Saturday, October 6, 2012

Otavalo's Saturday Market

I was really looking forward to Otavalo's saturday market. I had read somewhere that its South America's largest outdoor market and boy, its huge. There are rows and rows of stalls spread out across the entire town on Saturdays, filled with tourists of all shapes, sizes and nationalities. Bargaining doesnt work well at all and I suspect this is due to most tourists paying whats asked for. Stalls sell really beautiful scarves, beaded jewelry, purses and bags of all shapes and sizes

Getting there:

We went to the Otavalo from Tulcan at the Colombia-Ecuador border. Cross the border at Ipiales and arrive on Ecuadorian side. Get a collective for 75 cents to Tulcan. From the Tulcan bus stop, a bus to Otavalo will cost approximately $3 for a 3 hour ride. Pay the fare after you see the bus and make sure it looks okay. As you approach the bus stop, you will be approached by bus company agents asking you if Otavalo is your destination.


In Otavalo, we stayed at Hostal Valle Del Amanecer on Calle Roca y Quiroga. Its a nice little place with clean bathrooms, no kitchen, good breakfast and a shaded central courtyard to sit and relax. Saturday is the best day to experience the market and the animal market (which we did not get to see). Go prepared with plenty of change and will power - you'll need it if you dont want to shop too much.

Otavalo is home to a successful indigenous community who still pride on their traditional ways. You'll find otavalenos wearing traditional clothing, super cool bead jewelry and travelling in really modern cars. Multiple strings of golden beads are really common:

Stalls selling really beautiful and colorful art:

Not just home decor, but also incredibly fresh looking produce:

Irresistible pink cheeked babies:

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Our Ecuador Summary

Ecuador is a bite sized delight that is maximum on flavor. For such a small country, you have the ocean, the Andes, the Galapagos, the amazonia, some action at Baños, some slow time at Vilcabamba and the colonial town experience in Cuenca.

After an interesting border crossing experience from Ipiales in Colombia, we made it to Ecuador just before new years eve. We planned to arrive in Otavalo on Friday evening, just in time to enjoy and experience the Saturday market - which is one of Ecuador's most famous attractions next to the Galapagos Islands. Otavalo's incredibly colorful and vibrant Saturday market is a dangerous proposition for long term backpackers as the market is insanely tempting and you'll have to carry all the stuff with you while you travel.

From Otavalo, we took the 2 hour bus ride to the capital city of Quito. We didnt plan on doing very much here. Just lie low, take it easy through the slow holiday weekend and plan the rest of our stay in Ecuador. We did walk around old town quite a bit and ended up eating Indian food after a long long time!

Just south of Quito is Latacunga, which is a convenient base for some volcano climbing (Cotopaxi!) or the less travelled 'Quilotoa Loop'. The Quilotoa loop is literally the road less travelled. Buses to this area ply only once or twice a day. And to get back to Latacunga from here, you might even have to wake up at 4AM to catch a milk truck back to town! A lot of people just walk the loop, stopping at villages along the way to spend the night. The star attraction here though is the Quilotoa lake, Ecuador's away-from-the-tourist-trail crater lake.

We spent 2 nights on the Quilotoa loop and then headed back to Latacunga for our trip South.

Just south of Latacunga is Ecuador's adventure capital Baños. We ended up loving Baños so much that we stayed there for a week. Baños has a lot going for it - very reasonably priced adventure activities (rafting, zip lining, paragliding, biking, bridge jumping, volcano climbing etc.), but its also home to some cheap spa massages and many vegetarian friendly restaurants run by its sizable expatriate population. We stayed at the super friendly Princessa Maria hostel which boasted a pretty nice kitchen and was right next door to a lovely market, so we ended up cooking many of our meals.

From Baños, our next stop was Riobamba. Swami really wanted to go hike Chimborazo, Ecuador's tallest mountain, but arranging a climb to the top wasnt working out the way we wanted. So we satisfied our curiosity by taking  a bus to the Chimborazo national park, which is absolutely in the middle of nowhere. 

