03/25/2015 03:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Coicocha Crater Lake, Parque Condor, and the Otavalo Market - 7 Countries, 7 Months, 3 Kids

We had a busy week here in Cotacachi!

First up, last Tuesday, we taxied the fifteen miles up to the Coicocha Crater Lake in the Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological reserve and national park. We had an excellent taxi driver that we will definitely use again. That's what you do here...find a good cabby that speaks slowly and clearly so you can understand the Spanish and with good rates and you keep him. He dropped us off at the visitor's center at the base of the dormant volcano and gave us his cell phone number so we could call him when we were finished. We hiked up and around the rim and took in the gorgeous views of the lake from above. The entire hike, all the way around the rim, is almost four miles so needless to say, we didn't hike all of it. But, we got to see how the clouds turn the volcanic lake a gorgeous, clear blue-grey and the sun turns it a deep blue-green, like a Scottish loch. It was over 600 feet deep, surrounded by lush mountain greenery, and almost mystical, so imagining the Loch Ness monster rearing its head was not difficult at all. The flora was amazing as well. It is quite arid at over 11,000 feet but since the land is so fertile, there is an amazing mix of almost desert-like cacti, evergreen trees, and vibrant flowers. There was a solar calendar, lunar calendar, and even a sacrificial platform, where we decided to stop and have a snack. When we hiked back down, the visitor's center was on par with any of the US national parks. It was modern, clean, and well laid out. There were tons of interactive displays and even a little scientific garden, where you could explore all the local and native species of plants. After all the outdoor time, we headed inside to the restaurant to order an early lunch and drink hot coco tea (good for the altitude) and the best hot chocolate we've ever had.


These boys love each other


Thanks self-timer for this family portrait


Katie and the boys taking in the view


The museum had fantastic interactive exhibits


Exploring the scientific garden


Katie and Gabe in front of Coicocha Lake


Coicocha Lake


Michael looking out towards Otavalo


The view towards Otavalo


The sacrificial platform overlooking Coicocha

That afternoon, however, when we got back to our house, Katie and I both started to feel a little dizzy and came down with bad headaches. I took a nap and Katie made herself an essential oil and fresh lemon tea and did a bit of yoga. No luck. We slugged around for awhile and then diagnosed ourselves: altitude sickness. We were both shocked at how it affected us but very happy that all the boys seemed to be untouched by it. So, we popped in a movie, poured more tea, and snuggled up on the couch for the rest of the evening. Sometime during the night, the sickness sweated out of us and by the morning, we were good to go again and onto the next adventure. All in all, we highly recommend the Coicocha Crater lake but you might consider bringing some altitude medication or a thermos full of coca tea.

On Thursday, I took the boys to Otavalo, via the easily navigable bus system, and the Parque Cóndor. The Condor Park is an endangered bird rescue and rehabilitation center, established in 2009. It's a non-profit (less than $10 for me and the older two boys) wildlife refuge for owls and raptors, including the endangered Andean Condor. It seeks to rescue, protect and rehabilitate these birds and, if possible, release them back into the wild. Those that cannot be released become the stars of an educational bird show held twice a day, at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., though times may change depending on the weather. The boys and I managed to catch the 11:30 a.m showing, despite a little morning rain. The show gave us, and any other visitors, the opportunity to observe these beautiful creatures in flight, and allows the park to inform about the importance of environmental conservation. From Parque Cóndor, there are stunning views of the Imbabura and Cotacachi volcanoes, San Pablo Lake and the towns of Otavalo and Cotacachi. The park also has a small restaurant and a playground, which the boys took advantage of after they walked around to all the birds. We absolutely loved it and since the day was a bit overcast, we were three of about ten visitors, which gave us an amazing and very unique opportunity to see the birds up close and personal! We were literally within two feet when the bald eagle decided to land on the falconeer's arm! Truly, a once in a lifetime experience.


Condor statue at Parque Condor


One of the bald eagles used in the show


A Black-Buzzard Eagle coming in for a landing


A Bald Eagle landing on the falconeer's arm...less than 2 feet from my head!


