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When we were in Otavalo, a short drive south of the Colombian border, I spotted a wool shop that I wanted to check out and then promptly forgot the following day.  Fate must have been thinking that I was in need of a new jacket because Casa Helbling, the hostel we stayed at in Quito, was directly across from the exact same store, Hilana.  Not only do they sell beautiful wool, they make a well-designed selection of wool jackets, slippers, scarves, mittens and much more.  I believe the designer is French but all the materials are sourced from Ecuador.

It was actually Tom who spotted this jacket and suggested I try it on.  The sleeves were a tiny bit short but with a bit of chatting the lady at the shop managed to get the sleeves lengthened in 24 hours.  And I came away with a custom tailored, 100% wool jacket and a couple of skeins of lovely Ecuadorian yarn for $60 USD.

Jacket from Hilana

After the disappointingly flat coastline, Cuenca was a pleasant surprise and we settled in at Posada Todos Santos, home to South America’s best hot shower (according to Joydrive!).

Panama Hats in Ecuador

We wandered the cute streets and came across more than a few Panama Hat shops.  I know…isn’t the Panama Hat from Panama?

Old school hat sizer

Actually, the Panama Hat is and has always been from Ecuador.  Here it is known as a sombrero de paja toquilla to Ecuadorians. This rather large misnomer all started back in the 1800s when the Spanish realized the exceptional quality of these hats and started exporting them via Panama. Then, in the early 19th century the workers on the Panama Canal started to use the same hats as protection from the powerful sun and, lo and behold, the hat quickly became known as the “Panama Hat”.

Hats drying

The Panama Hat can take anywhere from a week to three months to make depending on the quality.  Hats are graded into four categories depending on their weave: standard, superior, fino (fine) and superfino (superfine).  You can buy a standard hat between $10 to $15USD but if you are in the market for a superfino expect to pay upwards of $400 USD.  The best quality hats can hold water and be rolled up to fit through a man’s wedding ring, bouncing back to their original shape!

A hat for Kels... nope

Even cooler, the locals get their hats cleaned and repaired at shops around the city and seeing walls of white hats, each with a name tag attached, it was easy to see how important the Panama Hat is to the Ecuadorian community.

How do they keep them straight?

Quito was fun but we decided that we had been cold long enough and headed to Ecuador’s coast in search of waves and sun.

Unfortunately for us, this was the wave situation:

Flat ocean

So we just kept on driving…

After saying good-bye to our lovely Colombian Tia Marta,  we headed off into Quito.  We managed to find a really great hostel, Casa Helbling, where hot water actually comes out of the taps in the sink!  We were sold and hunkered down for about a week to explore the city.

Quito’s old city is probably one of the best kept colonial towns you will find.  With cobbled streets, tiny alleyways and a bustling vibe it is hard to resist this old town’s charms.  It also has about a million churches!  Ok, maybe not a million but it has more than its fair share of holy homes.  We are not the type of travellers who have to see everything there is to see (otherwise we wouldn’t need to come back) so we decided to take in just a few of the churches.

Started in 1605, La Compañía de Jesús, Ecuador’s most ornate church was built over 160 years by the Jesuits and is decorated with some great works of art.  Oh yeah and supposedly 7 tonnes of 23 k gold was used to gild the entire inside of this house of God. Known as the most beautiful church in Ecuador, we felt that of all the churches you can visit in Quito, this is the one to see.

Church Facade

The huge paintings on the pillars inside depict the Prophets (whose eyes eerily follow you as you walk away) while the entry way showcases a massive painting of Hell and the Last Judgment which is sure to scare most people into confessing their sins and then some. And, like many churches, La Compañía de Jesús has its very own patron saint, Mariana de Jesus. She devoted herself to God and claimed this church as her home – to this day her remains are venerated in the main altarpiece and lots of religious paraphernalia with her image can be conveniently purchased at the gift shop.

Peeking in the Church

We were properly awed and walked around the church in a bit of a daze, 7 tonnes is a huge amount of gold and seeing it all over the walls, altarpieces even part of the ceiling was quite a sight.  Unfortunately we weren’t able to take photos… or so we were told. Deciding that this rule did not apply to us, Tom managed to snap a few sneaky photos though they don’t really do the church justice.

Stolen photo of Golden Church

Thrilled to cross the border from Colombia to Ecuador in less than 45 minutes we continued on our way with our Colombian Tia (aunt).  Having heard that there was a pretty cool cemetery in Tulcan we decided to stop and take a look — we needed a leg stretch anyway.  Chucking all our gear in the car, we grabbed our cameras and entered into a very fantastical funeral site.  A bit like going through the rabbit hole we walked through a large white arch and ended up surrounded by hedges trimmed into all manner of creature.  Angels, Incan symbols, birds and every type of animal are found all over the cemetery.

Senor José Franco began the topiary sculpting in 1936, when the cemetery was started, and his five sons have continued the tradition today.  It was well worth the stop.

After our wander through the Tulcan cemetery we made our way to Otavalo, a smallish town about two hours north of Quito, to catch their massive Saturday market.  We headed out early Saturday morning to find every square inch of the town covered in stands with loads of goods to be unpacked and sold that day. The market is chock full of embroidered blouses, beads, textiles, woolen products and, of course, a whole cheesy assembly of tourist paraphernalia.

One of the benefits of being up early for any market is the chance to be a vendor’s “first sale of the day”.  Most tourists and tour groups have not arrived yet and we managed to get some pretty decent deals as we wandered through the market streets.  And, of course, we had Andres’ Aunt Marta with us who was quick to tell us if someone was asking way too much or whether a price was fair.