Not Quite Quito
We shook off the salt of the Galapagos Islands and returned to altitude-Quito is 9200 feet above the sea we'd been sailing on. Liz has wanted to go zip lining for a while and there are several canopy zip line operations in the cloud forests of Mindo, about an hour and half north of Quito. We hired a car and driver through our hotel, as gringos in rental cars are not considered a good idea in Ecuador. Drivers operate on a risk level somewhere in excess of the NASCAR ideal and we were told that victims in accidents are thrown in jail with the bad guys until all the issues are resolved.
For $10 (United States currency is used in Ecuador-no need to exchange money) we bought a package that included ten cables. With our two guides, Ruis and Jessica, we zipped over orchids growing wild among the trees. Eco-tours of the cloud forest are catnip to birders from around the world. Reserve Mindo-Nambillo Protected Forest is said to have thousands of varieties of orchids and over 300 varieties of birds including toucans and parrots. Don't miss the Mariposario, or Butterfly Farm, where friendly butterflies do close flybys before landing on your head and hands. We didn't have time to try them, but area outfitters selling zip line tickets also offer white water rafting and horseback riding.
On the way back, we did stop at Mittad de Mundo, the middle of the world, where people go to take photos of each other lying across, straddling, or skateboarding over the equator line. They've created a little village there with shops, restaurants and museums. For $2 parking and $2 entry fee per person, it's a nice way to spend an afternoon.
On our last day in Ecuador, we found a better way to hire a driver. We hired an English-speaking driver named Lincoln Guaman after reading raves about him on Trip Advisor. All the praise is well deserved. Lincoln quoted a price of $120 for the day and picked us up at 8:30 in the morning promising to show us as much of the north highlands as possible. He named every volcano, told us the history of Ecuador generally and Quito specifically and told us about the local people. He's professional, entertaining and a delight to spend the day with. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell him Judy and Liz sent you.
Lincoln took us to the small town of Calderón, where the people specialize in guaguas de pan, dough figures used in their Day of the Dead celebrations on November 2. Originally, food was shared with the dead ancestors, then replicas of food, made of flour, water and glue, were left on graves. Now, village women create little bread figures, Christmas ornaments, and knickknacks to sell to locals and tourists. They are dried for several days and baked at low heat for two hours to make them more resilient. We bought lots for gifts and some to use as Christmas ornaments.
We spent a couple of hours at the Otavalo market, and had lots of fun poking around the goods people bring to sell. The vendors all work very hard to make a sale, but we never felt pressured or threatened. It's all fascinating and colorful, but there's a bewildering sameness to all the tables and items they offer. Although we did see some women knitting caps and others making beaded jewelry, one does not get the impression of solitary workers practicing their craft-the goods and the sales patter mostly feel manufactured on a large scale. Still, some of the scarves and handbags were too much of a bargain to leave behind. Next we went to Cuicocha Crater Lake for lunch and visited leather shops that again seemed to be selling all the same pieces.
The highlight of the day came in Peguche at the Artesania del Gran Condor where we watched the owner demonstrate carding, yarn making, dying with natural materials, and finally weaving both in the traditional lap-held method as well as using a loom. The shop is filled with handmade articles of real alpaca, llama, and lamb's wool. According to the man at the shop, some of the materials sold as real alpaca are instead real acrylic.
On the way back to our hotel, Lincoln stopped at Cayambe so we could taste the town specialty, bizcochos, a local variety of biscuit. They were amazing, like an unsweetened short bread. In fact, the best things we did that day were at Lincoln's suggestion. To do it right, just turn yourselves over to him and let him show you the best that Quito and environs have to offer. You'll love it.