After having spent the previous day-and-a-half travelling to Ecuador with an
overnight layover in Houston, I find myself waking up in the Suissotel facing a day of touring the Quito and Otavalo areas. All
the while a sense of excitement is building for the adventure of a lifetime that will get underway tomorrow when we board our
flight destined for the Galápagos Islands.
Before I provide details of this day I want to preface this adventure with a few words about how I have arrived at this moment
in my life. In July of last year (2006) I was thumbing through Metro Magazine, the quarterly alumni publication sent out by
Metropolitan State College of Denver, and noticed an ad for a biology class focused on the Galápagos Islands and how they influenced
the thoughts of Charles Darwin in the development of his theory of evolution. Although I had never taken a biology class, instead
opting to pursue chemistry and physics in high school and college, the journey to the Galápagos following the class appealed to me
as a potentially great experience to add to my list of world travel.
The class was being offered to interested alumni, and at that point in my life everything seemed to be falling apart with all
three of my rental properties beginning the foreclosure process, an ill-fated relationship blooming and the fact that I was losing
the intense passion for my job of which I would soon leave abruptly. The opportunity seemed to provide something in the future to
look forward to. With that thought in mind I called Dr. Cindy Church, the class professor, and signed up.
When the class began I was jobless and not sure where my future was heading. In Darwin's Footsteps, the class' title was all I
had on my agenda and the only thing I had in which to hang on to. Fast forward a few more months and here I am in Ecuador beginning
the long awaited adventure I had been looking forward to for almost a year.
The Bus to Otavalo
It was an early wake-up call. I was still tired from the process of travel the day
before. After a quick shower and a bite to eat from the hotel's free breakfast, the group boarded a bus en route to the town of
Otavalo where locals still dressed in traditional outfits and offered their handmade crafts at a large open market.
On our way out of Quito, the capitol city of Ecuador with a population of more than 1.5 million, we marveled at the sheer size of
the city running 97 km (60 mi) through a narrow valley in the Andes surrounded by snow-capped volcanic peaks reaching 5,182 m
(17,000 ft) high. These volcanoes are still active and part of the Pacific Rim's so-called Ring of Fire.
Quito itself lies at 2,769 m (9,000 ft), nearly double the elevation of our home town of Denver. Unlike other Latin American
cities I have visited in Mexico and Honduras, I was surprised to see such a modern and well-kept city. It could clearly be seen
that the people in Ecuador, or at least those in its capitol, took pride in their city and beautiful surroundings.
Like the sprawling city creeping up the gentle slopes of the surrounding mountains, we began ascending up and out of the city
towards Otavalo. But before we reached our destination we made a stop at the approximate location of the Earth's equator. Here
we got off the bus and took potty breaks and were able to purchase cold drinks and snacks for the remainder of the drive into Otavalo.
We were treated to an egg balancing demonstration on a stone pillar said to be located directly on the equator. Because of
equatorial characteristics the egg was supposed to stand up on its wide-end and remain standing once support was withdrawn. It
was an interesting sideshow, but the egg would fall over after a few moments each time they tried to perform the task. We were
certainly in proximity to the equator, but it was unknown if we were really on the exact imaginary line that marks the location,
or that given Earth's gyrations if that line exactly and always remains in the same location.
Back on the bus we drove over and around mountains of such brilliant green it was difficult to take one's eyes off of such beauty.
Unlike the Colorado Rockies, these mountains were void of trees and rocky surfaces. Most of the area serves an agricultural-based
economy with vast fields of crops (growing staples such as maize, beans and sugarcane) and occasional pastures dotted with cattle.
Even on the uncultivated slopes the natural habitat proved to be colored with brilliant greens emanating from the low-growing grasses
and shrubs covering their surface.
The next stop occurred at an area just off the shoulder of the highway overlooking the inactive Imbabura Volcano towering 4,609 m
(15,121 ft) over a fertile valley and large lake of the same name. The attraction of this stop was a quick history of the Panama Hat
followed by a sales pitch aimed at getting us to purchase one, although I do not think anybody did.
As it turns out the famous Panama Hat was started and has always been made in Ecuador with fine strands taken from the toquilla
straw plant, hand woven and sculpted ranging in price from a few to as much as $10,000 depending on the quality preferred. These
hats are made by a single weaver and can take many months to make.
