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Ecuador’s Andes: Markets and Magical Hikes

Ecuador’s Andes: Markets and Magical Hikes
By Candyce H. Stapen

In Ecuador’s Andes, we met locals, learned about traditions at native markets, hiked snow-capped volcanoes and stayed at centuries-old haciendas. For us the formidable mountains and their scenic valleys exuded a special magic.

Along with Otavalo, Saquisili, about 90 minutes from Quito, is famous for its market. Events start on Thursday with an animal market. Geared more for locals than tourists, this market had scores of farmers bartering for llamas, horses, and sheep. Women tugged on the ropes around their newly purchased piglets, dragging the squealing broods into the back of pick-up trucks.

Nearby, other women sat in front of colorful pyramids of mangoes, pineapples, and oranges brought up from the coast. Just beyond were the tourist stalls laden with tee shirts, sweaters, wall hangings and ponchos. My daughter Alissa bought an embroidered tee shirt and a faja, a woven swath of material used to cover braided hair. When the woman offered to use the faja to wrap Alissa's hair into a guaago, she was thrilled. This was the native looked she craved.

To visit Saquisili, we stayed at La Cienega. Parts of this grand manor home, adorned with fountains and flower bedecked courtyards, date to 1695. Rooms vary in size. Although ours proved small, we liked La Cienega’s authentic atmosphere.

After more than a week in Ecuador we had acquired an appreciation for the history, culture and mystical quality of the Andes; we felt ready to explore Cotopaxi.

Cotopaxi in Quichua, the indigenous dialect, means "neck on the moon," a tribute to this volcano's snow-covered summit that at more than 19,000 ', appears to pierce the sky. We followed the road through this national park, passing groves of pine trees reintroduced 17 years ago to beat back the pampas grass.

On a glacier-formed plain at the foot of Cotopaxi, we began our hike. (Bring water, and layers of clothing, especially gloves). We passed ponds and rocky ledges that gave way to fields of wheat colored totora grass used by the natives to weave mats.

On the slopes urcu rosa, the small blue rose of the mountains and clumps of pajabrava, a foot tall grass of the Andes, dotted our path. At 200' up we listened to the wind and caught sight of the caldera of Ruminahui, another ancient volcano, and watched for the swooping Andean condors.

Unlike U.S. national parks, this one seemed to have few visitors to enjoy its wide-open spaces and dramatic scenery. On our half-day sojourn, we passed only one other group.

As we walked back to our bus, the clouds parted for a few minutes and Cotopaxi's snow-covered peak appeared sunlit and startling. Now not only did we know why the indigenas worshipped mountains, but I think at that moment, Alissa and I did too.

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