The next stop was Cuenca. Cuenca is a beautiful, peaceful colonial town in Southern Ecuador which just whisks you to a bygone era. Just outside Cuenca is El Cajas national park that just wowed us with its unpretentious beauty and well marked hiking trails.


Just something we saw on our way to get some dinner:

Our last stop in Ecuador was Vilcabamba, also known as the valley of longevity. Nestled in a lush green valley, this place is a haven for middle aged expatriates from the US and Europe who have settled here. They'll gather around a restaurant and chat the day away enjoying some mighty fine weather and make you incredibly jealous of their relaxed lifestyle. :)

From here, we began a long journey across the border using several modes of transportation and eventually arrived at our destination in Peru - Chachapoyas after nearly 48 hours!

I'll be writing a few more posts about Ecuador, focussing specifically on the individual towns.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Losing our valuable belongings - Part 2

Getting the Police Report

We were resigned to the fact that our things were lost and had to figure out what to do next. We were stuck in Calama for the time being and had to wait at least until we got the copy of the police report. And as luck would have it, it was a Saturday. Who will give us a police report on Sunday? I thought we'd get the same day - all I knew thought the police report was that it is a document that will probably be signed by the officer who answered the call. Apparently that is not the case. The police report is not issued by the police, but by the Fiscalia which is housed in the building next door. The Fiscalia is like the district attorney's office and we were told by the smiling police officer who said with a shrug that we cant get the report that day and that we can only get it the next day. The next day was Sunday! He insisted the fiscalia is open on Sunday, but I had my doubts. We now had no choice but to spend the night in Calama. There isnt much to do there either. Even if there were, we were simply not in the mood to do anything. Using our smart phone, we checked emails, called the insurance company, informed our families and bunked down to spend the day and the night.

Newspaper ad for stolen Green Card

We read online that in order to replace a stolen green card, we'll need a copy and the receipt of a newspaper ad that we place in the local daily where the green card is lost. We couldn't get a confirmation about this from the US embassy, so we decided to give it our best shot and get an ad placed anyway, as we didn't want to return to Calama for this alone. Unfortunately, the ads desk was already closed. While we didnt place an ad, we managed to get the story published in the local newspaper! (details soon...)

Getting the police report at the Fiscalia in Calama

The following morning after day 0, our main goal was to get our police report so that we could be on our way to Santiago to apply for a replacement passport. When we reached the fiscalia, we were told that we would not get our reports today (it being sunday) and that we would have to come again on Monday. We were incredibly frustrated, but were determined not to give up. We walked back and forth between the police station and the fiscalia (there was only a rather stubborn front desk person there) and they were only pointing fingers at each other. At our wits end, we decided to beg, demand and do whatever works. This involved me at one building, swami at the other building, both trying our best persuasive hats. This was compounded by our inability to communicate all this in Spanish. All I ever learnt was "where can I get vegetarian food?" and now I was struggling to say "nosotros robado mochilla, por favor necessito denuncia - es muy importante, no pasaporte". Just when I was close to tears, the front desk person placed a call and a guy in crisp formal wear showed up from inside the building a few minutes later and asked us in flawless english "Hello, What seems to be the problem?". We were so relieved to speak English that we quickly poured out our story to him. He confirmed that he couldn't give us a report just then, but can scan it and mail it to us the next day. We were not sure if this would happen, but we did get a printout of our police report from the police station just in case its needed (without any signatures or stamps). It turned out that in 2 days, we would get a signed and scanned copy of the police report emailed to us. We are trained to expect bureaucracy while traveling in some countries, and instances like this really make the day. :)

Knocking at the doors of the Indian Embassy in Santiago after business hours

We took the long 22 hour journey back to Santiago to reapply for our passports. We checked out the Indian embassy's website and found that it closes for visitors at 4.30 PM. Knowing how things work in India, we didnt expect to get anything accomplished that day since it was already 4.30 PM. Imagine our surprise when we showed up at the embassy when we were warmly welcomed, served Indian chai and biscuits and the officials chatted with us, getting to know our story and helping us figure out the quickest way to get our passports. They also offered us the services of their printers and copiers in case we needed to print anything for the passport application. And the best part, we got introduced to a fellow tamilian who works at the embassy, who invited us home and along with us wife, shared their wonderful hospitality with us for two days. We got our passports the very next day - which is quite amazing no matter which country you belong to. We had lost our Bolivian visa along with our old passport, so we had to reapply for that too.

