Otavalo to Papallacta – The First Leg of our Avenue of the Volcanoes Drive

We were still weaving with our sea legs as we stood at the Budget Rental Car counter in dismay and frustration. We were told that our reservation (that we had had for six months) was canceled an hour earlier. Seems we were late for our pickup, and since Budget didn’t hear from us, they cancelled our car.  And since we were on an airplane, it wasn’t possible to call.  We quickly found the LAST vehicle available at the airport at the Thrifty Car rental counter, as more than twice the price.  The best they could do was a SUV with the driver’s door severely banged in, but it was a set of wheels and as they say “vamanos amigos!”

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Ecuador has invested heavily in infrastructure projects and the Pan American highway is a marvel of engineering, whisking drivers away from the Quito area through numerous  S curves that steeply climb then descend, then repeat, repeat, and repeat until you’ve reached Otavalo.  Sometimes the highway is eight lanes wide and at other times it’s only two. If you love S curves, the Pan American highway is a definite must drive.

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Though an international highway, many times the road is the main street through small towns with active businesses lining its sides.  This area is full of nurseries growing flowers, mostly roses, for international export.  Numerous street vendors also lined the route selling a dozen roses for three dollars.  In Otavalo we had to exchange our muscular SUV for a small 5-speed, manual transmission, sedan.

Due to the steep, long climbs and S curves of the highway we spent many miles in second gear.  This continued on the secondary roads as well – they started off asphalt, then switched to flat pavers, followed by cobblestone paving (with a center stone line) which eventually turned into compacted dirt with ruts. Did I say RUTS?!  First and second gears ruled now as it seemed there was not a level or straight road in all of Ecuador, especially where were we were headed.  I had to treat Donna to massage therapy after one particularly bone-jarring adventure, where we were lucky that the muffler didn’t get snagged on a rock .  And of course there is the thrill factor, with side roads in the mountains not having guardrails and buses barreling down hill at you in a cloud of dust as you are trying to negotiate an uphill 180 degree switchback in first gear on a dirt road wide enough for one car! Numerous roadside crosses dotted the landscape for an instant reality check. Really these roads would be a challenge for the drivers that do the infamous Baja off-road race!  Why buy a ticket for a rollercoaster when you can scare yourself to death driving the secondary roads of Ecuador.  As I said before, the Pan American highway is a great road in perfect condition without potholes.  Once you leave it be warned. And really do opt for that SUV. Vroom, vroom!

Set at 9800ft altitude, high in the hills above Otavalo, Casa Mojanda is definitely a destination; a boutique lodge that practices sustainability.  The massive dining room has 3 foot thick walls constructed using a rammed earth technique which was then whitewashed.  Rustic cabins with kiva fireplaces, to ease away the chill of an Andean night, are set into the hillside to follow the natural contour of the terrain and take full advantage of the view.  Lower on the property, a massive organic garden supplies the kitchen. And an authentic sweat lodge is available for those would want to hire a local, registered shaman and indulge in the indigenous traditions.  For a side trip we drove up to the crater lake  of Lagunas de Mojanda which is at 12,000ft, and got the feel for the first of many to follow ubiquitous cobbled roads.  So far our transportation has proven to be the little car that could.

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On the way to Parque Condor, a rescue center for Andean birds of prey, our GPS failed us and lead us down a dirt track on the other side of the mountain that we were supposed to be at the top of. Fortunately the first person we asked walking along the road spoke a little English and pointed us back in the direction from which we came.  Before we turned around she looked seriously at our car, shook her head and said “I don’t think your little car can make it there”.  We too had our doubts when we saw the condition of the dirt road and the incline that faced us. “It’s not what you drive, but how you drive it” became my favorite mantra when considering the capabilities of our wheels.  And yes, we wished we had a little more ground clearance occasionally, and more horsepower.  With minutes to spare we made it in time for the morning “free flight” demonstration at 11:30.  In a stone amphitheater set into the side of the mountain top, high above the valley below,  a falconer performed with a variety of Andean hawks, to the audience’s delight.  Starting with their smallest raptor and working their way to the larger ones, from behind us his assistants would release the birds from their cages and they would fly through the crowd to land on the sheathed hand of the falconer. As the falconer tossed food in the air, the birds would grab it in mid-flight, circle around and land on perches amidst the audience. Evidently the falconer moonlighted as a stand up comedian as the enthralled audience erupted in laughter numerous times throughout the hour and a half show. Unfortunately, “no hablo Espanol,” the jokes were lost on us.  The park also houses a great variety of owls and condors which were a delight to photograph.

We were so anticipating the Otavalo Market, and better yet we were there on a Saturday, its largest day. As promised, the streets were full of vendor stalls radiating for blocks from the Artisan Square.  Unfortunately, many stalls featured everyday essentials for the local populace and not the high quality crafts that the market had previously built its legendary status on.  At the very center on the Artisans square, what looked liked machine woven textiles, made in Ecuador, were available and priced accordingly.

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We opted to visit one of the local weavers, Miguel Andrango, at his home workshop in Agato to view his unique and one of a kind textiles, all woven by hand on a backstrap loom.  A fourth generation weaver, he explained to us how everything was done by hand. From the shearing, cleaning, carding, spinning and then dying the wool using local plants or insects to create the colors needed.  A hand woven blanket wide enough for a double bed takes two months to weave by hand.  It is so important to support these local artisans as they are knowledge keepers of their craft and maybe the last, as the younger generation shows little interest in keeping these traditional crafts alive.  Please try to avoid buying cheap foreign knock-offs at these markets. The local craftspeople suffer terribly from this competition.

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The town of San Antonio de Ibarra has two large plazas, one block apart, which are lined with numerous traditional woodcarvers shops.  Here we found artisans creating religious statuary for homes and churches and more contemporary pieces for decoration, in workshops fragrant with cedar and sawdust.

For a change of pace we switched hotels and drove across the valley to Hacienda Cuisin which dates from a Spanish land grant of 150,000 acres in the 16th century.  The hacienda is a classic example of Spanish colonial architecture, situated under Cerro Imbabura.  Sprawling whitewashed buildings with red tile roofs which once provided exquisite shelter for extended family and staff now sleep guests.  The common rooms filled with antiques have the atmosphere of an old money private estate.  The grounds are also fun to explore with stately plantings and llamas on tether to keep the lawns trimmed.  We were pleasantly surprised to find hot water bottles under the bedclothes, to take away the evening chill, when we went to sleep that night in a bed large enough for a conquistador and his horse.

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Back on the road, we headed to Termas de Papallacta, a hot springs resort in the middle  Andean mountains range, at an altitude of 10,000ft, to soak our weary bones in their therapeutic waters.  Our room faced out onto soaking pools only ten feet from the door.  Since we were there for only one night, we took full advantage of the facilities with Donna getting a much enjoyed deep tissue massage.   Dinner that night was a locally sourced Andean trout which was delicious and surprisingly fairly priced considering the remoteness of the location. The next morning, a chilly early morning mist fell and steam rose from the pools as I soaked for one last time before breakfast.  At $14 per person, what was offered for the buffet breakfast was highway robbery. “Levanta tus manos” or “stick your hands up”!

Till later,

Craig & Donna

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