Happy New Year!!! Wishing everyone a good 2015 🙂
In this episode:
- Eating lots of Chinese food
- Llamas, sheep, horses, and a dog on the Quilotoa Loop
- Gasping for air trying to summit Cotopaxi, the 3rd farthest point from the center of the earth
- A flat tire on a motorcycle in Baños
- Getting to know an expat in Cuenca
I wasn’t kidding about the Chifa.
After one last Ecuadorian-Chinese meal in Quito, we hopped on a bus bound for Latacunga. The Pan-American Highway took us right by Cotopaxi, the tallest active volcano in the world (disputed) and third-farthest point from the center of the earth (undisputed). Fun fact: Everest is only the fifth-farthest point from the center of Earth; Chimborazo — which can be seen from Cotopaxi — is the farthest (read about equatorial bulge).
While I had been toying with the idea of a summit attempt, it was not until that point that I realized how massive the volcano truly was. At 5,897m (19,347ft) above sea level, it was a beast. On a clear day, you could drive for two hours down the PanAm before you lost sight of it. I began doubting if I really wanted to try. It looked really cold. And tall.
Once night fell and Cotopaxi was out of sight, I regained my resolve. I wasn’t in the best of shape, but I had to try! I would, of course, need to do some acclimatizing hikes at altitude if I was to have any chance.
But first I needed ice cream.
We decided to do the Quilotoa Loop before I attempted Cotopaxi because a) it was at modest altitude, b) it had a lot of vertical, and c) it looked like the scenery would be pretty top-notch. The Loop is a circuit connecting indigenous villages, and can be as short or long as you desire (you can start walking from Latacunga, if you fancy an 125km+ slog). We decided to do the most popular fifth of the Loop, taking two days from Quilotoa to Chugchilan to Sigchos.
Leaving most of our gear at the hostel in Latacunga, we hopped on a bus to the Quilotoa crater, carrying only the bare essentials and chocolate milk.
The ride to Quilotoa took quite a while, as the roads were poor and curvy. The weather was wet and there were delays (the road had washed out in a few places), but the views along the way were beautiful.
We got to the crater a little after noon, and the weather was only getting worse. To our dismay, the overcast sky spilled over into the crater, obscuring the view we had heard so much about.
As we didn’t really feel like hiking for six hours in pouring rain, we decided to wait out the storm and start our hike to Chugchilan the next morning (the weather tends to be better earlier). We found ourselves a nice hostel, put down our stuff, and went for a look-around in the small town.
Much to Kate’s surprise, we found locals playing volleyball! (Well, the Ecuadorian take on it, anyway.) We grabbed some fried maduro plantains stuffed with fresh cheese and watched from the sidelines, impressed with the quality of their game.
Still hungry, we went in search of a place to sit down and have an honest meal. We decided on this place for its charming exterior.
What happened next turned out to be a highlight of our time in Ecuador. We actually chose that place because we could see it was crowded through the windows — always a good indicator of good food. But what we didn’t realize at the time was that all those people were from one family. You see, we were about to walk in on a family reunion.
Upon walking in the door, we were emphatically greeted by a pair of middle-aged men. “Come in! Sit down! Sit down!” They didn’t work there, but they took our orders anyway and shouted to the cooks in the kitchen. A few minutes later we were eating choclo, a popular type of corn on the cob, washing it down with fresh cheese. The place was loud, full of people cracking jokes followed by fits of laughter. A fun atmosphere indeed, we were glad we choose the place. After we were done eating, one of the guys came over to talk to us. It was then, after we exchanged the normal pleasantries, that we discovered this was a family reunion. Diego was a tour bus driver, and he had loaded up his family into one of his buses to take on a week-long vacation.
After talking for a while, helping their English and getting help with our Spanish, it was time for the restaurant to close. We said our goodbyes to every last family member, getting lots of kisses on the cheek along the way. It was a really neat experience meeting all of them, feeling so welcomed and learning so much from them about Ecuador and their family.
The weather a bit better, we decided to go for a walk along the rim of the crater. We were definitely glad we waited to get a better view of the lake.
Along the way we saw horses…
…and even llamas!
As it got dark, the weather again got worse. We hurried back to our hostel to take shelter, encountering a chicken crossing the road on the way.
What we hadn’t been told at check-in was there wasn’t any running water nor staff on the premises after dark. That would have been nice to know, because 1) we would have liked to have had water for the night, and 2) some access to the office for kindling would have been great. Quilotoa is small, cold, and damp, so there are no stores with water open at night nor dry firewood anywhere to be found. We met a pair of German ladies staying in the room down the hall, and joined forces with them to get a fire going. It only took about two hours, but we finally managed to light some of the wood we found.
