Otavalo: We arrive bruised and battered in Popayán after a 6-hour journey on the worst road we’ve ridden since Tanzania. Our journey is delayed by a landslide that closed the only road between San Augustin and the west, so it’s already evening when we arrive in one of the country’s prettiest colonial towns.
Popayán is a clean white city with grand buildings standing proudly around a large central square inside which couples congregate on benches or canoodle against the tall palm trees. We eat well, sleep and are early at the bus station – we have a long journey ahead of us.
We take the PanAmerican Highway south on an eleven-hour journey to the Ecuadorian border at Ipiales. The route is high and curvaceous, winding through a crumpled landscape of volcanoes and valleys, deep crevices chalked at its depths by a river far below. Houses cling impossibly to the steep sides of a plunging canyon and, incredibly, people are farming here: vertical patches of different colours cloak the canyon even though it is inconceivable that people could navigate these slopes, let alone farm.
The road is lined, as all Latin American roads are, with shrines and statues of the Virgin. Every time we pass one, the passengers all cross themselves in the automatic elbow-jerk response of a Catholic on a perilous journey. We do not and are stared at with suspicion and curiosity.
The bus careers wildly across the narrow road in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid the worst pot holes. We pass villages with interesting names, like ‘Where The Frog Sings’ and ‘Dog Falls Over’. The bus has sealed windows and air-con set to arctic. I am wearing a hat, full-length fleece and blanket like most of the other passengers who, in the tropics, own cold-weather clothing purely for use on buses.
There is a television on this bus showing back-to-back martial arts and gun-battles. They are dubbed in Spanish, but the dialogue is not the key attraction in such films, I feel. We stop frequently, at which points our bus boy jumps out and shouts our destination, trying to persuade people to board our bus. This is the practice throughout the developing world, but our guy is particularly optimistic, hoping that a peasant woman shuffling home from the fields with her heavy load will suddenly decide on a spontaneous 6-hour trip to the frontier of her country.
Nick, I realise, is becoming a South American campesino: falling asleep at the first movement of a vehicle. During one of our many stops, he nips out to get us snacks for the ride and returns with some sort of nasty cheese donut. We munch in silence, staring out of the window. And, by chance, we both notice at the same time the bizarre spectacle of a smart four-wheel-drive coasting past with the long neck of a llama leaning out of the rear window, watching the world go by, looking like a labrador but with far more dignity.
We reach Ipiales and cross the border with ease, to begin the 4 hour journey south to Otavalo. The sun sets and evening is underway by the time we pull into the terminal. Above 2500 metres, we sleep fitfully – it is always hard to sleep for the first few days at altitude.
Next morning, we wander through Otavalo, which is the major market town of the region and a gathering spot for the indigenous peasants who farm these volcanic soils. The women wear their hair long and wrapped in coloured threads at the back. They have long black wraparound woollen skirts, flouncy decorated blouses and a black woollen shawl over one shoulder. They have a woollen flat cap or felt bowler on top and wear gold or red coral beads and long earrings. The men have a long plait at the back and all wear hooded-ponchos and a hat.
The main square is called Plaza de Ponchos and sells many ponchos. We walk around, marvelling at the older American tourists who shout in frustration “Does nobody speak English?” as they attempt to haggle over the merchandise. We resist the temptation to buy a “I went to Galapagos for the boobies” T-shirt.
Instead, we take a cab up one of the volcanoes to a bird sanctuary started 6 years ago by a Dutchman called Joep. He opened his refuge out of concern for the Andean condor, which has been all but wiped out of Ecuador. Only 40 birds remain because people consider them predators – rather than the scavengers that they are – and bait them with poisoned meat to protect their livestock from a feared attack.
Joep has a couple of condors in enclosures. They are juveniles – condors live for 80 years or more – and have become habituated to humans and so can’t be released. But their eggs can be. We look into cages holding a variety of hawks, eagles, owls and kestrels. Most birds that arrive at the centre can be brought back to health and then released, but those that were pets cannot. But Joep is hopeful that his project is helping to educate Ecuadorians, particularly schoolchildren, in protecting the country’s birds.
At noon, we leave, boarding a bus further down the PanAmerican to the capital, Quito.