As the calendar turns to October, my attention turns to Ecuador. After crossing the border, I ended up in the town of Otavalo, located about 2 hours north of Quito, Ecuador’s capital city. The town is situated in the Andean highlands and surrounded by several volcanoes. Otavalo is the central administrative center of the Otavalos, the indigenous natives of Ecuador’s Imbabura Province. As a whole, the Otavalo people are one of the wealthiest indigenous tribes in Latin America. In addition, the Otavalos are easily identifiable by their long black braided hair and colorful artisan clothing. Otavalo provides an excellent introduction to Ecuador’s indigenous society.
La Cascada de Peguche- One of the most popular attractions in Otavalo is La Cascada de Peguche, a natural waterfall located about 3km from the city center. Given its popularity, I decided to check it out early in the morning at about 8AM. According to Google Maps, Peguche was about a 40 minute walk from my hotel. However, I decided to walk 10 minutes to the central bus terminal and take the city bus for .30 cents. (There were also camionetas parked outside of the terminal that costs $3 USD per one way trip) The bus was comfortable and the trip to the park took less than 10 minutes. I was dropped off in front of the parking lot but got confused by the directional sign as it was pointing the wrong way to the waterfall. I walked the down the street for 5 minutes before walking up a hill for 10 minutes. I tried to ask for directions from a local but he didn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t speak Quechan (the local language). After about 25 minutes, I eventually figured out that the waterfall entrance was through the town by which the bus dropped me off. Regardless of one’s opinion of the beauty of Peguche, it’s hard to argue the fact that there is no entrance fee required to explore the park. The hiking trail to the waterfall was paved and marked with the sound of the waterfall increasing as you get closer. There is also a camping area near the entrance of the park. Despite it being dry season, the waterfall was pretty impressive. There were several lookout points to which one could take pictures and benches to sit and take in the scene. For those feeling adventurous, there was a path that allows people to get directly under the waterfall though the current seemed to be pretty strong. The waterfall wasn’t the only attraction in the park as there were several other trails to explore including one that led to a questionable jungle cable bridges that rocked violently as I tried to cross it. Overall, I spent about an hour in the park and people were starting to pour in as I was leaving. I was able walk out to the parking lot and catch the bus back to the terminal for .30 cents. Not a bad way to spend .60 cents.
Aya Huma Walking Tour- As I traveled through Colombia, one of the things that I came to appreciate were the Free Walking Tours available throughout the major cities. These tours provided much needed context of the historical sites in which tourists often take photographs. As I looked for a similar tour in Otavalo, I found Aya Huma Tours through Viator. The 2 hour tour costs $10 but that is because it is privately run by the tour guide Juan, who started the company last month. I originally was supposed to be part of a group of 4 but ended up doing the tour by myself because the other members were stuck in Quito as Ecuador was experiencing a nationwide strike on public transportation and no buses were running. To Juan’s credit, he put the same effort and energy into giving me the solo tour as other tour guides had done when I was with a group of 20 people. Juan provided me with valuable information about Otavalo and its people as we explored parts of the city that included Los Portales (Otavalos main market until 2014), Veinticuatro de Mayo (Otavalo’s modern market), as well as the city’s central plaza. Unfortunately, due to the transportation strike, some of the places on the itinerary were closed but I still gained plenty of valuable insight from Juan during the tour. Specifically, Juan did an excellent job of explaining the stories behind many of Otavalo’s colorful mural paintings. I would highly recommend anyone passing through Otavalo to take advantage of this tour.
Transportation Strike-As I alluded to in the writeup above my time in Otavalo was slightly inconvenienced by a nationwide transportation strike which started on October 3rd. As I haven’t paid much attention to local news since arriving, I had no idea of the strike until talking to the tour guide from Aya Huma Walking Tour. However, when I ran by the bus station the morning of the strike, I did notice that the bus was eerily empty. Like most countries in Latin America, much of Ecuador’s population relies on public transportation to move around. Ecuador is an oil producing nation and, until 2020, is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). The government had historically subsidized gas prices keeping them artificially low. However, Ecuador’s current e president Lenín Moreno has pledged to implement conservative economic reforms which more in line with the austerity measures required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As a result, national gas prices are set to rise from $1.85 USD to $2.40 USD a gallon for consumer vehicles. While that doesn’t seem like much, such an increase can put an economic strain on a country whose average income is less than $500 USD a month. Consequently, the country’s entire transportation system (i.e. buses, taxis) has come to a complete halt with schools being cancelled and protests happening throughout Quito. Given the importance of public transportation in the life of the everyday citizen, I don’t foresee this strike lasting for too long.
El Paro Nacional-My interesting week in Otavalo continued as the nationwide strike extended to 90% of the businesses around the city. It is referred to as El Paro Nacional (unemployment) and gained momentum as Ecuador’s president declared a state of emergency due to the transportation strike and protests throughout Ecuador’s major cities. Due to the state of emergency, the president has deployed the military throughout the country and certain rights (such as freedom of assembly) have been severely restricted as long as the order remains in effect (60 days). As a form of protest, citizens nationwide have effectively stopped working as restaurants, shops, and schools remained closed. From what I understand, the countries indigenous population has also blocked off many of the highways with trees and rocks. There are even videos floating around with security forces being captured by angry mobs. Despite leaders of the country’s transportation union reaching an agreement with the government on Friday night, the bus city terminal remained closed for the weekend presumably due to inability to move along the highways. As I walked around Otavalo Saturday, some people were mindlessly wondering the streets while there were pockets of individuals actively marching in protest. Almost all of the shops were closed with the ones that were open conducting business discreetly for fear of being attacked. Even finding breakfast took almost half an hour. Talking to the girl that worked at my hotel, she didn’t know when things would get back to normal and it looks like I will be stuck in Otavalo until they do.