Walking closer to the moon: a few weeks in Ecuador

Where to begin on my first few weeks in Ecuador? How about where I left off on the bus ride in from the Colombian border. I opened my eyes at the same time a cold dry wind blew across my lips, and a round figure crashed into the seat next to me. My first morning in Ecuador was spent waking up in a familiar place: on a bus with my valuables tied around my leg in my day pack. Right outside the window enormous glaciated volcanoes and mountains were towering over small towns and the twisting highway. I immediately took out my phone, opened Maps.ME, and started dropping pins on peaks and craters as a reminder to return for a visit to the top.

Standing in customs all night and three hours of bus sleep, resulted in a dry throat and heavy eyes. We, the three Americans I met in line and I, pulled into the North Quito bus station before 10:00AM. I followed my standard new country routine: new phone SIM card, cash out of the ATM, and most importantly breakfast. With wobbly bus legs, we walked to a cafe that had WiFi, had a typical breakfast and planned the day. Even though I had a short night’s rest my adrenaline was flowing from the Equatorial full sunlight and a completely unexplored country ahead. While reading at breakfast, I planned our first adventure to Mitad del Mundo, or middle of the world. The Mitad del Mundo is a beautiful monument and museum on the equator. It was a great way to start exploring Ecuador, and after snapping some pictures and reading the museum material we headed back to the Quito bus station.

My new American friends were in a hurry on short travel and we parted ways at the bus station. I took a bus north, to a city named Ibarra, next to where I dropped map pins on the ride in. Mid-ride I was looking for a place to stay and found more hostels in a town on the way called Otavalo. We had already passed the town so I hurried to the front of the bus and asked the driver to stop. A 45 minute walk north of Otavalo, and the last of the days light in the sky, I walked along the side of the highway back towards town. The weather was temperate, and I walked into town just as the sun was setting. My destination was a hostel named the Flying Donkey, whose name made me laugh, but the price was right and it had good reviews.

My new roommates in the 5 bed dorm were two female mountain guides who lived in the French Alps. They were, to put it simply, intriguing. After blasting them with questions, they invited me out for a drink, but I declined and took a rain check for the next day. I was wrecked from not sleeping, wanted to plan for Ecuador, and needed to prepare for the local treks. I headed to the front desk and asked, “what are the best and hardest treks in the area?” With a smile, the attendant pulled out a map and started listing. I was exuberant with the list, his descriptions, and to be back in my favorite wilderness: the endless Andean Mountain range.

As usual, I was up before dawn and made breakfast with the eggs, fresh vegetables, and fruit I picked up the night before. The hostel also provided free coffee and fruit which was an added bonus. My first adventure would be to hike to a series of lakes and mountains called Lagunas Mojandas. Right as I finished breakfast, an Italian couple, Rafaella and Daniel, walked into the kitchen. We found a familiar language in Spanish, and I asked if they would like to share a cab to the trailhead and come with on the hike. A point of significance near Mojandas was a mountain named Fuya Fuya, and I planned to use the hike to the summit to start acclimating. Quito sits at around 9,000 feet and I knew I would only be going up from there. The ride to the lake was on a single winding gravel road out of town. After 25 minutes, we arrived to the biggest of the lakes, and I worked out with the cab driver to come pick us up in six hours. I pointed up to the right as the route to the Fuya Fuya summit, but my new friends thought it was different and wanted to walk straight ahead. Although I studied the map and knew the routes, I also knew that there were several good routes to different summits around the lake. Between that and the fact that a black and brown stray dog came over and tried to get us to follow him on a different route, I agreed to an unplanned adventure.

We had great conversation while hiking up the muddied paths and roads with stunning views of multiple lakes. I had taken my full backpack with, and weighed it down to begin training for the more serious hikes in Ecuador. The climbs were difficult with the added weight, as I had hoped, but I felt great without issue. As we approached the second lake, we came across an Ecuadorian couple that had been trying to drive their 4x4 suv on the flooded muddy road. They were in a bad spot, completely stuck, and had no preparations for driving through the mountains. We attempted to get their SUV unstuck by wedging branches and rocks under the wheels and using weight to increase traction. Of course it didn’t work, and we let them know that we had a cab coming later that afternoon so they could get back to town to get help.

Continuing on up along a winding road we approached a peak named Cerro Negro. Our guide dog would run ahead and stop every so often to make sure we were following along the same forks. He made me smile, and by the time we reached the summit I smiled even wider to be back in the mountains. Running late into the afternoon, I tossed the dog half a sandwich and urged the group to begin hiking back. While walking back, we ran back into the Ecuadorian couple stuck in the car. They had gotten it loose and gotten stuck again in a different spot. They asked for help again, and we tried for 10 minutes, but I knew if we missed our ride back to town it would be a losing situation for everyone. We all headed down the mountain together and luckily there was an indigenous family with a tow rope, SUV, and logical preparations for being where we were. While the father drove the couple back, we waited for our cab and chatted with the family. While we talked, the grandmother and youngest daughter skipped rocks along Laguna Mojanda. Our cab was surprisingly punctual, and we made the drive back to town where I met my French roommates who had hiked Imbabura Volcano that day. We went out for the night in Otavalo and discussed their hike and route. Although they didn’t summit, they described how nice it was so I put in on my todo list.

