I'm typing this blog entry on our way back from Cotopaxi National Park. The scenery is just breathtaking. To my right and left are mountain ranges bathed in puffy clouds. They sort of remind me of California, where there are gorgeous peaks everywhere. But, there's one main difference: here the mountains are covered in a blanket of emerald green. The different shades make them look like well manicured lawns. We're cruising down the Pan American highway, specifically in a section with multiple lanes in both directions. This means that we don't have to worry about crazy car passing mixed with blind curves. I'm thankful for this, but I think Shira misses the challenge a bit. Every few miles we see a cow or two grazing along the side of the road. Another unusual sight we'll see now and then are cows grazing on what appear to be impossibly steep slopes of a mountain. How they get up there is beyond me. While this is a major highway, we see pedestrians running across it every now and then and bicyclists trudging up and down the hills. No easy feat given the altitude of 10,000 feet plus.
Cotopaxi National Park is home to, no surprise, Cotopaxi Volcano. Cotopaxi is massive, and most of the time we were in the park its summit was covered in cloud cover. The ecosystem found at the national park was unexpected. In some ways it was reminiscent of desert conditions with wide open spaces and scrubby, low growing plants. But, unlike a desert, just about everything is a shade of green.
We did a couple mile loop hike, and then drove up to a parking area at the base of Cotopaxi, which is at 15,266 feet (according to my Phone's GPS). Even at the parking lot the conditions were fairly brutal; frigid temperatures, wind and sleet. I'm cured of any hopes I had of doing a serious hike of Cotopaxi. I'm glad to admire it from a distance. The park is filled with wild horses and we spent some time ogling them. I was also excited to see various birds, although I do have to admit to being a tad bit disappointed when I realized that a flock of them were effectively seagulls. Still, they are Andean Gulls, so that's got to count for something. All in all, the park was fantastic and a terrific contrast to the Cloud Forest we hiked earlier in the week.
Yesterday, we did a side trip to Otavalo, a town famous for its various markets. Like the trip to Cotopaxi, the scenery was just amazing. Though, on this ride Shira got to drive like an Ecuadorian and practice overtaking cars while I held on for dear life. One highlight of the day: trying a new street food. The food is named Chochos and is a vegetarian form of ceviche. It consists of beans, popcorn and chips covered in salsa and lime juice. It's absolutely delicious, and I'm telling you now, one day it's going to catch on in the states.
On our way back from Otavalo, we stopped at another "center of the world" monument. This one is supposed to truly be on the equator. While there, we get a little talk about the site, and the suggestion that we've been looking at the globe all wrong. It should be turned on its side, to match the actual orientation of the Equator. Like: so. Whoa! Mind blown.
Last night we finally made it into Old Town for a terrific evening with our friends Matt and Abbie. We saw various churches lit up, though Shira was spared from touring any of them. Dinner was delicious with some of the highlights including a soup that contained generous portions of cheese and slices of avocado, a delicious quinoa burger and for desert hot chocolate with queso. That's right, hot chocolate with cheese. I love all things cheese, so I enjoyed it. But, I wouldn't expect this to catch on in the States anytime soon.
After dinner we strolled through Old Town and the place was hopping. We passed a band made up exclusively of members of the Police. At one point, there were two bands and a dance show all performing within a 30 foot radius. Good times.
The day before our trip to Otavalo we spent exploring Quito. We thoroughly enjoyed the Botanical Gardens which had an impressive display of Ecuadorian Orchids, crops (who knew quinoa was so decorative?) and a huge rose garden. But the highlight by far was the building full of carnivorous plants; what amazing creatures! I've seen various displays of carnivorous plants, but this was by far the largest and most impressive.
Also, during our explore Quito day, we visited a fruit and veggie market. In Ecuador, "exotic" (to us) fruit is plentiful, varying and dirt cheap. At the market, we just pointed to random fruits, and we'd get a bag full for $1.00. Once we got home, we had one heck of a time tasting our bounty. I'm officially a huge fan of Sweet Granadilla, and could totally pass on Banana Passionfruit. When you cut both of these fruits you find a mass of gelatinous seeds, though the Grandilla is quite sweet while Banana Passionfruit is sour. Our top pick for new fruit was the Uvillas (aka Golden Berry), which are a sort of cherry tomato sized fruit. Shira and I both found them addictive enough that we would eat them by the handful.
Ecuadorians love of fruit and cheese mean that even though this is hardly the most vegetarian friendly place we've been to, dining here is a pleasure.
Speaking of fruit and cheese: while exploring Quito I tried another street food which consisted of a grilled plantain (or banana?), sliced open and filled with cheese. Like the hot chocolate with cheese, I enjoyed it, but I don't see it catching on any time soon.
Hard to believe that tomorrow we head back to DC. I'm going to have to get used to not having exotic fruit at every meal and Shira's going to have to start obeying traffic laws again. It's going to be a tough transition for both of us. In the mean time, I'm going to continue to soak up all Ecuador has to offer.