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Saturday 3rd Feb 2007
I have a friend who claimed he once lived his life by the toss of a coin. Do I get out of bed this morning? Flip. Do I have toast or porridge for breakfast? Flip. Do I go to work today? Flip. Living his life one toss at a time.
I have another friend, a Czech friend in Prague, who likes to climb mountains. "Do you want to come to Ecuador with me in January," he asked me, out of the blue, "and climb Cotopaxi?"
"Yes," I said.
We arrived into noisy, smoky Quito on the 4th of January after a 14 hour KLM flight via Amsterdam and the Caribbean. My raisin-like lungs struggled with the altitude the smog and diesel fumes and my body reeled from the equatorial heat after the cold of the European winter.
Quito's colonial Old Town is pretty and the down town tourist district of Mariscal Sucre (known locally as "Gringolandia") is pleasantly stocked with restaurants and places to stay. We stayed further out, at the basic but adequate "Parque Italia" near the Italian Embassy, a twenty minute walk from Mariscal. Rooms were about $8-12/pp a night, depending upon the reliability of the hot water supply.
Walking through Quito is an adventure.
The streets are crowded and reasonably dirty and choked with cars and buses and "colectivos" spewing diesel fumes onto the pavement. The locals come in all shades of skin but tend towards a lighter mahogany colour. They all dress quite well and a backpacker can feel distinctly scruffy.
Quito is reputed to be dangerous, particularly at night, but as two adult males we never felt threatened anywhere in our rambles. Two of our friends were stopped however when they tried to walk up the hill to the statue of the Virgin on El Panecillo. The police told them it was too dangerous to walk through the poorer suburbs.
Our second day in Quito saw our first acclimatisation hike, Pichincha, a semi-active volcano which could drown Quito in lava should it erupt. My 2004 edition guidebook describes Ruka Pichincha, one of the peaks, as "plagued with rape and armed robbery" but doesn't mention the newly opened cable car which takes you to 4100m. Local advice told us it was safe so we tooled on up the hill.
Walking or climbing at altitude requires acclimatisation.
Your body needs time to adjust to the reduction in available oxygen. At 2800m (Quito's elevation) the air pressure is only 71% of that at sea level, which means you only get about 71% of the oxygen content you're used to. At the top of Ruka Pichincha (4700m) it is a scant 55% - half what you're used to. In addition to that, vigorous exercise above 2500m risks HAPE and HACE - High Altitude Pulmonary and Cerebral Edemas – which can be fatal. The only way to proceed is to acclimatise slowly by progressively increasing your altitude and activity to let your body adapt.
Nobody hurries at this altitude.
As the air thins out, your steps slow down and the pack on your back drags like a Sisyphean boulder. You put one foot carefully in front of the other and avoid unnecessary activity, like speaking or thinking. You can feel your pulse beating triple-time in your lips and a ten minute rest returns it to mildly thudding drum in your chest.
On Ruka Pichincha I pegged out at about 4500m, three hundred metres from the top.
Our next acclimatisation peak was the Illinizas, 20km from Quito. The Illinizas are a pair of pretty peaks with steep summits and gorgeous profiles. The following day we caught a local bus and started to hike the 16km from the village of El Chaupy to a camp site at La Virgen (3800m). About halfway up, a pickup with a couple of French climbers who called themselves the 'Patatas Bravas' stopped to gave us a lift. While they went on up the mountain we camped at 'La Virgen' to acclimatise.
That night we shared a camp fire and certain substances with some locals, an Indian called Chelo and three Ecuadorian girls. They'd taken the weekend off to go climbing and had come up from Guyaquil to bang in a quick climb of the Illinizas.
Early the next morning we were treated to a spectacular view of the twin peaks, which had been covered in cloud the day before. After brekafast we went on up to the hut at 4700m, taking about 3 hours to cover 900m in altitude. Our final target was the easier of the twin peaks, Illiniza Norte. It's sister Illiniza Sur is much tougher and includes some technical ice climbing. In the hut we met a crowd of Germans, some noisy Yanks and a pair of Brazilians, all on acclimatisation walks.
