Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Quilotoa in the Mist

Not Seeing Quilotoa

The streets of Ambato were packed for the final night of festivities. I believe I slept a few hours, but the music ramped up at about 3 AM and became louder and louder over the next three hours. Just as I finally felt ready to sleep, Maya was awake and raring to go. I was surprised how clean the streets were when we walked through the very quiet town in the morning. When I had last looked out on Cevallos, there were food stands and speakers and throngs of people drinking beer and dancing and walking and celebrating. I had heard the street cleaners when I drifted off this morning, but had not expected such a difference. We were looking for a place to eat breakfast ( we had decided we could no longer eat the same 'free' breakfast the hotel provided), but almost every establishment was closed. We found a bread shop (Ambato is known for its excellent bread) and tasted a cinnamon roll and a pineapple strudel and a cannoli like concoction, all gobbled down and enjoyed.

We checked out of our hotel and drove up the hill above Ambato to Quisapincha, a small town known for its leather goods. There was a market on the main square, with women in traditional dress selling both food and leather goods. More shops spread out down the hill, where Maya and I looked for soccer shoes, and Eric bought two leather jackets. It was a surprise to run into the man who changed the fan belt on the Toyota a few weeks ago when we were stranded on Eloy Alfaro in Quito. Such a small world we live in.

Ambato spread out below us as we descended; it is a huge city covering a wide valley. We managed to find a way to avoid driving through the city and were on our way north to Latacunga. It was a cloudy day with limited visibility. I looked for Tungurahua to the south and Cotopaxi to the north, but neither were to be seen.

I decided that we would take a detour to Quilotoa on our way home, which turned out to be a very ambitious plan for us. We turned left from the Panamerican Highway to Pujili, a busy town with a lovely colonial central plaza. We visited the church and walked around the very quiet main square ( all the inhabitants were at the fiesta/market area), did not find a place to eat, so climbed back into the car for our very long drive. At first, we quickly ascended to paramo, where scattered thatched-roof huts dotted the landscape, with some agriculture, but mostly grazing sheep and cows, inhabitants widely spread out, and wearing traditional attire. Grand mountains were visible at a distance. We climbed some more and then descended to a scattering of homes and buildings which were part of the Tigua community (where the naif painting style originated and where most of the Tigua painters reside). The landscape was entirely different, being a little lower, greener, more productive agriculturally (with almost perpendicular cultivated fields). We did not stop to look at the various artisanal shops, because we were keen on getting to our destination. We did notice the characteristic mountain that appears on so many of the paintings. The story is that a giant came to Tigua from the coast and decided to rest and has been sleeping there ever since. There is a ceremony every year when the locals congregate on the mountain.

We drove on the winding road, which was in remarkably good shape for being so far away from a large population. It was wide, well maintained, and thankfully with little traffic. The landscape changed again, with a mini grand canyon to our right as a wide valley opened up. We passed through Zumbahua, the biggest collection of homes we had seen throughout our drive. Many of the local inhabitants were collected in front of an elevated stage listening to music and celebrating the last day of Carnaval. The children were throwing water bombs and spraying carioca, as everyone has been these last several days. The water bombs were in full force today. We were not victims because we always had our windows closed, in fact the only time we were sprayed with foam was when Eric rolled down his window momentarily. The water throwers purposefully directed their efforts at people who were on the back of a truck or walking or vulnerable in some way.

Zumbahua Carnaval

Driving out of Zumbahua

Our route took us to a dirt road, which deteriorated as we came closer to the lake. During the last mile or so we found ourselves enveloped in fog-mist-clouds, so that when we finally arrived at Quilotoa, we could see no further than a few feet in front of us. The lake was invisible. We had come so far, and were so disappointed not to see anything. We stopped in a hostal for lunch and took what was offered, corn soup and chicken and rice. The lake was still invisible when we finished our lunch. There was little we could do to conjure up what was supposed to be the most beautiful crater lake in Ecuador. It was not the day to finish the Quilotoa loop, which was a dirt road up and around back to the Panamerican Highway to the north, so we drove back the way we came, admiring the landscape again, but this time looking entirely different, now that the fog had rolled in. Tigua was hidden, so we did not see it on the way back, and before we knew it we were in the Paramo again, admiring the view. The sun finally showed itself as we descended into the Latacunga valley and found our way on the Pana back to Quito.

Driving Back in the Fog

Green Valley Near Tigua

We had been told that the ride home would be brutal and take four or more hours. Instead, there were policemen placed regularly along the road directing and controlling traffic, which made the drive tolerable. Rain started near Cotopaxi park and continued until we arrived home, which we did in good time.

Carnaval is over, Lent begins, school starts, life gets back to normal.

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