Ecuador 9 – Northern Highlands – Otavalo, Lagunas de Mojanda, Ibarra and the Reserva Ecologica El Angel

 9th – 15th October –  Returning to Quito and Hostal Zentrum once again, following our trip to see Cotopaxi…….a real highlight!  We renew our vehicle insurance once more for a further month and have one day of sun to dry the washing before the weather changes.

 Days are overcast and colder with heavy thunderstorms by the afternoon.  Big, fat slugs are slithering up the tiny toilet/shower room loving all this wet weather and the shower is barely warm now since we discover that it is heated by solar energy.  As we haven’t had any sun of late, it can only get colder!  Although the owner here is lovely and always tries to be helpful, he can’t change the weather and we have had enough of the mud, wet and cold.  We take a couple of days break back at Hotel Tambo Real, where they continue to give us a good discount.  Very quiet over the long weekend, many Ecuadorians having left the city to enjoy the last holiday here before the partying begins at the end of November, continuing until Xmas!  We stay an extra day at the hotel enjoying a rest and every day it pours with rain, thunders and lightning.  It is so nice to have a room to escape to!

16th October – We leave today for Otavalo but it’s a slow crawl through Quito and the outskirts.  We cross the equator once more just before Cayambe.  Heavy rain begins after this town, the hills disappear under low cloud and the sky looks ominous.  Looks as if the weather in Otavalo is going to be similar to that of Quito.  We pass Laguna de San Pablo (Ecuador’s largest lake) but today it is a reflection of the grey and overcast sky.

A steep, cobblestone road takes us up to Rose Cottage at 2800m.  Here they have various types of accommodation – rooms, dormitories and camping in the small parking area.  It’s almost dark, cold and wet, so we take a room and at short notice, the cook makes us a great spaghetti bolognaise and a fruit salad.  We don’t get to meet the owners, but there’s a lot of English influence here with a big poster of William and Kate and the new baby and another large painting of a royal mail post box.  With a name like Rose Cottage, the garden includes many rose bushes amongst the rows of neat flower beds that line the pathways.

17th October – It continues to pour with rain during the night and in the morning there are large wet patches on the ceiling.  We do however have lovely hill views from our window and by the time we are ready to leave the rain has stopped.

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The morning reveals a good view of extinct Volcan Imbaburu (4609m) towering over the town of Otavalo, its crater top sprinkled with snow……’s quite a giant!

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We also have a good view of Volcan Cotacachi at 4939m also extinct, its top covered in snow.

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We can just make out the massive, snow-covered hulk of Volcan Cayambe in the far distance……..another giant at 5790m.  This extinct volcano is Ecuador’s 3rd highest peak and is said to be the highest point in the world through which the equator directly passes – at 4600m on the south side.  

We decide to drive further up the cobblestone road which continues to climb steeply another 12km to the Lagunas de Mojanda at 3800m.  There are great views of Cotacachi from Laguna Grande, the first and biggest lake that we arrive at and which is gradually changing from grey to blue as the sun tries hard to appear from behind the clouds.  

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The surrounding hills are covered in paramo – the native, green and yellow Andean grassland.  It’s a beautiful, quiet and remote area, with many hiking trails and colourful, indigenous plants.

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Returning to Otavalo, we visit the Plaza de Ponchos in the town centre where there is a daily craft market.  For many years, Otavalo has hosted one of the most important markets in the Andes, attracting a great number of people, Saturday being  the main market day when colourful stalls spill over into the side streets from the main marketplace.

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The day so far has amazingly kept dry, but dark clouds are now sweeping over the mountains and before we reach Ibarra it is raining.  We are heading up in the hills to Aussie Graham, who has a thriving garden nursery here and encourages overlanders to come and stay.  What an idyllic place it is, so relaxing and quiet  with large  areas of sloping, green lawns, beautiful trees and shrubs, as well as rows and rows of pots containing young plants.  Graham however has done a lot of overlanding himself and so is very much aware of travellers needs.  A kitchen area along with a big dining table, hot shower and wifi are all generously offered.

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At night the twinkling lights of Ibarra are spread out below us and in the far distance, mountains mark the border with Colombia.

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18th – 30th October During our stay in Ibarra we visit the nearby town of Cotacachi amongst green fields and forested hillsides, with a tranquil main plaza and busy main shopping street famous for its leather products.  Although quality can vary, the choice of jackets, luggage, handbags, boots and shoes is enormous and incredibly good value.  If only we had more room in our Land Rover!

