Thursday, April 10, 2008

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer

One of the nice things about staying in Ecuador over a weekend is that we had time to line up some mini adventures.

On Saturday we went north to the province of Imbabura. Along the way we weaved through the mountains and valleys of the Andes. My ears must have popped at least 10 times before the trip was done. We briefly stopped at a small rest stop to take in the sights of the mountains rising up from one of the many lakes of the province. There a girl stood with her llama. It costs 25 cents to take her photo, but it was well worth it for the souvenir photo everyone expects you to take.

The province of Imbabura is best known for its lakes and its Otavalo Market. The market is featured in the bestselling book “1,000 Places To See Before You Die.” According to the book, Otavalo is the oldest, best known and most important Indian market in South America. It has served as the social and economic heartbeat of the northern highlands for more than 4,000 years and is the most popular mainland destination in Ecuador (the Galapagos Islands are the most popular destination in all of Ecuador).

The market is set up on the main square of this small town. The concentric blocks of booths are piled high with every souvenir imaginable – alpaca scarves, bejeweled jewelry, colorful hammocks, intricate tapestries, painted feathers, woven dolls, winter hats, tourist T-shirts, wooden carvings and medicinal homeopathic herbs. It has every ware to tantalize the tourists. Most vendors can speak English, but the true language is that of haggling, negotiating and the infamous “discounts” offered to anyone who asks. As a basic rule, one should never pay the first three prices offered.

On Sunday we went on a historic tour of Quito as well as the Mitad Del Mundo (the middle of the world). As with all colonial towns in Latin America, the main plaza is a gathering place for the people. Framed by the main government offices, the presidential palace and the main cathedral, it was declared as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1979.

There is also a monument to independence as well as greenery, fountains and plentiful historical charm. It is both the focal point of family relaxation as well as political demonstrations.

Radiating from the plaza in narrow streets is the complex Spanish grid of shops, churches and homes. There is little left from the days of Incan rule because in 1533 the last Incan general decided to burn the city to prevent the Spanish from being able to take over the city. All that remains is historical lore and stories of what used to be. Looking over the city is the virgin of Quito, the only winged virgin in the world. At about 10,000 feet above sea level, she is visible from just about any place in Quito.

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