Swami and I would play the "lets count our blessings" game. Every time something cool happened on the aftermath of our robbery or we realized we did not lose something, we'd say "at least we didnt lose this or that" or "we would never meet such nice people if we didnt lose our stuff" or "when would we get to ride in a Chilean police jeep?". Such incidents can happen to the most seasoned travelers and we learned our lessons the hard way. Its best to take travel insurance, pack light, make sure you dont carry anything invaluable.  Keep your passport, debit card, credit card and other important travel documents close to your body and hope for the best.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Losing all our belongings - Part 1

The blog posts are not in chronological order of events. We have completed our four month journey and I am now catching up on posts and updates. Please review the tags and categories for location specific information. Thanks!

It was Swami's birthday and we just got off a 22 hour bus journey from Santiago to Calama, Chile. We were really tired from the long journey and our day pack was incredibly heavy (mistake #1). People were trickling out of the bus and getting ready to get on with their day, having reached their destination. We placed all our packs (our big packs and day packs) on the ground and stood right next to it (mistake #2) and took turns guarding our packs, while we used the facilities and made enquiries about our next bus to San Pedro de Atacama.

At some point we realized that we were missing one of our day packs - with our most important day pack. Panic ensued and after about 30 minutes of frenzied activity trying to locate the pack, we had to conclude that the pack was lost to us. Along with it went our laptop, SLR, passports, green cards and a bunch of other belongings. We called the police and they arrived in 30 minutes and gave us a ride to the police station in their pickup. We kept thinking how riding on the caged back of a police pick up truck was one experience we could do without on our travels. Upon reaching the police station, what did we find? Another backpacking couple sitting rather forlorn, having lost the same stuff we lost.

We ended up spending a few hours in the police station, observing life in a Chilean police station. We shared Swami's birthday cake with the cops for which one happily quipped "you got some mean birthday present!". The cops were really friendly, trying to get us comfortable, offered us some juice to drink. One cop even got his computer so that we could use the internet on it to communicate using google translate. Google translate was invaluable in helping us overcome language barriers when dealing with the Police.

Luckily, we had travel insurance (we'll shortly be able to tell you about how good it is and if we can recommend it, as I am sure we're in a position to pass that judgement). Losing our things was a big blow to us. One thing we were fortunate about was that we had a smart phone and we had our wallets. So debit cards, credit cards, access to cash and Driver's license to prove identification.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Colombia - Ecuador border crossing

We were really excited about our first border crossing by land. The Colombia - Ecuador border is basically a bridge that spans a river, with Colombia on one side and Ecuador on the order. La Frontera or Rumichacha, as its called is a bustling place. In fact, earlier in the day when we took a taxi to a nearby church in Colombia, the taxi driver dropped us off at the frontera instead of the church, past the Colombian immigration! I had a few stress filled moments there while we took the taxi back into Colombia!

Anyway, people are free to cross the border and though there is a lot of police activity, the onus is on you to get stamped in and out. So we first went to the Colombian immigration building, stood in a long line, got our exit stamp and then walked across the bridge.

The border bridge, a beehive of activity:

Entering Ecuadorian immigration, the building on the other side of the road:

A jubilant Swami after getting our Ecuador visa.

