Saturday, December 26, 2015

Easy Living in Ecuador

Our two Toyotas crossed into Ecuador, passing through an international border in record time, and as a bonus it was totally free (unlike most of Central America)! Ecuador has already scored major points in our book, and we just got here! The Frenchies proposed we make a quick pit stop, and although we don't usually make a habit out of touring cemetaries, we happened to be driving right by an interesting one famous for its Edward Scissorhands style sculpted bushes, so we stopped for a look. Soon after we rumbled on to Finca Sommerwind, a popular overlander campsite run by a friendly German family. Here, another overlander reunion had formed... aside from the Frenchies, the Chileans had arrived before us, along with Michael and Veronica whom we had last seen before shipping our vehicles out of Panama together. A little overland community, a view over the park to watch some big-rig drag races through binoculars at the local race course, and a German cafe right next to the car was all making for an optimal place for relaxing, and becoming a good staging ground for upcoming plans. A key reason for laying low at a nice campground was the wifi, something we take for granted at our fingertips 24/7 back home! In this life, it is a treat or an annoyance depending how hard we have to work to find a good signal. Anyway, Mallary’s parents, brother, and his girlfriend are on the verge of buying plane tickets to Peru, and Mallary has been tasked with the job of travel agent for the family. So, it was time to indulge in some fresh baked German bread and hunker down for vacation research!

After a night out for overpriced pizza with the whole gang, Chris woke to the dreaded request of Mallary’s to spend the afternoon browsing the nearby Otavalo textile market. She was pretty stoked to have the souvenir loving Frenchies along to outnumber Chris and his "we don't need anything" attitude for the day, forcing him into the role of supportive boyfriend who enjoys buying souvenirs! Oh boy, he can feel the wallet getting lighter already! Turns out the Otavalo market is one of the most famous in South America, the highlight being the high quality alpaca blankets, sweaters, scarves, etc. The impressive handwork, negotiable prices, and large selection was enough to make even the most stoic market Grinch like Chris excited to peruse the different stalls. Who was this guy?!? Soon, we were in the center of the market, modeling various apparel to all the vendors as they helped us find matching alpaca sweaters that looked like they came out of a 1990's Vale, Colorado ski trip. The Grinch went on to participate in checking out every blanket in the market before standing by as Mallary bartered hard core for a super soft feng shui one of our own. The barter queen pushed her limits that day, as a friendly sock vendor told her to offer a price on some funky hand woven, irregularly shaped socks. Considering that the right sock was basically 2 sizes wider and longer than the left, she low balled the offer, which in turn earned her a laugh and refusal to sell the socks for anything else than a complete rip off. We moved on and offered a dollar higher at the next vendor, who happily sold us some not so funky matching socks. The world of bartering is a mystery still, but no doubt the alpaca blanket and wool socks will serve us well in the high altitudes further south. After the market, we hauled our garbage bags full of goodies around town amongst the cute old ladies hauling their huge bundles of grass around wondering whose was heavier. We headed to the bus terminal, grabbed up some roasted street pig and 50 cent bus station food of gargantuan white beans and rice in a plastic baggie, and headed back home (camp).

Seriously the women here are the toughest!
I think I'll just eat this hot plastic bag of food by these garbage cans
Nothing brings out an appetite more then a pigs head in window

The days passed worry free at Sommerwind, as we all enjoyed each others comfortable company whilst tending to our computers. With such a great crew at the campgound, naturally a night was set for an epic cookout. Hans the owner, skillfully grilled up an amazing array of meats including bratwurst, pork chops, ribs, beef, hotdogs, and chicken. While the rest of the couples focused on mega salads, home made German spaetzli made with love by the Frenchies, and Mallary’s bangin conglomeration of sautéed veggies. A few stragglers added their own side dishes, and in the end, we had one of the most impressive group meals in a long time. It felt like home for a night… loud, lots of food, booze, no lack of sarcasm, joking on Mallary, and laughs! Sitting at a long table with friends and strangers from around the world and sharing a meal in a foreign country is such an amazing perk to traveling.