Me holding a Henrietta Hawk while Jack looks on

Saturday morning saw us up early and on a $.50 bus back to Otavalo for the world-famous indigenous market. Katie visited on a previous trip but this was my first time to the market. Nothing can prepare you for the colors, sights, and smells that await you on the Plaza de Ponchos when you climb out of your quick, $1 taxi ride from the bus terminal. You are met with a rainbow of technicolor, from alpaca wool ponchos to woven tablecloths to baskets. Everything is handmade and unique to this area. And every price is negotiable. The market is open everyday but Saturdays are its bread and butter. There is a huge fresh and local produce area where you can find anything from rainbow chard to finger bananas to avocados to massive lemons. This vegetable and fruit section is right next to the butchery, which features live or freshly plucked chickens and huge roast hogs, ready to be carved up into exactly which cut of meat you need for that evening's meal. Right next to this, is the cafeteria, of sorts. Tiny, wizened old ladies, dressed in traditional Andean garb, are frying up papas and piling juicy roast chicken or freshly fried trucha (local lake trout) onto heaps of steamed rice. The younger ladies are grilling plantains and corn on the cob on portable griddles and Ecuador's trademark, sopa de la dia, is everywhere. Men that have been hard at work hauling in market wares, are seated at long tables, hungrily slurping all this delicious food for breakfast and every once in awhile, the daring gringo is seated in the midst of them. So, our advice? Grab a bite or, if you are worried about stomach troubles, grab a still-warm bun and a handful of mora, Ecuadorian blackberries, and set out through the maze of artwork, pottery, and blankets. Make sure and negotiate...the vendors will always come down at least a bit in price and some of the best deals are in the center of the plaza. We've found that if you find a stall with most of what you need, you can get the price down by almost half! So, pick out an ombre alapaca shawl or blanket for your mom, a handpainted clay nativity for Christmas, a carved wooden figurine for your brother/father, and, of course, a string of the gorgeous gold glass beads for your wife. After you've loaded your new woven basket with your finds, head over to The Pie Shop on the Plaza de Ponchos, famous for, what else...their amazing pies! For $2 a slice, and by slice, we mean almost a quarter of a pie, you can get one of their twelve, daily, fresh and homemade pies. Or you can do like we did and get four slices, blackberry, blueberry, lemon meringue, and naranjilla, a small tart orange fruit native to Ecuador. You can add ice cream to the plate for an extra $2 but why bother? It's delicious as is. We have plans for four more slices next Saturday.


Street art


More spices then I've ever seen in one place


Fruit and veggie vendors


Street food!


Fresh bread is everywhere


Pork anyone?


Traditional Andean necklaces


Alpaca blankets, ponchos, table clothes, and hundreds of other handmade crafts


Hand-woven tapestries


The boys picking out alpaca finger puppet toys


The Pie Shop right off the Plaza de Ponchos - the best we've ever had


Ready to chow down


Someone liked it...

That night, after long post-market naps, we heard music playing in the distance and decided to go investigate. On the main square, we found a native, indigenous band playing to a very large but respectful crowd of locals. It was a concert to aid some local cause but unfortunately, I couldn't find out what. Either way, it was great fun watching the locals and listening to the beautiful sounds of guitar and flute. There were tons of food vendors set up and grilling corn and kabobs of potatoes, peppers, and chicken and even a bouncy house for all the kiddos. A stark contrast to the traditional cathedral in the background.


Cotacachi Cathedral steps filled for the concert


Katie and Michael enjoying the music and cool weather

In between all these wonderful adventures, we've been frequenting the local market and bakeries, enjoying the chilly mornings and evenings on the porch, and collecting the fruit and flowers from our garden. Just enjoying life, as was part of the intent on this trip of ours. But this week, we've got a lot of real estate trips and investment tours to take. We are very excited about the opportunities here and invite you to stay tuned for next week's post! Ciao!


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