was.  We’d told Lincoln about the really delicious hot chocolate we’d enjoyed in Ushuaia, Argentina and he set out to prove that the Ecuadorian version was even better, especially when accompanied by the golden-baked, buttery goodness of the bizcochos for which Cayembe is famous.  Indeed, as we drove through town to Café Encuentro, storefront after storefront advertised the availability of delicious, fresh-from-the oven bizcochos.  And yes, we now have a new favorite hot chocolate country!

flaky on the inside, bizcochos are traditionally served with queso de hoja  (string cheese) or dulce de leche (prepared by slowly heating sweetened milk to create a thick sauce that derives its taste from caramelized sugar); we tasted it with both.  the hot chocolate had the tiniest hint of cinnamon that brought out the flavor of the chocolate; heavenly.

Our next stop was the popular market town of Otavalo, 58 miles (95 km) from Quito.  This town, known for its locally woven textiles, turned out to be not quite what we were expecting.

When we were making plans for this day tour, an acquaintance had mentioned that we’d find Otavalo to be similar to Pisac and Chinchero in Peru.  I have to disagree with her assessment.  While the market itself is vaguely reminiscent of the Peruvian markets, the town is quite different.  More modern with perhaps less of the cozy, quaint ambiance we were expecting.  And though we saw some Otavaleños (mostly women) wearing their indigenous outfits, most of the people were in modern day clothes.  In fact, in many ways, Otovalo reminded us of small towns in Turkey.  We weren’t disappointed; it was just different, and I wouldn’t mind returning someday to stay in Otavalo and explore it further.

Hand-woven textiles are a hallmark of the town.

Lincoln dropped us off to wander at our own pace around Plaza de Ponchos, the town square where the famous Saturday market is held.  That it wasn’t Saturday meant we wouldn’t see the animal market, but it also meant the crowds would be manageable for me.  Mui had a ball, as usual, bargaining and chatting with the locals, and turning shopping into a social event — something my generally shy nature … well, shies away from.  We found this market to be unusually quiet.  No vendors calling out to get your attention; no loud bargaining.  That’s how I like my market experience to be, but I wonder how much of that was because we were there on a weekday.

One word to describe the market — colorful.

Since we’re in downsizing mode, most of our purchases were gifts to take back home.  Mui did buy himself an honest-to-goodness Panama hat — despite being known by another country’s name, these hats are in fact woven in Ecuador.  I was happy to pick up a few pairs of colorful pajama pants to replace the one I bought in Peru in 2009 and have since worn out.  Honestly, they’re the softest, most comfortable pants to wear around the house (bottom right of the collage above).

Mui negotiating for his Panama hat; rolled up, it travels well in a suitcase.

Our next stop, about 9 miles (15 km) north of Otavalo, was Cotacachi, a town well-known for high-quality leather goods; reasonably priced, too.  I saw a lot of things that just begged to come home with me, but I resisted the temptation.  After all, how many jackets or purses does one really need?  Mui did pick up a belt that caught his eye, so we didn’t leave empty-handed.  And of course, there’s the house we almost bought, but I guess that doesn’t count ;-)

Leather goods galore at the central market.

As it was fast approaching noon, we decided Cotacachi would be the scene of our lunch break.  The threat of rain kept us from suggesting an al fresco meal somewhere.  Instead, Lincoln took us to a local restaurant where we had a very nice meal.  My appetite was still low, so a bowl of locro de papas was satisfying enough.  This is a traditional Andean soup made with potatoes, cheese, and a touch of cumin; garnished with slices of avocado.  As one website describes it — the ultimate comfort food.  I agree.

Mui joined Lincoln in ordering carne colorada — meat (in this case, pork) marinated in beer, garlic, onion, achiote (which gives it a reddish color; hence the name), cumin, and oregano, and braised stovetop.  The meat was slightly overcooked, but tasty nonetheless.  His meal was served with kernels of corn — boiled as well as roasted, potato cakes, and steamed vegies (in lieu of the usual rice).

Our meal also came with popcorn, a staple of Ecuadorian tables.  Aside from just eating it by the handful, it’s a popular soup topping.  Today, our popcorn was served with aji de tomate de arbol, a slightly spicy dipping sauce made with tree tomatoes (what we know as tamarillos).  Sure beats chips, or even the ever-popular pre-meal bread basket.

Left to Right: popcorn with aji de tomate de arbol; carne colorada; locro de papas

Our day didn’t end with this meal; we continued on to explore nearby areas that Lincoln thought we would enjoy.  Yes, the itinerary was flexible, and we did as we pleased.  That’s the beauty of doing a private tour.  But I’ll write about the rest of our day in another post.

5 comments:

  1. I'm with you in liking the quieter market better. :)

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  2. I too fell in love with Ecuador. What a absolutely lovely country.
    We have been in four states in one time but not two hemispheres. Cool!
    I am sure the market had some fascinating items. So unique.
    So glad you had a fabulous time. Thanks for taking us along.

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  3. Property in Ecuador? An easy direct flight from Houston?? With a Guest room???
    Sweeeeeet :-)))))))
    I would have gone nuts in the hat department, and those cross-body bags?
    Insanely in love with, hope you bought one for yourself, they are very handy.
    Excellent food, great Post!

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  4. I feel an attachment to the place and I have not even been there:)

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  5. [re-posted from TA]
    I loved your blog! It's so interesting and well written. And the pictures are amazing. I will be reading it carefully as we can use all the tips we can get while preparing for our trip. One tip I will be following for sure is having that delicious-looking chocolate and bizcochos at Cafe Encuentro :-)

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