Monday 19 October 2009

Evening in Otavalo

It is rainy and chilly outside the window: at 2530 metres above the sea level one doesn't expect torrid evenings. Otavalo, except for its market, has not much to offer - and even the market itself, so obviously made for tourists, loses a bit of its charm as a result. No wonder that on the fourth evening in Otavalo I am observing Bjarni's geekery. The third night in a row, we have come to the same pub to connect to the Internet. Bjarni seems to be in a trance: every day hundreds of ideas on how to improve his new program, how to streamline the maps, how, how, how..

Keeping myself busy, I think about our day. We went on another trip out of town, alone this time. We caught a bus to Quiroga, a small town nearby, from which we rode on the back of a camioneta (a pick-up that instead of conveying goods, conveys people) to Laguna de Cuicocha. The Lagoon of Gods, a lake three kilometres wide and about 180 metres deep, rests 3068 metres above sea-level; the crater of a dormant volcano.

Ecuador is incredible when it comes to this - volcanoes, active, extinct, dormant, surround the cities; their peaks collapse after erupting, creating lagoons similar to the one we admired today; they poor out tonnes of ash, causing towns to be evacuated and roads to be closed (as happened in Baños, which we are going to admire soon); they hide their cones under a layer of glacial ice that those who dare can climb (if it weren't for the discovery that we got tired just hiking from Laguna Quilotoa to Chugchilán, we would be amongst them). I keep telling Bjarni I can't believe that people want to live so close to a volcano that keeps erupting. Here people not only want to live nearby, but they also organise trips for tourists so they too could pay due respect to the volcanoes.

We gave ourselves two hours to admire the lagoon, asking the driver of our camioneta to pick us up afterwards. On the way to Cotacachi, a town famous in this region for its leather goods, it started to rain. The rain pelted us with double force while we - covered with nothing on the back of the car - enjoyed the ride and surrounding landscape. Cotacachi welcomed us with quiet streets and shops full of leather products. Prices? A wallet: 5 USD, a bag: 44 USD, a red (beautiful but unnecessary for now, eh..) jacket: 97 USD. Bjarni ordered a local delicacy for dinner: a guinea pig that was served roasted, still with claws and eyes staring into the unknown. From Cotacachi we went back to Otavalo and here I am, sitting in a secluded pub, relaxing to music coming out of the speakers, watching Bjarni possessed by his passion.

We are leaving Otavalo tomorrow, heading back to Quito again. Somehow we cannot free ourselves of this city. Before the Galapagos Islands - a week, after the Islands - 12 days: Quito must have some incredible charm to keep us for so long. Quieter and cleaner than Mexico City, though situated in a similar setting, with a much cooler climate than I experienced in Havana, Quito is the most European of the places we have visited so far - maybe that is why we feel so at home. This time we are planning to stay for one night only, and then we are going to the Los Cedros reserve. According to the directions we got from the caretakers, a bus is to leave Quito at 6 a.m on Wednesday, taking us to a tiny town North of Quito named Chontal, where us and our luggage are to be picked up by a guide and mules. After some four to five hours hiking we should reach our goal: a moist tropical forest covered by clouds for most of the year. For some four days we plan to be outside civilization, sleeping in a wooden house with a tin roof over our heads. It will be interesting to see how much we let the delights of living in a town spoil us..

Hmm.. But that's a day after tomorrow. Now it is 10 p.m., it is dark outside and Bjarni is putting away his laptop as the pub is closing. Our glasses are empty, it is time to go home.


We visited Otavalo to see the big market the town is famous for.

We arrived on Friday, after traveling literally all over Quito thanks to foolishly taking bad advice from a taxi driver - he thought our bus left from the shiny new Southern bus terminal, when in fact it left from one of the Northern ones. Otavalo is of course to the North of Quito. Once we found the right terminal, the bus ride itself was very straightforward and comfortable.

In Otavalo we did the usual "Ewelina guards the bags while Bjarni checks out accomadation" thing, finding a nice room for $15 with a balcony and a view over the Poncho square and its daily market.

