This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Otavalo - Market and More

Saturday is market day in Otavalo, and Saturday happens to be the day when we cross the border into Ecuador. Otavalo is three hours from the border with Colombia. Mika gets off the bus in Otavalo while I continue on two more hours to Quito to go to the dentist and meet up again with her on Wednesday.

According to the guidebook, Saturday in Otavalo is the largest artisan market in South America. It feels pretty big but not immense. Two main streets are closed to traffic and full of stalls selling mostly tourist goodies. Much of it is very repetitive. Every stall seems to sell the same bags, ponchos, sweaters and nick knacks. There are even more of the similar goods to be found at Otavalo's well-named Plaza de Ponchos and also many stores are open only on Saturdays selling more of the same. The amount of inventory available in Otavalo is incredible.

If you do not go on Saturday you can still get your shopping done. About half of the stalls at Poncho Plaza were open when we were there on a Thursday. I bought a hat and Mika a poncho. You need to be careful what you buy. Many sellers here will tell you that the stuff they are selling is 100% alpaca wool from Ecuador. However, we wandered into a wholesale store and the proprietor guaranteed us that nothing in Otavalo is 100% alpaca wool. Many of the sellers in Poncho Plaza buy from him to sell to us. I will tend to believe people down-selling their products. He also told us that the alpaca wool comes from Peru. Go figure!
Bags for sale
Hats for sale
Paintings for sale
Alpacas for sale
To be honest, I am not sure why this Saturday market in Otavalo has become such a big thing. Most if not all of the exact same artisan items are sold in Quito because the Quito sellers buy wholesale in Otavalo. And we found that the opening (pre-bargaining) prices are cheaper in Quito too.

If you are not into shopping does not mean that Otavalo needs to be avoided. Otavalo sits in the Andes mountains and is very rich in the Quechua indigenous culture. The men and boys have long braided ponytails majority of women and girls wear the traditional outfit of embroidered, white ruffled shirt with a blue or black skirt and colorful woven belt. Stores and stalls -- those not selling tourist schlock -- carry many of these items for the local consumer.
A stall selling shirts and belts

A store specializing in traditional clothing for local ladies
Men have braided ponytails

On Saturday late afternoon after browsing around the market we head towards the town square and happen upon an event with music and dancing celebrating the indigenous community.
 Young Dancers
Shamans watching over the ceremony
Baby on Board
The days I am in Quito at the dentist Mika explores the hills around Otavalo town. She encounters a public washing ritual for married couples.
A shaman and a leg washing
Meanwhile, I arrive from Quito and subsequently get ill the next day, Thursday, with 102 F (39 C) fever. On Friday our hostel owner, fearing I have H1N1 pushes me to the hospital asking Mika not to tell any other guests that I could have bird flu. I find out that I have a throat infection probably from the dentist visit, get an injection and feel better.

On Saturday, the big market day, there is also a very early morning animal market. For locals obviously. I have never heard of a tourist in the market for a sheep or piglet. I really wanted to go but still feeling ill could not muster myself out of bed at 6 AM. Mika makes it there.
Pigs for sale
Guinea pigs for sale.
They are famously eaten in the Ecuadorian Andes
Rambling Healthcare:

After seeing the doctor at the hospital she gives me a prescription for two items for my injection and medicine. I then must go to the hospital pharmacy to get the three items which are free. They are out of one of the items so I go to the pharmacy across the street and buy it for $1.50. So essentially, my visit to the emergency room, consultation with doctor, injection and medicine cost me exactly $1.50 - not including the dollar taxi ride each way. I am sure I do not need to tell anyone about the outrageous costs of healthcare in the US. But basically a simple bandage at an American hospital will cost more than $1.50.