Another day is spent visiting Laguna Cuicocha (Guinea-pig Lake) in Kichwa, 18km west of Cotacachi and situated in the Reserva Ecologica Cotacachi-Cayapas.  A still lagoon in a collapsed, volcanic crater at just over 3000m, it has two rounded and steeply forested islands that surfaced during later eruptions.  Locals say that they resemble the backs of guinea pigs which we often see roasting on spits.  Volcan Cotacachi can be seen from here on a clear day but today it is covered in thick cloud. Torrential rain, which has been threatening for most of the day, arrives as we return to Ibarra but at least it will be good for the nursery plants!

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On our first clear and bright morning we head north out of Ibarra to visit the El Angel Ecological Reserve. This journey will take us toward Mira and El Angel into Carchi, the northernmost province bordering with Colombia.  I have seen pictures of this huge reserve, which lies at approx. 3000-4000m, where the tall and very unusual Espeletia plants (known as Frailejons), create a unique landscape.                                                                  

 We discover however, that the Panamericana route north has been closed by police once we reach Yaguarcocha Lake, due to a bicycle race. This results in a detour through the hills along narrow, dirt and cobblestone roads but which actually turns out to be a spectacular route through a dry, desert landscape full of aloe plants and numerous cacti.  This rugged scenery and occasional green valley reminds us very much of Bolivia.

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As well as being unique, El Angel turns out to be a remote and beautiful reserve, providing water for the entire province of Carchi, through the many rivers that flow from the mountains and which later form the Mira and El Angel rivers.  This high, moist, moorland landscape with fog shrouding the moors for much of the year, creates a unique paramo in the northern Andes. In El Angel the temperature often falls below zero at night although it is only 80km from the equator.  In the summer months of June to October, the days can be warm but in the winter, the daytime temperature remains very cold, often with strong, chilly winds.  Life is not easy and so special ecosystems have developed.

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These spectacular Frailejon plants living at high altitude and forming a forest in this paramo ecosystem, can grow on trunks that can reach 6m or more in height.  Their yellow flowers are very similar to sunflowers and the soft, hairy leaves which serve to protect the plant from the cold climate, do not fall off but remain enclosed around the stem.  Frailejons can be hundreds of years old as the plant only grows 2.5cm per year.

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El Angel is also home to the strange Polylepis trees that are protected naturally from the cold, by the layers of bark that provide a form of insulation.

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We return to Ibarra in the late afternoon with Imbaburu towering in front of us, appearing to float high on the clouds.

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31st October – Thick fog this morning but we are leaving Graham today although we shall miss our evening chats over mugs of tea and chocolate biscuits.  We will also miss Dompy, Graham’s beautiful and boisterous dog who has accompanied us on all our walks and we shall also have to find another ice cream parlour that does the same delicious flavours as the one in town!  The weather here has been wonderful during the day – 25 – 30 degrees….we can see why so many people retire here from North America and Europe!  Thanks Graham for your kind hospitality!

And so we take the road to Tulcan, the last town in Ecuador before the border with Colombia.  As we leave Ibarra behind, the road gradually descends into the Chota valley bordered on each side by dry, rugged hills.The fields are full of sugar cane, grown by Afro-Ecuadorians descended from plantation slaves that arrived in the 17th century.  Women are doing their washing in the brown and fast flowing Rio Chota that we cross, the banks covered in brightly coloured clothes……just like we saw many times in Africa.   From the valley the road climbs up through the Andean hills to around 2800m.

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We have heavy rain at San Gabriel and everywhere looks incredibly green with such fertile soil……a big dairy cattle area.  Road works slow our journey.  On reaching Tulcan it’s a few more km before we reach the Rumichaca Bridge which marks the border with Colombia.


We knew very little about Ecuador before we began travelling through it but our journey has led us to discover that it is a country full of surprises with lovely people and wonderful places to visit, from the coast, across mountains and down to the rainforest.  We thank Colon and friends from Cuenca, Jorge and family and Jose from Guayquil, Fernando and family from Quito and Graham in Ibarra, for your kind hospitality and in helping to make our stay in your country very special.


We would like to wish all our family and friends and followers of our blog, a very HAPPY CHRISTMAS and NEW YEAR!











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One Response to Ecuador 9 – Northern Highlands – Otavalo, Lagunas de Mojanda, Ibarra and the Reserva Ecologica El Angel

  1. marielle says:

    Dear Bill and Rosemary,
    Just caught up on the last few months of your blog.
    The rain is lashing on our boat (although no complaints about the English weather for the last 6 months!), the fire is crackling and we’re into our 2nd bottle of wine….
    It’s great to escape to South America for an evening!
    (..would be nice to share a bottle behind the Landrover..)
    Thanks for sharing your adventures!
    Have a Lovely Christmas and a Happy and Healthy 2014 on the road!!!!
    Love, Mike and Marielle

    ps Taking the Citroen to the the south of France for January for a change of scenery.

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