One of the main attractions in Otavalo is the series of Saturday markets. There is an animal market, and a massive artisanal market in addition to the abundance of locally produced artisan goods readily available. After our fun night out, the girls and I headed to the animal market straight away in the morning. As we approached, I knew it was going to be rough as people were walking away with straw sacks filled with animals, and live chickens hanging upside down by their feet. Right when we arrived at the entrance, there were pigs and piglets on the side of road screaming. I am not a vegetarian, but whenever I go see these kinds of markets it makes me reflect on the prospect of eating animal products. Although the animals were disturbing, the backdrop of Volcan Imbabura made for an interesting setting. Passed the cows, there was a small animal section where chickens, geese, guinea pigs, puppies, and rabbits were everywhere. A bit nauseous on the way out, there was all sorts of food and I hadn’t eaten that day. Without the slightest consideration of meat, we split a higo (fig) and cheese croissant.

On the way to the artisanal market, centered around the main square called Plaza de Ponchos, we walked through the amazing central market. I showed my two French friends some new fruits and bought a few for us to try. After the central market, we made it through the streets lined with artisans towards Plaza de Ponchos. It was awesome to see endless rows of culturally rich goods. My first splurge of travelling, I bought a black ponchó and felt like I was walking onto the set of a Clint Eastwood western. The girls were looking at every booth, and my interest was quickly dissolved. I can only handle those types of markets for so long. The rest of the afternoon was relaxing, but I wanted to make sure to get some hiking in. There was a waterfall named Pegchu just out of town, so I started walking to the touristy but beautiful spot.. Hungry, I followed tradition and returned to the central market for a late lunch of pulled pork with many different kinds of corn. Yes I was thinking about the animal market, but it was an incredible meal and tradition worth trying. That night I made the decision to hike Volcan Imbabura, did some final prepping, and spoke with a young German man named Mika who wanted to do the hike with me. He was trusting me to be he guide since we wouldn’t be taking one, and I wouldn’t let him down. I set my alarm for a 5:15AM departure, read tons of scary stories about the hike, studied some maps and routes, and passed out.

Nothing has changed about my sleeping habits, and I always get excited before beginning an adventure. At the sound of my alarm, I was up, and my stuff was packed and organized the night before. Contacts in, teeth brushed, banana, pitaya, and hard boiled eggs eaten, and I was ready to go. I took a seat in the lobby, and Mika came down at 6:00AM on the dot. The walk to the terminal to catch our first bus to Ibarra was easy along the empty streets cooled by the morning air. On the bus, I excitedly wrote, looked out the window just in time to see the sun rising in the sky, and watched the light creep down the snow covered slopes of Volcan Cotocaxi (not to be confused with Cotopaxi which will come later). We pulled in ahead of schedule to the Ibarra terminal, which blew my socks off, walked out the front door, and headed down the bigger and busier town’s streets to find another bus to a small Pueblo called Esperanza. Usually, the trailheads to all these climbs and hikes require logistics, and this one was no different. I spoke with the woman collecting the bus fair, and she promised to take us as close to the entrance point for the volcano on the south side of Esperanza as possible.

Sure enough, we reached the long stretch of cobblestone and brick road that led to the trail head. She pointed and said “just walk straight.” My favorite South American directions that are absolutely useless. We started walking, and about 3km (1.75mi) and 200m (660ft) up a truck pulled up and offered to take us to the trailhead. I questioned whether we needed it, but the additional 5km (3.2mi) and few hundred meters up wasn’t necessary with the long ascent ahead. For $1.50 a piece we more than willingly obliged, and hopped in the back. We rode in back with a couple of indigenous dressed families, on their way back from church. Before I knew it, we came to a Y junction, the driver yelled “estamos acá (we’re here),” and he directed us to take a route up to the right of the “big water tanks.” Through a few farms and across several crossing roads, eventually we came to the tanks. However, the path up involved climbing a mud ledge which was the least obvious of the routes, we missed it. After looking around a bit, I came to the conclusion we were traversing the mountain too far instead of going up. We backtracked to the tanks, which luckily wasn’t too far, found the path above the mud ledge, climbed through a set of bushes, and started on the correct path: straight up.

We walked through thigh high golden grass and quite a bit of slippery mud, but the path was easily navigated. Out of breath and climbing, the altitude was having an effect. Being with a 19 year old made me push harder, and after a quick break I took control of my breathing and continued up. The views overlooking Ibarra, the surrounding mountain ranges, volcanoes covered in snow in the distance, and the snow covered crater of Imbabura ahead of us were beautiful. Soon the golden grass and mud turned to mud, rock, and high altitude plants. About a quarter mile on, we reached the first summit where most people claim victory over the volcano. The first summit was beautiful, but it wasn’t the real summit that was covered in fast moving rolling clouds above.
On we walked, and snow started appearing on the path turning it to a slippery mixture of mud and rock. Finally, after hours the path turned to more jagged rock which gave us better footing to get to the top. One final turn around the mountain, we had to climb a section of wet snow covered rock at a 90 degree to get to a final footpath. It was scary, but exhilarating and I knew the danger factor was relatively low. An amazing climb and walk with the snowy crater below, we of course couldn't see five feet in front of us due to the clouds.

