Exploring Ecuador Slowly…But It’s Almost Over.

The weeks have zipped by in Ecuador, full of exploration and fun – so much so that I’ve neglected the blog without a moment of guilt…til now, as we see our three months in South America coming to an end.

Let’s rush back to Otavalo for a few minutes, which we enjoyed following the difficult overland trip from Popayan (see previous blog). Otavalo was the place in Ecuador we’d first thought might appeal as a place to “ex-patriate” ourselves for a while in the coming years. It isn’t as prominent on the overseas retirement list as its nearby sister city, Cotopaxi, or its far away kin, Cuenca, but we thought it might work for us, and spent a week there to see if we were right.

Otavalo Market Gossip

Otavalo Market Gossip

Summing it up, some of the reasons we liked Otavalo were because of its scale – smaller, walkable, and no high rise buildings. The climate in March was lovely, at 8500’ high in the Andes, with even higher areas to explore, including volcanic peaks and hot springs, and of course, the well-known craft market.  Not sure whether it’s the ginko we’ve been taking or not, but we’ve had NO altitude issues…yay!

Much as we enjoyed Otavalo though, we probably won’t return for a long-term stay – for some of the same reasons. At about 90,000 local residents, and a very small international community, there wasn’t as much variety in nightlife (restaurants) as we had imagined. Also, not yet an international bookstore or book exchange. And, surprisingly, the craft market itself was a little bit disappointing (see more below.)

All in all, Otavalo didn’t “feel” right, the way we later discovered Cuenca did. Someday it will – when more expats discover it, and have the energy and interest in building small businesses (like the great little coffee shop, The Daily Grind) – we’re just not the ones who want to create those enterprises.

The famed Otavalo market is overwhelming, in the way that you can have too much of a good thing. Dozens upon dozens of small stalls fill the Plaza des Ponchos, every day of the week in a maze of indigenous entrepreneurship. Except on Saturday, when the market expands from the Plaza and fills many surrounding streets as well. Many of those stalls are filled with the same items – from ponchos, sweaters, pants and pullovers to blankets, table runners and bags of many kinds. There are wood carvings, paintings and jewelry, wooden bowls and maracas. Some of it is beautiful, but there’s so much of everything that it’s mind-boggling. And brings to mind doubts of how much could possibly be “handmade.” It was truly staggering how much of everything there was, and how one stall resembled another. How to decide what to buy and who to buy it from? How could each of these merchants be making a living? And what about the actual storefronts we saw, where huge plastic bags were filled with the same trinkets, shawls and hats that we’d just seen in the market?

Many Many Many Crafts

Many Many Many Crafts

So I was pleased to see, from time to time, people (usually women) actually making something by hand – crocheting a bag, knitting a hat, weaving a bracelet. Even more rewarding was going on a day long trip with Runa Tupari, a tour operator in Otavalo (www.runatupari.com/index.php/en) during which we visited traditional craftspeople in their homes. Those were the moments I’ll remember.

82 Year Old Weaver

82 Year Old Weaver

Thus it was that after a week exploring, talking to people, and avoiding much shopping, Otavalo dropped from the list of potential residences; and nearby Cotopaxi never made the list at all – many of the local people had mentioned with bemusement that there was a neighborhood full of Norte Americanos there, and that it was like a little America – not what we’d be looking for if we live overseas again.

But, go to Otavalo, do.  And we’ll go back too.   It’s a charming small Ecuadorian town, and there’s a lot to do from there, from hiking to boating to exploring the traditional crafts refined over generations. There are a couple of great little coffee shops and a fantastic pie shop – yes, American style pies with thick fillings of amazing tasting Ecuadorian fruits. We went three times in the week we were there.

Food Adventures

Food Adventures

And the market, despite my concerns, is a visual extravaganza, which is why I spent more time taking pictures, and less time shopping. Next time, a bit more about Otavalo.

New Friends...

New Friends…

4 Big Rivers, 5 Days, 7 States, and 1000 Miles…

We’ve crossed the Delaware, Susquehanna, Potomac, and Ohio rivers in the past 5 days, and look forward to sunny days and more leisure to enjoy the ones yet to come (The Missouri! The Mississippi! The Columbia!) One highlight of the trip so far was the memorial service in the chapel at the Virginia Military Institute, honoring the ten young cadets who died in the Battle of New Market in May 1864.

Soft, lilting southern accents permeate the air – the wait staff at restaurants, in particular, sound gracious and kind, and even if the service is a bit slow from time to time, it feels simply good to just sit and wait, talking about the day, the drive, the scenery, the breweries!

I’ve already lost count – there was Star Hill in Crozet, Blue Mountain Brewery in the heart of the Blue Ridge mountains, Devil’s Backbone and Blue Lab in Lexington, VA….the Charleston Brewery in West Virginia…and more.

Virginia’s many historic markers included one marking the location of Meriwether Lewis’ birthplace – this gave me a thrill (yes, it did!), because we’re going to be driving in large part along the Lewis & Clark trail once we arrive in St. Louis.

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis

Our drives haven’t started early yet, so there’s been room for morning exercise either at the hotels (terrible equipment!) or running.  Rest stops include some serious stretching of legs, hips, shoulders, back – otherwise, yikes!

I’m reviewing many of the places we’re eating on www.yelp.com – so you can look up Pronto and The Red Hen in Lexington, and others I’ll share as we go along.  The Red Hen was an extraordinary, tiny restaurant serving meals prepared from daily ingredients sourced locally – truly fine dining, and not something we can afford to repeat every day!

We left Lexington on Friday and drove to Charleston, West Virginia, along miles and miles of absolutely beautiful, winding S-curves, up and down roads across the Blue Ridge, and through West Virginia – I now understand why it’s called the “Mountain State” – it feels like the entire state is series of tiny towns in narrow valleys set between lush green hills.  From Charleston we made it to Lexington, Kentucky, site of one of Mary Todd Lincoln’s childhood homes.

Winsome Sculpture

Winsome Sculpture

This Lexington had no VMI, but does have Henry Clay’s home and law office, a thriving bourbon/craft brewing industry, and a busy Saturday morning farm market which I explored.  I didn’t get a doughnut today – but Cathy of Cedar Ridge Farm had a delicious sour cream cinnamon roll that was superb with the pourover coffee from MagicBeans Coffee (www.magicbeanscoffee.com.)  The growing season has already brought tomatoes, gorgeous peaches, blueberries, strawberries and various greens to the market.  The market is set up under a glass pavilion just outside the old Lexington Courthouse, parking was easy, and dogs were abundant!

Farm Market Peaches

Farm Market Peaches

On to Columbus, Indiana, home of some extraordinary public buildings designed by world-renowned architects…