Carnaval Warm-up in Guaranda

I’m back in San Francisco now, and so swamped with projects and responsibilities here that it’s been difficult to find time to continue my travel reports from our just finished 30 days in Ecuador and Peru… so here is the next installment, with another to follow soon after… hope to get the whole trip blogged in the next week or two at most.

This photo gives an idea of the beautiful setting of Guaranda, sitting amidst green hills full of terraced farms stretching in every direction.

We woke in Guaranda after watching the sunset the night before, and having already experienced the constant threat of having water poured on us as we walked through the streets (or shot at us with water pistols, or landing us by way of water balloons… all pretty common here!). It’s a beautiful, very mellow town, so we walked down to the center from our hotel, following our ears towards the carnaval music emanating from the streets.

There were several dozen contingents in this warm-up procession for the Carnaval.

We have a pretty beautiful Carnaval in our own Mission District, which encompasses traditions from the Caribbean as well as throughout Latin America, including the Andes, so in some ways this small-town Carnaval reminded us a lot of ours at home. There were lots of kids in this procession, some in sparkly, sequined Carnaval costumes, others in Halloween/Hollywood face masks. One particularly energetic group sent their members running into the crowd to find people to engage, and of course they found us and danced with us for a few minutes… they looked like partisans of V for Vendetta or spooks from one of the Scream films! Most of the groups were teens following regular routines.

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Ambato to Guaranda–Fruits of Travel!

We took a bus trip down the Andes to Ambato from Quito. (I’m writing this now in Arequipa, Peru, almost two weeks after we did it… it’ll take me a while to catch up with all the stops on this amazing journey. It’s been a deluge of new experiences, sights, and ideas nearly every day with hardly any downtime until now.) Ambato is a bustling city sitting in a fold in the mountains, a central market town that has a population around 350,000, but a huge hinterland. We’d heard they have an amazing fruit and vegetable market and that the annual Festival of Fruits and Flowers would be happening while we were there. Turns out it was starting a few days later, so we missed the festival, but we did make it to the Mercado de Mayoristas (The Wholesale Produce Market).

The Ambato Mercado de Mayoristas... what a beautiful market!

We arrived in Ambato on a Sunday night, full of anticipation for the Monday morning market. Our hotel was a bit seedy, right in the heart of the City, next to one of the three markets. Turned out to be incredibly noisy, with dozens of buses and taxis roaring by all night, and by dawn, the streets were jammed with students on their way to school, countless people coming and going, buying and selling. But the night before we asked the hotel concierge if there was anything going on and he suggested we take a cab to a neighborhood music festival. We did, and it was eerie, riding in the cab through completely deserted streets. No cars parked anywhere (a recurrent experience as we made our way through Ecuador–nighttime streets are devoid of cars or people!) and when we came to the festa, it was over. So we had the cab turn around and take us back.

The next morning we went a block to the nearest market and made inquiries, which led us to grab a cab to the very outskirts where our Quito bus had unceremoniously dumped us (as opposed to a terminal in the city) the previous day. There we came to the Mercado de Mayoristas and had a splendid few hours wandering around enjoying the smells, sights, tastes, and friendly people.

Most of this post is in the form of photos and captions, so read on…

This was our first view of the sprawling Mercado de Mayoristas.

We got a high spot for some great views...

The vibrancy of the market was irresistable. After a pause to drink it all in, we started to make our way into it.

This charming woman was selling small plastic bags with fresh potato mash, with salsa and onions... Adriana didn't take long to decide she wanted one.

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Quito: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Quito, Ecuador, historic center: as I always discover when leaving the U.S., people and cities elsewhere are generally much more civilized. Look at this dense pedestrian zone in Quito's center!

We landed in Quito, Ecuador on Feb. 21 and made our way to the Magic Bean hostel without any trouble. As the driver let us out though, he seemed really nervous and warned us that we were in a difficult area. Hard to believe when we woke up the next morning and walked a block from our hotel (somewhat nervously) and found a thriving commercial district, with a fairly gentrified feeling to it, including plenty of upscale clothing stores and restaurants.

I'm standing in front of the Magic Bean here on the first morning--seems fine now!

The Marsical district in the daytime is a fun melange of old refurbished buildings and new boring architecture.

In fact, we had a wonderful 6 days in Quito, mostly visiting new friends in the local bicycling scene. (There is a more complete report on that over at sf.streetsblog.) We rode bikes all over thanks to the loaners from Frank at Cicleadas del Rey and the wonderful guidance and company he gave us, along with the charming Mashol and equally engaging Pablo. Here’s a moment when Mashol was in conversation with Adriana while we were riding uphill on one of the many nice separated bikeways, or ciclovias, in Quito.

Mashol and Adri in conversation cycling uphill from Mariscal district in Quito.

But the title of this post became our code to each other because wherever we went, and whomever we spoke with, all gave us urgent warnings about public safety. We both have traveled extensively so we tend to take such warnings pretty lightly, but it did affect us after a while, how consistently we were being told that it just wasn’t safe to walk places, to go up and down the scores of alluring staircases that ascend the towering slopes on either side of Quito, or to be anywhere at all after about 9 pm! In fact we learned that most of Ecuadorian city life shuts down very early, which we noticed as we’d be walking around. Suddenly the streets which had been bustling and lively were eerily empty. And then Mr Hyde would begin to appear. We figured some deal had been made (a la The Wire) in which the police agreed to leave the dealers and prostitutes alone if they keep away from some specified zones that were Quito’s night life, in particular a block from our hostel, the Plaza Mariscal Foch, which was heavily patrolled by police and even heavy-weapon carrying military on Saturday night!

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