After visiting the village of Cahuasqui, my family and I stayed the night in Otavalo, the major city closest to the village. I’d visted Otavalo the last time I went to Ecuador as well, but this was my first time spending the night in a hotel in the area.
We enjoyed the cool summer evening, watching the locals hang around Simón Bolivar Park. Teenagers sat near the statue with their skateboards and a speaker playing music loudly. Mothers pushed strollers along the walking paths. Toddlers ran around the grass, dancing to the music playing from all sides of the park.
My uncle had a toddler of his own that we towed around town, walking down the streets and peeking into the shops. Rows upon rows of clothing and shoe stores abounded the city’s streets. Of course, food was also interspered among the shops. One group of friends stood on the corner eating fully-loaded hot dogs from a vendor as one would do in New York City.
The next day we stuck around long enough to do some shopping at the Plaza de los Ponchos. This colorful display is filled with handmade wears from the locals who sell their trinkets, clothing, and food to visiting city dwellers and tourists. You can test your haggling skills to the max at this flea market that Otavaleños put out every weekend.
It’s always the colors that fascinate me at these markets. I’m in love with the bright and vibrant blends and patterns they use in this community. It’s a beautiful tradition that pays homage to their indigenous roots. I picked up a jacket with a mesmerizing purple and gray pattern made from alpaca wool. It’s my new favorite winter wear. And it was perfect for my trip to the mountains the next day, but that’s a story for the next installment.
The Plaza de Ponchos offers fresh fruit, produce, and snacks to munch on throughout the day. The shortbread cookies from a local baker were my favorite that day.
We also saw performers singing and dancing for tips at a few different stalls. It’s an experience that reminded me how alive the people of my father’s country are. There is joy and celebration in the smallest of moments and in the everyday.
Have any of you visited Otavalo? Do you want to see it after reading this post? Let me know in the comments.
Outside of Quito my dad and I took the rental car on a trek through the mountains on what’s known as la ruta escondida, “the hidden route.” It’s a mountain road that passes through five villages: Atahualpa, Perucho, Chavezpamba, San José de Minas and San Antonio de Pichincha.
It’s a daunting task driving on dirt and pebble roads through the mountains. The constant curves and up and down is enough to make anyone car sick, so if you take this trip and you’re prone to motion sickness, I highly recommend Dramamine and ginger chews.
What’s truly thrilling though is winding through these narrow roads, knowing at any moment another car coming from the other direction can be around the corner. There are no guard rails on these roads, so it’s a test of skill and courage to drive through those mountains.
The sights along the way are a marvel. There’s green as far as the eye can see, old bridges long forgotten by city dwellers and clean streams of water for passing cows and llamas to drink from.
We saw the locals walking on the same roads our car drove on. These are rural people who make a living off the land and think nothing of a 20-mile journey on foot.
It’s a long way between towns, so make sure you have a fully charged phone, or at least a portable charger with you. The last thing you want is to be stranded out in the mountains without a phone to call for help.
On our road trip through la ruta escondida, we stopped for lunch in Perucho at a little local restaurant. It looked more like someone’s house, but that’s how businesses are out there. The food was delicious, made with fresh ingredients. Everything tastes different in Ecuador. It all tastes the way food should, without the added preservatives and chemicals. Make sure you work up an appetite, because each meal after the morning includes a bowl of soup and a plate of rice, protein and greens.
Our journey through the mountains led to the destination I’d most anticipated: the village of Cahuasqui, my family’s surname. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who knew how to pronounce my last name. Even better, my last name was on everything, from restaurants to grocery stores to ice cream shops.
It’s common to see European surnames on buildings in the U.S. Depending on where you travel in America, Spanish surnames are also plenty. But indigenous names like Cahuasqui? Never.
It was quiet the day we visited the town, but it felt like home. We stopped for dinner here, once more in what felt like a resident’s private kitchen. We picked at salted popcorn as we awaited our meals. Popcorn was the appetizer of choice here, like how Mexican restaurants set out chips and salsa or Cuban restaurants set out garlic bread.