The descent down the rock face was slow, but after that we flew down in under two hours. About an hour down, a thunderstorm rolled in and a light rain began. I descended as fast as possible. The last thing I wanted was to be was a giant conductor in the middle of a field on a mountain. My German friend thanked me for calling the early start time to the avoid storms, finding the trail, and leading the way. We made it to the trailhead and walked a couple more miles down before a passing woman offered us a ride in her white Ford Escape. Music to my ears, we had a great conversation back into Ibarra, hopped on a bus back to Otavalo, and following tradition I made a stop at a rotisserie chicken restaurant to celebrate.

The next morning I woke up feeling like an old man: sore knees and muscles. An English couple I met in Guatape was coming into town, so I decided to stick around and have lunch with them. It is amazing re-crossing paths with people travelling, and we had lunch at the market and talked for hours about our adventures. Lunch, friends, and Otavalo check. It was time to start moving through Ecuador and exploring those pins marked undone on my map.

Bus, to bus, to walking, the arrival into Quito was no different than any other city I had been to except for one thing. Along my travels I had spoken with a handful of people who had been robbed in Quito. Although I am always cautious, in the words of my old football coach, I had my head on a swivel the whole walk to the hostel: Masaya Hostel. Masaya was the same chain of hostels from Colombia, and the Quito location was amazing. It was in a giant converted colonial mansion in Old Town, and was the least “hostely” place I’ve stayed. After more chicken, I called it an early night and avoided the city at night.

In a new big city, it was time to explore! First things first, I signed up for a free walking tour offered through Community Hostel starting at 10:30 AM. Up at 5:30, I needed to find something to do so I walked to the central market for breakfast. For $1.80 I had coffee, tortilla verde (fried plantain patties), two eggs, rice, meat, and over an hour of conversation with the locals sharing the metal picnic benches with me. They were very curious what an American was doing eating breakfast at 6:00AM at the the central market with a bunch of locals, and where I learned Spanish. I didn’t have a good answer, but had a lot of laughs. Filled up, I was ready for the tour. Our guide, Andrea, was amazing and the Old Town of Quito was beautiful. The churches, statues, and people were filled with culture and historical mystery. Through most of the tour, I spoke with a retired Californian doctor and his granddaughter. Once again I shared the experience with complete strangers, and we had a great time discussing everything along the way and life in general.

The three hour tour flew by, and along the way I spotted something very intriguing. In the central market there was a top floor filled with restaurants serving a local specialty: corvina (seabass). One place in particular, Don Jimmy’s, had a huge line of locals so I jumped in. For $8.50, which is actually an expensive meal, I bought a huge piece of fried seabass that was flaky white, salty, and fried perfectly, a shrimp and octopus ceviche, potatoes, concha (popcorn), salsa, and halved limes with a juice press to squeeze over. This was the best meal I had in South America to date. I inhaled the food, and joked with the owner who had run the restaurant for over 50 Years. She said “you ate a lot of food very fast. You must have liked it.” She gave me a hug with my response, “I’m so full I could die, but I would die happy your food was so good.” With my friend Louie coming to meet me in Quito in about a week and a half, I told her I would be coming back. Knowing I would be returning to Quito, I was ready to get out of town and back into the mountains. I spent one more night at Masaya, and made plans to head to a town in the south called Latacunga where I would base for some treks. Specifically, I wanted to start with one called the Quilotoa loop.

Latacunga and Quilotoa Loop
South American travel to a new city which meant: bus 1, bus 2, bus 3, and walking. The landscape on the 2+ hour ride down to Latacunga was incredible. Out of the left side bus window, I saw an enormous snow covered volcano. One of the main reasons I came to Ecuador was to climb Cotopaxi Volcano, and there she was towering over everything remotely close. This was the first time I looked at her, and she was an absolute monster. I snapped a picture, sent it to Louie who would be doing the summit with me, and wrote “Cotopaxi, oh shit.”

One more bus change, and a few blocks walking through town, I arrived at my hostel, Cafe Tiana. The woman at reception handed me printed instructions, for the Quilotoa loop, and I asked lots of questions. I wanted to camp along the entire loop even though most people stay in hostels in towns along the way. Her response was, “I gave you what I gave you, that’s all there is.” Not too helpful, but I’d figure it out. Not wanting to hike alone, a young man behind me of Italian and English descent, Sam, was also interested in going. I immediately invited him to come along, and he was thrilled to have company as well. I left the hostel briefly, went and bought the receptionist ice-cream, and proceeded to ask her additional questions about both the Quilotoa loop and guides up Cotopaxi. Ecuadorian law, and the continuation of my life, required that a guide be taken up Cotopaxi. Thrilled with the ice-cream the receptionist gave me all the information I wanted and a great deal with a reputable company that did business through the hostel: Tovar Expeditions.

With all the information I needed about Quilotoa and after talking to several guiding companies, I planned the trek with Sam. He would be staying in hostels, but we would walk together. After talking to Sam, and taking into consideration the many backpackers I spoke with, I decided to spend the first night at Lulu Llama hostel in a town named Insinlivi. Everyone was raving about the hostel, and I decided it would be worth the $19 for two multi-course meals, lodging, and access to a hot tub and steam room. Feeling a little cold coming on, but excited to get started on the hike, we agreed on a morning start after breakfast and I headed to bed.

