Otavalo – shrunken heads, an extinct-volcano crater-lake, territorial dogs, and short-sighted South American business practices

Otavlo is a great little town and just a quick ride outside of Quito for those wanting to escape the busyness of the big city, which is something I’m always trying to do while traveling. It also has the most famous market in Ecaudor.

Vendors set up their stalls in Plaza de Ponchos in the early morning

Vendors set up their stalls in Plaza de Ponchos in the early morning

The market is set up in Otavalo’s Plaza de Ponchos each day but the “big day”, the one for which Otavalo is renowned, occurs on Sunday, when the market spills out onto surrounding streets and thousands of people come to shop.

I was not there on a Sunday but I did have a chance to see some of the wares that the market is well known for, starting with, of course, grotesque looking shrunken heads.


Why someone would need or want a shrunken head is beyond me but these things were being sold by vendors all over the market.

The market was also selling lots of chess boards, Surdemerica style.  These boards are sold all throughout South America and depict the white pieces as invading colonial Spaniards and the black pieces as the indigenous Incas.  It’s a bit trite but humorous nonetheless.


And what would a South American market be without some pan flutes and some cow hooves.


The real reason I had come to Otavalo was not for the market but for the hiking.  My first night I arrived by bus and set about to find a place to stay. I ended up deciding on a guesthouse near the bus station, which ended up making for a very interesting and mostly unpleasant experience.

When checking into the guesthouse the owner at the front desk was rude to me, but that would be understating his disposition.  To put it bluntly, he was a d*ck.  This should have been a red flag but I was tired and it was late and I just wanted to get up to my room and get to bed.

On my way to the guesthouse I had passed the beginnings of what was to be a very large concert.  It might have been fun to attend but I had just split from Hanas and Berit, who I had met in Quito – they had opted to camp – and I didn’t want to go alone.   Within 10 minutes of checking into my room at the guest house some very loud music started – the bass was literally shaking the lamp next to my bed.

I was none too happy about the noise.  I went down to ask the guy at the front desk when the concert would be ending and he assured me that it would be wrapping up by 11:30 or midnight.

It was 10pm already and this seemed unlikely so I decided to do some independent investigation.  I wandered back to the concert entrance and asked the guard standing near the door when the concert would be ending.  He told me he wasn’t sure but estimated 2am or 2:30am.  Hmmmmm.

This didn’t sound good to me so I went out and scouted a hostel overlooking Plaza de Ponchos, which was far enough from the music that noise wouldn’t be a problem.  On my scouting run I came across an interesting commercial shoot – some sort of “fallen angel” with her white wings scattered about her body.


When I got back to the original guesthouse that I had checked into, the noise was still blaring and I informed the guy at the front desk that I would be leaving because the music was too loud and to put it simply, “no puedo dormir” (I can’t sleep). If I couldn’t even sleep then why would I stay at the guesthouse?


Quito – The center of the world, stoplight street artists, and the poor man’s tax in South America

Quito, Ecuador is the second hilliest capital city I’ve visited in the world, a close runner up to La Paz, Bolivia.

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Ecuador is a poorer country than Colombia and besides Panama, the only country in South America that uses the U.S. dollar.  The dollar can take you a long way in Ecuador.  This feast I got in a local market cost about $3.

Fried fish, vegetable rice, potatoes, spicy soup and dipping sauce.  Surprisingly, the popcorn with peanuts made a great topping for the rice and fish.  With a little spicy soup drizzled over the whole shebang, it was the best meal I had in Ecuador.

Fried fish, vegetable rice, potatoes, spicy soup and dipping sauce. Surprisingly, the popcorn with peanuts made a great topping for the rice and fish. With a little spicy soup drizzled over the whole shebang, it was the tastiest meal I had in Ecuador, though probably the least healthy.

Ironically my first day in Quito I left the city and headed 30 km outside of town for … THE CENTER OF THE WORLD!

El mitad del Mundo!!!!

El mitad del Mundo!!!!

Its not as exciting as it sounds but it is a gimmicky thing you can do, if only to say that you did it.


The obelisque representing El mitad del Mundo, or “the center of the world” is actually a bit misleading because technically the actual center is some 200 meters away from the obelisque – at the time it was built the research was a bit off.  But the obelisque was cooler than some arbitrary spot so I didn’t bother to go hunting for the true “center”.


Instead I just enjoyed my visit around the obelisque, a visit which would not be considered complete without a shot of walking on the equator.


There are a lot of other exhibit-filled buildings within the Mitad del Mundo complex, ranging from an insectorium with lots of specimens local to Ecuador…



..to a building detailing how French scientists came to Ecuador to take measurements from various mountain peaks in order to determine the official “equator”, which later was an inspiration for the country’s name “Ecuador”.


Bogota – The top of Monserrate, chubby subjects in the Botero Gallery, and oro oro oro

In Bogota Most backpackers stay in an area called La Candelaria on the south side of Bogota.

The massive Plaza de Bolivar is at the center of La Candelaria.


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While I was hanging out there this kid had no idea what he was getting into when he started feeding a few of the hundreds of pigeons swarming the square.

Close to the third Plaza de Bolivar I had been to in Colombia is the second Iglesia de San Francisco I had been to in Colombia, the first being in the village I had just come from, Villa de Leyva.

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Nearby Iglesia de San Diego was much simpler.

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About a kilometer from the plaza is Cerro de Monserrate – to get the top you have the option of the teleferico (tram car) or the footpath.


I was feeling like some exercise so I opted for the footpath, a decision which I regretted about 30 minutes later.


From 2007-2010 there was a real problems with robberies along the footpath to the top of Cerro de Monserrate.

Viewpoints that provide views over capital cities in South America seem to be crime magnets.  I ended up flatly avoiding going up the footpath to El Panecillo, a hill that looks over Quito.  Ecaudor’s capital city is more dangerous than Bogota and there are strenuous warnings in the guidebooks and from current locals alike that warn against hiking it on your own.  A German backpacker who I stayed with in Quito was given three verbal warnings by locals to “turn around!” while hiking up to El Panecillo.

I’m guessing muggers in South America figure a footpath to a hill that provides a panoramic viewpoint over the city is ripe with their ideal victims, tourists who want to see the city from above and who will be potentially exposed for 60-120 minutes while hiking to the top of the viewpoint.

Bogota’s response to the growing mugging problem on the way to the top of Cerro de Monserrate?  A  policeman or a pair of them stationed every 75 meters along the path.



It was a weird thing to have on a hike – I could barely hike 40 meters without the watchful eye of a policeman on me.  I guess I felt safe but it was definitely not a “natural” hike.

The footpath to Cerro de Monserrate is very steep but the views got better and better as I went towards the top.