Is this Place Really More Than 400 Years Old?

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South America » Ecuador » North » Otavalo
March 28th 2015
Published: June 12th 2017
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Geo: 0.233333, -78.2667

None of us had a very restful night of sleep, which was to be expected given the altitude and what we had read before our trip. Still, we were at least clean and ready to meet up with our tour after breakfast at the hotel. We had no idea how many people to expect, as we had not received a list from Gate1 before departing the States.

We recognized our guide from a video on the Gate1 site, advertising our tour. He provided us with all of our welcome information and assured us that our bags would be picked up and brought along. We made our way outside to a middle-sized tour bus with about 25 seats. By the time everyone boarded, we realized we were a group of only 12, including us! I had never expected such a small group, and several of us commented that we were impressed that they ran the tour with so few people. The tour is run twice a week, too, which made it even more of a welcome surprise. We were joined by two couples (one from Las Vegas, another from Baltimore), a widower from Kentucky, and an Indian family of four from...Fairfax. We laughed at that. We'd come all this way, and between the couple from Baltimore, ourselves, and the Fairfax family, nine of the 12 folks were from the DC area. The Fairfax family had two girls; one in Anna's grade -- 9th -- and a younger 7th grader. By the end of the trip, we all knew each other quite well. I had never done a tour before, and K had been a little concerned that I would not like it. I must admit, however, that I enjoyed it. I particularly loved not having to plan anything or haul bags!

Our morning was spent touring the city of Quito, which has about 2 million inhabitants, if you count all of the suburbs out to the new airport. It is not, however, the biggest city in Ecuador -- that "honor" belongs to Guayaquil in the south, on the Atlantic coast. All of the true sites are in the Old City, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and which is the largest and most-intact Spanish colonial city in the new world. The shear number of churches was staggering; many of which date to the 1600's. Our walking tour of the old city included numerous churches, cathedrals and Spanish buildings. Again, the forecast had been way off the mark, as it was partly sunny with no rain and temps in the 60's. Hard to complain.

We left Quito proper and then drove a little southward to the "center of the world" -- aka, a monument built on top of the equator. The site was selected by the Spanish several hundred years ago and has, in fact, since been proven to be "a little off," and not quite on the geographic equator. Still, we availed ourselves of the photo and shopping opportunity, and grabbed a quick lunch at one of the several restaurants in the complex. Next door was a very modern conference hall which is supposed to be the future home of UNASUR, which is "South America's answer to the European Union." Evidently the countries have already agreed on a common currency, like the Euro, which is to debut in a few years. It all sounded nice, but I'm not holding my breath to see it happen. Our tour guide -- Pato -- told us that the name of the new currency is the Sucre, which was in fact the name of Ecuador's old -- and much despised -- currency. We learned a lot about Ecuador's history, much of which I'm embarrassed to say I did not know. Who knew that Ecuador and Peru fought a war in 1995, after which Ecuador finally had to cede the Amazon River to Peru? I sure did not. Our guide was clearly a fan of the new president, but he was careful in his history. I read about the series of juntas and CIA-led coups over the years; he was careful to avoid these topics. He did acknowledge the incredible levels of corruption which existed, and how a series of juntas has amassed huge foreign debt and pretty much given away or illegally sold much of the access to the oil deposits in the Amazon rain forest. By the 1990's, almost 70 percent of their GDP was going to pay the interest on foreign debt. They ultimately defaulted on the debt -- the first country to do so -- and that coincided with the government decision to drop the old Sucre and adopt the U.S. dollar as their official currency, which they use to this day. In the months following the debt default, inflation was running around 2,000 percent and converting the currency seemed the only way to stop the hemorrhaging. As it turns out, however, the country's small elite had advance warning of the switchover, which was announced with no warning to the general public. Those people had time to convert their money at free-market rates, before the government established a fixed exchange rate, which was about 1/100 of the street value. The president at the time fled the country with millions of dollars and now teaches economics at Harvard. I'm still trying to figure that one out. Ecuador has been trying to extradite him ever since, but the U.S. will not, citing no extradition treaty. Anger over this is one of the reasons Ecuador has offered asylum to Julian Estrange of WikiLeaks "fame," as well as the traitor Edward Snowden -- as a way to get back at the U.S. Anyway, the point of all this was that the currency is the dollar, which meant that understanding prices was very easy. I also now know what happened to all of the U.S. Sacagawea dollar coins -- they're all in Ecuador. The mint their own 50-cent and 25-cent coins, but everything else is U.S. currency, including the dollar coins, which were very popular.

We had about a two-hour drive after leaving the Center of the World place, back through the outskirts of Quito and then north along parts of the PanAmerican Highway toward the small city of Otavalo, which lies in the center of three active volcanoes, known as Mama, Papa, and Baby. We were staying at a Hacienda along a lake at the base of the "Mama" Volcano. The Hacienda dates back to 1602 and finding such an incredibly beautiful complex in the middle of what seemed like nowhere was a completely unexpected surprise. We we assigned to our little apartment-like room adjacent to a garden courtyard, with a ceramic oven in one corner of a main bedroom, and an adjacent bedroom with another bed and then the bathroom. We were amazed at the condition and comfort, especially considering the age of the complex.

The sun had now come out in force, and K and I spent what little time remained of the daylight to explore the grounds. We then met in the library of the main house for our formal welcome meeting with our tour guide and travel mates. As people had been flying in at various times of the day from various cities the previous day, there was no welcome gathering that first night.

It was here that we heard from everyone on the trip, to include the couple from Baltimore, who spoke with heavy Russian accents. We would learn during the trip that they were from Lvov in The Ukraine and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1990's, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They had won the "visa lottery" and moved to the U.S. with their two now-grown sons, speaking no English, and with $1,800 in their pocket. He has a masters in Electrical Engineering and she a PhD from Moscow Technical University. They ended in Baltimore because a church group there helped resettle them in the States. While they were not my favorite couple -- very opinionated, as is the Slavic way -- their stories were fascinating, particularly about the current situation in Ukraine.

Dinner was a group affair in the Hacienda. We had not been sure what to expect foodwise, I guess I had images of Mexican-style fare. That was soon dispensed, and the vast majority of what we ate was European in nature, with lots of fresh seafood. A very pleasant surprise.

Speaking of pleasant surprises; the best were yet to come. As we were still at a very high altitude, the temperature dropped quickly after the sun went down and our room was quite cold by the time we returned from dinner. We had one small electric radiator to heat all three rooms, and though we'd left it on, the room seemed no warmer. We piled extra blankets on the beds when the first of two knocks came to the door. First in walked a very elderly woman bringing genuine hot-water bottles for each of the beds. She tucked those in and no sooner had she left when there was another knock. This time a young man came in carry a pile of dry wood. He proceeded to build a raging fire in the ceramic fireplace. Laying in bed, with my hot-water bottle, listening to the crackle and watching the fire as I fell asleep was one of my highlights from the trip. Though the fire died out in the night, the ceramic walls of the stove were still hot in the morning and the room was very cozy.

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