Saturday, March 13, 2010

Northern Journey

Otavaleño Child

Posing for the Camera

Animal MArket

Ducks. Geese, Chicken and Dogs for Sale

Lot of String for Sale

Buying Sheep

Deborah wanted to arrive at our destination, Otavalo, (a town two hours north of Quito with the oldest indigenous market in the Americas) in time to visit the animal market, so we woke up with the sun (actually I noticed that the birds chattering outside our apartment woke me up) and sped north to Otavalo to find the event in full swing. I had met a young taxi driver named Vladimir the night before and he agreed to drive us, and showed up with his five year old son Joel in the car. Vladimir planned to find a 'perrito' for Joel at the animal market. Joel entertained us with recitations of colours and numbers in English as we sped north. Driving can be unnerving in Ecuador, and Vladimir drove quickly and passed every vehicle he encountered, whether faced with two solid yellow lines, or oncoming traffic or blind corners; in fact nothing prevented him from passing the car in front of him. Joel was in the front seat without a seatbelt, so I kept reassuring myself that Vladimir was intent on driving as carefully as possible. I tried to focus on Cayambe (volcano) which was visible from the time we got on the Panamerican Highway until we passed the town of Cayambe. The volcano looked regal and not particularly inviting, and the light was never quite right for a photograph (I was also hanging on too tightly to let go and open my camera bag) . It was a relief to reach Lago San Pablo and then Otavalo. We passed by the animal market and drove to Peguche to deposit our luggage at the Casa Sol, our home for the night, and returned to the throngs of people and pigs and cows and bunnies and guinea pigs and ducks and geese and chicken, and of course dogs and cats.

There was a man under a tent in the middle of the market drawing a crowd. He was promoting a health product. I heard him tell his ever expanding audience not to eat pork daily, to limit it to twice or three times a week. He had models of the human body with detachable organs and with his microphone in one hand and a body part in the other, explained how his product would help each organ. More and more people came to listen to his spiel. Surprisingly, there were fruit and vegetable stands next to the cuy and rabbits, the puppies in the next row, and chicken, ducks and geese nearby. The larger pigs and cows occupied the area furthest from the road. Maya was distressed about the conditions of the animals, so we did not stay long, but followed the locals out across the Pana to an endless row of tents selling pots and pans and shoes and clothes and household goods.

Hand-carved Spoons

We reached the food market, where Deborah wanted to buy the fat and juicy fava beans, but we decided that without a kitchen we would not find a way to cook them. It was about four blocks to the 'Plaza de Ponchos' where the textiles and tourist goods are sold, so we pushed through the crowds and the gauntlet of kiosks selling everything one could need to run a household. It was sunny and sweltering and we all looked for hats, but none were quite right (and I have several at home I could have brought with us). Maya was looking exhausted when we finally reached the main plaza, so we found (of all places) a pie shop and ordered 'mora' and 'manzana' pies, which were delicious (with my cappucino) and revived us all.


We were ready to shop! I love all the colours and I have learned to bargain. The trick is to be able to decide how much you want to pay and stick to your plan, and be ready to walk away, knowing that you will find what you want anyway (there are tents after tents selling the same goods), and nothing is absolutely essential. This method works for me and I get good prices (at least I hope so) and never feel that I have paid too much. This approach does not work for silver or jewellery, for which prices appear to be fixed. We stayed together and bargained jointly and did not overdo it.


Peguche is a couple of miles north of Otavalo, next to the 'Cascadas de Peguche' which have been sacred waterfalls for hundreds of years before the Spaniards came. The "Cara' people, who inhabited the area long before the Inca invasion, used the waters for purification rituals and protected the site. Casa Sol is just above the cascadas, and our taxi could not drive up the hill, so we had to climb up, initially with our suitcases and each time we arrived back at our hotel. It was exhausting and very good exercise. Our room was large and lovely, with a view of both Imbabura and Cotacach (volcanoes), however as the day progressed the clouds descended and covered both mountains. We found llamas outside our door and Maya became friends with them and handfed them grass. They became attached to her and did not want her to leave. I could hear all sorts of birds outside our windows but saw none. They were very elusive throughout our stay.

Feeding Llamas

Maya provided us with a violin concert while we recharged, and after a while, we gathered ourselves together and wandered into Peguche, a short ten minute walk away. We visited a couple of textile workshops, where we admired the rugs and other wares. The quality of the work in these ateliers were clearly superior to those that are found in the market. A wonderful woman showed us how she works with the wooden Spanish loom, with three pedals or eight, and the backstrap loom, which is of Incan origin and takes far more time and effort. She showed us how to make an alpaca shawl, which takes four days and is sold for $35, in contrast to the twelve days it takes to use the backstrap loom to make the poncho that Maya admired. All of the dyes are natural, using plants and seeds for green and yellow, and the larva of an insect that parasitizes a cactus to make purple, orange if lemon is added and deeper purple if bicarbonate of soda is added.

Natural Dyes

We visited a music museum where our host demonstrated the construction of a pan pipe out of bamboo, and showed us the several instruments used in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. He and his family played a short concert of Andean music. We walked back to our home on the hill, passing clusters of inhabitants strolling out on a Saturday night, visiting neighbours and going to parties, playing Andean or Ecuadorian pop music. We felt very much a part of the town.

Saturday Night Family Outing

La Casa Sol was busy with a crowd of Otavaleños visiting for dinner. The food was excellent and plentiful, our room was warm and inviting, so with a fire crackling in the fire place and loud music audible from the town below, we were all in bed and drifting off to sleep early.

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