I woke up feeling pretty miserable, but after a breakfast of boiled eggs, bananas, and croissants I was ready to take on anything. We started off like every other trek: a walk through town to bus station. In addition to Sam, an Australian solo traveler also joined our walking group. We arrived at the bus station for the scheduled 9:30Am bus to Sigchos, the start of the hike. For some reason, other than marking it up to South America norms, the bus wasn’t there. After talking to a few bus drivers we took a bus to another town, Saqisili, and would change buses to get to Sigchos. The adventure was starting before the adventure! When we stopped in Sigchos, yes we made it there after several unplanned waiting hours, more people joined our group. The final group was made up of an older woman from Wyoming, a French woman, Sam, the Australian, and yours truly.

The hike was through tons of farms, canyons, and roads and was not exactly out in nature; however, it was beautiful. As the guys walked ahead, I took an especially heavy pack on this trek, near 50lbs, and took my time while route finding. Per most hikes since learning in Peru, I guided everyone and called the guys back several times when they took the wrong route. A few hours into the hike, we were approaching the final ascent of the day, around 450 meters (1,485ft), and I was feeling the weight of the pack along with my declining health. I told the guys to walk ahead, and took the middle of the group up the trail, sweating, cold and hot, and weak. I kept walking up through switchbacks and fences, and finally made it to the top. The Australian immediately commented that I was white as a ghost. I knew it by the way I felt, and started drinking water profusely. We had a few kilometers to go to Lulu Llama, and it was a miserable few kilometers for me even though the surroundings were beautiful. I walked into the hostel with all my gear, showered, put on a swimsuit and went to the jacuzzi and steam room. The group of us spent hours in the “spa” in the mountains, and I began to feel a little better.

After showering again and continuing to drink water, it was time for dinner. The three course dinner of potato soup, salad, lasagna, and banana cake with strawberry ice cream was more than above and beyond my expectations. I was asleep by 8:40 PM following the big meal, but up by 1:00AM sweating with a pounding headache. Great I thought, I’ll sweat out my fever and started drinking water again. I was up the next four hours, but did manage to get a few more hours of sleep.
Another day of hiking in store, I felt pretty bad but knew I would be okay. Our breakfast of eggs, fruit, yogurt, juice, and coffee again went above expectation. Following breakfast, I strapped up my gear a little lighter in water to help with the weight, took an Aleve, and hit the trail. Today’s trek was to the next town of Chugchillian. We started hiking mainly downhill which I knew would lead to a challenging afternoon since Chugchillian was at a higher altitude than Isinlivi. Up through some farms, the Aleve kicked in and I felt great. The next couple hours were spent following the direction of the river up and down the mountainsides. After crossing a bridge made of a full cutdown tree, a group of children with their mom were seated in a field. The mother asked if I had any candy for the kids, and of course I had some good stuff in my 50lb pack. No traditional candy perse, but I had a bag of traditional sugar coated peanuts and gave them to the family. The young boys fought over the bag of nuts, so I gave the younger of the two a cereal bar which immediately stopped the crying.

The Quilotoa Loop had a similar daily design of a big ascent before a few kilometers of flat walking to end each day. Before the big ascent, I laid down in the sun, looked at the mountains, listened to music, had some nuts and salami and took it all in. The climb was no big deal, but I broke a sweat up the few hundred meters (1000ft), and met up with the two guys at the top. Sam was sitting with a 5 yr old, Estevan, who was more than thrilled to see me when I gave him a cereal bar. He told me his favorite things were chocolate and the movie Cars. The same as most little boys, but he lived in the mountainside of Ecuador. We walked up to a lookout, and when I asked to take his picture he joyfully smiled and jumped up and down. The last few km along a road into Chugchillian were along a boring paved road, but the day was a success. I had looked up places to camp nearby, but the place on the map for camping turned out to be a cemetery. Needless to say, I passed and talked to the managers of a hostel named Cloud Forest who let me camp on the grounds.

We all spent the afternoon by the fire, playing pool, relaxing, and hanging out. It was raining out, but it was a soothing rain. Even though I had all my food, I cooked a late lunch at the hostel, and the manager told me if I wanted the three course dinner it would cost $3. It was hard to pass on a three course meal for $3 to eat quinoa and raisins, so I didn’t and ate with everyone. After dinner, we all returned to the fire and I laughed as I put on nice music and every person wrote in their travel journals. I was still feeling a little under the weather, and I headed to bed early. Luckily, I slept well and was ready for what I read was the hardest trekking day of The Loop.

After a couple of days hiking with the group, I decided to take some time to myself and take the day on in solitude. I moved slowly in the morning, and everyone left before me. There was an Argentinian couple working at the hostel, and we had breakfast together chatting for hours before going. About 20 minutes into the hike I somehow dropped the printed map I had, and had to rely on my phone and sense of direction. Today started the same as the others hiking down and then up. Along the way, a young boy named Washington called me over and we chatted a few minutes. I explained to him who George Washington was and gave him a dollar for a photo with his younger sister. The day’s route was a little more complex, and I had a few backtracks along the way when I noticed I was on the wrong side of canyons. The walk was the best of all the days, and as I walked up a side of Quilotoa to a viewpoint of the crater clouds began to roll in. Right at the top there was a spectacular view of the laguna in the crater, and I caught a glimpse before the afternoon rains and clouds poured over.

