Where to Shop: Quito

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Now, if you’re doing the full-blown Ecuador tour, you should go to Otavalo. It’s about an hour north of Quito, and it really is the centuries-old marketplace for the indigenous people.

The central square is lined with booths with artisans selling just about everything under the sun. On some weekdays, there is livestock and fruits and vegetables. But all the time, you’ll find all the scarves and handicrafts to satiate your soul. Be sure you bargain; they start at the tourist price. You can get there by bus or private car.

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But imagine you’re on a really tight schedule, or you don’t want to take the time to go out to Otavalo. Then, my friends, Quito has you covered with the Mariscal market. The city built market stalls on a small city block downtown, off Amazonas street, the main shopping/business drag. You can get there by trolley, bus or taxi.

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Mariscal market is all of tourist-loving Otavalo plus a few inauthentic girls dressed in indigenous-wear selling organic chocolate. But who cares?

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This time, I loaded up on colorful blankets, a poncho for my daughter, a flag, a traditional gold necklace, some jewelry for friends and probably more things I forgot. In the past, it’s been watercolors, scarves, more jewelry and leather goods.

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There’s also ceramics, wooden artifacts and plenty of tchotchkes.
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Make sure you tell everyone that the so-called “Panama hats” are really made in Ecuador. Seriously, check the label. They were popularized by men digging the Panama canal, and so got their name. But these babies are Ecuador-made.

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This girl sold me my necklace. I asked all the vendors for their best price, and she not only gave me a discount, she left her stall to go get the exact style I wanted from somewhere else. There it is to the right; she’s wearing a similar one in the traditional style.

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The legit Otavalan vendors drive in from their homes outside the city with all their goods. The Otavalan people are born entrepreneurs. I’ve see them all over the world, from Sweden to my little podunk Oklahoma town. And they always have those sweaters and blankets and purses, handmade in Ecuador using ancient techniques and Ecuadorian wool and alpaca.

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Let me give you an idea of prices:

-$10-20 for a handmade necklace

-$5 for an Ecuador flag

-$20 for a queen size wool blanket

-$25 for a 11×14 watercolor

-$8 for a scarf

Obviously, barter with them for the best price, but don’t be rude.

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I bought a blanket from this sweet lady, and she really wanted me to take more. That top photo of her is also now enlarged on a canvas and hanging in my living room above my fireplace. Every time I sit on the couch and study her face, it makes me happy to have a little bit of Ecuador in my home, through her shining eyes and high cheekbones.

Exploring El Refugio in Calacali

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The day after Christmas, we headed 18 miles north of Quito to the town of Calacali. The drive takes about 40 minutes depending on traffic and which part of the city you leave from. But even with the relatively short distance, the landscape changes dramatically.

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Quito’s green-topped mountains and lush parks give way to arid high altitude desert. You’ll spot Pululahua, a dormant volcano surrounded by a national park.

We passed Mitad del Mundo and the Intiñan Museum, both of which are first-visit must-dos, but we’ve all been there multiple times, so we skipped them.

[If I need to state the obvious: Ecuador takes its name from its geographic location at the center of the earth, aka the equator. The Mitad del Mundo campus is a monument and museums to Ecuadorian culture and history. The line was first measured in 1736. Centuries later using modern GPS units, it was discovered that they were off by 240 meters. But STILL! They had no modern technology, using math and the stars and best guesses were able to come very, very close. When my dad’s company first got GPS units for the airplanes in the 90s, we took one out there for fun. Yep, it was off, and we trekked out into the field near the Mitad del Mundo and giggled that we’d found the “real” middle of the world. Today, that area is occupied by the Intiñan Museum, which explores the fun little physical quirks of either side of the equatorial line. We didn’t do it this time, but you should.]

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We were headed for Hacienda El Refugio, an outdoor adventure training and retreat center.

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My sister and brother-in-law’s organization runs the place, and they wanted us to see it.

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The grounds are lovely, so we spent some time wandering and enjoying, but we headed pretty quickly up the eucalyptus-lined trails winding up the mountain on either side of a ravine. There was some stick gathering and throwing.

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We passed the rock-climbing wall and the zip-line, and headed straight for the top and the tree house.

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This is the stuff Swiss Family Robinson Dreams are made of.

