After a series of long flights and even longer airport layovers, I finally touched down at my final destination - Quito, Ecuador, "the middle of the world". After 4 months in Canada, it felt great (although a bit strange) to be back in South America.
Ecuador may be small (about the size of New Zealand or the US state of Nevada) but it's considered one of the most diverse countries in the world. With good bus connections you can literally go from cool Andean highlands to hot and humid jungle to tropical Pacific beaches, all in the same day. And of course the Galapagos Islands, 1000km off the coast, are considered a wildlife experience of a lifetime.
Despite its small size, Ecuador has the highest population density of any South American country, with an average of 45 people per square kilometer. Its current population is around 14 million, but with a high birth rate it's estimated that the population will double by 2028.
Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, sits at 2850m above sea level, making it the second highest capital city in the world (the highest being La Paz, Bolivia at 3660m). It takes most people - myself included - a few days to acclimatize to the altitude, during which time headaches and fatigue are the norm. Even climbing a flight of stairs can be a real huff and puff effort at times!
The central Andean highlands contain two parallel volcanic mountain ranges, nicknamed "The Avenue of the Volcanoes", with a valley nestled between. Quito sits in this valley, only 4km wide but it stretches 17km from north to south.
Traffic is heavy in Quito, both vehicular and pedestrian. Pedestrians have no right of way; you basically take your life in your hands every time you cross an intersection! A trolley system exists, but they're usually extremely crowded and a place where pickpockets thrive. Tons of old buses, which probably made their way to Ecuador (or any other South American country for that matter!) after failing emission controls in some developed country, chug along the streets puffing out huge streams of black smoke. I've probably taken a few years off my life just from breathing in all the contaminants that sit trapped within the valley!
For the past few weeks I've been taking in some of the sights in and around Quito, while also taking refresher Spanish lessons. It's pathetic how many words I've forgotten, and quite honestly I'm not sure I'll ever get these tenses and conjugations straight.
Within the colonial streets of the Old Historic Town area of Quito are beautiful plazas, markets, churches, museums, tourist shops and restaurants. Tons of street vendors, shoeshine boys and pickpockets go hand-in-hand with the tons of tourists. Most of the churches are stunningly beautiful, with an interesting blend of architectural styles and an abundance of priceless gold-and-precious-gem-encrusted possessions. But there seems such a sad contrast between the wealth found within these churches and the severe poverty of the people outside.
At one particular church, La Basilica, tourists can pay a few dollars and climb to the top of the tall clock towers, mostly via narrow, extremely steep stairs that wrap around the outside of the clock tower with no particular guard rails or security protection in place. The views from the top were good, but my knees still go weak just thinking about that climb up and down!
I also visited "El Panecillo", a small hill at the south of Old Town from where a huge statue of "La Virgen de Quito" stands overlooking the city. You get great views of the city from there but you must take care and only visit by taxi as there have been numerous reports of tourists being robbed on the stairs and streets leading up to El Panecillo.
The New Town area of Quito, located north of Old Town, is typically where the tourists hang out. There are lots of cheap hostels, internet cafes, tour companies, bars, restaurants and discos. This is the area where I'm staying and taking Spanish lessons. I actually went to a disco with some friends last week, not my normal thing, and was hugely disappointed to hear hip-hop modern music. Like, aren't we in South America? Aren't we supposed to be hearing salsa and latin music here? Anyway, I'm not sure I'll brave the smokey rooms and very young crowds to re-live that experience any time soon!
Last weekend I went to Otavalo, a town around 2 hours by bus north of Quito. It was fantastic to get out of the big city and enjoy the fresh clean air and peacefulness of the countryside. Otavalo is famous for its Saturday market where vendor stalls with beautiful handmade products fill the main plaza and almost every street in town. Also on Saturday, early in the morning on the outskirts of town, is the Animal Market where locals gather to buy and sell pigs, cows, sheep, donkeys, horses, and even baby ducks. With pigs squealing and cows bellowing it was a real déjà vu moment to the animal markets I visited in Southeast Asia! Otavalo's market dates back to pre-Inca times and is considered one of the most important indigenous markets in South America. It's become quite a tourist stop now, but it is still used by locals who come to barter over animals and other products.
A charming feature of the Otavaleños culture is their traditional dress, which is worn not just for the tourists but also as a normal part of life. The men wear white shirts, white capri-length trousers, white sandals, thick navy ponchos, one long braid and dark felt hats. The women wear beautifully embroidered white blouses, long black skirts, black sandals, a dark shawl either fastened over one shoulder or fashioned into a hat, and strings of gold bead necklaces and red beaded bracelets. They are beautiful people, but I couldn't help notice the small size of some of the older indigenous people who barely came up to my shoulders!
I also took a tour in order to visit some of the local homes in small villages around Otavalo where the market products are made. Every process is done by hand. One old man sat on the floor all day hand weaving reed floor mats. Other people hand carded, dyed and spun wool, and then used old backstrap or foot-operated looms to weave belts, scarves, ponchos, etc. We also visited another home where the traditional Andean panpipes are made, and were entertained by our guide playing a few tunes on some of the different instruments. Every place we visited, one thing was obvious: the people of Ecuador are extremely talented and artistic people.
Now that my Spanish lessons are finished, I'm planning to start touring around a bit and visit some indigenous communities in the north of Ecuador where I intend to do some volunteer work. I'll likely spend anywhere from 1-2 weeks in each community, working with the locals in whatever way they want/need. Most of the communities are extremely poor and continue to live in very traditional ways, and our volunteer agency is trying to help them develop ecotourism programs that will generate income for the community.
So, now that I'm once again armed with just enough Spanish to be dangerous, I'm ready to get back into my travel groove.
I hope this finds everyone healthy and happy. Keep in touch ... it's always great to hear from you too!