Acclimitizing for Cotopaxi Part I: 3-day hike on the Quilitoa Loop

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May 26th 2007
Published: May 26th 2007
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So how come I decides (Oldhamese grammar) to deviate from my plan of heading south and on into Peru, after landing back in Quito from my week in Galapagos, and instead decide to climb the monstrous Cotopaxi volcano?

Well, here is a look into my jelly-for-brains thought processes:

Upon awaking:
"mmm, really looking forward to seeing a bit of the Amazon - oh, but I´ll do that on my way to Brazil by boat anyway - so let´s head south for now, yesss,, Banos it is then...then Cuenca and all that, but then there´s the beaches in the West.....this Coca looks interesting with its jungle lodges though (maybe I wont make it to Iquitos in Peru, so best go East to the jungles now)......anyway, main thing is to LEAVE Quito - been here TOO long already, and I´ve been dreaming about Maccu Picchu this past 10 years, so whatever I do I have to get through Ecuador quick......."

Sitting on loo/throne/bog/John (a never-failing source of spontaneous inspirations) two minutes later:

"Balls! I am going to climb up Cotopaxi....." - knowing full well that this would mean at least another week in and around Quito, now the rainiest place in South America, as far as I could tell.

So there you have it, months of general thoughts and intimations dashed in one plop, well, at least by the time I´d cleaned my teeth I´d made my mind up to head over to Safari tours (best reputation as far as I could read and located next door to the excellent Crossroads hostel) and book.

It did give me a bit of a buzz though, the thought of staggering to the 5,800m summit in a daze, ice-axe in hand, crampons on feet.

Turns out, that two French Canadian ladies have the same idea and have booked a complete tour of acclimitization with Safari: three days of trekking between mountain villages around part of the well-known Quilitoa circuit (in all 200km). Then next day, scale the 4.8km peak of Guagua Pichincha, another active volcano (as is Cotopaxi, which is one of the highest active volcs in the world). Then straight after that 2 days of glacier school to build up ice-walking and climbing skills. A day off is next before the two days allotted to doing Cotopaxi itself.

I was panting just looking at the schedule. But balls, as I already said, I can sit on my ass when back in Europe (though I am getting the feeling that I won´t somehow be as sedentary as before). So I signed myself up, except for the glacier school, which isn´t really necessary for Cotopaxi as they train you a bit beforehand and it isn´t so technical they say.

So I am ready at 7am on 23rd May. Our guide is Hugo (I thought he´d said jugo, which means ´juice´, so I kept calling him juice by accident). He had a bit of a tub and was in jeans, but I´ve encountered these professional guides before and their look conceals their stamina. We zoomed off in the van and next picked up the two Canadians.

They were professionals on a two-week vacation, i.e. taking practically all their days off for the year in one go (remind me not to leave Europe to work), and this is why they were packing so much into their time. I don´t know if it was personality or the fact they are still in work in their minds, but from pretty much the first minute the only talk from them, was to do with work (their work). Great. And I deliberately left my iPOD at home. Still, the guide seems cheerful, beaming as he is underneath those huge square spectacles, so I´ll try to build three days of Spanish lessons into the trip - it was over 200 dollars as it was. So who´s next? Carlos was an LA citizen but had Mexican parents, and he was also taking just a week´s vacation from his job. However, despite the fact he was using what time the company left him for a Master´s in Finance, and was a professional engineer, his talk was much more general. His spanish was practically native too so between him and the guide, I should improve my own Spanish a bit. But let´s see how it pans out.

So, first stop, after a couple of hours of driving and hot chocolate from a fat flask at the back of the bus, is the Quilitoa Crater. This is a volcano - the rim of which you walk down to in a few minutes from a minute village - that contains a crater lake a few hundred metres down. The initial few minutes is a bit of a clambouring-down affair, as it´s really steep and full of big cracks like crocodile jaws just waiting to snap at and snap your ankles. The view is simply stunning though, and even just the slither you get of it from between the stone walls is a picture (that I took):

As you get on to the path forming the rim, the majesty of the entire lake is pretty overwhelming:

Eating a banana.

