SHEL’S AND FRANK’S EXCELLENT ECUADOR ADVENTURECrafts, leather, guinea pigs … and barbed wire

Apr 20, 2010

Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of a multi-part series chronicling the adventures of Frank and Shel Drake on their first visit to Ecuador. Frank is a travel writer and Shel Drake is a professional travel photographer.

I’d made reservations at Casa Sol in Quito for Casa Sol in Otavalo and it was a good thing I looked up the directions on the website, because Casa Sol Otovalo turned out to be in Peguche, a couple klicks up a steep hill. Following adequate road signage, we got to Peguche where we saw the sign for Casa Sol and turned into an even steeper driveway, paved with stone and gravel and grass.

Before I knew it, the front wheels of the gutless Nissan were spinning out on the gravel and I stalled the engine. What with turning on the car, popping the clutch to get going, and spinning the wheels, I managed to slide down into a post-and-wire fence on the side of the driveway. Scratch city on the Nissan — fender, bumper, and trunk — with the left rear tire on the wrong side of a rock. The photo captures it nicely.

So we huffed the rest of the way up the driveway to the hotel and gasped out, “Tuvimos un poco accidente abajo (We had a little accident below)” and a couple of good-looking young Otaveleno men came down, taught me the words alambre de puas (barbed wire) and empinado (steep) that I’m sure I’ll never forget, and helped push us out. Shel was behind the wheel, moving the car forward in first gear and, back on the driveway, up she shot to the little parking area by the lobby.

Shel got out, looked the car over, and said, “Good thing we bought insurance.” She had a few other choice things to say too, about the hill and the car and, yes, the driver, but we’ll let those remain lost in the mists of marital history.

I had my doubts that insurance would cover a bad piece of driving, but I figured why worry? I didn’t grow up on Alfred E. Newman for nothing. We’d just have to wait and see what happened.

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Casa Sol Otavalo is a high-class newish lodging house with a commanding overlook of the city and nearby hills. It costs the same as the Quito Casa, though up here in Peguche, dinner is included. We were the only diners that evening; settings for two greeted us in the dining room of a half-dozen tables. The service was world-class; the food was even more unprocessed, fresh, local, and delicious than we were used to. Guests of honor at the Otavalan version of a mountain retreat, we passed our first night out of Quito.

***

Breakfast the next morning at Casa Sol Otavalo was equally gracious and tasty as dinner, though again, the eggs cost a couple bucks extra. Then we took a walk to the Cascada de Peguche, a waterfall a short distance from the road up to the Casa Sol through thick forest in which, thanks to the security hysteria of the young writers of the Let’s Go Ecuador guidebook I found in the bookcase in the dining room, we were on the lookout for more desperadoes. In big bold print, Let’s Go warns: Be extremely cautious. Thieves have been known to lurk in the forest. Again, I took a look around and wondered how a thief could even “lurk” in undergrowth so thick, let alone pop up and rob us. Anyway, the cascada was beautiful, with a ton of agua fresca falling and flowing, and we didn’t have to fight off any banditos either on our way to or from.

Back at Casa Sol, we paid up, packed up, and then it was back down to Otavalo for our day at the Plaza de los Ponchos and its vaunted artesano market.

But first we had an interesting errand to run. Shel was feeling the incipient stirrings of a urinary-tract infection and she wanted to take preemptive action to prevent it from erupting. So we stopped at the first farmacia we saw and I spoke to the woman in the white druggist’s coat.

“Ella sufre de una infecsion de la vejiga,” having double-checked the third-person singular conjugation of sufrir and looked up the word for bladder.

The druggist understood and said something like, “Esta buscando por antibioticas?"

“Si.”

She disappeared into the shelves and reemerged with three boxes of different generic antibiotics that came in three-packs. She recommended that Shel buy all three three-packs and take one of each pill after breakfast and dinner. We asked if we could buy one pack of each different drug, nine big pills altogether. The druggist said sure, charging us three dollars total. And out the door we went …

… laughing and shaking our heads.

In Vegas, as strict a city about drugs as any in the country (they’re viewed as competition for gambling), Shel would’ve had to call the doctor’s office and speak with a clerk who’d want to know her name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, and health-insurance info just to make an appointment for the next day where she’d fill out a personal form with all that personal data and more, hand over her insurance card, and consult on the bladder infection with a nurse at first and then her primary-care physician who might want a few tests before he referred her to a gynecologist and God only knows what he’d find to make him want his own tests to prescribe more drugs and all because she needed a few thirty-cent pills from the corner dispensary.

