Spanish. We had a week of lessons in Banos at Mayras spanish school (10hrs per week). We paid 20hrs of one-one lessons for $140, a fairly decent rate considering they were professional and had very good instructors. Our instructor Marco was hilarious, always taking comedy stabs at himself and Banos (mostly degrading of course).
It was an intensive week of study, and by the end we felt fairly confident speaking and understanding Spanish. I was surprised how quickly I was able to pick it up; probably helped from my knowledge of French.
Knowledge of basic spanish is a necessity when traveling Latin America. Perhaps less so in yuccutan Mexico? in Ecuador, even in the tourist areas, most ecuadorians don’t have a second language, and if it is, it’s Quichua (indigenous language). We find that ecuadorians aren’t forgiving either…they speak so quickly!
The Andes. They’re breathtaking. Especially with several active volcanoes dotted throughout the landscape. The majority of communities are agrarian- based and indigenous. After Quito, we headed north to Otavalo and stayed in a hosteria (Rose Cottage) on the outskirts of town.
<Hiking the countryside/Andes>
Our experience of the hostel was interesting to say the least. First, it was way too far from Otavalo to walk which I thought would be possible since they advertised it to be a 3 km from the town center. We’re guessing it was about 5km. On most days we were able to hitchhike into town, but on the way back (uphill!), not so lucky. So you basically need some form of transport if you’re staying there. Second, the owner Rosa, is quite insane. She’s rather rude and arrogant. A few examples:
> The first few days she was 15-20 min late opening up for breakfast and wasn’t the least apologetic. She didn’t think it was appropriate for her handyman to allow us into the restaurant even though we had been waiting for her for 20 min in the cold.
> She didn’t want to serve me wine one evening because she was too busy cooking dinner for a family of four.
> She complains about her guests to us in a very unprofessional way.
> She treats her staff like shit.
> The WIFI doesn’t work, even though Rosa was insistent that it did work.
On the positive side, the views of the hosteria were beautiful. She gave us one free night stay (6th night was free). The cottage was decent and included a kitchen (though it got quite chilly at night). And the housekeeper Martha was a sweet lady and did a superb job keeping the place clean and tidy.
Right, so enough of my rant about Rosa of Rose Cottage. Otavalo was a wonderful place to chill; a few nice cafes and a lovely square. They’ve got a handicraft market, fruit & veg market and lots of bakeries. On Saturdays, the handicraft market grows threefold (at least!) and has a large array of textiles, paintings, carvings, souvenirs, etc. we carefully selected our souvenirs since our luggage space is limited. I drove a hard bargain for some things, mostly the embroidered textiles (asking price $140, paid $80). The seller didn’t walk away smiling. I have no shame in bargaining, the trick is to know you have the buying power and should walk away if you’re unsatisfied with the price (some feel obliged to complete the bargaining process). It’s likely that someone else a few yards away is selling something similar.
There’s also an animal market on Saturdays as well. Absolute chaos. Even saw a pig get hauled into the truck of a taxi cab (in full squeal of course). Everyone was carrying a chicken under their arm like an assessory. Sadly Our rough ‘n tough camera got swiped from Tim’s pocket. Sort of ruined our whole experience of the Saturday market. Boo.
We also went on a few hikes when it didn’t rain (the weather was a bit crap the first half of the week). We visited the local waterfalls and hiked to the Condor Park (a full mornings hike in the scorching sun). we also spent a good day in cotacachi town, renown for their leatherwork. It was tiresome after three hours of shopping/browsing but we landed on a few nice leather jackets (red leather jacket for myself, and two for tim). We hate the idea of having to cart them around Ecuador for two months, but they were so worth the purchase. And yes, they are heavy to carry!!
After Otavalo, we headed for Banos (translated as bath, but the common term for toilets). Such a longgggg journey, especially for Darwin. I was tired, tim was tired and baby was so cranky the last hour of the 8 hour journey – otavalo to the north bus terminal (3hrs), taxi to south bus terminal ($13, 45 min), bus to ambato (2hrs), bus to banos (1.5hrs). I really couldn’t blame him for hating us, I promised Myself (and Darwin) that we would have bus journeys no more than five hours in duration.
Banos is a small town situated at the base of tungurahua volcano (active). It’s a fairly small town, you can get from one end of the town to another by foot in 20 minutes. Lots of tourist shops selling crap souvenirs. I did end up buying sugarcane toffee since it is a specialty of the area. Lots of outfitters selling outdoor adventure trips like bungee jumping, rappelling, rock climbing, rafting…etc. we opted not doing any of them since we had baby and frankly it’s too expensive for what you get out of it (I.e. adrenaline rush). We did plenty of hikes and we rented a bike for a morning to check out a few waterfalls. Tim under the influence of some hostal friends, decided to climb Cotopaxi, a volcano at an elevation of 5897m. He said he felt the effects of altitude at the refuge, and had a restless night trying to sleep. They also had to start their hike after midnight to catch the sunrise on the volcano (perhaps the weather is better), and lessen the effects of altitude sickness by descending the volcano as soon as possible. Unfortunately, they had such adverse weather conditions that they weren’t able to summit (tim said it was worse than a canadian storm, with horizontal ice pellets scouring your face and eyes, and icing your gear). I guess it was worth a try. Put him back $180 though, ouch!
Another bonus about Banos is that its cheap- our hostal cost us $16/night, a pint of beer is $1.5, and there are plenty of fresh food markets selling produce at bargain prices. Tim got food poisoning at the mercado. I really should have been the one to get sick since i offered tim my dodgy sausage in place of his chicken wing (knowing he doesnt like dark poultry meat). After a vomit and a days fever, Tim was back to normal. Other than that incident, We enjoyed our time here. On the last day, would you believe, the volcano erupted ash! Thrilling experience but glad it was our last day. All the picturesque scenery of the area was hazed in smoke, and I can’t imagine the air quality being safe for infants either.
We headed from Banos to Ambato, then transferred to Riobamba (quite a hole), and onwards to Alausi. The small rail town offered great scenery, but the hotel we stayed in (pan americana hotel) was a shit hole and never been cleaned. We were so eager to leave the next day to Guayaquil.