Ecuador - no visa needed for Indian citizens

Citizens of any nationality do not need a visa to enter Ecuador for tourism or business up to 90 days. Knowing this, we confidently walked across the border, even though I wasn't expecting it to be a smooth crossing. We were not disappointed. Our Indian passports caused quite a bit of confusion amongst the immigration officials. It was waved around, pointed at and conferred upon for about 45 minutes. Clearly, they have never seen one before.

I was getting a little tense, but when the border officer told me that I need a tourist visa for entering, I wasn't about to give up so easily. I mustered up my most confident and firm tone and told him that  I spoke to my embassy and was told we do not need a visa. This led to more conferencing - at one point, ALL the immigration officials left their counters to go to a back room to talk about our case. I actually found this a bit comical. I should have been stressed, but I had come prepared with the Indian embassy's phone number and was going to call them if it came to that. Swami was waiting as his officer decided to whatever was being done to my passport, so he was trying to use the 3G on our Kindle to get some solid proof about no-visa-policy.

At one point, our passport was literally bandied about between two immigration officers - they simply didn't want to take on the hassle. They caught me looking at them doing this and gave me what I can only call a sheepish grin. I grinned back at them and felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders then. I just knew that they wouldn't leave us in the lurch at that moment. In fact, my immigration guy (that's what I'll call him) was a really patient fellow. He made so many phone calls to find out what he should do. He told me a couple of times that I need a visa, but I never backed down. Eventually he must have gotten the green signal, so he stamped us immediately without asking a single question.

Its a pity that word of the new legislation about visa free travel did not reach these guys at all. I can only hope that we have paved the way for the next Indian traveler who comes this way. Don't disappoint me friends! (Ecuador and Colombia are amazing places to travel, by the way).

We were thrilled to bits to when we got stamped in. Giggling like idiots, we took pictures with our passports outside the building. Getting into Otovalo from there was a piece of cake. 

Crossing the Colombia - Ecuador border

  • From the lovely colonial city of Popayan, get to the town of Ipiales. The bus journey takes 6-8 hours. Stay at Hotel Metropol, which is right across from the bus terminal.
  • Ask the restaurant in Hotel Metropol if they have "lenteja" - if you're lucky, you can get rice, lentil stew and juice and salad (for the vegetarians).
  • Stay at the Hotel Metropol for COP25000 per night.
  • Next morning, get breakfast in one of the many restaurants nearby and take a collectivo to the border - La Frontera or Rumichaca. COP1500.
  • Cross the border - get exit stamp in Colombia without fail. Get stamped into Ecuador.
  • Get a collectivo from the Ecuadorian side to the city of Tulcan. [Tulcan has a Govinda's, if you're so inclined].
  • From Tulcan, buses to Otavalo cost $4 pp. There are many of them. Snacks and water are readily available everywhere.
  • Buses to Otavalo will drop you off on the Panamericana, from there a 10 minute walk will get you to the center of the town.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cali - giving the big city a quick glance

We originally planned to spend christmas in Cali and attend the salsa festival there. However, as I mentioned in the previous post, we ended up spending it in Salento. Cali was also supposed to host a famous salsa festival and we were excited to attend it. However, we underestimated how big a city Cali is. We traveled from Salento to Cali with Ben and ended up staying in together in the same hostel. Predictably, the size of Cali put us off and we ended up giving it a wide berth by leaving next day for Popayan. So nothing much to report from Cali, except for the really tasty veggie lunch we had at a Hare Krishna restaurant.

From Cali, we made the decision to quickly depart to Popayan and then head to the border from there. Ecuador was beckoning!

Popayan - Colombia's white city

Popayan is a lovely colonial city in the Southern part of Colombia. Its about 8 hours from the Ecuador border and was a lovely stopover for us.

Popayan's central plaza at night is superbly lit and is a pleasure to walk around in:

The city is mostly painted in white, but what it lacks in color, it makes up for in its liveliness. People are buzzing about in the evening here:

Our room overlooking the plaza at hostel Park Life, highly recommended:

Potato empanadas and aji de mani (peanut-chili sauce). I ate so many and am so craving it now:

One of my other favorite finds, bocadillo is a sweet made with guava paste and sugar (or panela). Lightly dusted with sugar, this was the best boacadillo I had, in a shop in the town of Silva.