This was just one small personal example of why reforming the health-care payment system in the U.S. is doomed. We’d just gotten another lesson on a civil-law society where you’re responsible for yourself and can make your own informed decisions without having to go through and pay all the clerks, nurses, physicians, and insurance premiums, overseen by countless bureaucrats and regulators and politicians, with personal-injury and malpractice lawyers chasing the ambulances down the street. Less than half a block from the farmacia, I started to despair about returning to that system.

Though Shel could certainly see what I was seeing, she remained far from convinced that moving to Ecuador was the thing to do; she was playing those cards very close to her down vest. Still, I had another week of vacation to work on her and, presumably, more months at home.

(It turned out that Shel took one big red pill, drank a gallon of water, and beat the infection; the other eight pills are in our medicine cabinet — for the next one.)

***

While contemplating these things, we were walking toward the Plaza de los Ponchos on the narrow, but not congested, streets of downtown Otavalo.

The big market’s on Saturday and we were there on Monday. Though it didn’t spill out of the main square and there weren’t any produce or animals or street food, it was plenty big enough for Shel, who was determined to fill up my suitcase, which I purposely left a quarter empty, knowing my wife as I do.

The arts, crafts, and textile stalls and tables are mostly manned by Otavaleños, indigenas people who were weaving on backstrap looms long before the Incas, let alone the Spanish. Upwards of 50,000 Otavalans live in town and in the surrounding villages, roughly 45,000 of them expert weavers and embroiderers.

These are noticeably handsome and dignified Quichua people who have a distinct grace and elegance about them. Both the men and women sport long black hair, often braided and adorned with colorful ribbons. The women wear intricately embroidered white blouses with lace sleeves, black-wool shawls and long skirts, gold necklaces and bead bracelets; this garb is said to be the closest to the outfit of the Incas of any Andeans. The men wear blue wool parkas over white shirts and white pants and rope sandals.

The mercado artesanio is centered in La Plaza de los Ponchos on the east side of downtown. Here, Shel pawed through all the textile products for which the Otavalans are known worldwide: scarves, sweaters, ponchos, jackets, wall hangings, blankets, and tapestries, along with hand-embroidered blouses, kitchen towels, and fabric wallets. We also looked at T-shirts, silver jewelry, wooden bowls and carvings, hand-carved pipes, Panama hats, and some stonework.

It appeared to my novice eyes that while many of the crafts were touristy, if you looked hard enough, you could find some buys. Shel wound up with two angora sweaters ($40), a silver ring ($15), lava bookends ($13), and a wall-hanging ($17), for a total of $80, down about 10% after bargaining a little. Of course, it took all morning, with Shel doing the shopping and me checking out the other Norte Americanos, how they were conducting themselves and what they were buying.

I was also, of course, keeping a sharp eye for the pickpockets and thieves the Let’s Go guide was certain were just waiting to pounce: “Thefts have been known to occur around Jaramillo,” it said, referring to the street on the north side of the plaza. The Let’s Go writers, I finally concluded, are either seriously paranoid or are the strongest crime magnets of anyone I’ve ever heard of. They were talking about a street and market and forest trail and people and country that I simply couldn’t recognize or even imagine. 

***

From the mercado, we were off to Cotacachi, a 25-minute drive across the Pana on the other side of the valley at the foot of Mount Cotacachi. We parked and walked the main shopping street, one cuero (leather) shop after another, selling locally made wallets, belts, purses, briefcases, computer bags, luggage, jackets, shoes, boots, hats, and the like; Shel bought a black-leather belt for $10 and right then and there threw away the Made in China cracking-plastic belt she bought a Wal-Mart a few months before for $20.

From there we checked into Meson de las Flores, the well-known refurbished colonial inn owned by the equally well-known Gary and Meri Scott.

We’d caught four of Gary Scott’s presentations at the conference and were a bit in awe of the fellow who’d been associated with International Living all 30 years of its publishing existence and had essentially pioneered living in and profiting from Ecuador via aspirants like us. From what he lectured about, we could tell he’d made a lot of money, marketing information on Ecuador at EcuadorLiving.com and leading real estate tours around the country and shaman tours into the rainforest …

… and renting out rooms at the Meson. Here we took the deluxe inside-courtyard room with a king-sized bed, our first North American-size soft mattress on a non-creaky frame in Ecuador, the Meson obviously catering to a gringo clientele at gringo prices; after VAT, service, and markup for our tarjeta de credito, we paid just under $100 for the one night.

It pinched a little, maybe even a lot, but we had plenty of justification. Meson de las Flores is a fancy Ecuadorian hotel with historical significance. We were more comfortable there than anywhere else in the country. A flyer in the room telling of the profits “going to the indigenous” made us feel like we were supporting a good cause. It’s the Scotts’ hotel, a sort of pilgrimage stop on the expat trail in Ecuador. And in the morning, eggs were included in the price. So we had to do it. Once. 