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Ladders, bridges, platforms, trap doors all strung between fragrant eucalyptus trees with peeling trunks.

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Hiking at that altitude when you aren’t used to it is taxing, so we relaxed while the kids played.

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While the tree house stretches over a drop of more than 100 feet, we felt totally secure letting the kids climb around. The whole structure is encased with netting and everything is anchored really well.

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We finally made our way down the dirt trail to the retreat center, after more stick and rock collecting along the way, and we made sure to stop and spot the llamas.

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Then, with our tummies rumbling for lunch, we piled in the cars to head for a friend’s house for Christmas leftovers.

That was something we could all agree made us happy.

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Quito’s Oldest Church: Guápulo

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On a foggy day, the church in Guápulo is completely hidden by the mist that covers the valley like a pot lid. But if you dare to descend the Camino de Orellana that winds through the village like tightly-spun yarn, you’ll be rewarded with the stately sight of the Sanctuario de Guápulo.

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The church is Quito’s oldest colonial church, founded by Spanish explorer Fransisco de Orellana in 1541. The plaza in front of the church bears his statue. And also, a few guys shooting the breeze on a bench.

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The colonial churches in Quito always amaze me with their attention to detail.

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And this grand old woman has recently been restored.

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One of the caretakers was busy giving this lady a bath with a scrub brush and a bucket.

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He told us we’d missed out, though, because while we were playing in the park, they’d taken down the gold statue in the centerpiece of the altar to clean it.

(Side note: my sister is pretty.)

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But our bellies were rumbling and the kids were whining. As beautiful as it was, it was time to go.

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Travel with the Locals: Guápulo Park

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Guápulo is technically part of Quito, but it feels worlds apart. Quito lies in the narrow valley between two mountain chains. Guápulo is on the other side of the northern mountain border, on the way to Cumbaya, one of Quito’s suburbs on the plains outside its narrow valley.

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The town was established by the Spanish and later incorporated into Quito. But on this sunny December day, we headed for a new public park on the far side of the village. We would never have known about it if my sister and brother-in-law didn’t live there.

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According to the security guard who my dad made friends with, the land was formerly owned by the owners of one of Ecuador’s major banks. (UPDATE: Banco Popular.) They stabled their horses on the land. When things got bad with the economy (or they were about to get caught embezzling), the owners left the country (with all their millions, of course), and the land was seized by the government.

Today, it’s a lush hiking, picnicing and leisure area.

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After a stop for croissants, our gang descended Guápulo’s winding Camino de Orellana through the town, then up again to the park entrance. The path into the park was steep, but even the kids and grandpa could handle it. And everything was green and lovely, with eucalyptus trees lining the way, providing a soundtrack as the wind ruffled their leafy limbs.

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We stopped for breakfast at one of the picnic areas, and lazed about, enjoying the deep blue skies and warm sun on our faces.

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[Spoiler alert: I should have worn sunscreen.]

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But we were ultimately headed for the playground, so we continued on.

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It turned out to be one of the coolest playgrounds I’ve ever seen, with wooden structures, a zip-line and all the things, plus views of Cumbaya beyond.

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My dad always says he’d never want to be in one of the high rises peering down from the mountain ridge during an earthquake.

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We played hard (even grandma went down the zip-line!), and too soon it was time to head home for lunch and naps.

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So we climbed back up the path (those of us who don’t live at 9,200 feet altitude took it slowly). And we certainly were only able to scratch the surface of all the fun to be had at Guápulo.

Old Quito

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We rushed down one evening to the old city to stroll along La Ronda, Quito’s oldest street, and find some empanadas.

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I could wander around that area for ages, but between the narrow streets, the traffic and the cobblestone, it’s not something we wanted to do for long with the little people.

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We ran into a Christmas parade, with a high school band playing off-key and loud Christmas tunes.

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The kids loved watching and dancing to the beat.

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La Virgen watches over the city from her perch.

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On another hill, colorful homes cling to the side while the museum of the eternal flame stands proud (but sometimes the flame is out).

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And the building tops were lit with the last rays of the sleepy sun.

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Restless children were persuaded to briefly pose.

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Empanadas procured, we took in some music.

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And charmed the band into teaching the kids some tricks.

Hearts and bellies full, we piled back into the cars to head for home.

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