Before daylight ran out, we headed back on the road, through the winding mountain roads, back to the closest city, Otavalo. Stay tuned for my time in Otavalo in the next installment.
For the previous installment of my summer 2018 trip to Ecuador, click here. You can see more about my time in Ecuador from my first trip in 2011.
Has anyone else done a road trip like this one? Does anyone want to take the road less traveled after reading this? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!
I returned to Ecuador last year to see more than I did on my first visit. My dad and I still stayed in Quito with family, but this time we rented a car to take adventure into our own hands. Here’s where our tour led us this time.
Once more, we drove through my dad’s childhood neighborhood, but this time, he took me to his high school campus, Montufa. I saw the school that educated the man who became my father, who then educated me into the woman I am today.
We couldn’t get beyond the gates of the school, as we clearly were not students or faculty, but I could see its expansive size from where I stood. The white columns and buildings looked more like a university campus than a high school. But the hundreds of students milling about in matching dark uniforms let us know that this was, indeed, el colegio (high school).
My father wanted to take me onto the campus, to walk the halls and pathways he once did. Much the same way I wanted to take him through my own school’s tracks when I was in attendance at McArthur, to show him my world on the day parents came to speak with teachers and see their kids’ progress.
Though we didn’t get that chance, to see Montufa as it stood before me that day, and as I watched those kids running from one end of the campus to another, urgent in their need to get away from classes at the end of the day, reminded me that my father once lived a life not so different from mine as a teenager.
Centro de Arte Contemporáneo
In the Barrio de San Juan stands an art museum that once functioned as a military hospital outpost and sanatorium. I know this not because we walked inside and read a sign, but because when we came upon it, my father stood in awe before the building and said, “Remember the stories I told you about standing guard at night when I was in the army? Well, this is where it was.”
I’ve heard the story countless times. How at night the soldiers stood guard at the hospital, knowing that only feet away lay the dead bodies in the mortuary, waiting to be taken for burial or autopsies.
One night my father, the eternal prankster, took things a bit far. He left his shift as a fellow soldier took over, but instead of leaving for the night, he stayed behind to play a trick. See, the soldiers always felt creeped out by the place, but my dad was never bothered by the dead.
That night, my father set up a prank that made it sound like the dead had come back to life. The soldier on guard that night got so spooked, he began firing into the sanatorium, where my father still lingered for his prank. The other soldier was so scared, he shot more rounds than necessary, and my father had to run the other way, climb out a window, and shimmy down a wall to escape getting shot by his scared comrade. To this day, my dad still thinks it was a good, worthwhile prank.
That day in the summer of 2018, I stood in the very spot where that story took place. Now, where once the dead awaited their next destination, stands a museum for contemporary art. Where once military soldiers like my father stood guard, now is a civilian guard for the art’s protection and tourist’s convenience.
Ciudad Mitad del Mundo
Located in the San Antonio parish of Pichincha, Quito, Ecuador, stands a monument to the halfway point of the world; an homage to the land’s namesake, the equator.
I don’t remember there being a whole city built around this tourist attraction the last time I visited in 2011. At least, not to the extent I saw that day. There was a whole map of sights other than the monument and its museum interior. We didn’t have time to see everything as we arrived late in the day, but it was still amazing to see how far the attraction had grown. I felt proud to see that so many people wanted to know of my family’s culture and history.
If you’re able to climb stairs, the museum inside the monument showcases pieces from the country’s indigenous cultures and a timeline of its history. Nearby is another building with a virtual reality presentation of the stars, like an observatory come to life before your eyes, that gives visitors a look into the geography’s development.
Today we know that where the line of demarcation sits isn’t an accurate reading of where the equator runs. But hey, what’s 240 meters between friends? When you visit, make sure to take a turn around the village to see authentic homes, churches, and shops that contain keepsakes of the rich Ecuadorian culture.
