Ecuador: North of Quito

(Last Updated On: May 10, 2020)

On today’s excursion to the Ecuadorian countryside, visit the small town of Calderon where miniature bread figurines are made. Descend into spectacular Guayllabamba Gorge before arriving at Otavalo, a sprawling Indian market. Here, you’ll find unique handicrafts made by the indigenous locals. Lunch is included at a charming restaurant. Later, visit the small town of Cotacachi, Ecuador’s center of leatherworks.

Quito is a long, linear city and our bus takes us through a cross section of its commercial base, from high-end retail shops to sidewalk vegetable vendors, from micro industries to large auto manufacturers. The road around us is filled with small Chevys that dart around erratically. The air is gray and thick with pollution.

Our first stop, the town of Calderón, is located just beyond Quito’s northern suburbs, barely beyond its urbanized area. We are in Calderón because a tourist business has built up around its bread dough figurines.

Yes. Bread dough figurines.

I have been anticipating that this will be completely hokey. But, as is so often the case, it is odd, quaint, and interesting in ways I could not have imagined.

Despite what the guidebooks say, Calderón does not seem to be a regular tourist stop – it is a substantial old town that seems to have seen better days. In other words, it looks run-down and poor. If there are fancy tourist boutiques, we are not taken there. Instead we stop at a small worn shopfront on a long, drab street of similar shopfronts.

Inside, the shop looks like a rather poorly stocked small town bakery, but instead of bread and pastries, the shelves are lined with figures of all sizes and shapes. The brightly colored figurines glow in the gloomy light. In the very back of the shop, a lone woman works at a tiny table, deftly rolling and patting the colored dough to decorate a cheery-looking llama.

Baskets of Christmas ornaments remind me that I skipped my Christmas shopping this year. (I assumed my friends would be willing to wait for their gifts if I brought them something from South America.) I leave with a bag of cheery ornaments for myself and my friends and the satisfaction of having spent my money at a business owned by local women.

Outside the shop the street has begun to open for business, with vendors setting up shop along the sidewalk. None are selling scarves or hats (although there are paintings available), as most cater to the needs of local residents. Two particularly attract my attention: A woman with a flock of orange chickens and an ancient cobbler with the tools of his trade spread out around him. Either would make a great photo. Somehow though, it doesn’t seem right and I don’t really even try to get a shot. Back on the bus, I learn that the cobbler chased a member of our group who had attempted to take some photos, throwing rocks to emphasize his displeasure. Perhaps it is just as well that I let this photo opportunity slip away.

Back on the road again, we pass through a huge, mostly undeveloped, and desolate gorge. Green fields line the river far below, but above the valley it is mostly barren stone. It reminds me of Wyoming, except that for the fact that our first stop allows us to stand on or almost on the equator. Not possible in Wyoming!

We wind through the gorge (or gorges – my notes from Eduardo indicate we stopped at view points above both the Guayllabamba and Pisque Rivers, but I haven’t found a map that shows two gorges) for many miles before the road flattens out and the land becomes rich and green.

We pass rows of long, plastic-shrouded greenhouses. Ecuador is a huge producer of flowers – particularly roses – for the world market. We drive through a few miles of these greenhouses, each grouping surrounded by flimsy wood or reed fences. While the 12 hours of daylight throughout the year, high humidity, and fertile volcanic soils make this an ideal area for growing roses, these are high-tech operations. Not a single flower seems to grow outside the plastic sheathing. I had expected this area would be like Washington’s Skagit Valley and that I might see brightly colored fields on all sides. Instead I am surrounded by millions of blossoms, not one of which is visible.

We stop at a small “rest area” with views of Imbabura Volcano and San Pablo Lake.

Of course, I’m especially taken with the flowers growing along the fence line. . .

When I turn around and look behind me, another volcano looms above the backyard of the family that operates this place.

There is also a small shop here that sells panama hats. Many members of our group purchase one, but I am able to resist that temptation. Actually, I find them more interesting stacked together into abstract forms against the dark walls.

Our next stop is Otavalo. We are here to shop at the city’s large market. Not being terribly into shopping, we first join Mark and Kathy in a tour of the town.

On our way to the city’s main plaza, we walk through streets lined with shops that sell the area’s distinctive embroidered blouses. Here and there a variety of vendors have set up temporary stalls, but most of the merchandise for sale along this street seems geared more to the local population than to tourists.

The central plaza in Otavalo, the Plaza Bolívar, is an inviting tropical space surrounded by graceful buildings. A large statue in the center features Rumiñahui, an important Inca general and leader in the resistance against the Spanish.

People mill about the square’s perimeter, but most simply pass through this lovely place on their way to somewhere else in this bustling little city.

From here we wander until we find another small, less well-maintained square located across from a picturesque church in a forgotten corner of the city. (We knew it was there because we had driven past on our way into town.) The small square features a fountain surrounded by hibiscus trees. I didn’t know a hibiscus could grow into an actual tree, but there are several growing here.

The main transit route through Otavalo features swaths of green grass, cheery planters, spacious pathways, and inviting benches. Funky street lights reflect local themes and add a dash of whimsy. Despite the distinctive street lighting and large number of people in traditional costume, the streetscape seems more like that of an upscale community in California than a small South American city. The effect is both pleasing and odd.

