Otavalo and Cotapaxi
02.06.2017 - 04.06.2017 51 °F
I really wanted to get a bit out of town as well and see the surrounding countryside so I opted to take two day trips on my own. The first was to Otavalo, a town famous for its central market and handicrafts. Buses to Otavalo leave from the Carcelen Terminal, but of course you have to get there. Pro tip- a bus that says 'Carcelen' in the window will take you the center of the Carcelen district, about a mile (downhill) from the Terminal proper. If you jump off this bus at the right time you can cut that distance in half. There are other, more efficient methods to get there by bus, but sorry, I can't tell you what they are! Once I arrived, I hopped a bus to Otavalo within about 5 minutes - at a cost of $3 for the 90 minute bus ride (very comfortable bus).
The ride itself is pretty interesting. The highway is broad, smooth and relatively new. Given the amount of erosion to which the area is subject, it must have been a monumental project. In this picture you can see a very large hillside covered with sprayed concrete to prevent futher erosion. It may be that the center section has succumbed already, so this will no doubt be an ongoing challenge. It's a scenic and enjoyable trip nonetheless.
Otavalo is a small town that caters to tourists. It sits at the base of the 15,000 foot Ibambura volcano (resting for about 14,000 years but considered capable of eruption).
Ibambura is revered by the local indigenous peoples, the Otavalenos, who are also responsible for the handicrafts, principally woven and knitted materials often incorporating alpaca and cashmere wool. The streets and sidwalks are nicely decorated and there are plenty of restaurants and hotels. Here's a street scene in the center of town as well as a picture of a utility access cover. Readers of my earlier blog entries, like Japan at your feet will know I am on the lookout for interesting examples wherever I go. This one features an Otavaleno child.
Frankly, however, the big central market was a bit of a disappointment. It's colorful and fun to walk through, but the great majority of items are available in, say, the market in Quito. I did pick up some actual handwoven small textiles with an interesting design. Negotiation is expected, and I got the price down about a third, which is as I understand it, par for the course. Not something I'm experienced at or even all that comfortable with, given the initial economic disparity, but it's customary, I guess.
Was it worth the effort to go to Otavalo? I"m about 50/50 on that.
My next excursion was considerably more entertaining.
Cotapaxi is one of the volcanoes to be seen from Quito - see my earlier post. You can join a tour from Quito or from town near Cotapaxi, but I decided to wing it. Buses to Cotapaxi leave from the Quitumbe bus station, which serves destinations to the south of Quito. I admit I did wimp out and take a taxi across town this time. It cost $10 for about a 45 minute taxi ride, so seemed to be a prudent choice.
Again, lots of buses, again about 3 bucks for the 2 hour ride. Here's another small pro tip for regional buses. Regional buses go all over Ecuador and beyond and they are an astonishingly inexpensive way to get around. One tip is that if you would prefer a bus that doesn't make a lot of intermediate stops (meaning anytime anyone wants to get off anywhere), don't ask for a 'direct' bus- ask for an 'Executivo;' they are slightly more expensive and usually slightly more comfortable (one I took showed a movie) but will get you there a little bit quicker.
Anyway, I was dropped off at 'Cotapaxi.' It turns out what that means is you are dropped off at a freeway overpass in the middle of nowhere.
Fortunately, I am likely not the first tourist to choose this path, as just up the hill was a line of pickups and guides. The first guy in line offered to take me on a tour of Cotapaxi for $40, and I said OK. He was a certified guide who has been doing this for 15 years and he and I got on quite well. Suffice it to say that we spent over 4 hours exploring the area, stopping for pictures whenever and wherever, and ultimately reaching as high as you can go without trying to summit.
The hillsides are covered with alpine flowers of all descriptions, and there is a peculiar gray granular material covering the higher ground that might be some kind of pumice derivative, but I have not been able to identify it. You can see some in one of the pictures below.
The road winds ever higher. It gets so steep that towards the top we picked up 6 more people just to get enough weight in the truck to continue uphill (their car had reached its limit). Here's a look back down at part of the road.
There are some spectacular erosional features, and we also got our first look at the Jose F. Rivas refuge, which in this shot kind of looks like Shangri-La, but is in fact the starting point for summiters.
We ground our way up, parked and hiked a short distance further up the hill where I got a closer look at the refuge and at my altimeter, which showed a personal record - 15,279 feet,, almost 1000 feet higher than Mount Rainier!
Of course, the star of the show is Cotapaxi itself at a staggering 19,347 feet in height, and after teasing us all day by staying in the clouds, the summit peeked out for a few minutes. Awesome!
We wandered down the hill, taking more photos and stopping at an alpine lake.
The lake was pretty, but I was most intrigued by this little bird who spent considerable time working on this hole until, finally, he unearthed a tasty grub (by his feet in the second shot).
And no trip is complete without a picture of a cow, in this case a Cotapaxi native. As I took the shot, it amused my guide to grab his red hankercheif for a few ole's!
My guide finally dropped me off at the same nondescript overpass and within 10 minutes a bus came by to whisk me back to Quito. Let's hear it for extemporaneity!!
So - two very interesting and fulfilling days. If I had to choose one to repeat, it would be Cotapaxi hands down!