Ash Wednesday

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South America » Ecuador » North » Quito
August 26th 2015
Published: July 28th 2017
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Geo: -0.223151, -78.5127

The seven am start did not exactly go to plan, and by 8am, we were still sitting outside our hotel waiting for our friends to arrive in the taxi. We were called back inside by our concierge, who informed us that they would be another twenty minutes. It transpired, on their arrival, that that car that the hotel had originally booked for us was a rust bucket, complete with grumpy driver, but missing seat belts, and so they had refused to get in. A substitute driver was found - the pleasant chap who has taken us to Papallacta the previous day.

Yesterday, he had been quiet but clearly today, he felt that we were old friends, and took on the role of unofficial guide. He pulled in to an incredible view point high on the slopes of one of the many volcanoes that surrounds the city, where we saw the city sprawling out beneath us, a long, narrow strip of pastel coloured buildings interrupting the flow of traffic in the choked streets. His next point of interest on his tour was the distant peak of Cotopaxi, which we had been unable to see through the cloud on the previous day. Its white tip was spewing smoke and ash in a huge grey mushroom that ballooned out and hung over the rest of the mountains like a spectre. We drove higher and higher, and passed through a check point where all of the staff were sporting gas masks, so dangerous was the ash considered to be. It was at this point that we began to rethink and regret our choice of destination of one of the volcanic lakes in the Avenue of the Volcanoes.

The avenue gets its name from the long road that weaves through several of South Americans largest volcanoes, giving stunning views of dramatic scenery on either side. However, today, we were not destined to see any such dazzling view. The mountains were obscured by the thick coating of ash that suddenly descended on us, leaving our view of the road ahead almost obliterated by the grey cloud we were driving through. Sometimes, the ash would clear for long enough for us to see it piled up by the side of the road, where it had rained down after hanging in the air. The trees and bushes were grey, their green washed out by the cloak of volcanic debris that had fallen onto them.

Fortunately, as we climbed higher, we seemed to emerge above the ash cloud - leaving beautiful blue skies above us and incredible scenery on all sides. The irregular fields were like a patchwork blanket - yellows, browns and greens all mingling together in jagged shapes, creeping up the hillsides at impossible angles. Terraces were stepped into the hillsides at various points, a vast array of colours and shapes showing the variety of crops being produced. Clouds cast patchy shadows on the fields below as they moved across the cornflower sky. The road wound and twisted through the scenery, while locals in traditional dress herded sheep along its edges. Children in indigenous hats and ponchos raced along beside us, stomach churning drops to their sides.

We stopped at another opportune moment to take photographs of the stunning landscape. And as we opened the car door, it was nearly torn off by the strength of the wind that whipped past us, literally taking our breath away as we fought against it to steady our feet on the pebbly ground. We drove around tight corners and bends, switching back on ourselves in order to climb higher and higher into the volcanic landscape. At 3914m above sea level, it was the highest we had ever been and the air was beginning to get very thin. As we descended on the other side of the hill, we came face to face with a dry river canyon which was carved into the ground, its huge marbled sides rugged and arid - a contrast to the tree-lined slopes we had left behind higher up. We followed the canyon for a little while, again jumping out to take photos, while locals tended to their farms - pigs, crops and cattle all being looked after with care.

Soon we began to climb again, the scenery equally stunning as we followed signs to Quilotoa , grateful to see the name after two hours cramped in the car. As we ascended the road, our taxi driver began to be more and more animated, explaining in a mixture of broken English and slow Spanish what we might see. After a short while, we pulled into the car park, where we opened the door and were met by howling winds that very nearly pulled it off its hinges. We quickly made our way to the craft market, where hasty purchases of globes and scarves were made - the altitude meant that the balmy temperatures we had woken up to had plummeted and our hands were already chapped from our mere five minutes in the elements.

Purchases complete and extremities in less danger of frostbite, we crossed the car park to the look out point, where we were treated to the views we had travelled over three hours to see. The crater of the volcano yawned wide in front of us, the rim tinged black by a long-forgotten eruption. Over time, the caldera had filled with water, creating a stunning vibrant lake, the surface of which was a brilliant turquoise, the blues and greens shimmering in the sunlight. Clouds passed overhead, turning the lake from bright aquamarine to deep navy, scattering patterns all over the surface, which raced by in the blink of a an eye. Locals in traditionally dressed family groups stood high on the steep hillsides of the crater, gazing down at its beauty - a sacred spot for the indigenous people of the area.

After taking photos and appreciating the full scale of the beauty of the area, the blue sky reflected in the lake, we made our way down the 45 minute route to the base of the crater where the lake lapped the shore. A narrow path snaked down the steep sides, designed to allow a more gentle passage to the base. However, the path was made of layers of ash and dust, piled on top of a rocky surface, and our feet sunk and slipped into it, causing our knees to buckle and slide from underneath us. Mule trains huffed and puffed towards us, locals passing us in both directions breathing hard. A group of men hauled huge metal frames and glass panels past us, grunting with each step that they took. Watching and heading the exertion from After around fifteen minutes of jarring our knees and almost landing on our backs several times, we decided to call it a day and leave the bottom of the crater to be an enigma. Our friends continued on the the bottom, and we turned around and headed back
to the top, our legs screaming with each step due, in no small part, to the massive altitude we had chosen to hike at.

Once we reached the top, knees creaking and our breath coming in gulps, we indulged in steaming bowls of potato soup and sugary drinks to replenish our energy, playing cards and waiting for our friends to make the long journey back from the lakeside to join us. After around an hour and a half, they made it, and informed us that we had made the right call at the top - the view from the bottom had been no more spectacular than the view from the top and had involved a steep, backbreaking one hour climb back to the rim. Glad to have made such a good decision, we relaxed on the way back - the roads twisting and turning beneath the wheels of the car as the scenery shifted around us, Cotopaxi's ash-cloud clearing just often enough to allow us glimpses of its snowy peak as we passed.

After tea and cake at the hotel's tea hour, we relaxed in the room before heading out to Zazu, one of Quito's best-reviewed and most famous restaurants, for a wonderful meal with our new friends, ready to celebrate Mark's birthday and our last night in Ecuador as a foursome. We enjoyed cocktails and incredible gourmet food - Mark and Helen ordered the seven course tasting menu, which allowed us to try delicious fish, game and meat dishes in bite-sized morsels, while Stacey and I enjoyed sea-bass and duck in wafer-thin slices served with incredible rich sauces and delicious vegetables, cooked to perfection. It was, in short, one of the nicest meals I've ever had and was a perfect end to our time together. After one final mojito, it was time to jump in the taxi and head back to the hotel, where we slipped into a contented tipsy slumber.


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