Furthermore, later in Quito we go to the hospital to get yellow fever vacinations as a precaution for visiting the jungle. According to the website, a yellow fever vaccination will cost $149 at the travel clinic run by the San Francisco Dept. of Health and in Texas while at Baylor Travel Medicine it will cost at least $215. In Ecuador our vaccination is free. Free for all citizens, free for me and Mika on tourist visas, and probably free for illegal immigrants. Go figure!
You can't see me, but I am under the tent waiting for check-in

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Much to do in Quito Two

Editor's note: There is actually enough to do in Quito that I have broken it into two separate posts. To read Part 1 click here.
I almost had a coffee here one day
As I mentioned in the last post, Quito is a pretty big city and sometimes just being in a large city in a foreign country is enough to satisfy a traveler without the need to run around and find every tourist activity available. There are plenty of restaurants and shopping here that could warrant some days of doing nothing but just walking around town and absorbing life in big city Ecuador. Believe me, we have done just that for quite a few days here in Quito. However, for this post (as in the last one) I am just going to stick with the tourist places. I hope it will make for more interesting reading. No one really cares about the pizza slice I eat or the soap dish shopping I do on my non-tourist days.

So let's get back to the business of traveling. Quito has quite a good selection of art museums. Many are free or very reasonable to enter. They are, unfortunately, incredibly anal with regards to photography. There is not one museum that I entered that allows people to take photos even without flash so it kind of makes creating a photo travel blog difficult. So I have taken photos of photos of the art, made some sneaky snaps when the guards were not looking or used images from other sources.

Museo del Banco Central

Greeting us in the lobby is a mannequin wearing
replicas from the Gold room.
The National Museum of the Central Bank of Ecuador houses the largest collection of Ecuadorian art and is an important institution in protecting the country's cultural heritage. Their collection dates back to 12,000 BC and expands all the way to present day. It usually costs $2 to enter but today is free. I think because the rooms with art made after 1820 are closed. Today we do get to enter the Archaeology, Gold and Colonial Art rooms. It is too bad that we will not see any contemporary art, but there is plenty for us to see in these three rooms. 

The main hall is dedicated to pre-Colombian art. The museums collection is incredibly vast and impressive. Seventy or so glass cases takes us in chronological order in Ecuador with commentary in English and Spanish from hunter-gathers 14,000 years ago up until the Inca conquest which ended in 1534 with the arrival of the Spanish. The pieces are of incredible quality and craftsmanship each giving us a glimpse into past lives and cultures. For me what is most striking looking at these sculptures is that some of the ceramic faces are so similar to the real, human faces we see every day in Ecuador. Proof to me that the conquistadors, as hard as they tried for three centuries, could never truly eradicate the soul and spirit of the indigenous communities.
A shaman. Photos are not allowed in the museum.
This photo was taken somewhere else.
The archaeology room naturally flows into the Gold room showing us the skill with which the pre-Colombian cultures manipulated precious metals and then we are lead up to the Colonial Art room. The colonial period starts in 1534 with the arrival of the Spanish. The art is all religious being mostly depictions of Maria, Jesus and various saints in paintings and wood sculptures. Most are beautiful in detail and ornamentation and many are gruesome depictions of the crucifixion. One wood sculpture shows 3-dimensional guts spilling out of Jesus' side.

Museo Camilo Egas

The Camilo Egas museum is a small gallery in a beautifully restored old building in the historic center of Quito. It is free to enter, but closes at 1 PM so go early. They have paintings spanning his entire career. In the courtyard are some tables where school kids were making art. Perhaps the next great Ecuadorian artist is here today.

Camilo Egas (1889-1962) is recognized as being the first Ecuadorian artist to introduce Indians into his paintings essentially creating the indigenist movement - indigenismo. From the museum brochure:
Camilo Egas is a very important figure in terms of this artistic movement as he established its bases and inspired other artists to expand this topic through art. Camilo Egas was concerned with the marginalized indigenous population. It is through his art that he introduced a new way of looking at the native people. He valued their art and culture despite the fact that his society rejected and ignored them.

In 1927 he went to New York and painted some hauntingly powerful images inspired by the misery witnessed during the Great Depression. He remained in the Big Apple for the rest of his life dabbling in surrealism and in the 1950's returning to indigenous themes with cubism. Egas' entire body of work is quite impressive and deserves to be recognized with his European contemporaries. Maybe because I am American and not indigenous it is his images from his early days in New York (see below) that affected me the most.

