SHEL’S AND FRANK’S EXCELLENT ECUADOR ADVENTURENorthern Highlands: The road to Otavalo

Apr 14, 2010

Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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. 

The International Living conference ended Saturday night. Sunday morning we walked to Budget to pick up our rental car.

The rental-car company is a fortress, with 12-foot-tall metal fence posts surrounding the office and car lot and a heavy security gate facing the sidewalk at the corner of avenidas Colon and Diez de Agosto. A tiny doorbell summons someone inside to push the release to the electric latch on the gate. We had a similar doorbell-at-the-gate set-up at Casa Sol, but here, it took some time to find the button, two dumb gringos at a busy intersection searching for the bell to enter Budget. 

It got me to thinking about property security in Ecuador and how tight it is. The first floor of seemingly the whole country is barricaded by metal grillwork — wrought-iron window bars, ornate barred doors, electric-opening gates, fences around everything else. And everywhere you see signs for ferreterias, ironmongers stocking the defense-against-crime hardware.

Ironically, we didn’t hear anything about property crime, which everyone was so visibly guarding against. We heard only about personal crime, mostly pickpockets and sneak thieves and pack snatchers who haunt the dark for easy marks. Everyone we talked to in Quito took cabs at night — even, they said, if they were going a couple of blocks. Kevin Sheehy actually ran after us when we left his restaurant, Uncle Ho’s, on foot, thinking we were hoofing it back to the Swissotel, to warn us about a few “dodgy streets” up there.

We also read all kinds of scary warnings in the guidebooks. If you take the guides to heart, you’ll believe that every other Ecuadorian is a pickpocket or a thug. The Moon guide called the Mariscal Sucre tourist area of New Town Quito the “diciest area in the city, and perhaps the country,” explaining that “robberies and muggings have gotten so bad that the U.S. Embassy has prohibited its employees from frequenting the area after dark.” In other words, Ecuador’s most dangerous area was between where we were now standing, still looking for the Budget doorbell, and where La Casa Sol is located.

Over five days and nights in that same area, we’d felt threatened a grand total of once, by a shady-looking bottle-sucking character we had to walk by in the dark. But he was staggering around and though I kept a watchful eye on him to make sure he wasn’t trying to trick us into thinking he was a harmless drunk, it turned out he was a harmless drunk.

Which launched us into a discussion of how little booze we were noticing in Ecuador. Every so often there’s a licoteria with a few stray bottles on some dusty shelves in a dusky storefront — certainly nothing like the moonshine megastores we’re used to in the States. And the bars seemed few and far between. And that one drunk was the only one we saw.

Well-warned about thieves and muggers, in my front pocket I carried the throwaway wallet with the paper license and $20 or $30, which I could hand over to a guy accosting us with, say, a big knife. But someone would have to stick a gun in my face, or hold that big knife to Shel’s throat, to get me to uncinch my belt, unbutton and unzip my jeans, then unstrap and hand over my travel pouch, where I kept more cash and my passport.

Even then, I didn’t feel the need to carry my pouch most places, since I was much less afraid of leaving it in the hotel rooms than I was of getting mugged on the street. It would have to be an inside job for anyone to search my luggage well enough to find the hidey hole where I kept my pouch. And call me naïve, but I just couldn’t see that happening. Not with the very sweet girls cleaning the room, serving breakfast, and working behind the front desk at Casa Sol.

Shel, on the other hand, preferred not to take any chances leaving her valuables at the hotel. She carried her papers and money with her everywhere, in a bigger pouch that strapped around her neck and hung low enough to tuck into her jeans. She also carried her $1,000 Canon camera. When it was a bit chilly and she could wear her down vest, she hid the camera under that, till it was time to take it out and shoot. When it was too warm, she kept it in a Latin-looking woven bag, strapped around a shoulder.

Again, it was going to require a pretty desperate, or heavily armed, character to confront two tall, fit, and alert Norte Americanos and take anything from us, day or night, although we weren’t pushing our luck by being out too late. After only two years of marriage, we had better things to do in the hotel room.

In the end, we never saw a single bad guy, just the one potential one. I know we were only there for a couple of weeks, but in terms of the safety criterion in choosing an expat destination, Ecuador, even Quito, passed with flying colors in our experience.