Chelo and two of his girls turned up a couple of hours later having gone from the camp at La Virgen to the top of Sur in one day. The third girl turned back because she felt sick.
The next morning we all felt sick.
We woke with splitting headaches and sandpaper mouths and immediately suspected altitude sickness. When we stepped outside, the fresh air made us realise we'd only been suffering form carbon monoxide poisoning, from the stoves and poor ventilation. We tried to explain it to the local guides but I don't think they understood, "if we leave the door open, it will get cold" they said. "If you don't someone will get dead," we said.
I was feeling distinctly crook, so Martin set off up Norte with the two Brazilian guys, Rafael and Anastacio, and I headed on down. That morning, an old German bloke had left the hut before me. He had opted not to wait for his friends and descended alone in the freezing mist. He got lost and they didn't find him for three days. We saw him on Cotopaxi later. But the danger is there, a Czech girl disappeared on Illiniza Norte in 2001 and still hasn't been found.
I reached the camp-site without a problem and had a snooze.
Martin and the guys arrived a couple of hours later and we hitched a ride back into El Chaupy. On the way we agreed to team up with the Brazilians. They were going to try for Cotopaxi and had already arranged their own transport. I was by now doubting my ability to reach the summit on Cotopaxi and it seemed like a good idea for Martin to have an alternative choice of partners.
We all jumped on a bus back to Quito together.
Bus travel in Ecuador is generally cheap and easy (you can expect to pay about US$1 per hour of travel) but it's not necessarily safe. On the way our driver decided to overtake a traffic jam... on the gravel verge... on the wrong side of the road... at 100km/h.
But we made it.
After a day of rest in Quito we headed out to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi and to the foot of the volcano (last eruption 1904). Cotopaxi is a marvellous mountain, with a beautiful symmetrical profile, and it is set in a flood plain smoothed over by lava flows which accentuates its perfect shape. The driver was able to take us to within about 500m of the refuge and then we had to slog the rest of the way on foot. The weather was perfect, the sun shining from a clear blue sky, and we trudged up to the hut in high spirits.
We spent most of the day messing in and around the hut and retired early. The guys (and most of the other groups) left around 1am for the summit while I snuggled comfortably in my bed. At 5am I went outside to take a leak. The sky was clear and the outdoor toilets offered a magnificent view of the glittering lights of Quito in the distance. A couple of hours later the sun cleared the mountains and I went to sit on a rock and watch groups coming down.
My companions turned up about three hours later, all looking like they'd been hit by a bus. They refused offers of food or tea and crawled into bed. I sat in the sun, read my book and chatted with other climbers. One, Al-Harj, Indian by birth and living in the USA, was climbing with a man he'd met in Quito - an 85 year old man. They'd gone up for the summit too but had to turn back at around 16000ft. Not bad for an old guy.
Our driver took us back to Quito and we snoozed on the way.
That night Martin and I discovered the excellent $2.50 curries in the down-to-earth Indian eatery "Shwarmi Tandoori" (corner of Wilson and Reina Victoria) - easily the best food we had anywhere in Ecuador. Sadly they had only the imported Brazilian "Brahma" beer which is infinitely inferior to the local made "Pilsener", especially in the eyes of my Czech climbing partner.
After the success of Cotopaxi, Martin decided to team up again with the Brazilian boys to try for the summit of Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest peak at 6267m. I was tagging along as chief cook and bottle washer, having exhausted my 'summit potential' already. The drive out to 'Chimbo' was about 6 hours and we reached the car park around 4pm and climbed 40min up to the "Ed Whymper" refuge at 5000m.
Chimborazo is in a different league when compared to Cotopaxi. It's only 370m higher than Cotopaxi but, as the graveyard at the bottom of the hill attests, it's more technical and more dangerous mountain altogether.
