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Quito and Northern Ecuador (Sep. 2000)

posted Nov 15, 2008, 5:48 PM by Gerick Bergsma   [ updated Nov 19, 2008, 7:11 PM ]

I ate guinea pig today.  It is called Cuy around here, and it was described to me as "an animal like a rabbit," I imagine in an attempt to make it sound more appealing to the American palate.  I knew full well what it was, though, and ordered it anyway.  I guess I just didn’t expect it to come whole.  Something about seeing the little teeth sticking out through the sauce was a little unnerving, as it rested on its death bed of lettuce.  I admit it was quite tasty, aside from the little bits of hair that the chef couldn’t quite get off, and although it was heavily seasoned, it did indeed taste something like rabbit.


Cuy is just one of many typical dishes I have tried recently.  Ecuador seems full of unique meat dishes (those vegetarians out there might think twice before venturing into Ecuador), and my self appointed guides, Vaneza and Gabi, seem bent on having me try every one of them.  I can not say that I am unwilling, and they are certainly entertained by taking "pooh," as they call me, out to try the local specialties.  Vaneza and Gabi are the receptionist and the daughter of the owner of the hotel where I am staying, and are rather enthralled by the gringo staying at the Fer Reisen hotel.  Perhaps because, for a time, I was their only guest, they felt compelled to take me salsa dancing the first night I was here, and now to take me to every "typical" restaurant in Quito.


Quito is actually a very nice city, with lots of modern conveniences, and I have gotten to know parts of it quite well already.  My first day in town, I took a walking tour that lead me directly to the steps of El Panecillo, a large statue in the Southern end of town, where I recalled reading in several books that the steps of the Panecillo were the most dangerous part of town, and that tourists should never go there on foot.  I survived, and fled to a nearby market that I learned later was the second most dangerous spot in town.  The city is lovely, though, with a delightful historic center, and gorgeous views of Guagua Pichinche and Cotopaxi.


Ecuador’s true beauty lies in its wild areas, and I quickly learned that you do not have to venture far from Quito to see its splendor.  My first excursion took me to Pasochoa, an extinct volcano south of Quito.  I went with a groupof people I met through the South American Explorers Club, and I suppose it went about as well as you could expect an excursion with a poorly organized group with no leader could go.  We started off eating breakfast at a touristy coffee shop, and then 5 americans, 3 germans, 2 danes, a canadian and an englishman took taxis to the bus station where we were going to catch a bus to the town at the mountains base.  The station was pure chaos, and our first achievement was to leave one of the group members behind buying bananas as we scrambled to jump on hte already moving bus.  WE got to the town, and realized that I was the only person with enough knowlege of spanish to barter a truck driver to take us to the park entrance.  After bartering the driver toa bout half of his original price, I then got to sit up front with him and listen to his stories about how he got laid off and is barely making a living driving tourists up to the mountain while everyone else got to ride cattle style in the bed of the truck.  We got to the mountain, though, and the trail was gorgeous.  After an hour at 13,000 feet I was a little winded to keep up with the group that wanted to go to the sumit, so I slowed down and watched birds - absolutely spectacular.  The rest kept going, and by six that afternoon, our appointed meeting time to catch the truck back, most of the hikers had returned, not quite reaching the summit.  Three, however, had attempted to make the summit, and had not arrived.  We waited and waited, missing our bus back to Quito, and still they had not returned.  It was dark by the time we left and drove to another town to be able to catch the bus back to Quito.  We amassed back at the coffee shop to try to figure out what to do about the three lost hikers when they walked into the coffee shop.  Apparently, they decided to hike clear over the mountain, rather than return to where we started from, and walked to the next town where they caught a bus back.


The next day, not having had enough adventure the previous day, I decided to go to El Mitad del Mundo and visit the equator and Pululahua, a volcano to the north of Quito.  The monument at the equator was pretty cool, but that is where I met and hired Maricelo, my guide to Pululahua.  On the bus ride to the crater, he told me about how the volcano had not erupted for hundreds of years, and how they had had a magnitude 7 earthquake there about ten years before.  The earthquake was not all bad, he explained to me as the bus veered around a motorcycle carrying a family of five, it happened at night, and he got to see all the women in town in their night shirts as they evacuated their houses.  We got to Pululahua, and could not see a thing from the crater rim, as clouds obscured everything.  We decided to descend into the crater for a better view.  On the way down the steep trail, he pointed out various plants the native people used.  He picked some berries off of a vine, ate one, and gave one to me to eat.  They tasted something like blackberries, and he then told me that they were hallucinogenic.  Seeing the look that must have been on my face, he quickly assured me that it would take several berries for it to affect me, he then warned, if I ate about ten of them I would probably die.  He picked a couple more berries, and used them to paint my face and arm, signs that I was "a visitor," a tourist more likely.  We descended a little farther, until we had a spectacular view of the crater, and the farms of the 100 or so families that live on the crater floor.  They have lived there since before the conquests, Maricelo told me, and carry their produce on their shoulders up the crater to trade and sell their goods.  I could barely make it up the incline just carrying my daypack!


The next day I hired a driver to take me to Mindo, a town northeast of Quito, and about half way down the mountains to the coast.  We stopped several times along the way, hiking up to some waterfalls, and bird watching.  I saw some of the most incredible hummingbirds I have ever seen!  We started off on a nice highway, but on the advice of another birdwatcher, we diverted onto what could best be described as a poorly maintained logging road.  After reaching a small town (pop. 3, all elderly, but they had two stores in town), the road quickly deteriorated to nothing more than a very bumpy off-road adventure.  We eventually reached Mindo, and spent the night in a very nice Cabana, with my outdoor bed facing the nearby stream.  I fell asleep listening to the gurgle of the stream and a chorus of insects with the lantern bugs lighting up the trees like it were Christmas.


In the morning, we got up to a wonderful view of Guagua Pichinche from the opposite side as Quito, and after a breakfast of instant coffee and bananas, we drove up another very bumpy road to a trailhead that lead through the forest to a waterfall.  The forest was absolutely gorgeous, and the falls spectacular.  I had to climb down a rather precarious ladder made of branches to reach the bottom of the falls, and was so excited to get a picture of the falls, that I fell into the river.  No worries, though, I just made sure my camera was dry, and went swimming in the pools above the falls.  After drying in the sun, we returned to town where we hired another guide for an inner-tube ride down another river nearby.  Our guide didn’t seem to like to talk much, but I did learn that this was his first time as a guide just before we hit our first set of rapids.  My faith in his abilities was slightly encumbered by the fact that in that first set, he ran our lashed together inner-tube raft right into a large boulder - my head first.  Apart from a bit of a bump on my head, the rest of the river went smoothly, and I had a blast. 


From there we returned back to Quito, where I find myself now, waiting for my flight tomorrow morning to the Galapagos.  I will keep you all posted as to my whereabouts and activities as my trip continues.  As a postscript, I realize that my messages are often long, and if you would prefer not to receive these updates, please let me know.  Otherwise, you will probably hear from me every now and then, with equally long descriptions of my travels.




Gerick Bergsma