The troops anxiously waiting for mealtime

After enough nights of enjoying the honor system beer fridge and posh atmosphere of Sommerwind, it was time to move on to colder climates. Hans had taken the time to give us an imense amount of travel tips for the entire country, so with a handful of campground cards and a marked up map of Ecuador, we were ready to get at em'. Ecuador was looking like a place of endless possibilities of cities, beaches, mountains, and jungle, and although we hadn't actually planned much, we at least knew the next destination! The gang moved into the mountains at the base of a nearby large crater lake, with intentions to hike the perimeter of it. It was a super cold night, but the next morning was totally worth it when we scurried up to the first viewpoint at the start of the trail. There it was, Laguna Cuicocha, a massive lake hemmed in by steep cliffs, and even complete with a wild guinea pig inhabited conical island, a relic of its old glory days as a volcano. The nine mile loop around the lake sported some spectacular views while walking on high ridgelines amidst rare plants and flowers only found high up in the Andes. It is not often that you can take a six hour hike and see your start/finish point the entire time! Since the Germans headed out a bit earlier than us, Laurent entertained us by tracking their location around the rim via binoculars... Only slightly stalkerish! ;) That night we stayed once again in the empty lot we had claimed as our camp, and while the six of us sat circled up in our camp chairs, chatting and shivering, we tilted our heads toward the clear sky in awe of the massive amounts of stars above. Then, over the next 30 minutes we saw shooting star after shooting star soar across the sky, making the cold evening in the random lot, quite the magical night! We stayed up until all of us saw the same star flying across the sky, made one last wish, then bundled up under our alpaca blanket for a well deserved good nights sleep.

A little town called Minca was next on our radar, and we had heard it was going to be a rough ride through the tiny dirt mountain roads... so the Toyota caravan set out early, all keeping pace at a "early 90's Toyota speed" aka: slow, ready for an adventure. On the way would be our first crossing of another invisible line... this time not a border that would give us new currency and culture, but a new hemisphere that would give us different constellations, opposite seasons, and toilets that flushed counterclockwise oh my! We skipped out on a detour to the tourist destination Equator, and closely watched our GPSs waiting for them to hit 00.00.000°. It was a little harder than we thought, our GPS preferred to be 1 or 2 seconds off, so here we were, frustrated, walking back and forth staring at our screens on the side of a highway like a bunch of doofuses, but very comitted to the task until successful! Hello Southern Hemisphere!!! Have we really just driven our car over the Equator?!? Totally surreal!

Minca turned out to be not our favorite place, and was just an overnight stop. The reality of bloodthirsty mosquitos and daily rain did not appeal to us. Where to go next was the main thing on our minds, as the originally thought out plan to drive through Quito and do some hiking at the famed Cotapaxi was now nixed due to a recent volcano eruption! It was said that ash covered the entire surrounding area and the volcano was still rather angry. The other option, the idyllic coast sporting beautiful weather, good swimming, whales breaching, and ceviche. So, after much deliberation about taking a 300 mile detour, off we went in search of a warm beach on the northern coast, our stomachs ready for the rumored "biggest shrimps in South America."

Overlander spots complete with little decks
Not quite knowing what to expect, we dodged some narly potholes down the long dirt road and showed up at a campground/nature reserve on the beach called Esmerelda. We tucked our trucks into cozy slots with ocean views and settled in quickly. On the way in we didn't quite know that the allure of this beach was its seclusion, but we maybe should have planned better for being a bit off the beaten path, as we were seriously craving some fresh seafood! Wouldn't you have it that a too chatty Canadian man, the brother of the owner, was going into town and offered to get us "a super good deal" on some "fresh fish and shrimp" and even bring back some beer. Sounds good to us, so even though he was a parculiar character to say the least, we took him up on his offer, hesitantly handed over a bit of cash, and anxiously awaited his return. We started a fire and got all the fixins made, salivating at the thought of our fresh fish delivery. Then, we waited, waited a bit more, growing more and more skepitcal and more and more hungry by the minute, we started talking of other plans for supper... Then finally here comes our guy, a bit dishelved looking and rattling off some nonsense about how "his" fish guys were not there and how the bus was trying to leave without him, and how he dropped the beer and literally every one of the 6 bottles broke open on the street, blah blah blah. Oh my goodness, how did we not see it before!?!? This guy is nuts! He hands over a plastic bag of "fileted" "fresh" fish and briskly walks off. We open the bag only to see the absolute most ridiculous spectacle of fish before us... not a single filet, but frozen chuncks full of guts, scales, and chopped up in such a way that would make it impossible to filet... What. The. Hell. It is all the sudden super clear to us that this over friendly guy, was merely trying his hardest to show off to someone his knowledge and "ins" in this little town in Ecuador... Which he obviously did not possess! Now, to make the most of the fish scraps by doing some major surgery on the pieces and throwing them on the fire with as much garlic butter as possible to hide the fact that it was indeed not that fresh at all. The next few days we would just enjoy the sea, take a few swims a day, hike around the nature reserve and down the desolate beach, sit around the campfire with friends, and forgo the seafood! Pasta night on the beach for the win! Lesson learned!
Veronika and Mallary exploring the beach
This is where we sadly had to say bye to the Frenchies and Germans, as the clock was ticking and we needed to get a move on it much quicker thn they did at this point. Onward down the coast we go! Hope to see you guys down the road again!!!



1 comment:

  1. It was great to see the market grinch over Christmas. I hope his heart has grown three sizes during the trip.