There was a shack at the viewpoint and an indigenous family invited me in to wait out the rain. We, the little boy Moses, his dad, grandma, and family dog, sat next to the fire for over an hour. I gave Moses a whistle with a compass, wished the family well and continued up towards the town of Quilotoa. The walk in the clouds took a couple of hours, and seemed like an eternity as I tried to route find with limited visibility. Finally, I walked into the town of Quilotoa and ran into the French woman who began the trek with me two days prior. She asked to camp with me and we walked down to the lake in the middle of the volcanic crater. I set up camp right off the water, collected firewood, cooked pasta with tomato and salami, and we chatted and ate in the beautiful surroundings for hours. Before I could start the fire, it started to pour and the temperature dropped. We ended up in the tent before 7:00pm and didn’t leave until morning.

My alarm went off at 5:45AM, but I was already up as usual to watch the sunrise. It was still raining and clouded in, so there would be no sunrise, but the rain stopped a couple of hours later. I dried everything, cooked oatmeal, packed up, and made friends with some local Ecuadorians who were jumping in the lagoon. Of course I joined the fun, and dove in after them. The water felt like ice straight through me, especially after a night of freezing rain, but it was a spectacular experience. How often would I get to swim in a volcanic crater lake? All of the sudden, as I stepped out of the water I heard a “Mitch how did I know it would be you swimming in the freezing lake in the morning.” The Australian who had been part of the hiking group yelled out and came over with a smile on his face. We hiked out of the crater together, about an hour and a half, and the French woman decided to stay and hike. After the last few days, and the way I felt, the Australian and I headed back to Cafe Tiana in Latacunga. some girl I held to tradition and had chicken and the central market before going to take a warm shower at the hostel.

There was too much beauty and too many peaks around for me to sit around in cities. With one recovery day in Latacunga under my belt, I decided to climb the North peak of the Illinizia Volcano. The 5,100+ meter (17,000ft), but less technical of the two Illinizia peaks, could be done without a guide and would be a great acclimatization for Cotopaxi. At least that’s what the the internet said. The French woman returned to the hostel and asked if she could join the climb. Always happy to take someone along for a new experience, I obliged and set a departure time of 6:30AM.

Illinizia Norte
Like a machine, I was up before 6:00AM and followed the same routine I had just gone through for Quilotoa. Our first bus to reach the trailhead would be to a town of Machachi where we would need to change buses to another town named Chaupi. We jumped off the bus outside of Machachi, and waited by the side of road. Bus after bus drove passed, but none to Chaupi. After 30 minutes a blue bus pulled up with dangling ornaments, and a more than retro feel. The ride to Chaupi was about 45 minutes. Once in Chaupi, we took a pickup truck, another hour journey, to the trailhead. We stopped to register at the ranger office where they made sure we weren’t doing the southern peak which required a guide and technical gear. The mountain looked scary and ominous as we approached covered in snow. For a non-technical climb this was not expected. The hike up was pretty, and I was out of breath immediately but adjusted to the altitude quickly. The views changed from grass, like Imbabura, to rock and small volcanic stone similar to sand.

After several hours walking up, we stopped by the Refugio and talked to a group of Americans and Ecuadorians inside. We decided to see if we could summit from the Refugio in the same day, and after a short rest began the ascent up scree (tiny sand like rock) and steep jagged rock. The climb was almost vertical, and as we continued passed a second peak, about 300 meters from the summit, clouds rolled in and I felt the pressure drop. It made me nervous, and although I don’t like stopping, I told the French woman we needed to turn back and head to the Refugio quickly. I had a bad feeling about the weather, and sure enough as we climbed down a snow storm blew in. We made it back to the Refugio where everyone was playing gin rummy and planning their ascent for the following morning. The Refugio was cold with bricks missing from the structure, but it was a cool experience being there with the group. We ate cereal bars, nuts, drank tea, tried to stay warm, and went to bed relatively early. I generally don’t sleep well at high altitudes, and the cold of the Refugio mixed with the dripping freezing condensation from the ceiling, contributed to no sleep.

It was still snowing when I stepped out of bed at 5:00AM, and I knew we didn’t have a chance to
safely summit. The other group had proper glacial gear and a guide, and I bid them farewell. We waited for a couple hours since there was thick fog and inches of snow on the ground to see if it would calm down before descending. The descent was beautiful from snow covered black rock, back to green and flourishing life. A polish team of scientists had also joined late the previous night, and decided not to summit. We walked down together before separating back in Chaupi. Happy that my instincts led me to the right decision, and with Louie coming into town, I headed back to Latacunga for a nights rest before going to meet him in Quito to prepare for Cotopaxi.

Louie comes to town: Quito, acclimatizing, and Cotopaxi:

Following one final night at Cafe Tiana, I caught an early bus back to Quito. Although Quito is a big city, and filled with neighborhoods to avoid, I had a pretty good lay of the land. For our first night in Quito, I made reservations at a well known hostel that had two locations: The Secret Garden. It sounded like my kind of place. After my series of buses, I walked the few blocks to the Secret Garden and walked up the four stories to where reception was on the rooftop. An odd place for reception, the rooftop was absolutely incredible with a giant hammock overlooking Quito.

