Quito, Otavalo, and Mindo; June 26 - July 1, 2009

We used Quito as a hub for our Ecuador travels but never spent much time there -- just a few late afternoons and evenings. It was sufficient to get a feel for the city, but certainly not to cover more than a fraction of its interesting sights. We spent most of our time just wandering around the old center, admiring its plazas and colonial architecture (photo 1) and enjoying the pleasant urban Latin American scene. A highlight was our visit to the enormous neo-gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional, complete with Marine Iguana and Frigate Bird gargoyles. A system of steep staircases, ladders, and rickety boards (photo 2) has been set up, allowing tourists with enough nerve to ascend two of its towers for excellent views of the city (photo 3).

We planned our trip so that we'd be in Quito on a Saturday, within striking distance of the weekly Otavalo market. We always enjoy looking around regional markets, and this one was reputed to be unusually large and interesting, even drawing sellers from neighboring Colombia. We were concerned it may have transformed itself into a tourist market (we've seen that happen elsewhere), but our worries were unfounded. Yes, there were plenty of stalls selling pan flutes and other Andean trinkets, but locals far outnumbered tourists -- there were exotic fruits & vegetables, roasted hogs, live guinea pigs, and a wide variety of colorful woven textiles (a specialty of the region). Many of the sellers wear traditional dress (photos 4 & 5), and musicians and other entertainers wander around, making for a lively affair. Tim & Emily demonstrated just how much they've changed: In years past they loved going from market stall to identical market stall, spending literally hours selecting doo-dads on which to blow their small souvenir allowance. Emily did make a few purchases this time but they were quick; Tim spent most of the time behind his lens.

Next we spent three days at the El Monte Lodge in the vicinity of Mindo. On the way to Mindo, we crossed the equator for the fourth time on the trip. This time we stopped at an equator-themed tourist trap complete with entrance fee, line on the ground, large monument, and innumerable shops and cafes. Modern GPS readings show the line and monument to be about 800 feet off, but that's pretty close given that it was determined a few centuries ago. We also pulled over around the corner on the actual equator to secure photo 6, to accompany the longitude-zero photo we took in Greenwich in 2007. (Only Photoshop or a serious adventure will give us the zero-zero reading, since it's somewhere in the Atlantic.)

The El Monte Lodge is a superbly located, all-around great place. The region is cloud forest: essentially higher-altitude rain forest, meaning fewer insects and cooler temperatures, but still dense jungle and tropical birds -- what a deal! The lodge itself is tastefully done and super-eco, with wonderful owners, guides, cabanas, and food. It's on a huge nature reserve, adjacent to other nature reserves, and the lodge is reached only by a hand-pulled cable car over the Rio (river) Mindo. Activities run the gamut, and we sampled most of them:
  • Forest walks and especially bird-watching are premier activities at El Monte. The guide assigned to us for our entire stay, Julia Patiño, is extraordinarily passionate about and talented at finding birds. Needless to say, photographing those birds was a huge objective for Tim, and once again some family balance needed to be negotiated -- not all of us appreciate standing noiselessly for ages on a muddy trail as this or that Tanager or Trogan flits about in the distant trees; but some of us do. Photos 7-10 are a tiny sample from Tim's extensive collection.

  • A favorite activity for tourists and locals alike is tubing down the Rio Mindo (photo 11). Several extra-large inner tubes are lashed together, riders hop on, and guides make sure the entire contraption doesn't get stuck on rocks. It's remarkably resilient and very hard to fall off, even hurtling over small waterfalls -- lots of fun altogether.

  • Another adrenaline activity popular in the area is zip-lining (that's Emily in photo 12). Alex and Tim have been zip-lining once before in Chile, but they report this one to be considerably bigger, better, and more convenient, at a fraction of the cost. A "course" of 13 zip-lines takes advantage of the extremely steep terrain, zig-zagging across deep jungle-filled canyons. The lines average 200 meters long, and because we visited on a rainy afternoon, apparently they were unusually speedy. Jennifer and Emily had to get up some nerve for the first line or two, but all four of us thought zip-lining was a highlight as far as entertainment and excitement go.
Next: From Quito we fly to Lima and then hop on a bus for the 8-hour ride to Huaraz, Peru. We'll spend two days acclimatizing in Huaraz before setting off on the capstone of this trip: a 13-day trek of the Huayhuash Circuit. (Or visit this less alarming page describing a British tour agency's Huayhuash trip.) We'll be privately guided by Peruvian Andes Adventures on a customized version of their 12-day Huayhuash itinerary.

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