The weather was good and Martin and the boys decided to try for the summit that night. They set off at midnight, following other groups up the long snow slope of the Whymper route. Ed Whymper was a prodigious English mountaineer who claimed a series of firsts in the Alps, South America and the Canadian Rockies. They included the first ascent of Chimborazo in 1880 (and although Everest is the highest mountain above mean sea level, Chimborazo is higher when measured from the centre of the Earth - because it is closer to the equator!).
When I went outside to take a leak at about 3am and the skies were clear and there was no moon. The Milky Way traced a luminous band across the sky and by its light you could see the white massif of Chimborazo, looming over the hut. To the right a straggling line of tiny firefly headlamps picked their way up Whymper's route and in the middle of the mountain the beams of two other lamps swung across a wall of vertical ice.
Two climbers from New Mexico had opted for the more technical direct route - straight up the central glacier. Before they left the hut they had asked around, trying to borrow an 'ice-screw' - a piece of protection used to secure yourself on ice. They managed to swap a spare pair of crampons for a single ice-screw and set off.
This would be a bit like entering a Formula One race and borrowing a single brake pad before you start. They actually had six ice-screws, but they'd left them in their hotel room by accident. One of them had left behind his wife as well. In the morning I spent some time trying to distract, comfort or reassure Sondra but she said she was used to it. It scared me silly.
My friends returned at about 11am, having failed to find the all important traverse to take them to the summit. They spotted it in the end but it was too late to take it. Once the sun is up, the snow and ice start to melt and conditions become more dangerous with a risk of rockfalls or avalanches.
The Brazilian boys were satisfied but Martin still wanted to make the summit. He asked around to see if anyone would go up with him the next night. A guide offered to show him for the way for US$150 but Martin baulked at the price. The guide shrugged, "Suit yourself," he seemed to say. Out of perhaps 15 people to attempt the summit that night we only know of two that made it.
The Americans still hadn't returned by 1pm and we left Sondra to wait by herself.
We stopped at Ambato on the way back, intending to have a celebratory lunch of cuy (guinea pig) but the nice barbecue place we had stopped at before was too busy. We ended up in a fast food joint instead and while some of the guys still had cuy (that's right - cuy and chips) I opted for churasco instead (steak, rice, chips, salad, avocado and fried eggs).
Over celebratory beers in Quito, Rafael and Anastacio invited us to visit them in their home town of Florianopolis some time, an offer I'm eager to take them up on. Afterwards we split up - they went rafting in Banos while we went to the beach.
From Quito we caught an overnight bus to the big city of Guayaquil. We changed buses at 6am and caught another one out through Santa Elena to Montanita - Ecuador's hippy/gringo surfing spot. Montanita isn't much to look at, but has a nice beach and a laid back atmosphere. There's a bunch of hostels along the beach and we found a spacious two storey cabana at "Hostel Anichita" run by Senor Lenin for about US$15/day. Martin hired a surfboard and hit the waves and I went for a swim and lay on the beach.
We stayed in Montanita for about four days, recovering, eating banana pancakes for breakfast and pizza for dinner.
From Montanita we split again. Martin had a burning desire to see southern Colombia while I wanted to see more of Ecuador. He went north and I rode the bus up through Puerto Lopez and Manta (nothing much to look at), back to Quito and then onto the little market town of Otavlao, about two hours north of Quito.
Otavalo is a nice relaxed colonial town with some markets, good restaurants and hotels. On Saturday there is a huge indigenous market here and the town has some nice churches and a pleasant open square. I stayed at the lovely "Hostal Valle de Amanecer" which I would like to recommend but can't because of the late night karaoke bar next door. It kept me up all night with repetitions of what sounded like a Japanese teen pop hit.