Museo Guayasamin
This museum is dedicated to the life's work of the Quito born, world famous artist, Oswaldo Guayasamin (1919-1999). From the Guayasamin Fundacion website:
[Guayasamin's] humanist work, marked as expressionist, reflects the pain and misery that the larger part of humanity has endured, and denounces the violence that every human being has had to live with in this monstrous 20th. century marked by world wars, civil wars, genocide, concentration camps, dictatorships, and tortures.

This museum sits high atop a hill in a posh neighborhood of Quito. The entrance fee is a whopping $4, higher than any other place I have been to in Quito. There is a large collection of pre-Colombian art from the artist's personal collection, a colonial art room with some shabby, old religious statues and two galleries dedicated to the work of Guayasamin with many of his large oil paintings. Follow the link below to the foundation's website to see images of Guayasamin's very powerful series "The Hands."

The museum also has a gift shop selling signed limited edition prints by Guayasamin himself. An art collector I am not, but I am very tempted to buy one. The lady tells me they are running out and it is not every day you can buy a piece of art from a nation's most famous artist for a few hundred bucks. A black & white print is cheaper than going to the Galapagos Islands for five days. One problem: Mika and I do not have any walls at the moment or in the near, foreseeable future.

A sneaky peek inside the gallery
I am not allowed to take photos in the museum, but meanwhile reproductions of Guayasamin's paintings are everywhere in Quito. Our hotel has Guayasamin posters on the walls. The touristy souvenir market has hundreds of replicas of his work for sale.
Outside the museum with a postcard purchased at the gift shop
If the places listed above are not enough to placate the most ravenous art buffs, there is also the Museum of Contemporary Art which is free to enter and when I am there has an excellent exhibition showing ninety-one years of modern Ecuadorian art. There is the Museum of Colonial Art which I did not go to, but supposedly has the best collection of Maria and Jesus art and finally the Metropolitan Cultural Center which is also free to enter, has a two story gallery highlighting another local artist, while in the courtyard is temporarily showing the World Press Photo Exhibit.

So as you can see, there is much to do in Quito.
Free art is fun

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Much to Do In Quito

Quito is a large enough city that there is pretty much everything here that you could find in other places to stay busy for a while. There are shopping malls, markets, movies, theaters, parks, casinos, nightclubs and many restaurants for all budgets. All have somewhat of an Ecuadorian feeling, but nothing so unique that stands out from other places in South America or the world. Blame it on globalization.

So for this post I will focus on touristy places that seem unique to Quito and Ecuador which is mostly museums and the historic center. Everything in Quito is pretty much accessible by public transportation + short walks. Buses have their own lanes on the main thoroughfares which lets them whiz by traffic. Just watch out for pickpockets! Many other travelers take taxis around town, but I have managed to get everywhere by bus which costs only $0.25 per ride.
At the Plaza Grande in the historic center
If there is anything in Quito that should be done it is to have a walk around the historic center. It is fun to walk around a living, breathing, pulsating city that happens to be almost five hundred years old. As in most colonial towns the buildings are painted in a bouquet of pastel colors. The persistent traffic, narrow sidewalks and modern shops never fully lets one escape to another time, but nevertheless, it is still impressive to be this close to history while ducking into ancient buildings to see their inner courtyards and architecture.
A typical building
A typical interior courtyard. People would fetch water from the
public wells and store it in their fountains.
What you won't find at Home Depot: Fancy Spanish homes
used animal bones in their foyers as part of their flooring
Like all old colonial towns, Quito has a huge number of churches. They were the center of life and the Spanish made a lot of effort to make them ostentatious, so the least we can do centuries later is to admire them from afar and near.

