Head in the Clouds

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There was definitely a lake there a minute ago. Definitely. In fact a minute ago we were rapidly shedding clothes in the late afternoon sun, and now here we were in the depths of thick, grey cloud, with freezing rain spitting sharply against our bare skin. For the view we had currently we could’ve been anywhere in the world, yet it was half way up the inside of an ancient Ecuadorian volcanic crater we found ourselves, on an afternoon that summed up our first two weeks here perfectly. Plodding slowly onwards and upwards through the thin Andean air, we timed our ascent to perfection. As quickly as the clouds had steamrolled into the crater, filling it within seconds, they disappeared as we heaved ourselves up onto the rim.

Below us was Laguna Quilotoa, astoundingly blue and calm within a circle of dramatic cliffs surrounding the dormant volcano crater. Down to our left a few local women tended silently to their crops on impossibly angled slopes, a nearby Alpaca chewed thoughtfully beneath a face full of fur, while on the wind came the sounds of a fiercely contested volleyball match and the smell of chicken feet grilling on a nearby barbecue. Everything we’d come to know and love about Ecuador – the eccentricity of its weather, it’s people; happy, calm and unassuming, the deceptively tasty food and its incredible landscapes – seemed to be around us right there. Oh and the cloud, we had barely got our heads out of the cloud for the entire two weeks we’d been there.

We’d come into Ecuador at altitude, as having arrived from Colombia we made straight for the town of Otavalo. Famous for its market – probably the largest in Latin America – we’d timed it to perfection to arrive for the weekend, for it’s each Saturday when the market swells to its largest and pulls in both traders and tourists from afar. Buses rolled in from first light, all heaving with Ecuadorians and their produce to sell – baskets of chickens, leaning towers of ponchos, we even saw a bemused sheep in a backpack – each rosy cheeked and enthusiastic about the fortunes for the coming day.

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We cautiously went to the early morning animal market first – I say cautious due to some less than savoury experiences we’ve had with them before – but were relieved to find it was little more than a farmers market. Tip toeing through the animal excrement and swerving the hind legs of horses, cows and braying mules, we found ourselves amidst a scene of furious bidding and negotoation, as livestock changed hands as quickly as the auctioneer’s quickfire sales pitch. As for animals of a more exotic nature, this was limited to a few unperturbed Llamas and more guinea pigs than you could count. ‘Guinea pigs aren’t exotic?’ I hear you cry! Well they are when they’re destined for a dinner plate.

The main market itself is a different animal altogether. While the outskirts cater for the needs of locals – fruit and vegetables, clothing and general tat mostly – the central collection of stalls offer an array of goods so extensive and bewildering that it’ll keep you absorbed for hours. Indigenous traders sell traditional goods in bulk here – ponchos, panpipes, artwork and cloth can be found in every size and colour possible, while as with every market I’ve ever been to anywhere, the deadlocked profile of Bob Marley seems to somehow pop up repeatedly as well. In amongst the endless shelves of repetition there was some intrigue however; replicas of Amazonian shrunken heads and boxes of crawling larvae saw to that, while the Snake Oil salesman entertained bewilderingly transfixed crowds with their miracle cures of baldness, flatulence and everything in between. Our own remedy for the chaos of the crowds was an escape, away from Otavalo and up to the nearby Laguna Cuicocha, our first volcanic crater lake, where a stiff 13km hike around afforded us some incredible views and gave us a taste for some cleaner air. It was time to move on.

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The air was certainly clean at our next stop, but it was also somewhat busy. We’d come to the cloud forest of Mindo where the majority of traffic seemed to be airborne – birds and butterflies congregate here in huge numbers – meaning that consequently on land we discovered scores of another odd and curious spieces, the birdwatcher. They’re a strange bunch this lot, clad in anoraks and armed with binoculars and the kind of telescopic camera lens that NASA would deem ‘over the top’, they talk in a whispered, foreign language unknown to the rest of us.

Quick! Up there! A lesser spotted Cock of the Rock is on the Lek, take a gander at that plumage, what a crippler!”

I’m not there yet, and nor do I ever hope to be, but gradually it seems that as I age, so does my interest in our feathered friends. It was hard not to be impressed here however. Hummingbirds zipped past our heads at an alarmingly close distance, while Swallow Tailed Kites cruised on the thermals above and the occasional Toucan, it’s beak streaked with vivid colours, could be seen perched on a nearby branch. Oh bloody hell, I sound like one of them, don’t I? Not to be outdone, we took to the skies ourself on a zip line tour, spending a fun couple of hours gliding through the canopy with all the elegance of a cow being lifted by a crane, before wisely returning to the safety of terra firma.

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They seem to have a novel approach to water in Mindo, in terms of how they handle it. Want to cross the River Nambillo to see the succession of waterfalls up in the forest? Well then take a knee shakingly high cable car that creaks its way 530 metres across the canyon. Having done that you could then find yourself at Nambillo Waterfalls, where not content with merely letting people look at the raging river and waterfalls, they’ve ingeniously constructed a diving board, two small bathing pools and a concrete water slide that I still have bruises from now. Having had our fun splashing around we crossed back over the hillside in the hope of tubing back to town on the River Mindo, only to find the tubing company had gone home for the day and once again, they hadn’t bothered with building a bridge meaning we had to winch ourselves across the swollen river in a glorified wooden banana crate. I’d pay to see the reaction of a British health and safety inspector here.

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I’m not sure that health and inspector would have been too impressed in Quito either, where a couple of days later we found ourselves watching the annual Good Friday procession. Easter is big business in Latin America, where the week leading up to Easter Sunday is known as Semana Santa, the Holy Week. The Good Friday processsion here depicting the crucifiction of Jesus Christ is said to be one of the largest on earth, and we were told that it was only in recent times that they stopped actually nailing actors to the cross. True or not, a seemingly endless procession including scores of Jesus Christs is brutal enough, many collapsing in the midday sun under the weight of the large wooden crosses, while others with crowns of thorns, barbed wire and cactus crosses strapped to their backs have more than sweat running down their backs. The parade mostly consisted of curious figures in a purple Klu Klux Klan type get up, meant to represent humility and penitence, and as we retreated to the top of the Basilica for views across the entire city and down onto the procession below, we watched a stream of purple wind its way around the old town.

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We spent a week in Quito, which by our standards for a city visit is a long time. We’d set aside the extra time to try to organise a trip to the Galapagos Islands, so in between hours spent in tourist agencies, a trip to the equator at Mitad del Mundo and wandering empty streets deserted for Easter, we got to see a bit of the city as well. We found a charm to Quito unlike anything we’d found in the big Colombian cities; whether it’s the narrow streets of the old town, the relaxed green open spaces dotted around or the looming presence of Cotopaxi nearby, there’s something alluring here. It’s a long and narrow city, broken by the angelic figure of La Virgen de Quito on El Panecillo, where any incline of pavement will leave you breathless, mouth gasping for oxygen. At 3000 metres above sea level Quito is in definite cloud territory – as are Otavalo, Mindo and Quiliatoa, all a couple of hours bus ride away – but it was the organisation of the next leg of our trip that had left us the most cloudy headed of all. The different options and itineraries, the costs and the add ons, the advice of a hundred different experts; it all added up to give us a a headache worse than any altitude sickness could manage. But it mattered not, we were going to Galapagos.

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