On my second day I took a 40min taxi ride out of town to the crater lake at Cuicoche. At the foot of the Cotacachi Volcano, the lake has two big islands in it which look remarkably like submerged guinea pigs (hence 'Cui-coche'). There's a well marked walking trail around the top of the lake and a circuit takes four to five hours. After I finished, I retired to the nearby Mirador restaurant for a well earned beer. You can also take one hour boat trips out onto the lake to look at the islands.
From Otavalo I headed back through Quito's Terminal Terrestre (bus station) to another favoured tourist destination, Banos. Banos is the headquarters of action sports in Ecuador, much like Queenstown in New Zealand. You can opt for bungee jumping, quad biking, rafting, mountain biking or horse riding if you so desire.
I didn't desire but in Banos I found a truly rare thing : a French restaurant. The menu at the Provencal Bistro Marianne featured truly wonderful items like Steak au Poivre, Trout with Almonds and. . . vegetables. After nearly a month of churasco, I was so overjoyed to see beans and carrots that I stayed for desert and coffee. The bill came to US$10.
The weather in Banos was misty and grey so when I heard from Martin that he was back from Colombia and heading for the jungle town of Tena, I decided to join him. I grabbed a crowded morning bus from Banos to Tena (5 hours, $4) and gave my seat up for an old lady, a mistake I was to regret on the bumpy, switchback road.
Martin had given me the name of the agency he was using in Tena so I swung past and with my faulty Spanish managed to organise to go on the same trip. We went out to the small town of Mishualli and the Fundacion Ecologica Curiquingue, an environmental foundation run by the affable Jens Toniges and staffed by volunteer students from Germany. That night Jens and the students took me to a bar in Mishualli for beers and we discussed world politics, climate change and sexual habits of tortoises.
The next morning our guide, Fausto, came out to the station and picked us up for a walk through the jungle. The Foundation have run a trail through 210 hectares of primary forest so that tourists can visit the Amazon in a day trip instead of a week long boat tour. The aim of the project is to provide the local Quechua people with a way to earn a living that doesn't require them to decimate the forest. They act as guides and are building a jungle retreat in the forest where people can stay.
Fausto took us for a four hour walk through the forest, pointing out important plants that the Quechua use for medicinal purposes and demonstrating practical uses for others such as marking or dying. The jungle was alive with butterflies and insects and Fausto found us a group of Capuchin monkeys and even a poison arrow frog. The highlight of the walk is a stop at the 45m tall choking fig which has a tree-house at the top. The fit and the brave can clamber up the ladder to look at the jungle canopy from above, remembering to keep their feet well spread on the rotten timbers at the top.
After the jungle we returned with Fausto to Tena to visit a Quechua shaman. The 68 year old lives in a shack in Tena and performs ritual cleansing on unsuspecting foreigners for a modest fee. The ceremony involves drinking a potent drug which invokes hallucinations, sweating and copious amounts of vomiting. Cleansing indeed! In our group, only the stoic Russian escaped voiding the contents of her stomach and we, forewarned, wisely declined to partake.
Once you have cleansed your own stomach, the shaman cleanses your spirit through a combination of melodic singing, beating you with a sheaf of leaves and vigorously hawking phlegm over your head. It seemed no sillier than any other religious rite and was a lot more entertaining.
Our final stop in Ecuador was to be one last mountain.
One hour from Quito is the cloud forest of Pasachoa. Nestled into the flanks of the mountain of the same name is small strip of undisturbed pine forest. As you climb up the hill from the visitors centre, the thick brush gives way to patchy pine trees and then the high paramo or grassland. From the top of Pasachoa we could see the peaks of Antisana, the Pichinchas, the Illinizas and our old friend, the snow-clad Cotopaxi.
Outside of Quito, Ecuador is a beautiful place with a startling variety of climate and terrain. Even without the Galapagos, the country has some of the most varied geography in the world with tropical rain forest, highlands, the coastal plain and at least ten volcanoes over 5000m high. If mountains are your thing, there are few better places in the world where the high peaks can speak in silence to the very core of your being.