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Four chicas and a film crew
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Four chicas and a film crew go crazy in Ecuador
By Bryony Inge

After a few months of teaching English and working for a local NGO, the opportunity came up to make a documentary on tourism in Ecuador. Suddenly I was faced with a tough decision: continue with my four jobs and hectic 6am to 9pm work schedule or quit the lot for a month of adventures? I accepted immediately.

Piling into a car the size of a small house, we began the journey which would take us from snowcapped peaks to the sun-soaked beach. Heading north, the reams of housing start to thin out as the highlands take over. A menagerie of sheep, goats and cows follow rainbow-coloured bands of pied pipers in swirling skirts and black hats through the patchwork of fields. Intrigued llamas witness the whole parade quietly munching their grass.

The only interruptions to the miles of rolling hills are the small pueblos. Cotacatchi – a leather lover’s paradise - and Otavalo are not to be missed. Reputedly the largest indigenous market in the whole of South America, Otavalo is a bizarre mix of camera-toting tourists bargaining over a dollar with locals in full Indian dress. The sagging market tables lie between stacks of hammocks, and streamers of tablecloths and wall decorations hang from above. But unlike other parts of the world, if you don’t buy here you’re unlikely to find yourself being chased down the street by a furious market vendor wielding that carpet you didn’t want.

Ecuador hosts an array of misty craters and mountains including the world’s highest active volcano Cotopaxi. The steep climb up to the lodge battling against winds strong enough to push you over - but seemingly devoid of oxygen - is worth the effort…once you get there. Sweating but freezing cold and on the verge of collapsing, the pain of the climb soon melts away as you contemplate the land stretched out below your feet. Less than a day’s drive from Cotopaxi is Laguna Quilatoa. Shining like a misshapen penny at the bottom of a well, the lagoon is tucked away in the mountains and obscured from view until you’ve walked right up to the crater’s edge and peered over. The sense of isolation and emptiness is enhanced by a string of stalls and a few lost-looking tourists hanging about in their beanies and bare feet at the top of the crater.

Deeper into the Andes, the winding road clings to the sides of jaw-droppingly steep mountains and passes through some of the coldest but classiest cities of Ecuador. Amongst the cobbled streets of Cuenca stand gleaming white-washed colonial churches, cathedrals and palm-filled plazas. The flower market is a frenzy of vivid colours with the singing Cuencanos content to pass away the time by chatting to you in the sun.

Old man
Further south, locals in Vilcabamba supposedly live for 120 years. Here in the valley of Longevity the days pass slowly and quietly – perfect if you’re looking for a place to read a book in a hammock. Madre Tierra is a spa resort dedicated to the relaxation of its guests and offers a whole range of treats…including the not-so-delightful colonic irrigation. Being cleaned out from the inside is supposed to do wonders for your digestive system, but afterwards I decided that maybe I wasn’t psychologically ready to see the insides of my colon. It took a whole afternoon of being wrapped in mud and a soothing facial to recover from the self-inflicted trauma.

The Galapagos
Finally, no trip to Ecuador is complete without visiting the Galapagos. This is nature at its brightest and boldest and most close-up. The volcanic islands baked by the sun support a rich diversity of wildlife. Statuesque iguanas soak up the rays, blue footed boobies stare you out with big beady eyes, and sea lions lie roll around imitating the fat tourists on the beach.

Against the backdrop of calm paradise, the political situation continues to simmer and recently reached boiling point. This April Gutierrez was finally thrown out by Congress – the third time in eight years that an Ecuadorian president has been forced to step down. Despite Ecuador’s historically turbulent political situation, its people have remained democratic and protests are generally peaceful. New President Alfredo Palacio now faces a tough job dealing with corruption and poverty. But if tourism is developed carefully it may help Ecuador triumph over its politics and establish itself as a country rich in natural diversity and tranquil landscapes waiting to be discovered.
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