DonnieDid.com
..........My Adventures, My Philosophies and My Perspective

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Suissotel, our hotel in Quito, Ecuador from the plane

View from the Plane of Suissotel
Quito, Ecuador
May 20, 2007

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FACTS & PHOTO SLIDESHOWS
A Representative View of the Capitol, Quito, Ecuador

A Representative View of the Capitol
Quito, Ecuador
May 20, 2007

Monument at the Equator, Near Otavalo, Ecuador

Monument at the Equator
Near Otavalo, Ecuador
May 12, 2007

Rich Agricultural Lands in the Andes Mountains, Ecuador

Rich Agricultural Lands
Andes Mountains, Ecuador
May 12, 2007

Imbabura Volcano with Agricultural Cultivation in the Foreground, near Otavalo

Imbabura Volcano
With Agricultural Cultivation in the Foreground

Near Otavalo, Ecuador
May 12, 2007

Alpaca Wool Blankets in a Booth at the Otavalo Market

Alpaca Wool Blankets
Otavalo, Ecuador
May 12, 2007

Woman Bargaining for Beads at the Saturday Market, Otavalo, Ecuador

Woman Bargaining for Beads
At the Saturday Market

Otavalo, Ecuador
May 12, 2007

Woman Selling Live Chickens at the Saturday Market, Otavalo, Ecuador

Woman Selling Live Chickens
At the Saturday Market

Otavalo, Ecuador
May 12, 2007

Typical Ecuadorian Highlands Cuisine, Otavalo, Ecuador

Typical Ecuadorian Highlands Cuisine
Otavalo, Ecuador
May 12, 2007

Ecuadorian Traditional Dance, Otavalo, Ecuador

Ecuadorian Traditional Dance
Otavalo, Ecuador
May 12, 2007
May 12, 2007
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Saturday Market in Otavalo, Ecuador

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.

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