While waiting for Louie to arrive, I made friends with a solo English traveler and we chatted before exploring the city and making our way to La Ronda street. La Ronda is a bohemian street south of old town filled with bars and restaurants. After a couple of beers, we headed back to the hostel to wait for Louie who had messaged me he had just landed. Back at the hostel, we hung out in a more relaxed room while the rooftop got a bit intense with a party atmosphere. Soon after arriving, a familiar face popped around the stairwell! With enough gear to last several years and climb Everest, my friend and Eagle Scout Louie had landed. Excited, the three of us went to dinner at an Italian restaurant around the corner from the hostel. We had surprisingly good Italian food, caught up, and went over the plans for the week. I had a couple of objectives for Louie’s week,  but the one main goal was to get him acclimatized before attempting Cotopaxi. With that in mind, we called it an early night.

As with my friend Kyle who met me in Colombia, I prepped an active vacation for Louie. Our first full day, we were up early for breakfast and took the walking tour offered through the hostel. My new English friend who had been travelling alone had two girlfriends join the tour who had joined her from Colombia. The supposed three hour tour ended up lasting five hours. We walked all over which was great for getting Louie moving on his first day at the city of over 9,000ft. Comparing the two tours, the one offered through Community Hostel was a bit better, and after three hours my attention was completely gone on the five hour tour.  After the tour I knew exactly where Lou and I would be going for lunch: to Don Jimmy’s for sea bass. My English friend, her two friends, and five more English women who were staying at the hostel wanted to join us for lunch. Lou’s first day of vacation and there we were with nine women from England eating sea bass at the market. As expected, the food was incredible, the woman who ran the place remembered me, laughed, and gave me a discount on lunch for everyone.

That night we decided to switch hostels to somewhere more relaxed. A place called Casa Carpe Diem fit the bill, and was an incredible stay. We made our way back to Secret Garden after moving to Carpe Diem, had drinks with the English women and a cool group of Americans who worked for Outward Bound, and had a nice night out in Quito. Not wanting to overdo it, I called it an early night again, and told Louie that the following days we would be heading to the Secret Garden Cotopaxi. Secret Garden Cotopaxi was all the rave among travelers, and they offered a three day two night stay with meals and activities included. The remote location and activities would be perfect for acclimatization hiking.

Secret Garden Cotopaxi
The shuttle to Secret Garden Cotopaxi left from the Secret Garden Quito and was free. The shuttle took about three hours, and we passed through the familiar town of Machachi before turning onto a single lane gravel road for over an hour. When we arrived, a young hip manager of the location gave us a run of the offerings and timelines. I felt a bit trapped having to rely on the hostel and having them be in charge of all activities. It definitely had something to do with the fact that I am used to travelling and adventuring without bounds. However, I was sure we would have a great time and after a delicious potato soup lunch we went on a waterfall hike.

I was not expecting much challenge out of the hike, but oh was I wrong. It started boring through some fields, but soon changed quickly to forest. I was happy knee high rubber boots were provided for us as the trail turned to mud, and we marched directly up the river. We arrived at the first waterfall which was pretty, and our guide said, “okay I am going to do something extreme and climb up the waterfall. For those of you who would like to join you are welcome. All others can walk around.” Here I was thinking how hard could this be? We began to climb the 25 foot waterfall on slippery rock, and I got soaked climbing. The climb was intense and more than a few times I got shaky knees. Now that my adrenaline was going, I was beyond happy! After more marching up river and free climbing rocks and ledges, we arrived at the final waterfall. The massive fall was beautiful, I snapped a few photos and we began the hike back. Going back was just as much fun as going out with an equal challenge.

Back at Secret Garden I felt like I was at overnight camp. Snack time was at 5:00pm, and Louie and I played gin while eating the provided chips and guacamole. The hostel grounds were beautiful with a jacuzzi, and separate dorms and “hobbit houses” for peoples’ rooms. The evening's dinner was chicken burgers and a chocolate mousse dessert. It was great food! Everything at the hostel was done family style, and we sat at a table with 20 people. However, we spent most of dinner and post dinner next to an English/Italian couple and their friend who were dive instructors in Indonesia. They were such interesting people, and we would have dinner with them and chat for hours again the following night. Most people were doing organized events through the hostel for their second day, but I wanted to go on a hike outside a big group for more of an adventure. A nearby peak named Rumiñahui looked interesting and Lou and I planned to climb the north peak, the highest, in the morning.

Our wooden dorm room had a cabin smell, and a wood fire burning heater in the middle. Up early and filled up on the simple, but delicious hostel breakfast, the hostel manager arranged for us to be dropped off at the trailhead near the pueblo of San Pedregal. We walked along a road leading up the foothills of Rumiñahui’s multiple peaks. It was great to have Louie as company on the hike, and we climbed in altitude pretty quickly. In a matter of a few days Lou was making it from California sea level to over 14,000 ft which was very impressive. As we rounded a turn to directly face Rumiñahui, we had to jump a fence to get to the trail leading to the northern peak. About a quarter mile down the trail, we quickly found out why the barbed wire fence was in place. All of the sudden Lou yellled “oh shit look out behind you!” A donkey was running down the road aggressively towards us. I held up my hiking pole and yelled scaring off the donkey. Thinking we were in the clear a bunch of bulls came charging down the mountain towards us. I told Lou too keep walking ahead quickly and to not be scared. When he asked what we should do, I thought about it, looked at his bright red down jacket and said “I have no idea, but I’m happy I’m not wearing a red jacket.” Once the bulls stopped pursuing us we had a bit of a laugh, but it was one of the more interesting situations I’ve been in on a hike.