Back at the market, I wander through the merchandise.

We are not here for the big Saturday market, but there is still plenty for sale – most of which I am not the least interested in buying. On the other hand, the rather bored vendors acquiesce when I ask to photograph them.

But I don’t actually ask or take many photographs. . . and I take a few on the sly. I’m uncomfortable asking these people to do this favor when I have nothing to give in return. In Ecuador tourists are asked to photograph people only with permission, but NOT to provide payment in exchange (cultural preservation and all). Many people on our tour seem happy not to have to pay their subjects, but I actually prefer the Peruvian practice of paying people to capture their image. It makes the exchange a business transaction. . . and it seems more equal. Most of these people have so little compared to me, why should I be allowed to capture their image without giving them something in return? It seems so lacking in fairness.

Nor does this policy help alleviate the poverty that is obvious even in this relatively wealthy community. Here, for almost the first time, we are confronted by a few barefoot beggars. They bring to mind Medieval monks begging for alms, as these tiny old women (almost all are women) are dressed in dark, ragged garments with a hood or head-covering of some sort. While the head covering casts their face in deep shadows, when I look into those shadows I see wizened faces that look at the same time impossibly ancient and impossibly hopeless. I their intense desperation frightening.

When I saw similar women in Peru, they begged by asking to be photographed. A photograph is easily worth a few sols. . . and the women so photographed would have “earned” money to buy food that day.

I don’t know how to respond to the beggars here. Just give them money? Ignore them?

Not knowing, I turn away.

A trio of persistent young girls selling scarves near our bus presents a happier option. I consent to buy a scarf from each and ask to photograph them as well. Kathey joins me and it is a slow transaction, as each girl must show us every scarf they think I might like — often with two girls showing off the same scarf. However, we are all content with the results: They have sold a few scarves on a very slow day and I leave with some lovely inexpensive scarves and a couple of nice images.

The girls actually stay and shyly joke with our bus driver. I think they have had a good afternoon.

Outside Otavalo we pass maize fields lined with cacti (such an odd combination) and gardens with tree tomatoes growing in them. Tree tomatoes?!?

We are traveling to the nearby village of Peguche for a traditional Ecuadorian meal hosted by the Quinatoa family.

The tour books describe Peguche as having a number of shops that sell weaving by the village’s residents, but we must not go through the heart of the village – all I see is a small, scattered collection of adobe homes and agricultural buildings. Fields of maize surround the village, spill into the fenced yards, and sidle up to the walls of each building. However, there must be a school somewhere out of sight (perhaps in the village center), because we see groups of children coming from the same direction, apparently heading home for the day. Most of the girls are dressed in the traditional costume that also usually serves as their school uniform.

We step off the bus and are directed through the courtyard of what looks like a typical rural compound. From the courtyard, we are directed down into an adobe structure dug into the earth itself. The room inside is large and dark. We are seated at long tables where a group of adorable young girls in traditional costumes wait on us. The meal itself is good: The entrée is chicken, but there are also fava beans (a favorite of mine), corn on the cob, potatoes, and other dishes.

I’ve been eager to try Andean corn on the cob, which has huge kernels and apparently comes in a variety of colors. The corn is sweet with a strong corn flavor, but it is extremely starchy. I like it, but it does taste a little like sweetened field corn.

We are also given the opportunity to try roasted guinea pig. (Only two of us are actually willing to try it.) The pieces are odd shaped, making it a little difficult in the dim light to see exactly how much I am getting. I take a small piece that turns out to be smaller than I intended. The meat is very dark and rich, but not oily. The flavor is wonderful. I wish I had taken a larger piece.

Once we finish the meal a band starts to play. Ñanda Mañachi plays what sounds like traditional Andean music – well, at least there aren’t any Beatles tunes in their set. (The Beatles seem to be popular with Andean musicians.) While the band is good and quite enjoyable, they mostly serve to accompany dancing by the girls and one little boy. The children perform a variety of dances, including blanket dances and what appear to be courting dances. They are a delight to watch.

After performing a number of dances, the children ask members of our group up to dance with them. Rather than teaching us their steps, they led us in more of a free-style sway.

One member of our group starts a snaking conga-line. Surprisingly, this seems to both catch the girls off-guard and mystify them (this is a tourist stop, surely Anne can’t be the first to have done this!), but they catch on quickly.

This whole experience is great fun and a real joy, but it is also disconcerting. The girls are delightful to watch and, as Eduardo reminds us, they look happy to be doing this and bringing income to their family. But wouldn’t they be better off in school? Do they leave school early to work at home or do they simply not go to school at all? (Education is not compulsory in Ecuador.)

Eduardo has tried to make us see why it is acceptable – even necessary – not to have compulsory education here, but that doesn’t sit well. Yes, the girls seem to enjoy their work and their lot in life is certainly better than that of many girls their age in Ecuador (or around the world), but what will their lives be like in 10 or 15 years? Wouldn’t they be better off then if they had spent the day in school? Will the money they earn today give them more comfortable adult lives than if their family sacrificed that income to allow them to stay in school? Would an education actually make their lives better in this village or would it simply compel them to go elsewhere?

I still think they should have spent the day in school, but I’m not sure the issue is as simple as I would like it to be.

Next Post: To the Galapagos

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