¡Hola a todos!
My time in Ecuador and, therefore, South America drawing rapidly, alarmingly to a close, I pressed on with my desire to see what little more of the country I could in my few remaining days. I had been inspired by Mum and Dad’s pictures and words showcasing the natural wonders of the Quilotoa crater and Cotopaxi volcano, both located to the south of Quito and roughly half a day of journeying by minibus away from one another. Although I could have endured a little logistical misery and undertaken these trips alone, I decided to sign off my time in South America in style, opting instead for a reasonably priced combined trip with a reputable local company who would lead a guided walk down into the Quilotoa crater, before the next day hiking to the snow-line of Cotopaxi, at 5,000m, followed by a swift, exhilarating descent to the volcano’s base on mountain bikes.
The Quilotoa crater is that of a long-dormant volcano, located in an isolated, mountainous region south-west of Quito. The drowsy caldera has, over time, filled with water, creating an impressive lake, surrounded by the mighty walls of the caldera top, which are still almost wholly intact, despite previous volcanic activity. The drive to the crater from Quito took the best part of the day, although it did include stops, first at a hostel owned by the tour company and helpfully located between Quilotoa and Cotopaxi, later at a regional market and finally at the rustic mud-hut dwelling of an indigenous family living very near to the crater. I disembarked the bus at the hostel, to stretch my legs and to have a quick look around: I had managed to secure a free night’s lodging at this hostel, before tackling Cotopaxi the following day. I walked into the hostel’s dining area and found myself observing two German acquaintances from Quito enjoying the remnants of their breakfast. It transpired that Frauke and Meike were to join our happy band upon the day’s trip to Quilotoa. Although I had met these two lovely young ladies only very briefly in Quito – leading them to this very company’s office in the Mariscal district in fact – I had been warmed by their witty, humorous company and regretful that we had not been able to enjoy more time together: this then was a joyful reunion indeed.
We re-boarded the bus, joining Arnaud from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and settled down to an extended conversation. The girls were great company and certainly they helped to pass the arduous distances covered and time spent on the bus. The markets were lively but, after returning so recently from Otavalo, I was slightly less impressed than might otherwise have been the case. It was certainly diverting to spend a little time wandering amongst the stalls, parading anything from textiles to live food. Quite unwisely, our rendezvous point was beside the fish counters, which were crawling with flies: I was reminded, regrettably, of my recent ordeal in Baños and thankful not to be eating anything at this stop. Even more disturbing to some was the emotionless way in which many Ecuadorians went about their shopping: it was a pitiful sight to see young rabbits lifted forcefully by their elongated ears, to be observed thoroughly by potential buyers. The rabbit would become quite still, a petrified state that seemed to reach up to their eyes. Their nostrils would expand and contract rapidly; the only noticeable movement being made. Similarly, the guinea-pigs (named ‘cuy’ by South Americans after the distinctive noise they articulate at such regular intervals), who were caged and on display, not as pets but, food. ‘Cuy’ is a delicacy all over this north-western region of South America – I encountered it previously in Peru and Bolivia.
We journeyed on to the indigenous family and their native dwelling: while it was interesting to observe their living conditions again, I was not overwhelmed. The dwelling was cramped, full of odours and remarkably dark, even during the day-time. The effort that the family had to make just to survive was humbling yes, although I could not help but ruminate over the situation, whereby a family living traditionally is visited by a bus load of tourists many days of the week and paid for the experience, taking extra for any photographs snapped that included members of the family in them. Capitalism has, it seems, reached even these remote districts of the world. The visit was at least a further welcome break from the cramped interior of the minibus and a journey that had taken all of the morning and was now in danger of encroaching upon the afternoon as well.
Finally we arrived at the crater and prepared for our descent into the caldera. Thoughtlessly, I opened my bottle of sun-cream, mindless of the high altitude, to be met by a veritable deluge of white liquid, spewing uncontrollably forth from the tube-head. Eventually, after depositing copious amounts of lotion on my trousers, hands and arms, the torrent thinned and I was able to hastily replace the lid. Much of the cream I used and the remainder I scooped back up into the bottle: a lesson ingeniously taught through interactive means and well-learnt. Protected from the powerful sun, I jumped down from the bus, grabbed a walking stick proffered to me by our guide and started down the path, towered over on both sides by walls of sand. After some minutes descending, the narrow trail opened out upon a small plateau, a brilliant viewing station over the hitherto obscured caldera. The scene before me was, quite simply, stunning. I stopped dead in my tracks, awe-inspired by the view unfolding before and below me. The platform looked out from one location along the rim of the caldera, facing out to the rest of the circular ridge and down over the lake, shimmering turquoise and emerald-green beneath a brilliant sky, holding a vibrant sun. Clouds did dot the scene and their shadows threw impressive forms upon the lake, whereby the mirage-like colours took on a slightly different tinge. The vastness of the space and yet, its enclosed feel, lent by the fully formed ridge-line, made for an impressive force.
