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Otavalo, Ecuador to Quito, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands

posted Aug 23, 2010, 11:27 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Aug 23, 2010, 2:24 PM ]
Hola. After writing my last blog entry in Otavalo, I headed out to see the indigenous market, which Otavalo is famous for. The central square is filled with stalls where the indigenous families sell their crafts. I knew that bartering was expected, so before buying anything, I walked around trying to figure out the system. There was one blanket I liked, and it was available in quite a few different styles from different vendors. Some would tell me the price was $18, and some others would say $16. I said I wouldn't pay more than $10 to have something to start with, and they'd usually come down a few dollars. After I refused and started walking away, they would shout a price that was $2 lower for each footstep I took. It was actually pretty funny. In the end I got a nice fairly lightweight alpaca blanket for $11. 

It was so cool seeing so many indigenously dressed people walking around an otherwise modern small city (50,000 people) and there was so much to do in the area, that I decided that if the next day was clear I would hang around to go for a hike and see more of the town. I woke up to clear skies, and although I was too late to go to the Lagunas del Mojanda with the Canadian expat owner of the hostel, they found someone who could drive me there and back, who would also wait for a couple hours while I walked around. The driver was a 20 year old guy, with a wife of around the same age and a 2 or 3 year old son. We talked for a while about some of the ways life is different there and in the US, and I found out that like most people in that area, Quechua was his first language and Spanish was his second. Unlike some of the Mexicans who spoke Mayan as their first language, his Spanish was not very clear. His wife was dressed in indigenous clothing like most of the woman I saw there, but like most of the men, the driver was wearing clothes that a typical American or European would wear. 

I could have easily spent two days exploring the Lagunas del Mojanda area, but since I only had two hours I only got to see the two lakes and a pretty nice view of a valley in the distance. While I was walking, I was thinking that instead of using my new blanket in addition to my sleeping bag, I might be better off getting a second, thicker blanket and using the two of them together and abandoning my sleeping bag altogether. The sleeping bag is rated for 20 degrees F and is very compact, but I've never liked the fact that it is really just two thin pieces of fabric with (literally) just a few feathers in each baffel. It's hard to believe that it's doing anything to keep me warm, and might also be the reason I need to wear all my clothes on cold nights. I decided I couldn't possibly be worse off with the blankets, and that I would almost definitely be warmer, so when I got back to town, I went to the market again and once again played the bartering game. The starting price for the thicker blankets was $30, and I ended up paying $21. So like before, they were willing to take about 30% off, but no one would go lower than that.

The next day I reluctantly left Otavalo, regretting that there was so much in the area that I didn't get to see. But, I can never see everything and it was a big day still... About half way through the day, I crossed the equator! Along the Pan American highway there are two equatorial lines. One claims to be the "real" one, and the other has been all but abandoned. There was an English speaking guide at the first, and I was able to confirm that I have, in fact, been seeing the Southern Cross constellation on clear nights. She said it's also visible from the US, but I suspect that might only be true in the summer and from the southern states.

That night I rode to the bottom of a valley to the town of Guayllabamba, where I found a hotel to spend the night. The next day I would have a 3000 foot climb to Quito, and I wanted to arrive with plenty of time to find a hostel while there was still daylight. Everything went as planned, and the next day I arrived and found the "Hostelling International" hostel, which ended up being extremely overpriced and almost hospital-like on the inside. I decided I'd stay there for only the first night, and after checking in I walked around the El Mariscal (aka "gringolandia") area of Quito, getting prices from and looking at about 10 different hostels. After seeing them all, I decided on Posada del Maple, which was the first hostel in Quito and had the best "feel" out of all the ones I saw. At $9 per night, it was a little more expensive than the others, but a decent breakfast was included in the price, so that evened it out. 

Amazingly, once again I managed to arrive at a city just before the weekend started, but luckily there were a few travel agents open on Saturday and Sunday. My first stop was the Happy Gringo travel agency, which I had heard that other touring cyclists had used and liked. I also stopped at another, mostly to compare prices and because it was within a block of HG. They both had the same last-minute price for the Galapagos boat I liked the most, and since HG seemed much more professional, I decided to go with them. By booking at the last minute, I saved about 30% off the advertised price of the boat, which was very significant, given the cost of Galapagos tours. Still, the price did not include the flight to the islands, or the $100 park admission fee. After this, the price was back to what it would have been if I had not booked at the last minute. 

The boat I chose for the tour was called "Darwin", which was about 50 feet long, and carried 16 passengers. Since it didn't leave until Thursday, I had a few days to hang around Quito and see the sights. I decided to go to yet another "Mitad del Mundo" (equatorial line) that is just north of Quito. This one was much more built up, with a couple museums, a planetarium, and a number of shops and restaurants. Inside the large pyramid that marks what they thought was the equator was a very cool museum, where I had a private guide and learned about all the indigenous groups in Ecuador. One group is known for head shrinking, and another is notorious for the fact that most people who visit them do not leave alive. I was glad that my route didn't pass through either of the places...

A few hundred meters north of that site was the second "real" equatorial line. I think this would line up with the other one that I saw on my way to Quito, but they're both at different longitudes. At this place they had a few demonstrations, including a sink that would drain counter clockwise north of the equator, clockwise south of the equator, and straight down on the equator. This is due to the Coriolis effect, which also controls the behavior of hurricanes. Another demonstration showed that you could balance an egg on the head of a nail over the equator. I got a certificate for being the only one in the group that could do it, but unlike the sink experiment, they did not show us that an egg will NOT balance away from the equator. The truth is that if you have the patience, you can balance an egg anywhere in the world, at any time of the year (yep, the vernal equinox myth is busted). 