So why are they called Panama Hats rather than Ecuador Hats? Primarily, these hats were named from the point in which they were
shipped throughout the world, the Panama Isthmus. Lending further credibility to the name, President Theodore Roosevelt wore one
of the hats on a visit to Panama providing another link to the country. But as Ecuadorians proudly point out, the Panama Hat is a
creation of Ecuador and they are still made in this country just as they were made in yesteryear, by hand.
Otavalo Street Market
After making the scheduled stops listed above and paying a quick visit to the village of
Calderon, famous for its figures hand-made from bread dough, we arrived at the Otavalo street market. We were allotted an
hour-and-fifteen minutes to peruse the booths in the market, so everyone piled off the bus and made their way to the shopping.
The famous street market was everything advertised. The locals really express themselves just like they did in ancient times,
men adorning white pants and blue ponchos and sporting long braided pigtails, while women wore white blouses accented by black
sashes and skirts. Citizens of neighboring regions along with tourists flock to the market to hunt for bargains and to stock
up and/or sell goods, adding to the attraction's international fanfare.
It was planned that we were here on a Saturday, the day when local people and those from neighboring tribes make their way to
Otavalo where they sell their handicrafts in addition to buying and selling livestock and crops. If you want to see the market,
you had better plan to be here on a Saturday. Because it is only one day per week the market is quite large. It encompasses many
of the city's blocks and is a zoo of people from all walks of life and regions of the world helping to make for an interesting
spectacle in and of itself.
The merchandise offered in the market primarily consisted of clothing and accessories made from alpaca wool. There were booths
hawking wood carvings, stone sculptures and others offering fresh produce and even a few selling cooked foods. There were so many
booths with similar merchandise it reminded me of an industrial trade show with several manufacturer copycats pitching another
company's successful product. The trick is determining which one of the many is going to give you the best deal!
Of course, I was not immune from the excitement. I walked away with two wood-carved panels, a polished stoned-carved mask and
two beautiful alpaca sweaters. I was not able to get up the nerve to try guinea pigs on a stick, but I did buy a coke to counteract
the day's heat. I don't think I was alone in this department though. When everyone returned to the bus they were unanimously ready
to go get some local grub and quell the hunger pains that had been thriving throughout this eventful day.
A Traditional Lunch
It took another half-hour to arrive at the restaurant, but the reward was worth the wait. We
were seated on a veranda spanning the entire perimeter of a courtyard complete with a water fountain at its center and draped in green
foliage and red flowers on its outside railings. For lunch I chose to try the famous potato soup with avocado and cheese, it was the
best I have ever tasted.
During lunch we were treated to a local band somewhat like the mariachis you see in Mexico, but having softer-sounding instruments
such as flutes and flesh covered drums. Afterwards the show continued with traditional dance routines in the courtyard. If the food
was not enough to get your attention, surely the atmosphere of this place would be likely to grab you.
While things were wrapping up I went out to snap a few photos and made my first biological discovery of the trip. There were some
beautiful and large trees outside displaying magnificent flowers of which I was photographing when I noticed plants that were seemingly
growing on high-wires and on the branches of the trees. So, taking advantage of traveling with biology students, I asked what they
were because I had never seen (or at least noticed) these curious plants before. It turns out they are called epiphytes derived from
the Greek epi ("upon") and phyton ("plant") that grow on other plants in a symbiotic fashion usually only using their host for support
and getting nearer to light than for obtaining nutrition from or harming them.
The Perfect Saddle
The final stop of the day was a stroll down Main Street in Cotacachi, a town based wholly on the
leather trade where every store on the main drag sells leather goods ranging from purses and belts to jackets and saddles. Yes, saddles,
really beautiful handcrafted leather saddles! For roughly $380 I walked away with a spectacular red-leather saddle complete with all
the trimmings for my new horse Payaso on the ranch in Honduras. Just what I needed - another piece of luggage!
I paid for the saddle with my Visa check card, got it and its accessories all neatly packed in a box with a convenient carry handle
made with excess tape and lugged it back to the bus where the driver loaded it into the cargo compartment. All done with our site-seeing
and shopping spree we began to make our way back to Quito and the Suissotel where we would spend our last night prior to embarking on the
adventure that brought us all here.