After the bulls, we kept hiking up until there was no more path, and we came over a ledge where a blast of wind hit us. It was wind unlike any I have felt in a long time, and I immediately took a knee to avoid being blown over.  To our front was Rumiñahui and when I looked east to the source of the cold wind there stood Cotopaxi. Of course there were glacial winds whipping off the volcano, and Lou and I looked at each other with a bit of concern. After gaining my balance we hiked through the wind up a path that led to a false summit and stopped. We hiked back down and around, and made our own path up trying to find an approach to the north face. We stomped through sharp plants and tall grass, and made it to a pass between two summits of the volcano. We still couldn’t find an approach to the north face which was vertical rock straight up for several hundred meters, and decided to have lunch and make our current spot our summit for the day. At over 14,000 feet it was another good warm up and acclimatization for Cotopaxi who was looming directly across from us. She was partly covered in clouds, but every so often the clouds would lift revealing her wide base.

A few Lara bars and veggie sandwiches provided by the hostel later, we hiked back to where the path ended, and decided to keep high ground to try and avoid being charged by bulls. We traversed for over an hour keeping far away from the animals who were still guarding the real path below. The walk back to the hostel was miles, and seemed to take forever in the beating down Equatorial sun. Back in San Pedregal a stray dog, a recurring event, joined us for the last few miles back to the hostel. Back at Secret Garden, the manager gave us soup and we chatted a bit. He said he didn’t know anyone that had ever summited the northern peak, and I didn’t feel too bad about not making it. After showering, I looked at my phone, and all in the hike was around 13 miles. Way farther than we would be going on Cotopaxi, but that was a completely different challenge. While sitting in the hot tub and chatting with our fellow Secret Garden residents, the clouds finally broke in the distance to completely reveal Cotopaxi. I snapped pictures and talked to the hostel manager about the current mountain conditions. For the previous week plus I had spoken with loads of climbers and guides, and no one made it to the summit due to horrible weather. In addition to acclimitizing Louie, I was buying as much time as possible hoping for a weather change.

Following dinner and hours of conversation with our diver friends, we decided to do the group hike to summit Volcan Pasochoa the following day. The last ones awake at the hostel, we wished our new friends safe travels and headed to bed to get rest for another morning hike. For the day hike Lou and I brought our big packs with added weight to train for Cotopaxi. We left with the hostel group and quickly walked ahead of everyone. Louie and I lead the way and made it to the summit. The hike was pretty and challenging, and with one final summit we were ready for our greatest challenge of all.
Without any mishaps we got back to Secret Garden in time to take a shuttle back to Machachi where we needed to catch a bus to Latacunga. I spoke with the owner of Tovar expeditions on the phone and set everything up to begin the climb the following day. With Cotopaxi still visible in the distance, and the confidence of our guiding company in the weather, it was now or never. We spent the night at the nicest hotel in Latacunga, San Agustín Plaza Hotel, and slept well for what would be a wild couple of days.

Rested, excited, and packed it was time to begin our Cotopaxi adventure. On the walk to Cafe Tiana to meet our guide, we stopped for a chicken shawarma being roasted on the street by a young Venezuelan man, and a cup of coffee. The shawarma was delicious, and with a final meal we walked into the equipment room down a set of concrete steps under the hostel. Fernando, the owner of the company greeted me as an old friend, and introduced us to our guide Julian. For the next hour we tried on mountaineering boots, goggles, Arctic jackets and pants, and crampons. A pure shot of adrenaline shot through me when Julian handed me an ice axe, and I couldn’t wait to begin.

With all of our equipment, we walked to a parking lot and loaded into Julian’s red mountain retrofitted 2001 Land Cruiser. We discussed different South American peaks and hikes along the way, and after a pit stop for lunch we continued our drive into Cotopaxi National Park. The smell of wood and nature in the park was consuming as we drove in. To our right, Julian points out private land with rows of cutdown trees which belonged to a plywood company. It’s always disturbing to see that scale of destruction, it the preserved land beyond was immaculate. As we climbed in altitude, the road turned extremely rough and the rains and wind began. With a gray sky overhead, the volcano and snow ahead, and black rock under our feet, we parked in a parking lot a 45 minute hike from the refuge. Julian was struggling with the car alarm and pointed up to the refuge while saying walk between the hills. We began walking and of course walked up the wrong hill and were immediately gasping for air.

Julian yelled at us and gave us a lecture on acclimatizing and hiking slowly. The hike up to refuge was the slowest I have ever walked in my life. When we walked in, the refuge was incredible and so much nicer than the Illinizia refuge. Everything was wood and had a cabin feel. Early in the afternoon, we enjoyed cocoa tea, played gin, and stayed warm. We were to be awake at 11:00 PM that night for a midnight start time at the latest. At about 5:00PM two guys from France and Spain came into the lodge with a guide. That was it. The four of us would be the only ones summiting, and we would be going as a team of four with two guides. The sunset and clouds around the refuge were beautiful at over 15,000 feet.

The hours were ticking by quickly, and we were served a trout dinner in mustard sauce which was incredible. The chefs at the mountain refuge were cooking better food than anywhere else in Ecuador. Our placemats for dinner were wooden blocks that said “4864 pasos mas cerca a la luna (4864 steps closer to the moon),” and I couldn’t help myself but to look at Louie and say “hell yes!” We stayed downstairs a little longer before trying, key description in trying, to go to bed at 7:30PM. Everything was cold, I couldn’t sleep as my mind raced, and the wind was incredibly loud outside. Every few minutes the constant blowing would come to a peak like a moaning trumpet from a horror film. I counted down the hours until we began, and sure enough my alarm was sounding at 11:00PM what seemed like an eternity after my head hit the pillow.