The descent to the lake-side was swift yet, arduous: the path underfoot was sandy and very slippery – multiple instances I came close to falling and so too those around me. I was numbered among the first in our party to reach the shore, where we spotted a few tired sea-kayaks. I took to the water with Johanna whom I had befriended during the walk-cum-walk-cum-slide down; a girl from Finland volunteering at the company hostel we had visited that morning and allowed to join our excursion for the day. The water upon the lake was choppy, a strong wind blowing inside the caldera and the paddles left much to be desired. Nonetheless, as my first – and possibly only – kayaking experience on my trip, I was content simply to ferry along lazily, chatting away to Johanna about her experiences at the hostel and my own thus-far on my own adventure. We floated past a fire that had somehow started on a bank removed from our route – perhaps it was a deliberate, controlled effort. Our half-hour was soon exhausted, along with my arms (actually, I paddled quite hard and often into the wind) and so we returned reluctantly to the shore. Here, a not altogether unexpected ‘treat’ was awaiting me.
Emerging from the sea-kayak, much of my body wet from the considerable strength of the waves crashing against our vessel, I was met by the sight of an assortment of donkeys, mules and horses waiting patiently to convey us back to the crater rim. Altitude is a serious factor at Quilotoa: the crater sits at roughly 4,000m and an ascent on foot is a cumbersome, timely undertaking. Alas, we had not the time left for this in our busy schedule, hence the four-legged transportation. I straddled a particularly huge horse and was soon making my way, quite ungainly, very awkwardly, up the path. It should be made known that I have never been an especially great fan of horseback riding and this trip, along slippery rocks and moving sand certainly was no exception. I am sure that my beast could sense my lack of faith, of confidence and was irked by it. Surely, we ascended at a particularly rapid pace, my steed discontent to remain patiently at the back of the line. At every available opportunity – and quite a few others besides – he would spring forward, giddily, to overtake another beast and its rider, quite audaciously. I type ‘he’ because such a competitive, petulant being surely must have been male. On more than one occasion my plaintive pleas of ‘whoa, boy’ and ‘easy, EASY!’ could be heard by my companions. Frauke enjoyed recounting one such episode especially, when the youth in charge of directing my horse from the ground decided that the normal path was not for my creature, oh no: we were to head up what I can only describe as a vertical cliff-face – even speedy beneath me sensed that this was perhaps a path too far, whinnying loudly and hesitating. It was at this moment that my emanated groan of ‘no, boy, please no’ could be heard by Frauke and company. I am not exaggerating the situation to type that it was at this moment that I started to enjoy brief images of my happy life, flashing before my eyes. I am convinced that a similar experience was befalling my horse as well – certainly, he grew very quiet during this hair-raising segment, although that might have been due to the particularly lung-bursting effort he was having to make simply to gain the rise above our miniature rock-climbing excursion. In any case, somehow – and I remain unconvinced as to quite how – we succeeded in surviving this stunt (gaining a heady two further places in the procession to boot).
The awkwardness of the climb was considerable: I am wholly unfamiliar with such a posture and would prefer to remain so. As such, my body is quite unprepared for extended periods in quite so discommendable a position. Compounding the hilarity of the situation was the severe flatulence being experienced by – it seemed – every donkey, mule and horse in our party. My own horse seemed to be suffering particularly from some unknown dietary affliction and my pleas and groans were soon intermingled by embarrassed expressions of apology to those directly behind my transportation (mercifully, this alternated quite regularly, due to my beast’s aforementioned penchant for dangerous overtaking manoeuvres). Such an audacious situation was sure to balance itself and soon enough I found myself behind a mule suffering wind of truly staggering proportions. The air turned green then blue as a space polluted first by this obscene breaking was further sullied by my own obscenities: ten minutes I endured behind this methane outlet, ten long, sufferable minutes; particularly swift karma for my own horse’s earlier exploits.
The day ended joyfully, with a very late lunch and journey back to the hostel, where I was joined by Frauke, Meike and a French-Canadian girl. We were welcomed by hot chocolate and a decadent slice of chocolate cake as well. The French-Canadian retired to bed, so the wonderful German girls and I enjoyed a hearty dinner followed by a few games of ‘Uno’. The evening at an end, I attempted to enter my room, only to discover that my key did not fit the lock. The reception had long-since closed for the night and so I trespassed in an effort to find a solution to my problem. Finding a room-list, complete with itinerary and scanning down the entries, I found that there was another room very similar to mine and that both keys to it were on the rack, denoting that it was empty. I took one of these keys and found – thankfully – that it fit my lock. Thus I was able to enjoy a peaceful night of slumber in a warm bed rather than contemplating a sleep on the hard communal couch in the sitting-area.