After a cozy night in our cabin hostel, we woke up early, said our goodbyes to our German neighbors, and got our boots on the trail. The first part of the hike was along the crater ridge, affording incredible views with the clear skies. The twin Illiniza peaks can be seen in the background (Illiniza Sur has snow).
Not a half hour into our hike, we met a new friend. Friendly and furry, she would end up following us the remaining six hours to Chugchilan.
Though she upset Kate by constantly being under-foot, she was a loyal companion who would protect us from cows, sheep, and pigs that came too near. We named her Madura — Maddie, for short– as she had the coloring of the maduro plantain pictured above and was a sweetheart (“madura” in Spanish can mean “mellow”).
After traversing about a quarter of the rim, we had to say goodbye to the lake and start our way down the outside of the crater. We took in our last views of the water and headed down the sandy slopes.
In the States (as I’m sure is true of most industrialized counties), we’re used to seeing flat farmland. Sometimes you’ll see orchards or vineyards on hills, but never on the sides of mountains. In the Andes, though, most of the land has a slope. Without farming machines or mechanized process, the limit to how steep you can plant is really set by how steep you can walk. Entire mountain faces are a patchwork of different crops. It’s really a sight to see.
After making our way down to the valley, it was time for a canyon crossing. We took a few minutes to have a snack and admire the view, then plunged down the switchbacks to the canyon floor.
Chugchilan is at the top of the next mountain, so we spent the remainder of the hike trudging uphill, up the other side of the canyon and up through horse pastures and pig farms.
After a lot of whining and complaining, we reached Chugchilan. Hot, tired, sweaty, and dirty, we walked the length of the town in about two minutes and reached our hostel. Sadly, this is where we had to say goodbye to Maddie… the strays in town chased her away, thwarting our plans for adoption.
While the town wasn’t noteworthy, the hostel was, and we were able to take a nice shower, play ping pong, and eat good food before recharging our batteries for the next day.
Here’s a picture of a typewriter they had in the sun-room complete with Spanish characters.
The next morning we were off again, taking off from Chugchilan to Sigchos.
Along the way we met a small ass…
…and later a Briton, a Scot, and a couple of Germans who were a tad lost.
Most of the hiking up to this point was downhill along the river.
But eventually, the time came to plod uphill to the high-set town of Sigchos. We had read that this last uphill was long and not fun, and in hindsight we would have to wholeheartedly agree. We spent the better part of an hour and a half walking up a dirt road, seemingly no end in sight. Worried we wouldn’t make it in time for the last bus back to Latacunga (or at least that’s what we told ourselves), we hopped in the back of some local’s truck for $1 — a seriously good deal.
This was at about half the altitude Cotopaxi was, and I was not having fun walking up that grade. When you hike you have a lot of time to think, and about all I was thinking was how stupid I was for wanting to do Cotopaxi, which would involve seven hours straight of uphill climbing. But at this point I had told a couple people I was going to do it, so I was pretty much committed.
We made it back to Sigchos with time to spare for the last bus back. No sooner had we hopped out of the truck did another truck drive up and offer us a ride to Latacunga. Pleased with our last trucking experience and anxious to get back to a city with hot food, we hopped in.
At first, it was a thrilling experience to be in a truck bed going 60kph. Mom never let me do this back home! But after a half hour, the novelty wore off. We were getting cold, our butts were getting sore, and our hands were cramping up from hanging on for dear life. An hour in we were regretting not taking the bus. Two hours in we were regretting it even more.
Upon finally making it back to Latacunga, we made a beeline for food. We had been recommended a place by a Dutch couple while in Chugchilan, so we went there and were quite happy campers.
I felt good while hiking the Loop, so after lunch I committed and booked a guide for Cotopaxi.
The trip would involve leaving Latacunga around midday after being outfitted with all the necessary clothes and equipment. My guide and I would drive to the National Park, where we’d go over how to use the equipment, eat an early dinner, and try to get some sleep. At 10pm, we’d wake up, get ready, have some “breakfast”, and drive up to the trailhead a couple hundred meters below the snowline. By 11pm, we’d be on our way up. Regardless of where we were at 7am, we’d have to begin our descent, or else risk avalanches and rockfalls. In sum, there’d be ~8 hours of acscent, a few minutes at the top (if we made it), and a few hours of descent. We’d be back in Latacunga around midday.
In preparation for the hike, I ate and slept for a day. I ate Chinese two out of three meals in an effort to carbo-load.
The day finally came, and after getting fitted for my gear, my guide Eloy and I were on our way. We had to stop to get some gas, and I made sure to take a picture to make all of you back home jealous of the gas prices here. Yes, that is 6.75 gallons for $10 USD.