Friday and Saturday we explored the town and the markets, seeing endless arrays of beautiful tapestries and sweaters and hats and masks and bags, chess sets and jewelry and leather goods. We also went to the livestock market and saw pigs, chickens, cattle, kittens and guinea pigs - whose meat is considered a local delicacy. And of course we ate food from the food market.

Of the crafts, we were unsure what was really hand-made and what wasn't. On Sunday we went on a tour organised by the Zulaytur agency, paying $26 each to visit local craftsmen and see how the things at the market were made. We had an excellent English-speaking guide who explained local politics, electricity distribution and telecommunications in addition to showing us how hats and baskets and textiles were made, and how to tell the difference between textiles made completely by hand and those made with tools or machines. We also saw the tools and tried weaving a bit ourselves.

Our faith in local craftmanship renewed by the tour, we ended up buying mostly useful souvineers: a hat for Ewelina and a belt for me. We also bought a chess set and tiny baskets - less useful, but in one of the local bars here, Ewelina and I discovered we like playing chess with each other and are pretty evenly matched.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Galapagos Cruise

A couple of weeks ago, Ewelina and I set out on a cruise around the Galapagos Islands.

We hadn't originally planned to go, as it is very expensive, but once we got to Quito and started thinking seriously about it, we figured a week in the Galapagos was probably worth about as much to us as a month on the road - so we decided to shorten our trip a little, spend a big pile of cash and go sail around on a boat for 8 days.

We flew from Quito to Galapagos, with a brief stopover in Guayaquil. Our guide picked us up at the airport and there we met our companions for the first half of the cruise.

Seeing our yacht, the Encantada, in the harbor was a bit of a shock - it was less than half the size of any of the other boats we saw at anchor. Once we got onboard though, after a brief mix-up with our cabin, our worries evaporated. The boat was beautiful, clean and comfy, the crew was friendly and competent, and as we soon discovered, the food onboard was heavenly.

So we spent 8 days sailing around, getting to know blue footed boobies, sea lions, frigatebirds, iguanas and our primarily Dutch companions. We snorkeled and hiked and slept. We never got sea-sick, but were a bit hung-over the morning after Ewelina talked all the passengers into going to the pub the one night we had the option (halfway through the trip, there was a brief stop near civilization to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station and swap passengers).

It was a great trip!

We took lots and lot of photos, of course.


I was very geeky the whole time, writing code for my phone in my cabin and using it to collect GPS points as we traveled, writing a bit about each spot.

The entire journal can be browsed here, or you can download the KML file and have a look in Google Earth. The software I wrote to create this journal is available on the Android market, but hasn't generated much interest yet. For now that doesn't matter, as I'm having a great time writing it and expect it will get lots of use on the rest of our trip.

Monday 5 October 2009

Alpinus hiking boots suck

Back at the beginning of the trip, I blogged about Alpinus boots I had bought for the trip, how I was hoping they would last the entire trip and keep my feet dry and safe and comfy.

Sadly, the reality was very different. To be fair, they were very comfortable, right up until this afternoon when I threw them out. But within two weeks of buying them, the rubber soles had started to come apart from the leather, on both boots. In spite of this, I made them last 3 months; I had them glued in Spain, again in Mexico, and again in Colombia.

By the time Ewelina and I were in the Galapagos Islands, the rifts were at least 5 cm long on each shoe, the leather was bulging into space and my feet were getting wet on the beach - and stinking of sea lion feces as a result.

Not nice.

Internet, take note: Alpinus hiking boots suck!

Today I finally replaced the broken Alpinus pieces of crap with a pair of Merrell boots, bought in the touristic part of Quito. This purchasing choice was based on rave reviews from my friend Al, whose main hobby is to wear hiking boots to industrial concerts and have his toes stepped on by very large Germans.

Hopefully the Merrells will last longer than their predecessors did. I'll keep you posted.

The past!