On the way up I keep being followed by this hound, who, on taking a closer look (at first I thought it was a trick of the light) I noticed had one brown and one remarkably bright blue eye, like David Bowie. Check him out:

I kind of hate walking uphill, so I do the hike back out of the crater (whose lake is also about 700m deep by the way) as fast as I can, passing less energetic hikers riding back on mules. The supply of these donkeys on the way down is provided mostly by local indigenous kids, who fly down with the burros behind. A couple of times I had to pin myself against the rock to let them past in the narrow gorges.

Me and Dave arrive at the top after 45 minutes, which is a good time by all accounts. (The volcanic ash on the way down was tricky as it was - best was to sort of surf down on the sides of your boots, but the way back was a real pain). So that´s a good start to my acclimitizing anyway. When I got to the rim I meet a couple of local kiddies.

A few minutes later I am back at the village. The wind was blowing and the sun (which had been mercilessly adding to my toil on the climb back) had now contentedly gone in. The unwicked sweat formed now a layer of chilly wetness and I regretted being the first one back to the locked vans. Two young girls noticed this and after asking me, bold as brass, in English where I was from and what my name was, proceeded to take me to their stall to buy warm clothing. I faltered and plumped for a llama wool sweater that in a later fireside photo Deirdre from Ireland took, made me look just like Val Doonican. (A reference that will be lost on most people I know, but if not, then you´ll know just what I mean.) Here´s a piccie of these cute as lemon pie Indian chicitas:

Their stalls.

We took lunch in this restaurant that allowed us to eat what we had brought in the vans, which was a little concrete affair in the middle of nowhere. It was damp and cold and I wished for heat for these people, but the two old women in there seemed happy enough, stirring away at this enormous pot of soup. Sitting there on the sideboard in the kitchen was a big pile of meat and bones that appeared to have been roasted. ´Mmm, tasty´I thought, after surveying our feast of cold salad and vegetables prior to the next 4 hours of hiking. But then I made a closer inspection after noticing what I thought looked like single rows of teeth......ah, sheeps heads, roasted and split. Lovely.

I enjoyed my raw carrot after that.

So after lunch, we start the trekking, bound for a village called Chugchilang. We got some sun which illuminated the landscape and allowed for some nice pics:

And after some hours, we arrive at the top lodge called Mama Hilda´s. We had a good feed here, me lapping up the left-over typical Ecuadorian potato, veggie and meat soup most voraciously after all the walking. (Though who knows what the meat was; they told me it was pork, but maybe in the same way that McDonald´s burgers are 100%!b(MISSING)eef).

Some local girls performed the most intricate dance routines for us later as entertainment, in particular when they wove in and out of one another holding ropes that they bound into a kind of square, then unwound it all again. They´d trained for three months apparently, and you could believe it.

The guys with Mama Hilda herself next morning.

So we pack up some sarnies and head out, the early-morning sun warming us again. There´s a murderously steep path down to a rapid river, and I wish I remembered the elevation of Chugchilan, but it was an hour or so to descend. The river was cool......

but had the dodgiest foot-bridge I have ever encountered, apart from in one of the Indiana Jones films. Scanning the photo website that I link to, I can´t find the pictures I took of it, so they must be on CD. Basically, it was long and high up over the boulder-strewn charging waters beneath, and had a fair degree of sway when more than one person was on it. The scary part (ignoring the missing boards you walked on) was that the only thing to hold on to were the steel cables either side that formed the arc of the suspension. The problem was that these started too high to hold at the extremeties of the bridge, and were only at a comfortable height for a few you progressed the cables got lower and lower. The middle 10 yards saw you crouching like a fool trying to grip on to the ´rails´. I had a go at not holding them, but imagine walking across a gently swinging set of planks, with the rails about half way up to your shins. So I went back to my crouched position like the others and inched along till the suspension cables rose to waist height....again the last few metres you had to just balance without holding anything as the rusty rails disappeared up into the sky. ...ah ha! Here are the pics of the badly designed bridge:

Baby cow! (awwww....who could ever eat that?)

