Our time in the lovely Ecuadorian boondocks.
Before we left for the highlands, Kels and I made one last stop in el capital: La Virgen de Quito, a large monument perched rather conspicuously on a hill overlooking the city. The monument afforded us a new panorama that dwarfed even that of the Cathedral. Quite ironically, you can also climb up inside the Virgen (insert off-color virginity remark here....) for an even better view. It was a less harrowing experience than one might expect (kelsey sighed in relief), and a very suitable final activity. Standing in the sun, overlooking the sprawling, lovely metropolis of Quito, we said our goodbyes.
Our journey to the highlands was ridden with sensory overloads: the organized chaos of the bus terminals, the screams of unhappy children, blaring bus horns, suffocating exhaust fumes, and, best of all - the nauseating stench of very unwashed human. As three wholly disgusting, intoxicated men crammed into the two seats behind us, it was all we could do to keep from gagging. I was thrilled to find an elbow resting upon my head on a number of occasions...luckily, a nearby window preserved our (olfactory) sanity. At least, I thought, there´s no chickens or evangelists this time!! (knock on wood.)
We arrived in the tiny village of Zumbahua on Friday evening, ripe and ready for the lively Saturday morning indigenous market. The setting was absolutely stunning - simple dirt roads, strolling indigenous women clad in traditional garments (skirts, a fedora-like hat with a feather, long hair bound in hand woven trim, and usually, an extremely adorable drooling baby bobbing around on their back), a variety of adorable farm animals (we´ve decided that pigs are really quite charming), and a stunning green, misty mountain backdrop to boot. We spent our evening relaxing on the terrace, chatting about anything and everything, and watching the villagers erect the market stall skeletons.
We awoke at what we believed to be an early hour, but the market was already in full swing. The sleepy little village had been instantly transformed into a bustling hub of trade and commerce - hundreds of indigenous families from the mountains had poured into Zumbahua to hawk their goods: fruit, the telltale clothing items of indigenous women, farm animals (those freshly slaughtered, and those nearly so), typical gold-pearl jewelery, housewares, crafts, rope, and a variety of foodstuffs. It was fascinating to see such an unspoiled culture thriving so completely - we wandered the stalls, snapping photos when appropriate, and admired the goings-on. For the most part, the people were extraordinarily friendly; I feel as though a huge, genuine smile is as much of the traditional female costume as the fedora hat! Trotting around with children or absolutely mind-boggling loads upon their backs, I found these women to be intensely human and beautiful, as if the entirety of the culture depends upon their obvious strength.
As things thinned out around noon, we hopped in the back of a truck headed to Laguna Quilotoa, reputedly one of the most staggering sights in Ecuador. I was absolutely thrilled to be traveling in such a way - just two awkward white girls, clinging to the back of an enormous truck, chatting with a number of indigenous fellow passengers. The ride took about 45 minutes - bumping, thumping, swerving, and curving through glorious highland countryside. We stopped and started, picked up and dropped off, deftly dodging pot holes, ravines, sheep and children. Upon our arrival to the one-road town, we decided to stay in a hostal run by a local indigenous family. The grass roof, dirt floor and adorable little piggy in the front yard promised us a fabulous time. It was extremely basic - our hosts slept in the very next room - but we (okay, I) was happy to be having such a very 'authentic' experience. We dumped our packs, chatted with the host, and then headed off to hike the Laguna.
It was indeed a staggering sight. We reached the top of a hill and peered over to a truly awe-inspiring vista: a deeply turquoise crater lake rimmed by enormous, jagged, green mountains. It was enough to inspire a sharp intake of breath for the both of us - I simply can`t properly relay the beauty of the scene with words. We´d ambitously decided to hike the permiter of the lake, but we were halted by a virtually vertical ascent about halfway around the rim. We stopped to rest, taking in the incredible scenery: bright bursts of wildflowers amidst mountain greenery, tiny indigenous grass houses, and even a number of llamas and alpacas. As we hiked back to to the village Quilotoa, our exhaustion coupled with the altitude and left us gasping for energy.
The mist of the mountains descended and we hurried back to our hostal as rain began to fall. We chowed down on potato soup, arroz con pollo and piping hot tea, and spent the rest of our evening chatting with our host family and playing cards with the two other guests - Quitenos on a weekend retreat. Old maid (abuelita), crazy eights (ocho loco), Go Fish (pescar) and 21 (veinte uno) are surprisingly international past times.
As the evening wore on, the highland temperature plummeted and my breath seemed to freeze before my face. Needless to say, warm-weather Kelsey was extremely grumpy. Between us, we layered on three pairs of pants, six shirts, two jackets, five pairs of socks, one pair of gloves (mine!), and one shawl. We`d decided to maximize our body heat by sharing a bed and piling seven blankets upon us. The cold still seemed to nip at our noses. "I`m going to get very cranky if we stay here much longer," said Kelsey, "this is my summer vacation!" Knowing full well the potential extent of Kelsey`s wrath, we decided to leave the next day (after a highland horse ride, of course).
The next morning, we emerged from our bed fully dressed for an arctic adventure. I have to admit that I see a mild appeal to simply sleeping in my clothes...Kelsey glared at me as she wrapped her shawl around her bundled little body. I´d say her morning tea was of the half-empty persuasion...
Bellies full and relatively warm, we mounted our less-than-enthusiastic horses and embarked on a 3 hour expedition to `la cueva de los Incas`. In the Ecuadorian highlands, saddles are really only saddle blankets with an unconvincing cinch, while bridles are a bit of rope manuevered around the nose and neck...I suddenly realized my riding lessons would be of very little help. Our two Quiteno friends and all the family progeny came along - one horse even had a fuzzy little foal in close pursuit. We were, no doubt, a humorous sight. The indigenous children were regularly titching (CHHH!!) at our horses for pigging out at every opportunity. My ´saddle`was making a slow but threatening descent to the ground, and each bouncy little trot brought the most impressive expressions of anguish over our faces. (we are still puzzled how our male companions survived). The ride was lovely of course - the irridescently green landscape was completely bathed in a silent, spooky mountain mist; the contrast was striking and certainly remniscent of the Scottish highlands. The soundtrack for our adventure was almost hypnotically rythmic: ka-thud, ka-thud, ka-thud, munch, munch, munch, "CHH!", trot, trot, trot, "OWW!", ka-thud, ka-thud, ka-thud....
The cave itself was really nothing spectacular, but it was a fabulous ride there and back, and it was interesting to imagine Shamans practicing their medicinal miracles in such a place. Nowadays, it´s really little more than a dripping little nitch out of the earth - home to vultures and bears. We hopped back on our horses - grumpy to be disturbed during snack time - and encouraged them to head back home.
Returning to the hostal, we dismounted without even a speck of elegance. Our bums (etc....) would be sore for days. Holding to my promise of departure, we jumped into the back of mini pickup truck headed for the Pan American. A tarp had been hurled over our heads in consideration of a new onslaught of rain. We huddled, knees to chin, with four other people and our too-big backpacks...it was as if we were being smuggled. As the minitruck careened its way to the top of the mountain, our deep-tissue bum bruises voiced their serious discontent. Waiting by the highway to flag down a bus, dripping wet and frosty, we bid the Highlands a bittersweet adieu.