The drive into the park was fairly ominous. I was pretty excited, but mostly nervous. It kept getting bigger and bigger.
I kept looking at the glacier on top of the mountain. You started the hike below it, so you knew you were trying to climb the entire white top. It looked like a long way. But I had paid my money, so there was no use second guessing now. It wasn’t going to be easy, but I was determined to be in the ~50% that succeeded.
Eloy and I made camp here, around 3800m. We practiced with the crampons and ice ax, had a huge dinner, and tried to get some rest. Turns out trying to sleep from 6-10pm is
hard impossible when you’re excited for the hike ahead.
I should mention that Eloy was an FBI agent, so I was in good hands.
At 10pm we got up and got dressed. I was tired and felt like going to bed (figures), but there was a mountain to climb, so we ate some breakfast and hopped in the truck. Forty minutes later, we got to the trailhead parking lot, where about 35 other people were getting ready to try and summit themselves.
Here’s the best photo my phone could take of the mountain at the lot.
And here’s me all geared up like a goober.
We started the hike on silt and sand. “Slow, tranquil,” Eloy kept repeating. He didn’t speak very good English, but it quickly became our mantra. After about ten steps I was out of breath. At 4400m, this was the highest I had ever been outside of a plane. He directed me to be “more slow, more tranquil,” so I did, and it helped. I looked around and found everyone else was going at the same snail’s pace. Slow and steady, I suppose.
I settled into a rhythm, being as slow and deliberate as I could bear. It’s hard to pace yourself when you know you have a concrete deadline to turn around. We had clear skies with a bright moon, so the views from the mountain side were incredible. Through the darkness you could see the Twin Illinizas (see above), at this point almost below you. Cotopaxi’s glacier looming above and Quito’s lights far in the distance made for a truly surreal environment. I wish I would have taken long exposure pictures to show how magnificent the views were, but alas I had more important things to do.
About an hour in we reached the snow line. We got our our pointy instruments and got ready to spend the next seven hours stabbing the snow and ice.
There are no pictures from midnight to 6:30am. I was too busy trying not to die to worry about fetching my phone. The first few hours of glacier climbing actually wasn’t bad. It was comfortable, I felt good, and the conditions under foot were great. Then we hit the ladder crossing the huge crevasse, and that’s when things began getting difficult. I conveniently started to get a bit dizzy right as I was crossing, and had to slap myself to stave off the sleepiness and keep focused. We took a break to snack and drink water, and I got a bit better.
Then we hit 5400m. This was apparently the threshold of my altitude acclimatization. Once we hit this mark, I couldn’t take two steps without running out of breath. It didn’t help that at this point the snow conditions were horrid. For every two steps you took, you slid one step back. It’s truly hard to describe how easily you run out of breath at these altitudes.
The last 400m of vertical took two hours. All I thought about was, “stab. Right, left.” I must’ve said that a thousand times in my head. Ice ax, move right foot, move left foot. I began to slow. I needed to double over to catch my breath after every cycle. With dawn fast approaching, we had to hurry if we were to make it to the summit before the turnaround time.
I can only credit Eloy for getting me up that mountain. I told him that I was going to do this, that I was determined, even though I thought more than once about giving up. Without him, I wouldn’t have made it in time. He gave me the encouraging (and sometimes forceful) tug on the tether to keep me on pace and prevent me from failing.
We finally made it to the top around 6:30. I collapsed, completely exhausted. I shed a tear or two being so happy about what I had just achieved, then rewarded Eloy and myself with some chocolate.
The photos just don’t do the view from the top justice. I can definitively say it was the most beautiful panorama I have ever seen.
(That’s Chimborazo in the background, the farthest point from the center of the earth and consequently closest point on Earth to the sun and stars.)
(Looking north towards Cayambe.)
(Panorama of Cotopaxi’s crater.)
(Me with Eloy!)
After spending 20 minutes at the top, it was time to start heading down.
While it took about seven and a half hours to summit, it only ended up taking two to get down. The reasons for this are: a) you’re “plunge stepping”, traveling about six feet per stride, b) you don’t have to take breaks (you’re basically sliding down the mountain), and c) you really want food and a warm bed.
Here are some pictures from the way down.
Ascending Cotopaxi was one of the hardest (if not hardest) physical and mental things I’ve ever done. I am so thankful to have had the guide I did, as I would have been disappointed had I not made it to the top.
Here are some fun captures from my phone.
(Maximum altitude — there must have been lots of snow on the crater rim, because the official height is 5897m.)
(Elevation profile from campsite –> trailhead –> summit.)
(GPS track from campsite –> trailhead –> summit.)
Eloy didn’t have a driver’s license, so he asked me to drive home. After not driving for two months, it was a real pleasure getting behind the wheel. We got home without incident, but by the time we did I was starving and falling asleep.
