Vern: A fellow passenger was on her phone talking in Spanish, "I'm in Pasto, we're leaving the bus station now."
"In a bus?" we presume that the person on the other end of the line asked.
"No! In a KIA!" she exclaimed in an indignant tone. Andrea and I burst out laughing, and shoulder-to-shoulder, thigh-to-thigh with the unimpressed woman and 6 other Colombians we puttered off toward the borded in a snug Korean built minivan designed for a small suburban family.
And so two planes, three buses, three taxis, two 'collectivos' (minibuses), 1 night in a chilly hotel in a border town, 1 cold, 1 case of travellers tummy and 1 KIA got us from the north coast of wonderful Colombia to the small mountain town of Latacunga a few thousand meters above sea level in central Ecuador.
There we checked in to a cheap hotel and went out to find something to eat. That didn't take long: nearby, thirty golden-brown chickens were orbiting above red hot coals in a rotisserie outside a 'polleria' and their gravitational pull drew us in and had us ordering in minutes. The gut-busting size of the 1/4 chicken meal which arrived would make Nando's blush at the inadequacy of their paltry poulty portions. We washed it all down with freshly squeezed pineapple juice, while (to my delight) 90s rock music videos played on the restaurant's TV.
The next day we were proud to be the only gringos on a bus to the Thursday Morning Market in the neighbouring town of Saquisili, the country's most important indigenous market. It was actually at least three markets located in close proximity. The air smelled deliciously of fresh vegetables and dried spices and in every direction spread large 40kg sacks of potatoes, mutant spring onions, tomato pyramids and mountains of lychees plus tons of other produce, art, trinkets, clothing, blankets and plasticware. Unfortunately microphoned salesmen selling magical Chinese herbal remedies to cure cancer and personal loan companies were also there to take advantage of the weak-minded. Most of the indigenous women, here and throughout the area, wear traditional dress: a fedora with a peacock feather in it, a blanket or poncho over their torso, a black squirt, leggings or long white socks and flat buckled leather shoes. They all look so smart and stylish! We bought a bag of bright red lychees, removed their shells and popped them into our mouths. Unfortunately, despite these being sweet and delicious, Andrea has added these to her list of Nightmare Foods, because: (i) they're small and fiddly, (ii) they have the texture of eyeballs, (iii) they get your fingers all messy, (iv) they get stuck in your teeth and (v) it's nigh on impossible to cleanly separate the flesh from the pip. Much better as a juice then. Our next fruit purchase was a large pineapple wedge, which we were sharing and enjoying until a market-goer bumped into Andrea causing the pineapple to slip out of her hands. As it hit the dusty ground, Andrea burst into tears - a reaction which surprised everyone: the man who bumped her, me and even herself. The rattled man even rushed away and came back with a cup of water, suggesting that we could wash it off. Sometimes I think Andrea is taking the budget a little seriously. Or perhaps she just really likes pineapple. We also enjoyed 10 cent ice-creams and freshly baked cornbread loaves (a bag of which we bought to eat on the up coming bus journeys).
While browsing a knitwear stand Andrea tried on a warm woolen hat. "How much is it?" she asked the old indigenous woman in Spanish.
"Five dollars", she replied.
"That's a lot", said Andrea and put the hat down.
The old woman picked it up and shoved it back into Andrea's hands pointing out the knitted detailing, "But it has alpacas on it."
"Ah yes", Andrea acknowledged that it did in fact have little alpacas on it. And so did every poncho, pouch, scarf and blanket in the woman's little stall.
Andrea put it down a second time and tried to sneak off when she thought the old woman was distracted, but she called after Andrea, "Señorita!". We turned around. The old woman was holding three fingers up pressed against her chest like the "West-side" gang sign. She was willing to drop the price but dare not utter the new total in case anyone else heard. So now for you, our blog-reading-photo-browsing audience, a game: 'Spot the new hat'. This is the first tangible non-edible purchase we've made and increases the versatility of Andrea's wardrobe by two new exciting winter looks: hat-on-head and hat-in-jacket-pocket. Coming soon to a photo album on this very site.
With difficulty we found the bus back to Latacunga and another up into the mountains to the village of Zumbahua. The bus was over-filled (I stood for an hour of the two-and-a-half hour journey) and again we were the only non-natives. You'd have guessed we were about to invoke the biggest drive-by shooting in history if you'd have seen the number of Al Capone hats on that bus.
The bus dropped us at Zumbahua, and we paid a guy to take us up to the crest of the crater which was our destination. Laguna Quilotoa is a spectacular crater-lake. It's milky green and framed by the tall crater walls and in the distance in every direction stand snow-capped volcanoes, including Cotopaxi the highest altitude active volcano, and other sharp peaks. After we checked into one of the handful of rustic hotels on the craters edge, all run by indigenous people, Andrea announced to me, "I love the way they set the price here. They ask you how much YOU want to pay". Evidently the two recent negotiations for the truck ride and the room rate had gone similarly:
"How much is the room?" asked Andrea.
"Twelve per person. Including dinner. So, twenty-four in total."
"Oh that's too much", and we turned to leave.
"Okay, how much do you want to pay?"
"Um. Fifteen for both of us."
The truck driver had also added a dollar to our offer and we'd reached agreement.
The lagoon was beautiful and I did my best with the sweep-panorama function to get it into one shot. We walked down the steep crater wall to the waters-edge and then back up again. The way up was tough: the incline was a fair challenge but the altitude made it even worse. Our hearts beat furiously as our blood battled to get sufficient oxygen out of the thin air we were breathing, but slowly and steadily we made it back up and out.
Back in our lovely little stone hotel room, we tried and failed to get a fire going to warm it up a little - the Lonely Planet sections on Southern Argentina proved to be insufficient kindling to get a fire raging. Luckily while we enjoyed dinner, a fair helping of the standard Ecuadorian fare (chicken and rice), the staff lit our fire with kerosene and by the time we retired it was toasty in there. We had resigned ourselves to getting up at 3AM the next morning to hail down one of only two direct buses which run from Laguna Quilotoa to Latacunga. The hotel staff and the truck driver had told us three, but neither seemed very convinced - as if it were a rumour that the bus came through at this time but no one was awake this early to verify this. What a stroke of luck then that we walked out of the dining room after dinner and there was the bus we were to be waiting for, parked right in front of the door. Andrea popped back inside and found the driver. He was also staying at the hotel and was leaving at 5AM. Two more hours of sweet sleep in our fire-warmed room under the snug brightly coloured blankets - Result!