Quito’s not a bad place as far as capital cities go. We wouldn’t ordinarily choose to spend ten days there, but we’re on an admin-mission here. Missions accomplished, we head north towards Colombia, with a few detours hovering around the Ecuador Equator: a misplaced monument, some little and large birdies, a great-fiesta-escape, some hats, and (another) volcano.
McCoffee in Quito
In the league table of South American cities, once you’ve been to (or should we say ‘suffered’) La Paz, all the others seem like pleasant little towns. Quito has a clean, modern centre with nice restaurants, parks and malls. The old town has character and is a pleasant wander for a day or two. An unusual feature of Quito (for us) is the amount of time we spend in McDonalds. I know, I know… not something to be proud of… but mobile data is expensive in Ecuador and McD has good, fast wi-fi. And here’s a thing… if you find one with a McCafé section, you don’t have to suffer a burger! They actually serve reasonable coffee, espresso, cappuccino, from a proper coffee machine. Who knew?
As we finally head out of Quito, we are chuffed to have obtained our US B2 visas (thanks Uncle Sam) and collected a delivery of Cuthbert-parts brought out from UK by a very generous Facebook acquaintance (thanks Fergus 😊).
Equating the spot
Just a smidgeon north of Quito (‘smidgeon’ being the internationally recognised, technical term for around 20 km 😊) is the northern hemisphere. Yes, we’re finally leaving ‘the South’ behind. This is now Cuthbert’s fifth time driving over the Equator; so far twice in Africa (Uganda and Kenya) and twice in Brazil. Some Equator crossing-points are marked with cheesy, tourist-trap, road-side monuments, but so far none comes close to the palaver on the main route north of Quito. Not just a huge monument, but a theme-park style complex to celebrate the north/south divide. Yeah… I think we’ll decline that thanks. The slightly comical thing is… it’s in the wrong place!
Regular Cuthbert readers may recall that last year we passed-by the geodesic centre of the South American continent in Brazil. There, the latest ‘Gucci’ GPS technology has recently shown that the real spot is actually some 40+ kms east of where the monument was originally erected. Here at the Ecuador Equator there isn’t quite such a big margin of error, but GPS has verified that the true Equator is some 240m north of the monument. A bit more fascinating, is that on the exact Equator line sits the ancient, sacred indigenous worship site of Catequilla, over 1,000 years old. Oooh spooky. Did they know?
Snapping the Critters
The pretty village of Mindo (less than a smidgeon south of the Equator) thrives on tourism, amongst other things… birdwatching. Excuse me??? Sitting for hours in a draughty hide, waiting to catch a lesser-spotted-warbler, 4 miles away through binoculars??? Noooo. Apparently, this is a different kind of bird-watching… many, many, super-whizzy little things, hummingbirds with dazzling colours, hovering and flitting all around us at lightning speeds, wings a-blur. Okay… let’s go see.
Mindo attract both birds and tourists to the village by hanging containers of syrupy-water in the trees. It works too. Syrupy-water attracts the birds, the birds attract the tourists. Result! Our camp-site host mixes around two kilos of sugar per day into syrup for his six or seven hanging-feeders. It’s fascinating to sit surrounded by so many flitting birds, but taking snaps of them is another thing all together. If a definition of ‘frustration’ is called for, this would surely be it ☹. We show here the best results of the trillions of photos taken.
What else did we do in Mindo? Ooh yes… the choccy tour! A fabulous and very informative workshop, seeing my ‘go-to’ snack all the way from the flower, to the huge pod, to the individual beans, to roasting, and finally to the yummy organic choccy bar. Loved it
Meanwhile, back to the birdies… in attempt to learn a bit more about this bird-photography lark, we head a smidgeon north of the Equator to meet Doug. Canadian Doug is retired to Ecuador and passionate about birdlife and photography. He takes us out for a wander in the beautiful Intag Valley and we have a great time with him, learning not just about birds and photography, but also about local characters and life in the valley. Time will tell if we can put it all into practice, but we’ve certainly learned some theory ready for the next unsuspecting critters we find. Thanks Doug!
