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Saturday we left Quito at about 9 AM heading for the Salinas Valley just north and slightly west of Ibarra. Our original plan was to stay overnight somewhere, and try to take the train from Ibarra to Salinas. This is a tourist train that runs through the sugarcane fields, and takes from 2 to 2.5 hours for the journey. But it leaves Ibarra At 8 AM, which means you can only catch it by sleeping in Ibarra the night before. And, there is no return transportation if you take the train only one way. So we dropped that idea. I do believe there are some tour operators who offer a package of the round-trip journey on the train with lunch included, but that still means you need to be in Ibarra early in the morning.
You should know, it´s not actually a real “train” but as I understand it, some kind of bus converted to travel on train tracks. On the website at http://www.hosteriasanfrancisco.com/en/activities/train-ride.html there is an image of something akin to a train car, however I think most of the passengers ride on the roof.
We passed straight through Otavalo, one of the largest, if not the largest, Indian markets in Ecuador and all of South America. But in Ibarra we stopped at a place famous for its empanadas, which I mentioned in a posting about two years back. The place is called Empanadas Dona Marina, and has been around 50 years if not longer.
It consists only of a simple room with a small part walled off where the Empanadas are made, and a small bathroom. The ones they serve here are called Empanadas de Morocho, which is a type of corn used for the dough; they are then filled with a pea or two, bits of pork, and a few grains of rice.
There are about six tables inside and a refrigerator with a glass door for sodas.
A large stove and a large pan with lard for frying the empanadas sits at the side of one of the doors.
Empanadas are three for a dollar and it’s the only thing they serve. Bowls of salty, spicy aji, or traditional Ecuadorian hot sauce sit on the tables. In this part of the country it’s made not only with chilies, but another fruit native to the region called the tree tomato, which adds a slightly tangy and sweet note to the sauce.
After stopping here, we headed over to the traditional ice cream shop-one that’s also been around for over a century. It’s called Doña Rosalia Suarez, and ice creams are all fruit-based and made in copper kettles placed atop ice and straw and stirred by hand. So in essence, they are really sorbets, though there may be one or two varieties where milk or cream is added. For $.80 you get a cone with up to two flavors.
It was still early but we were full from all the food, so we headed towards Chachimbiro, about another 30 to 45 minutes drive descending from Ibarra; as you descend the climate quickly warms, the terrain flattens, and sugarcane is visible everywhere as it becomes the dominant crop. The road is only two lanes and gets narrower as you get farther from Ibarra. The last section of the road heading up to the hot springs appeared to be recently paved.
We passed the Hosteria San Francisco,
which we had briefly checked out on the web before leaving, and went straight to Chachimbiro where they had other accommodations. However, upon closer inspection, we were turned off by all the stands selling tchotchkes and snacks to the public, the crowds, and what would appear to be a noisy nocturnal scene. It was only 3 km back down the road to San Francisco so we went straight back there.
As well, the prices seem to be pretty similar-$132 for a room for four at San Francisco, or $30 per person at the Hot Springs. And the lodging at the San Francisco included breakfast.
We were greeted by a very local at reception, and after signing in, shown to our room. It was obviously new construction, but the rooms were decorated in a simple, rustic style, and extremely comfortable.
We immediately changed into our bathing suits and went to the pool that is in front of the main house.
The pool is also fed by the Hot Springs, but the lodge reheats the water as it cools quite a bit by the time it reaches their location. It was an idyllic spot for the kids and they spent the afternoon splashing in the pool.
They were kind enough to accommodate us for dinner at 6:30-most places don’t serve until after seven, which is inconvenient if you have small children. But if you ask, many places will make the adjustment. As we requested meals without red meat, we were served a delicioua tilapia fillet, roasted potatoes, and sautéed vegetables which consisted of broccoli, bell peppers, and julienne carrots. Spice cake, not something usually seen in Ecuador, was the dessert. Like many places in Ecuador, they had a set menu; many places have both a prix fixe and perhaps a very limited a la carte menu as well.
The following morning we took the kids to fool around on the tennis court, and see the chickens, goats, horses, and turkeys. The lodge also offers a free horseback riding. Several friendly dogs, a golden lab and the cocker spaniel, have free run of the property.
Since it wasn’t high season or holiday and there were only a dozen or so guests, we were allowed to stay as late as we liked with no checkout time looming.
We nonetheless departed shortly before noon to head back to Otavalo. Currently the government is expanding the two-lane highway between Otavalo and Ibarra to six lanes. Midway between the two towns lies Atuntaqui, a small town with a high profile, now known best for its textile industry. It used to be a sleepy town with no shops for the public, but now not only does it produce textiles for national consumption but also for export, and most of the factories have stores that are open to the public. Some say the expansion of the industry can be attributed to narco money coming in from Columbia. But that aside, it’s also a great place to stop for some traditional Ecuadorian fare.
The main attraction for eating is a can´t miss spot on the main highway called Fritadas Amazonas.
Fritadas is a traditional meal of chopped pork cooked in a copper kettle until it´s crispy on the outside, and tender enough to be pulled into strings right off the bone. Of course, it wouldn´t be Fritada if it weren´t accompanied with fresh corn on the cob, hominy, tostad0 (another variety of dried, toasted corn), llapingachos (potato cakes filled with cheese and colored with annatto, cooked in lard), plantains, and maybe even a few empanadas. We opted for the limited menu-corn, fritada, hominy, tostado and sodas. All this for just $11.
Corn kernels here are almost the size of a marble, and tender and juicy.
After lunch headed to the Plaza de losPonchos, the central market square in Otavalo. This is the number one place to shop for handicrafts in Ecuador; the Otavalo Indians are also very well known worldwide for their textile industry, and in the plaza you can find rugs, sweaters, blankets, hammocks, T-shirts and a number of other items. It’s a very safe place to shop as well; where there is prosperity the people look out for one another and thieves face a severe beating by the locals if they are caught. You can comfortably and safely walk around with your camera and take photos of all the colorful goods. We picked up two hammocks for $18 apiece; but after walking just a few feet away we were offered similar items for $15 apiece. So it’s worth it to spend some time bargaining; don’t rush settling on a final price because as soon as you turn an item down the price will come down. A good guideline is to expect to pay somewhere around half of the initial offer.
Northern Ecuador’s mild climate, varied terrain including high mountains and rolling fields of sugarcane, and variety of food makes it the perfect area to go for an overnight trip from Quito. Thanks for visiting!