The Monastery of San Francisco is Quito's oldest and largest church. Construction started in 1504 and finished seventy years later. The plaza in front of the church is a lovely place to sit and people watch. If in the shopping mood, indigenous ladies walk around selling scarves at very reasonable prices.
La Compania de Jesus has seven tons of gold decorating the inside of its walls. Construction began in 1605 and only took 163 years to complete. It costs $3 to enter (gringo price) and no photos are allowed inside.
The gold-plated entrance way
The Basilica del Voto Nacional sits on the edge of the historic center, but it is not old. Construction was started in the late 1800's and completed in the 1980's. There are much nicer churches to visit, but none of the others lets you climb up to the top of the belfries for a grand, if not queasy-inducing, view of Quito. It costs $2 to climb up and you can take as much time as you like. It is not for those with even a mild sense of acrophobia.
Basilica del Voto Nacional
View from the top
Inside the clock tower
Quito is also the center for Ecuadorian politics. The presidential palace ( Ecuadorian White House, if you will) sits on the Plaza Grande in the heart of the historic center. They offer free tours several times a day. We get to see the cabinet meeting room and the banquet hall for official state dinners. The president of Korea will be arriving in a couple days.
Outside of the presidential palace
Inside the pres. palace at the meeting room of the cabinet ministers
For most travelers a trip to Quito also includes a visit to Mitad del Mundo - The Middle of the World. Ecuador actually means "equator" in Spanish and our planet's center line sits about 22 KM from Quito. A bus from the city will take you directly to the Mitad del Mundo park which has a monument dedicated to the invisible line running around the center of Mother Earth. However, we did not enter this park because the equator line is actually not there. And most other travelers tell us that the Mitad del Mundo park is boring anyway.

Jumping from Northern to Southern hemisphere
In the 1700's some French dude got the exact location of the equator wrong. So the official equator monument is not at the actual equator. If you want to be at the real line you need to go to the Museo Inti Ñan which is a short walk from the bus stop. This museum has many signs boasting that they are at the real equator line and that they even used a military grade GPS to verify it. I would call this latitude with attitude.
In school they never taught us that the equator is an actual red line running around the world
The museum is actually quite fun. The entrance is $3 and it includes a guided tour in English or Spanish. They first show us some exhibits describing traditional indigenous life in the Andes and Amazon jungle including a real shrunken head.
A real shrunken head
Then we get to the goods. At exactly the equator our guide gives us some scientific demonstrations* to explain the forces at work at the middle of the earth such as Coriolis Effect (why water spins down a drain). For example, they say because the earth's forces are coming directly straight down a person should be able to balance an egg on a nail head. Everyone gets a chance to try it, and those successful earn a special certificate from the equator museum.
The equator is egg-cellent
* After doing some internet research it seems that these experiments are bunk and have nothing to do with being at the equator. I am not quite sure what to believe, but regardless it is still enjoyable at the museum. If tourists at the equator are fish, we'd be biting.

Follow the link to see more things to do in Quito.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Quito, Ecuador - An Introduction

Crossing the border into Ecuador from Colombia is a fairly simple process. We get a free, 90 day tourist visa. Then it is a short taxi ride to a bus station and five hours later in Quito, the cultural and historical center of Ecuador. All of this is done without ever leaving the Andes mountains. We are actually even higher than before. Quito sits at 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) and the lack of oxygen is felt. My first day I am wheezing just going up the steps of my hostel. Altitude acclimation is recommended.
View of Quito's historic center
Quito is the capital and second largest city in Ecuador. The city was founded in 1534 by the Spanish though there is evidence of indigenous communities living here well before then. The old town of Quito was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1978 which has done much to preserve the historic integrity of the old capital. Since then the city has extended out from the historic center. A twenty minute walk or short bus ride away is the neighborhood La Mariscal which is full of modern bars and restaurants and travelers' hostels. The area has the nickname, Gringolandia, but I think it does La Mariscal a disservice. There are a lot more well-heeled Ecuadorians here than there are foriegners. Continuing even further away from the old center are more neighborhoods, larger buildings, parks, slums and shopping malls to support the city of 1.4 million people.
A swanky cafe in the New Town
It would be nice to say that walking through the historic area of Quito is like stepping in time, but it is really not. The colonial buildings are beautiful. Painted colorfully some peeling with age while others beautifully up kept. But in old town Quito modern life continues. The centuries old buildings and churches are a museum backdrop to a growing city. One four hundred year old building I visit houses a cafe, Spanish school and electronics store.