Another interesting and wholly unexpected experience of our visit with Doug is watching him look after the pigs. I guess we’re not the most worldly-wise with farming-ways… these are no cute little piggy-wiggies. They’re huuuuge porkers! And noisy… wow… never heard such a din! Fascinating to see up-close reality of Doug’s friend Grace’s small-scale pig-farm. We live and learn!
Fiestas: The Great Escape
The equatorial town of Otovalo is famous (well… famous as far as Ecuador) for its Saturday market, but as we cruise into town we find we’ve inadvertently hit on a fiesta weekend. Would be rude not to go and have a gander, wouldn’t it? We take a seat in the make-shift grandstand along with the rest of the townsfolk who are in fine festive mood. Up comes the parade, and for a couple of hours it’s great fun: lines and lines of folksy folk parade past us proudly showing off their traditional music, garb and dance-moves. Colourfully masked devils escort twirling ladies in bright skirts. But eventually it descends into groups of students in sparkly jeans punching the air with their fists, grooving to the local equivalent of Snoop-Doggy Dog. Not such a culturally educational experience.
After three and a half hours… it’s almost 23:00 hrs and they are still bopping past us, whooping to the music. Arrgh!! We want to go home to Cuthbert, but we’re hemmed in! On the fifth tier of the ‘grandstand’, we can barely wiggle our toes, let alone make our way down to the bottom to get out! We sit for a while wondering how best to make our escape… Marcus reckons that the gap underneath our seats is just about big enough for us to squeeze through and climb down the supporting scaffolding. Hmmm… we’re about 6-7 metres up off the ground. Okay… we’re desperate… we’ll give it a go. Like naughty school kids escaping from detention, we scramble under our seats, slide down the scaffolding and scoot-away, past the candy-floss vendors, back to Cuthbert. Phew! The parade was fun… but definitely a case of ‘less is more’ 😊.
We can’t depart Otovalo without seeing one of its other main attractions: the Condor Park, a rescue centre for birds of prey. This is an amazing opportunity to get up-close with these awesomely beautiful creatures, with flying demonstrations. Meeting Jonathan, Rachel and Tristan, a lovely English family on holiday here makes this a really fun day for us.
Remember we said Otovalo is famous for its Saturday market? Well, we happen to be here on a Saturday, so we go for a wander. What can we say? Well… it’s big. Goes on forever. Lots of stuff for both tourists and locals. Plenty of hat stalls. See the pic? “Ah! Panama hats…” you may well note, but not true. Here’s the story: it’s a source of some irritation here in Ecuador that these are known as Panama hats. In fact, the hats originated here in Ecuador and are properly known as toquilla-straw hats or Montecristi hats.
Why the ‘Panama’ fame? Apparently, back colonial days the Spanish spotted the fine quality hats and exported them via Panama. On their way through, many hats were ‘appropriated’ (so to speak) by the workers on the canal project. When the hats arrived in Europe they were thought as having come from Panama and the name stuck. Poor old Ecuador went, and still goes, unrecognised for production of the iconic headgear.
So our time in Ecuador and hovering around the Equator is coming to an end. Colombia beckons. But before we leave, we have a couple more mini-missions. First, a quick trip up Volcán Cayambe: the highest point on the whole Equator and apparently, the only place on the Equator to have snow. It’s not really any different to the other volcano-mountains that we’ve seen, but it’s one of those boxes you may as well tick if you happen to be passing by 😊. The last section of the track up there is a tough drive: steep and very rough, strictly high-clearance 4×4 territory. Cuthbert uses all his gadgets: low-range and all three diff-locks to make it up there. At over 4,500m, even on the Equator, it’s pretty damn nippy. Had to drag out our coats and hats to go out for a walk, but worth it for the views!
Final mission in Ecuador is for Marcus to do a bit of work on Cuthbert, fitting the new parts that we collected in Quito. The wonderfully hospitable Graham and Amalia (with the super-cute four year-old Leah) kindly allow us to park-up at their home in Ibarra for a few days whilst the ‘open-wheel surgery’ on Cuthbert is carried out. Sure, Marcus has to get his hands a bit greasy with the work, but we also have a totally fab time with Graham and his family who make us so welcome. Huge thanks to them all for very generous hospitality.
Now we’re heading off to the Colombia border. It’s said to be a bit of a tedious slow one… we’ll let you know 😊
Link to next blog: Colombia: Drugs Barons and Banditos?
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