The rental car, a 2000-something five-speed Nissan something with 55,000 miles on it, had an interesting feature: a U-shaped bolt with two tines, sort of a miniature bike lock, that clicked into a two-hole bar on the side of the gear shifter. The tines locked the gear shifter to the bar when the shifter was in reverse gear; it unlocked with the ignition key. First time I’d ever seen such a rig and I was impressed. Indeed, I felt noticeably safer because of it; no one was going to steal this car. Besides, it turned out we had double protection: Each of the next three nights, we parked the car in hotel emparqueaderos, behind big locked gates.

The guidebook cautions against driving turned out to be just like the cautions about security: shrug. But standing at the rental counter, chatting with a good-looking young clerk who learned to speak excellent English in school and was the top estudiante ingles en su clase, we bought every single bit of auto insurance Budget offered. By the time we paid the rental fee, VAT, service fee, and insurance, with 100 free kilometres, the daily rate came to $80.

The yard attendant unlocked and pulled open the big gate to get us on the road and we peeled out onto Diez de Agosto. It was half-past ten and I was shiftin’ gears.

Diez de Agosto, a main north-south thoroughfare, was closed to vehicle traffic, in order to be open to cyclists, skaters and bladers and boarders, families out for a stroll, picnickers — all those Quitenos emptying all those buildings behind first-floor battlements, coming out into the street of a Sunday. Quito is a fantastically long city along its north-south Andean axis, perhaps 50 kilometres from one end to the other. What a nice custom to close a main road los Domingos (on Sundays).

We drove the few blocks to Casa Sol, parked, and picked up our luggage, then headed north on the thoroughfare parallel to Diez de Agosto, Avenida America. America eventually becomes the frontage road to Agosto (though the names change frequently), filled with people on two feet or two wheels for, I don’t know, 25 kilometers before it opened back up to vehicles.

I immediately got into the rhythm of driving in Ecuador, which was no less civil than Vegas, maybe more so. We saw signs to the airport and, thinking ahead to heading back into the heart of Quito in a few days to catch a plane, that was comforting. Finally, the big green road signs loomed ahead of us, pointing us to the Panamericana Norte.

There aren’t many of these road signs in Ecuador, but there are (almost) enough to point you in the right direction. It’s good to know the names of the towns you’ll be passing through; those names are sometimes all that’re on the signs. Similarly, it’s handy to be familiar with the names of towns you aren’t heading for, so you can go in the other direction.

After picking up the Pana, we cruised out of the city and started to rock and roll. The highway north of Quito is immediately mountainous, twisting and curving down down down into a valley, Shel getting a little carsick at first.

The Pana itself is one lane in each direction, but wide enough for drivers to use it like a three-lane road, especially at high speeds. Passing is a little looser than on two-lane roads in the States, especially with all the cars trying to scoot around engine-screaming buses and black-smoke-belching trucks.

Where possible, slow-moving vehicles pull over to the right as far as they can, while oncoming vehicles ease to the left, letting cars pass safely. Sometimes it gets interesting, with two cars passing a truck, one straddling the middle and one in the opposite lane. But no more Ecuadorians have a death wish than Americans, so drivers are wary of blind curves and respectful of oncoming traffic. All in all, the whole three-for-two lane arrangement works well enough.

And the road culture is immediately contagious. I got into the flow, maintaining the average speed and doing my fair share of leaving the buses and trucks behind.

We took the business routes through the towns of Tabacundo and Cayambe; at the far end of Cayambe, we wound up in a roundabout without signs and had to choose between two roads by feel alone. Guessing correctly, the highway started climbing again, heavy Sunday traffic whizzing by, with a few inevitable slowdowns for minor construction and congestion. In those places, people, mostly old women and young children, sell little things along the road — popsicles, oranges, unidentifiable foodstuff. Just like when passing homeless people with signs at busy intersections in Vegas, I had an impulse to give them some money, and to get something in return, if only to see what it was, maybe even exchange some Spanish. But by the time I might’ve acted on the impulse, we were down the road. I’ll be better prepared next trip to donate to as many of these roadside causes as is practical and safe.

A couple hours, a couple toll booths ($1 each), and 100 kilometres into it, we were coming into Otavalo.

Photo captions: Door at Casa Sol; two views of the micro-climate desert north of Quito

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