After I don´t know, five or six hours and 11km, we get to the village of Insilibi (also saw it written Isinlivi). It was a real climb up to it, but then we met these kids who do it every day to get to school. Some go by horse though.

It´s no wonder the local guides, with their pot bellies and jeans can out-climb most of the visitors though. I saw one old couple chatting away who steadily overtook us on one ascent, and when we got down the other side, they had emptied their bags and were washing and scrubbing clothes in a bevelled out rock at a spring:

This next hostel, Llulu Llama, is also cool - smaller, but with that more cosy than Mama Hilda´s with a wood-burning fire-place and hammocks in the living room. It is run by a Dutch-Ecuadorian couple and they had a couple of Dutchies there who were doing a month´s volunteer teaching at a local, well the, local school. It seems the kids at the school are super-sweet and well-behaved though, greeting them in a line with Buenas Dias each morning and sitting attentively in the classrooms. Antonia my pal in Quito told me the same about her experiences teaching in a dilapidated state-school there too, that even though some classrooms didn´t even have windows or tables, the kids were a model of good behaviour. (She´d quit being a teacher in Cambridge, UK because she was unable to handle the total bastards that the pupils there were). But teaching methods here are poor - the dutch girl said that they just learn a few things by rote, then have to take it in turn to write whatever on the board, in front of the rest of the class. And this also takes up the whole lesson for each kid to do. Here´s some pics from the hostel:

Here is the Val Doonican sweater.

An Englishman, a cat, a book, a sofa and a cup of tea.....purrrrfect.

Funnily enough, their book exchange (which was diabolically bad) had Confessions of an Economic Hitman - I was pretty surprised by the co-incidence, because the author, John Perkins, gave a talk in Quito just before I came trekking. There he was talking a little about his life as an ´EHM´ and how Imperialistic motivations are the scourge of countries like Ecuador, where he used to live and work (at his talk, where a few thousand turned up, sitting and standing wherever they could in the jam-packed hall, he was accompanied by Sting´s wife, representing the Rainforest Foundation or something, who was with a lawyer fighting against the formerly-named oil company Texaco on behalf of indigenous communities that now bear the brunt of contaminated water etc). So I consumed a few sections of the book; fascinating story. (The US State Dept. has an official response to it though, which is listed on Wikipedia, saying he made it all up.....EHMs go in and bribe, pimp, organise loans that can never be paid back, and whatever, to grease the path for corporations to do business in the third world, and if EHMs fail, John says the real hitmen move in, and if that fails - and it´s all important enough one supposes - then US military are next; hence Panama, for example)

It´s a bit grey setting out this last morning, making our way along to Wingipan, a rock 13km away which we learn, requires a constant climb for the entire day. The tumbling hills that come into view (once the clouds eventually dissipate) are beautiful though, the whole scene resembling a patchwork quilt, draped over the land. Yesterday reminded me of walking in Wales or the Lake District in England, but today the sheer vastness of Ecuador´s interior confirms I am indeed somewhere else.

Poor as shit, but happy.

I don´t know why, but I felt my natural pace quickening today too, at times I was waiting 10 minutes or more for the rest of the group to catch up. But the end was tough, especially the last couple of kilometres. ´Just around the corner´Hugo our guide would say, but eventually I stopped believing him. I stopped to take a picture or two, getting politically arty in the process. Here´s my depiction of US-led dominance in Latin America!

And then before we know it, we are at the top and the truck is waiting.

Late lunch.

Carrot washing - spotted on the drive out of el campo back to the city

I look forward to tomorrow, my fourth day of acclimitizing, when we go and climb Volcan Pichinca.


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