The Scotts have also attracted a noticeable contingent of expats who’ve settled in the area; indeed, Dan Prescher and Susan Haskins, head honchos at International Living, own a $50,000 condo here. And with the conference ended only a couple days previously, pilgrims like us were out in force on Cuero Street. Several other gringo couples were also staying at the Meson.

For dinner that night, we ate across from the hotel at Empanaditas Y Mas, a hole-in-the-wall storefront eatery with six or so tables, where we enjoyed two salads, three fresh-baked empanadas, rice topped with a fried egg, a Club, and an agua sin gas, all for $4.85. We were the only customers, so the waiter, Jorge, chatted with us in Spanish throughout the meal. On top of the convenient location, great food, and ridiculous prices, I got a 60-minute leccion Espanol, worth a good $30 in Vegas.

The next morning, we took a ride out to Lake Cuicocha, the most accessible national park in the country. From the single green sign in downtown Cotacachi that points out the road, it’s 20 minutes or so to the lake and $2 to drive in.

The water of the crater lake (9,300 feet) lies cold and blue at the foot of Volcan Cotacachi (16,200 feet), which last erupted 3,100 years ago; eruptions of nearby Imbabura, Mojanda, and Cayambe volcanoes, along with Cotacachi, are responsible for the highly fertile soil of the valleys where Otavalo and Cotacachi lie.

The word “Cuicocha” is Quichua for Lake of the Guinea Pigs, named for the shape of the larger island in the middle of the laguna. Guinea pigs (cuy) come from the Ecuadorian Andes. They were raised for consumption by the Incas and remain a ready source of meat for contemporary Ecuadorians (and Peruvians and Bolivians). These little fellows grow quickly, require a minimum of food and care, and reproduce like, well, guinea pigs; they’re high in protein and low in fat. They’re slaughtered in 6-12 months and are fried, baked, and broiled, as well as cooked into locro soups.

Just inside the entrance is the national park visitor center, where we viewed numerous well-done displays on the geology, ecology, and history of the area.

A little beyond the visitor center is a lake-level restaurant, gift shop, and boat concession. The ride on the small outboard motorboats costs $2 per person with a minimum of eight passengers; they make a round trip to the two Yerovi Islands in the middle of the lake, both products of small volcanic eruptions that followed the main upheaval. Cuicocha’s depth reaches 600 feet and the water is a cold 55 or so degrees.

While at Cuicocha, a number of European travelers wearing cargo pants and chamois shirts and carrying backpacks, along with some middle-aged American tourists and local Ecuadorians, pulled in and out of the parking lot, but we were the only ones to huff up the bluff, where we were greeted by Ernesto, Mirador’s proprietor, whose father homesteaded the place in the ’50s, Ernesto was born right here back then. He ushered us through the restaurant, past rooms on the second floor he rents for $12-$20 a night, and up to the roof for the view of a socked-in Mount Cotacachi, pointing out where Imbabura, Cayambe, and other volcanoes lie behind the cloud cover.

A guide on local hikes, Ernesto showed us his photographs of the mountains and environs, wildflowers, even an Andean bear that was introduced to one of the Yerovi Islands. He shared a little lore and served us some serious herbal tea that he’d picked nearby and dried himself; he said it was similar to mate de coca and I believed him. It had a wonderfully strong and fresh taste and a surprisingly powerful buzz.

We also asked Ernesto what cuy tastes like and he basically said, “It tastes like cuy.” We pressed him. “Como pollo? (Like chicken?)” He laughed and said in Spanish, “I hear that a lot from North Americans.” Finally, he admitted it tasted similar to conejo (rabbit).

We paid $2 for the tea, took a few photos, and huffed down to the parking lot, vowing to stay at the Mirador, rather than the Meson, the next time we were in Cotacachi.

Then it was back through town, onto the Pana heading north, through a third tollbooth, and down around a mountainside to Ibarra.

Photo captions: the gutless Nissan getting a barbed-wire massage; Casa Sol Otavalo; Cascada de Peguche; textiles at the mercado in Otavalo (two views); Cotacachi's cathedral, topped by a brightly colored statue of Jesus; central Cotacachi, backdropped by the eponymous mountain; leather Street in Cotacachi; two Cotacachi girls who fell in love with Shel; interior of Meson de las Flores; Lake Cuicocha; the back view from the roof of Restaurante Mirador; and wild grapes along the trail from Cuiococha to Mirador 

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