My first priority was finding the biggest pizza in town. After half an hour of searching, we brought this one home… we had to tilt it to get it through the door!
Sated, I crashed, leaving Kate to twiddle her thumbs and do her own thing for the remainder of the afternoon.
The next day, we headed to Baños for the acclaimed — and well-deserved — thermal baths. In addition to the baths, Baños is known as the extreme-sports mecca of Ecuador. The streets are lined with tourist companies and rental agencies offering trips canyoning, white-water rafting, bungee jumping, mountain biking, and motorsporting. We spent the afternoon exploring, getting dinner groceries at the market and going to one of the baths.
We didn’t want to be those tourists who take pictures of people at public baths, but I’m sure you can picture for yourself the sum of a hundred sweaty people and a hot, tiny pool. The water was not clear.
The next day we decided to go to Casa del Arbol, the “treehouse at the edge of the world.” We didn’t really feel like walking three hours along a road, so we rented a small (actually huge by South American standards) 250 for the afternoon.
There wasn’t much traffic, the roads were windy, and the weather was perfect, so we were having a grand time. Or at least I was. There was a lot of screaming behind me.
Eventually the pavement turned to cobblestone, and things started to get wonky. The rear end was slipping out pretty severely, but I figured that’s just what happened when you took a bike on cobblestone. Kate really started freaking out, so we pulled over. And that’s when we saw it.
A flat tire.
Well, this wasn’t fun. No reception, a mile from the top and ten from the main road. We were able to flag a truck driving down, and the driver, in true Ecuadorian fashion, made sure we were taken care of. He called the rental agency, explained our situation, and had a new bike on its way up to us within a half hour.
We finally made it to Casa del Arbol on our replacement bike.
For $1, you could swing all you wanted over the edge. It was a pretty neat feeling swinging out over nothing!
Our inner children satisfied, we rode back down to Baños for some dinner, Netflix, and sleep.
The next day we decided to rent mountain bikes to ride from Baños to Puyo. The 60km ride was supposed to be mostly downhill, taking us from the Andes to the Amazon. Most of it was on roads, but there was a good portion of dedicated bike paths.
We stopped at Pailón del Diablo, or the “Devil’s Cauldron”, a few hours in. As we were nearing the Amazon, it started to get hot and humid. We rehydrated with jugo naturales before hiking down to waterfall.
The waterfall itself was pretty, but what really made it worthwhile were the different paths you could take to get different vantage points. From caves you had to crawl though on hands and knees to swinging suspension bridges, getting to the various viewing areas was half the fun.
We stopped in the next town for food and drinks. In addition to catch-it-yourself-and-we’ll-cook-it trout restaurants, we saw lots of repurposed trash.
The change between Andes and Amazon was predictably gradual, and you couldn’t really identify where one ended and the other began. The air just got progressively hotter and more humid, until you were sweating profusely and didn’t really feel like biking anymore. But the scenery was phenomenal, so we just kept going.
Because we ended up spending a few hours at the waterfall, we didn’t have time to make it all the way to Puyo. We weren’t all that broken up about it, because that “mostly downhill” ride started getting mighty flat with lots of uphills.
As it began to get dark, we flagged a bus back to Baños. We got back, returned our bikes, and headed to the baths for some R&R. Coincidentally, we ran into the same guys we met on the Quilotoa Loop at the pools!
Thoroughly refreshed and recharged, we made our way to Cuenca the following day. Our hostel had a neat “I’m from here” map that we added to.
It also had maneki-neko cats in cages.
Cuenca is apparently the expat capital for Americans, a title that didn’t surprise us after a brief exploration of the area surrounding our hostel. We ended up meeting a great Italian-American guy who went by Don Colón and ate at his restaurant.
The next day we walked around the city and went to the market — an activity we like to do in every city.
Of course we had to get some jugos…
…and got all the fixings for pulled-pork sandwiches back at the hostel. Our place had a nice rooftop terrace, so we ate there and admired the view.
We spent one last day in Cuenca before catching a night bus to Perú.
As we needed internet for researching, booking, etc., we ended up spending most of the day hopping from coffee-shop to coffee-shop.
Then we boarded what was destined to be the worst bus ride to date. (Think sitting in the very front without seat belts, being able to see what blatant disregard the driver has for safety, on the most curvy and bumpy roads you’ve ever been on. From 10pm to 5am.)
We got to the Ecuador-Perú border at 2:30am, and that’s where we’ll leave you until next time.
Next up: Relaxing beachside in Mancora, celebrating Christmas in Lima (I know I know, I’m behind), and sandboarding in Huacachina!
Kate & Jared