My plan for the next day was to do a walking tour around Historic Quito, but another guest at the hostel, Chrissi, invited me to go hiking with her in the mountains outside of the city. We took the new cable car, the "TeleferiQo" up the side of Pichincha Volcano, where the hiking trail starts. One website says this:

The teleferico is an installation of transport that works according to the principle of the sway. The hardiness and scanty maintenance of the structure have been determinant factors in the election for the constructions placed in high mountain, in diverse parts of the world. The project teleferico of the city of Quito is turning actually, since it is being constructed in the skirts of the Ruccu Pichincha. This tourist attraction will add those that nowadays the city possesses.

You got that, right? This is just one example of the frequent and horrible Spanish to English translations I have seen since crossing into Mexico. Fortunately, Wikipedia comes to our rescue:

El Teleférico (from teleférico and Quito) is a gondola lift in Quito, Ecuador, running from the edge of the city centre up the east side of Pichincha Volcano to lookout Cruz Loma. It is one of the highest aerial lifts in the world, rising from 2950 metres (8850 ft) to 4100 metres (13,400 ft). The ascent takes 40 minutes, travelling 2500 linear metres.

Ahh, much better. After getting off the gondola, we hiked for about 5 hours, but because the trail was getting rougher, the air was getting colder and the sky was turning gray, we didn't make it to the top. On the way down, we met two girls from Austria (I think?) and afterwards the four of us went to a few camping stores in town, then met up later at night for dinner. 

Chrissi had already been to the historic part of Quito, but she didn't mind going back so she was my tour guide the next day. We decided to walk up to a statue on a hill south of town, and half way through a family warned us about how dangerous the area is for tourists, especially ones like me who are carrying a big, expensive camera. While we were backtracking to the safe part of town, we noticed all the signs warning tourists about the area that we missed during our deep philosophical conversation on the way up (honest!). That night we went out to dinner again with a Canadian girl from the same hostel. (Hey, I can't help it - there are travelling girls everywhere! ;) ). 

Finally it was Thursday and I took my early flight to the Galapagos Islands, where the group was met by a guide at the airport. From there there was a short bus ride right to the boat, and before long, we were already on our way. Of the 16 people, 7 of us were staying the full 8 days, and the rest of the people would stay for 5 days after which we would get 9 new people for the last 3 days. 

If I had to sum up my experiences in the islands, I could only say it was amazing. Every day we went hiking and snorkeling, while our guide Maria showed us and told us about all the wildlife on the islands. We snorkeled with colorful fish, giant tortoises, sharks that were as long as I am tall, and playful sea lions that would splash us, play chicken with us at top speed, and bite our flippers as we swam around. On the day that the 9 passengers left and the new 9 joined us, the rest of us saw the Darwin Research station, a farm where huge tortoises like to hang out, and a lava tube that we were able to climb down into.

The boat itself was great. It's considered an economy boat, but has everything a person would expect on a luxury yacht, but for about half the price. This included great meals, plenty of snacks (which was a relief to me, since I'm hungry all the time even when I'm not cycling), plenty of good drinking water, hot water for the showers, comfortable quarters with a private bathroom for each room and a level 3 (the best), bilingual guide. If I had to find a problem with the boat it would have to be that because it's smaller than the luxury yachts, it rolled a little more under heavy seas, but this didn't affect me as much as some of the other passengers. The small size also meant that we could get into some shallow areas that larger boats couldn't, and even up close to a "tower" of lava at one point to see the birds that were nesting on it. Also, unlike the luxury yachts, the crowd on the Darwin was much younger - generally people in their 30s, but a few were older and a few were younger. I almost didn't do the trip because of the cost (more for 8 days then I normally spend in 2 months!), but I have no regrets and would recommend both the Darwin, the guide Maria, and the Galapagos Islands in general to anyone who is interested. 

After the trip I returned to the Posada del Maple hostel, where I had left my bike before the trip. I was hoping that some supplies I had ordered would arrive the day after I returned, but since there was a "Clearance Delay", it is now Monday and the package still hasn't arrived. Since I did everything in the city that I wanted to do before I left for the Islands, for the past 3.5 days, I've just been hanging around the hostel, studying Spanish and photography, working on my pictures, and figuring how much I spent per day from El Salvador to Panama ($23 per day) and in Colombia ($27 per day for somehow). That just includes my daily expenses such as food and lodging, and not things like bike maintenance, health insurance, or my storage garage back home. 

I've also been looking into how much time I'll need to get to Ushuaia, and it's not looking good... I don't want to stretch this trip out for too long, since I have already been travelling for 3 months longer than I originally planned to, so I might have to practice a little more self discipline when deciding where to stop and what side trips to do. It's funny that back in Mexico I was deliberately slowing down so that I'd arrive in Argentina during their summer, but I had no idea what to expect from the heat in Central America and the hills so far in the Andes - they've both slowed me down more than I had expected. I'm expecting slightly easier riding in parts of Peru (if I decide to follow the coast) as well as in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, when I'm not crossing the Andes - which I'll have to do a few times at least. 

OK, so that's all for now! Once my package arrives, I'll be heading out towards the volcano Cotopaxi, and continuing south through the mountains of Ecuador. I'll be taking slightly longer routes through what is known as the Quilotoa Loop, and later down into the jungle shortly before crossing into Peru. I had planned on doing some complex looping through the area around the city of Ambato, but instead I'll decide on one of the three routes through the area - instead of all three.

Adios amigos!

Otavalo, Guayllabamba, Quito