I looked over at Louie and said “time to go, let’s do this.” The walk down the cold stairs to begin gearing up was exhilarating as the other team and refuge employees welcomed me. Long underwear, base layer shirt, turtleneck, down jacket, arctic jacket, hiking pants,arctic pants, 2 pairs of socks, mountaineering boots, hat, face mask, helmet, headlamp, two pairs of gloves, climbing harness and waders check. We waited downstairs for about 20 minutes for Lou and the other team of French and Spanish took off before us. Lou came down and Julian directed us to begin. We took our first steps out into cold and dark night, and my first thought was that the wind sounded scarier than it was blowing. The first few minutes of the hike were tough to get used to, and we stopped at the base of the glacier to put on our crampons. The weather was perfect with a crystal clear sky and the moon shining brightly. Julian shrieked in joy as he said this was the best night in two weeks. The other team was waiting for us at the beginning of the glacier, and with some difficulty all of us took off our gloves and put on crampons.

Our team took the lead with Julian at the front, Louie in the middle and me at the rear. The first 100mts walking on ice with crampons felt like miles. I couldn’t stop looking up at the stars as Orion’s Belt was at eye level, and the lights of Quito shown 7000 feet below in the distance. Every ascent up crossing over steps and “v walking” up the ice felt like 100’s of meters following my single headlamp light in the dark. Once in awhile, Julian would shout out “okay that was about 50 meters 6 hours to go, 5.5 hours, we have all night to hike men no hurry!” After a short break and catching our breath, I went to take a sip of my water and it was frozen. Louie gave me some his which was in an insulated reservoir. The short break lasted a few minutes before we continued our ascent. Every so often the snow would be loose and not frozen and I would have to take multiple quick steps to avoid losing too much ground. Every time I would shuffle, I would immediately lose my breath. I knew the landscape around us was beautiful as I could see shadows of hulking ice structures, but it was hard to see outside of my lit path directly in front of me and remove focus from my walking.

As the hours of the ascent ticked, we moved across a series of crevasses and an ice bridge to a section called the heartbreak ramp. At that point, Julian stopped us, roped us together with our harnesses, and my mind immediately went to a place of preparing for some kind of challenge. One foot in front of the other, and now a taut rope between us, the ascent was now more vertical and the snow looser. Lou would give me a sip of his water every now and then nail his froze as well. As we climbed, the weather turned colder and windier, and a slight hail began. Instead of going up the mountain, we began a traverse across to a section that had to be a 70% grade. Julian put out more rope to go and test the route, and signaled for us to follow on the steep loose snow.

Without warning, the snow would give way and we would fall down a few feet causing my heart to jump. Fighting knee high soft snow walking straight up, I kicked in my feet as hard as possible to stop from taking one step forward and 3 back. Farther and farther up we climbed now with Julian carving a path in the snow ahead. Exhausted, we reached the summit as the sky began to lighten. My jacket hood was frozen down when we got there, and my phone and camera were covered in a sheet of ice. All I wanted to do was take pictures of the beauty in front of us, but we only were able to get a few photos. With the wind blowing, Louie and I didn’t even stand for a picture at the top. We there breathing heavily before the guides said, “guys there is high avalanche risk here, we have to get down fast.” Always soothing words.

The descent was difficult as we dug our ice axes in behind us with every step down we took. At one point we rounded the volcano and the volcanoes shadow reflected off of the clouds in the beautiful sunrise. This s would be some of the last sun we would see before the weather turned to hell again. Walking down in the light it was incredible to see the ice and glacial formations that were hidden outside the beam of my headlamp a few hours before. Down and down we stepped with me in front now and Julian in the back. My goggles were iced over and I couldn’t see, so I took them off and continued to walk. The wind that I heard the night before now matched the sound, and fog and hail blew across my face.

Finally, Julian held us up, and took off our rope and said it shouldn’t be as dangerous from here on down. For the next hour plus we walked down a frozen scree field at over a 50 degree angle. Like a scene out of a movie, the refuge appeared like a pearl between mountains and under a thick cloud of fog. We all immediately started stripping down, and everything was completely frozen. I didn’t realize it, but my backpack and headlamp had so much ice built up that I couldn’t turn off the light, and the bag looked like it was inside an ice cube. Breakfast was great, and Julian rang out that we would be leaving for Latacunga in an hour. We packed up our soaking wet frozen equipment, and passed people walking to the refuge on the walk down to the car. They were all gasping for air, and here we were flying down looking like a bunch of animals coming out of the wilderness. Needless to say, on the couple hour ride back to town neither Louie or I could keep our eyes open.

Back in Latacunga we thanked Julian, returned our gear, stopped for another chicken shawarma sandwich since we were starving and got a day room back at the hotel. After a nap and a whirlwind of two days, before I knew it my friend Louie was leaving for the airport and I was back to taking on the adventure alone.

My first few weeks in Ecuador stole my heart, and I only made it to four cities. The rest of my time was spent in the mountains climbing to heights I never thought I would reach. With another few weeks to go in this country, I have a lot of plans to stay above the clouds and continue exploring the wild Andes.


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