Friday, 21 December 2007

Latacunga, a diamond in the rough?

Latacunga doesn´t look like much from the Pan-American. A collection of non-descript concrete shops catering for the passing buses plying the route from Quito to Ambato and onward to Baños or Cuenca. At best, it is seen as the staging post for people interested in the completing the Quilotoa loop; and if we are honest that is pretty much how we saw it. However, once you cross the Rio Cutuchi from the Pan-American into the Old Town Latacunga shows a side that is altogether more interesting.

The town is dominated by Volcan Cotopaxi to the East and its history has been shaped by the volcano. The town was destroyed three times in the space of 100 years by eruptions of Cotopaxi and the current town is a product of the mid-19th Century. Unlike Baños, the architecture is more authentic with wonderful Baroque style public buildings, interesting churches and low slung domestic buildings with terracotta roof tiles. In some cases, elaborate wooden doors give way to open courtyards with wrap-around balconies on the first floor. The town acts as the central market for all the villages to the West and as such has three large market areas that are the antithesis of Otovalo; you won´t see a poncho or hammock in sight.

The most refreshing aspect of Latacunga is the fact that tourists are very much in the minority. In fact, over the day and a half that we have been here we could count the number of westerners we have seen on two hands. This is a town run by locals for locals. As you walk down the streets you will pass a leather maker stitching chaps, a hat seller catering to the indigenous market and food stalls selling chugchucara, a mix of: fried chunks of pork; hominy; fried pork skin; fried potatoes; banana and corn, all topped off with popcorn and a cheese empenada.

The one downside of Latacunga is that the accommodation options cater for the local market. Our hotel of choice would have failed a building inspection in the 1950s, the decor would have been fashionable in the 1960s and the hot water last worked in the 1970s. It reminded me a bit of the hotel in the film The Shining. Fortunately we only have to sleep there as we managed to find a new hostel (the first to cater to the backpacking market but opened after the last edition of the Lonely Planet was published) that serves a decent breakfast.

Tomorrow we head off to the Black Sheep Inn. Sarah and I are both looking forward to getting into the countryside for some fresh air and relaxation. In the meantime, check out some of the pictures from Latacunga to get a feel for semi-rural Ecuador.

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