See my first impressions of Ecuador from my first visit in 2011 (link in first paragraph). Let me know if any of you have been to Ecuador and drop a comment! Stay tuned for the rest of my adventures in Ecuador, summer of 2018.
The road so far
is the same that leads
us back. Back to where you
and I come from, where
your ancestors dwelled.
It’s quiet here
and the people don’t care
that we’re here. They figure
we’re just more tourists
come to see the oddity
that is small town life where
everyone knows each other.
The currency flows back
and forth as everyone buys
local and those shopkeepers
live there, buying from one
another. No such thing as credit
here. We sit in peace after our meal
feeling at home. We have to leave
Blue to the front
and green to the back.
Nothing but mountain and sky
for miles above and below.
Sitting in a plastic box, miles
above the surface, life stands
still. It’s just an expanse all around
and nothing else matters.
I don’t feel small or insignificant
or afraid. I just feel a part of it
forever expanding, my lungs
feebly mimicking the experience
in a way the human mind
comprehends. I see the top
where sky meets earth, still
unable to see where one begins
and the other ends. The lines
just bleed and my veins try
to mirror the phenomenon.
But we can’t.
In August 2011 I visited my father’s home country of Ecuador for the first time. I remember my excitement when I booked the airplane tickets for my dad, my mom, and me. Then the day came and boarding the plane to leave the country for the first time turned my stomach in the best way possible. As we approached the green mountains of Quito and flew in between the peaks to get to the city’s airport, the rain drops drizzled down the open plane window and I stopped breathing, our aircraft tilting to fit in the middle and avoid the most turbulence.
We were picked up by an old family member whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years and suddenly I remembered the way he used to make me laugh at family holiday parties. My first time in my father’s country and I felt like I’d come home, my heart recognizing right away that the air I breathed and soil I walked on flowed through my veins. My father’s first time back in his home country in over 30 years and the part of his soul he’d thought long dormant came alive once more.
As we weaved our way through rain and traffic, in and out of road lanes, up and down hills, I realized why Miami drivers act the way they do. The lanes were more like guidelines. Cars honked and motorists yelled at one another just like in any other big city. Buses and taxis ruled the roadways, knowing their public status gave them the most leeway in erratic navigation.
The first day we took the bus around the city, I watched an old man, old enough to be my grandfather, hop off the public transit as it decreased speed to a slow cruise down an asphalt hill but never stopping. I gasped as I saw him stumble and fall on his backside, but he immediately popped back up and went on his way as if nothing had happened. I was glad we were getting off at their Port Authority so that the bus would actually stop, but I’ll admit, when we’d hopped on, I literally mean we’d hopped on. The buses barely slow down enough for passengers to get on and disembark, so anyone planning on taking a trip to Quito better be ready to hit the ground running.
For those who love to travel for the food, be ready to have a healthy serving of soup before every savory meal (lunch and dinner). It’s more than enough soup to serve as a meal itself, but save room for the rice and beans, plantains, and meats. The amount of food I ate never stuffed me for long though, as I did enough walking up and down hills throughout the city and at sites on the outskirts that I was always ravenous by the time the next meal came around. Recommended: start off the day with a bowl of cereal with yogurt, not milk. My personal favorite was the guanabana (soursop) with fruit loops, as its sweet and tart mix made for a refreshing morning start.
We visited sites like Pululahua, a crater left over from a volcano that had erupted many years before, and now housed a valley with a village of locals that made their lives there. Over in Baños, in the distance stands the Tungurahua, a still-active volcano that has destroyed the village at its edge that no matter how many times it crumbles is always rebuilt and the people go on living in their home. At the Mitad del Mundo we straddled the equator and for a moment stood in two places at once.
There’s too many words and memories of my time in Ecuador, and although it’s been six years since I saw it, I still see the waterfalls and green mountains so clearly, with the view of Cotopaxi’s peak the first image that greeted me every morning. Since the moment I boarded the plane that took me back home to Florida, I’ve been dying to step back on my father’s land. I imagine the longing I have is only a fraction of what he’s felt every day since he left, and I can’t wait until the day we both return.