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What do roasted guinea pigs and volcanic lakes have in common?

Our host at Hostal Chasqui, Roberto, told us that the best outdoor activity in the Otavalo area was hiking around Laguna Cuicocha, a stunningly beautiful volcanic lake. He said that many tourists are duped into paying a tour company nearly $100 for a trip to the lake. He told us to do it on our own and save $100 dollars. We took Roberto’s advice and hopped on a city bus for a twenty minute ride to the town of Quiroga. The cost for the bus ride was .35 cents a person.

In the town of Quiroga we took a $5 taxi to Cotacachi Cayapas Ecological Reserve. It boasts a rainforest, many volcanic lakes, and waterfalls. The infamous 11,089 foot tall Cotacachi Volcano is located within the reserve, towering near the Cuicocha Lake.

The entire trip was less than six dollars. Entry to the park is free. Foreign visitors check in by providing a passport number. The park includes a wonderful visitor center and museum.

Laguna Cuicocha is a lake that has formed in a volcanic crater. The lake is located high in the mountains. There are two large islands in the middle of the lake. The locals refer to the larger island as "guinea pig island" because of its resemblance to the local delicacy. Guinea pigs are prized as a source of nutrition and for their ability to quickly procreate, thus providing a renewable food resource. I'm sure they taste "just like chicken" but I'll never know for sure.

A well maintained and well marked trail circles the lake. The trail is covered with native berries, beautiful wildflowers and grasses and climbs high above the lake. The colors of the lake are unbelievable with varying shades of blue, depending upon the angle of the sun. The only other place that I have seen these varying shades of blue were when we visited our exchange student in the Canary Islands in Spain.

Locals will say that it takes about four hours to hike the entire trail. Don’t believe the locals! Five hours after we began we could finally see the end of the trail. It might take locals four hours but it definitely takes older and fatter Americans five hours. It felt to us as though the majority of the 6.5 mile, 1,000 feet ascent, hike was uphill all the way around.. I kept telling myself that this was good training for our upcoming treks.

We met groups of hikers from all over the world. Canada, Germany, and France were well represented. The Germans seemed too chipper for having hiked a few hours. When we passed the half way point of the hike we noticed that buses can reach the high point of the trail. From here it is an easy hike all downhill, of which one group of Germans decided to take advantage. Apparently, German tourists are smarter than American hikers!

When we finished the hike Jennifer’s legs were like jelly and I was exhausted. I was happy when the desk manager at the lake hotel was able to call us a taxi to take us to Cotacachi, a small nearby town famous for its leather shops.

In Cotacachi we enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a small cafe, The Pastry Shop, where we devoured wonderful sandwiches on homemade bread and drank homemade milk shakes. The place was run by an American ex-pat who was celebrating her two year business anniversary that day.

It was fun to visit with the Americans who had gathered for the occasion. They told us that Cotacachi has the highest concentration of Americans in all of Ecuador. Out of 8,000 residents, 800 are Americans who have made this their home. They told us of how they are able to live a much higher quality of life on a great deal less money than if they were in the states. We are meeting many people who choose to live abroad in order to have a higher standard of living than they could ever have in the United States.

We then took the .35 cent bus ride back to Otavalo, and grabbed a cab back to our hostal. Jennifer said that she couldn’t walk another step. It would be an early night in order to be ready for the famous Otavalo market in the morning.

The Otalvo Market has taken place uninterrupted every Saturday for hundreds of years. The locals sell colorful textiles, handicrafts, animals, food, and almost everything else imaginable. When the market is open it has been described as the most colorful place in the world. I can’t wait to see some of the images that I might capture at this incredible event. Stay tuned!

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