We took a day trip to Silva, famous for its tuesday market. But we went on a Wednesday and wouldnt recommend this day trip. I would have much rather spent my time eating potato empanadas and aji de mani!

Popayan is a great place to stop for a day or two if you're heading to and from Ecuador. Its very relaxing, has great food, hostels and a lovely central plaza. Its only 4 hours from Cali by bus and buses are really frequent. 

We were struggling to find directions from the bus stop to the hostel when a friendly cop actually insisted on walking with us all the way to the hostel. It was a good 15 minute walk and he was so cool about it. Colombia's people are just lovely. :)

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Salento - Lush and Lovely in Colombia's coffee zone

I had heard so much about Colombia's beautiful coffee zone - zona cafetera that I admit its one of those things about Colombia that made me want to travel to this country. The zona cafetera is the area south of Medellin, where the eye is met with various shades of lush green as far as the I can see. The region is incredibly mountainous and studded with small towns and villages and a few big cities as well.

The travel grapevine in all our previous stops led us to the town of Salento, a little village thats quite hard to find on google maps. Its not the most straight forward to get to as well, but once you do make the effort, you'll want to stay, just as we did. We had originally planned this to be a 2 to 3 day trip and Christmas in Cali (wanted to have a reservation for Christmas), but ended up staying here until Christmas due to all the awesome people we met.

We had checked into the lovely hostel La Serrana, which is basically a farm with a hostel building in it. Its a good 15 minute walk on a country road from the center of the town to this hostel, which we'd often end up doing in groups, sharing travel stories along the way. Imagine our surprise and joy when we ran into Neal (the traveler we met in San Gil, Colombia and had fun times with. Check out his neat Colombia travel video here). And then we met other travelers from so many places here - Alaska, New Zealand, Canada, Kenya, Tennessee just to name a few.

At some point I noticed that the hostel was hosting a Christmas dinner. They had the menu and a sign up sheet listed at the front desk. We'd look at it every time and think 'how cool', but never really made the jump to stay back for Christmas. I guess not celebrating Christmas at home makes us think differently than  others. Over the next couple of days, I saw every single person and couple add their name to the list. They were all staying on for Christmas! Now the pang set in for us. "Ah, Swami! shouldn't we stay here too? Sounds like so much fun. And look at that menu!! Even for a vegetarian, it was an impressive menu. We'll adjust a couple of days down south", I'd tell Swami. Extending our stay was difficult as they were totally booked out, but we moved into a dorm and stayed back for Christmas - thanks to a lot of effort from the staff and owner of the hostel.

Here is a snapshot of our stay in Salento. If you are ever in Colombia, visit Salento.

Near the central plaza a road filled with artisan shops will lead to a series of stairs (about 300 steps). If you climb up there, you'll be treated to fantastic views and a swing set. Get on the swing set to gaze down at the city:

The panorama view from the top of the hill:

Another view from the hostel:

Goofing around the bonfire lit by Ben (he did it nearly every day he was staying there - he is the guy who is making the smiley in the photo).

 On our hike to the sacha mama eco tour:

Pedro leads us to his house on the hike to Sacha Mama (the name of his property):

This cow totally digged the attention. She stood their enjoying everyone's ministrations.

Eating lunch with Pedro and his lovely family at Sacha Mama. A pasta lunch never tasted this good. 

Enjoying a Kenyan dinner at the hostel. One of the volunteers was from Kenya, so she cooked a Kenyan meal for dinner night once.

A superb coffee shop in Salento - Jesus Martin.

Christmas dinner with fellow travelers. Hunkering down to celebrate amidst peregrinations.

And last but not the least, the incredibly beautiful Valle De Cocora. (I'll have a seperate post about this and Sacha Mama later).