The rest of the members of our travel group are arriving tonight, so we wanted to spend the day having experiences that are not included in our tour, which will officially begin tomorrow. Quito is surrounded by volcanoes. We can see many of them from town, especially the ones with snow-topped tips. Cotopaxi is the highest at over 19,000 feet. The photos of the scenery we saw there were amazing, but we felt a bit leery about putting ourselves at such a high elevation. None of us have altitude sickness symptoms in Quito at 9,000 feet, but Cotopaxi could be pushing the limits. The volcanic areas are almost a two hour drive out of town, so we selected a tour that had a variety of activities and stops along the way. It was a wonderful day. The four of us had a driver and a tour guide to ourselves. The guide spoke good English and had many interesting facts to tell us as we drove. The time flew by and we learned a lot.
The volcanoes here are all regarded as active. That's why no one goes skiing here. An investment in ski lifts and lodges could be blown to bits and there are many land slides. One of the volcanoes erupted about two years ago belching ash over the countryside. Earth quakes occur daily, but so far they have been so small we haven't noticed. Volcanic ash is not good for car engines and people's lungs, but is a great fertilizer. In this temperate climate farmers can grow almost anything. A major export is long stemmed roses. In the countryside we passed huge complexes of green houses. Our guide said that the Russians are their best customers and like the roses whose stems are over two feet tall. It's jarring to go into a simple rest stop bathroom and see a huge bouquet of lush red roses that would warm the heart of any Valentine sitting near the toilets.
We stopped at Otavalo, which has one of the largest native markets in South America. I'm a sucker for handicrafts, but we have a few flights ahead of us where our suitcases will be weighed, so we tried to restrain ourselves. It was hard. Many of the vendors wore indigenous clothing: women in embroidered white blouses, long wool skirts, head cloths, and strands of beads while the men wore felt hats, blue ponchos, calf length pants, and wore their hair braided in one long strand. They sold woolen goods such as rugs, tapestries, blankets, ponchos, sweaters, scarves gloves and hats as well as hammocks, carvings, paintings and jewelry. Many of these folks speak little if any Spanish and cling tightly to their indigenous culture and Kichwa language. Over twenty languages are spoken in Ecuador and you can hike over the next mountain ridge and find yourself unable to converse with anybody. In the bright sunshine the bright colors of the handicrafts kept calling my name. We'll probably see some of them again on this trip. We'll see how long I can resist.
It was amazing to see how quickly the scenery changed as we drove. Mostly this is caused the the areas where melt water from the snow in the mountains flows down and the areas which get little precipitation. The volcanic area is dotted with lakes. Some are in the volcano calderas. The one at Cotapachin Cayapas National Park reminded us of Crater Lake in Oregon and had three islands nestled together in the middle of the lake. We also stopped at Peguche Waterfall, which was also in a park where we would have liked to go camping. There we noticed how remarkably tiny our shadows are here at noon right on the Equator.
No full day tour is complete without a little eating. Our rest stop included Bizcochos, a buttery biscuit with a light, flakey crunch. It was served with what the guide called leaf cheese, which was tiny slices of cheese curled up on a large leaf. Lunch included some familiar Ecuadorean foods, familiar because we had just prepared them ourselves at yesterday's cooking class. In some cases we preferred the versions that we had made.