Old building, new stores

Inside a 400+ year old building. I hope that the electricity is updated.
The most noticeable thing about the money in Ecuador is that it is dollars, US dollars. In 1999 there was a major banking crisis and the Ecuadorian Sucre was so devalued that the government decided to scrap the currency and just use the US dollar as its main currency. All of the bills are US and the coins are a mix of US and Ecuadorian. There is a plethora of $1 Sacajawea coins circulating. Being from the US this is great because there are no pesky exchange rates to keep track of. When I go to the ATM to get US $100 I get US $100. The $1 bank fee actually makes it cheaper for me to get money in Quito than at the convenient store a block from my house.
Overall, traveling in Ecuador is more economical than Colombia. Backpackers say that after Bolivia (which is apparently dirt cheap) Ecuador seems to be the cheapest country on the continent. Food and lodging are just slightly less expensive here and long distance buses are about half price of Colombia. All of this adds up to some good savings for the budget conscious long-term traveler. Tourist activities seem to be pricey, but these are outside the confines of normal Ecuadorian society. Trips to the Galapagos Islands are incredibly costly, and Mika and I are still contemplating whether we should do it now or save it for another time.

Ecuadorian cuisine sticks with the general South American theme of meat and more meat then add portions of your favorite carbohydrate(rice, bread, potato). The best deal around is the Menu del Dia (Menu of the day) for lunch. For US $1.50 - $3.00+ you get soup, an entree, rice, beans and vegetable, and juice. Something in Ecuador that we did not see much of in Colombia are Chinese restaurants - called Chifa in Ecuador. For around US $2.50 you can get a heaping plate of fried rice or noodles. The quality is not stellar, but it is at least a different taste than the same-old, same-old local food. Chinese restaurants are usually good places to find vegetarian options.

Chinese food? Noodles, french fries and cola for $2.20
There also is a lot of ceviche around, but I think I am going to wait until we get to the pacific coast to try an uncooked fish dish. For now we stick with cevichochos which is sort of like a poor man's ceviche with similar taste but with two types of corn, dried plantains and pork. It is sold in small places around town and on street carts as a snack.
While traveling in Latin American cities safety is always an issue to consider. Quito, unfortunately, seems to be the standard rather than an exception to this statement. I cannot speak statistically, but it feels much less safe here than in Bogota. First of all, there is much less of a police presence in Quito than almost anywhere in Colombia. Secondly, in Colombia we heard plenty of stories about things disappearing -- if you put your camera down it will be gone. But here in Ecuador we hear several firsthand accounts of people being physically robbed and assaulted. Of course foreigners are easy targets, but I think Ecuadorians feel less safe here compared to their Colombian neighbors. I meet two women from Buenos Aires (another large Latin American city with a bad reputation) who were shocked when a local woman convinced them to take a taxi with her only three blocks.

I do not really have any photos relating to "safety" so I am inserting
random images to maintain a proper feng shui for this blog post.
There is a common and quite annoying trick which occurs on the street. Someone sprays you from behind with something rancid, then points it out to you pretending to help clean it off. The idea is that you will remove your backpack to try to clean yourself which will quickly disappear in the hands of the sprayer's accomplice.

My second day in Quito this happens to me. I am heading back to my hostel after a day of sightseeing in Quito's old town when suddenly I feel something wet running down my leg. W.T.F? I stop to look and there is a woman behind me holding a tissue saying "ave, ave (bird, bird)." I swing my backpack around to my front with out taking it completely off to get my water. I notice the bottom corner of my backpack also has some muck on it. The smell is awful. I douse my pants and backpack with water while the lady tells me there is more on my back. I tell her that I will clean it off at my hotel and quickly walk off. Only one block away does my brain process what just occurred.

I have heard that these thieves use mustard. The common hot dog condiment would have been much more preferable to the used baby diaper bi-product that I am sprayed with. It is disgusting. I am fuming as I am scrubbing my clothes in the shower and feel like an ass that I would be targeted for the scam. However, after talking with other travelers I find out it is not all that uncommon. It just happened to one couple two days before me, while another woman from New Zealand said that this happened to her three times in Buenos Aires! That makes me feel better.

Now I do not want to be a fear monger and steer people away from visiting Quito. Thousands come and go without incident. But it is a shame that people always have to stay alert. When leaving the hotel I have to really consider if it is worth it to carry my expensive camera. If I do, my backpack stays on my front so I look like a dork (well, a bigger one than usual) and now I look behind me all the time when walking on the street.

The next post will be about Things to do in Quito. Stay tuned...