The following day dawned peacefully, to a breakfast of pancakes, fresh fruit, granola and yoghurt – lovely! The Germans were to tackle a mountain peak, part of their training programme for later attempting to summit Cotopaxi, the world’s tallest active volcano at 5,897m. For me, it was quite enough to contemplate climbing to the snow-line – at 5,000m this would be the highest I had ever climbed to on land – and cycling down from there. I was joined once again on this trip by Arnaud who, for some reason, had spent the night back in Quito, adding a couple of hours commute onto both the previous evening and this morning.
Upon our entry to the Cotopaxi national park, the weather was decidedly grim: grey, overcast and the entire volcano shrouded in cloud. We began our ascent from the car park, at 4,500m. Our first destination was the base-camp lodge, a further 200m up a rather steep gradient that was often open to the elements; a howling, freezing wind and shards of hail, whipped against one’s body at a near-horizontal angle. This was by far the toughest section of the walk, as we hunkered down against the driving wind and hail and hauled ourselves onward, some members of the group simultaneously fighting with feelings of altitude sickness. I took about thirty minutes to make this short climb, resting gratefully inside the cosy lodge, where I warmed myself with a hot chocolate and awaited the arrival of the rest of my group. A whole once more, all bar one of our number continued on up the further, much shallower 300m climb to the edge of the snow-cap. While we rested here, elatedly taking photographs, the clouds around us began to shift and tantalizing views out over the surrounding landscape offered themselves through the swirling mist. The cloud started to clear in earnest during our rapid descent back to the lodge and by the time we had consumed our hearty picnic lunch and continued on down back to the car park and the waiting bikes, the views were breath-taking indeed.
The panoramas served up from our wonderful vantage-point (the highest land-mass in the immediate vicinity) were truly stunning and I spent much time laboriously sheathing my camera back in its protective casing, only to be confronted by an ever-changing, ever-inspiring scene that further deserved to be recorded – back out the camera would come! The ensuing bike-ride down into the valley was epic: the vistas from the saddle were fabulous and changing even more quickly now that I had two wheels beneath me. The ride was incredibly bumpy in places and rather demanding upon the brakes. Weight distribution – especially when entering the longer, faster corners – was paramount and concentration upon the route vital. So challenging was the ride, so focused was I, enjoying my first serious ride in many long months, that it was all-too-easy to forget about the very special sights on offer as I plunged down the world’s tallest active volcano on two wheels. Nonetheless, I forced myself to look up from time-to-time during easier sections and I stopped even at one point, to take photographs and wait for the rest of the group. The final section of descent culminated in our guide and I enjoying a swift, buff patch of road that we free-wheeled down as fast as possible, neck-and-neck. The wind whipping against my face, protected by a high collar and my large sun-glasses; my wheels rotating in a blur, the bike responding to my instruction; the road rising to meet me, I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
Coming to rest beside Lake Limpiopunga, we marvelled at further exhilarating views back towards Cotopaxi, now free entirely from the stifling cloud and showcasing its unique beauty from our low viewing-platform. The mountain rose, an organic growth upon the otherwise much flatter landscape. The colours were remarkable, a mixture of blues and greys interspersed with much more striking red, a reminder of the behemoth’s volcanic heritage. This red is the visual sign of iron oxide in the mountain’s soil compounds, iron that started out as magma encased within the volcano’s subterranean chamber, to later spew forth during eruptions, before solidifying upon the external slopes and oxidizing over time, the process by which oxygen from the Earth’s atmosphere comes into contact with another structure and begins to interact with the molecules of that structure. In the case of iron, a slow burning process occurs, leading to the reddish, brittle substance that we call rust. Casting shimmering reflections off the small part of the lake that I had time to explore, the scene was one of outstanding natural glory and I revelled in taking a few final shots, before boarding the bus back to the nearby hostel for copious helpings of chocolate in both liquid and solid form once more.
To my disappointment, Frauke and Meike had yet to return from their hike up the ‘other’ mountain and so I departed without wishing them a proper final farewell. The ride back to Quito passed uneventfully, bar for us being witness to a recently overturned fruit vehicle, blocking part of our side of the road. Although such road accidents are common all over South America, this was the first that I had actually witnessed myself. It did not seem to be a particularly bad accident and no-one appeared to be badly injured, thankfully. In Quito once more, I enjoyed an evening meal with Arnaud and then headed back to my hostel for a well-earned sleep, my mind full of yet more wonderful adventures and looking forward especially to the coming weekend and with it the Formula One Grand Prix at Spa in Belgium, my favourite race of the calendar!
¡Saludos a todos!