Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A tale of two volcanoes


Okay, that's not what this blog is about. But that's why I'm blogging now because after galapagos I'm only going to want to write about that place and will neglect documenting our last week in the Quito area.

We moved back in with our homestay family on Monday morning last week. There was a new houseguest: Zina, from Germany. She was also studying at Quito Antiguo Spanish School. What we didn't find out until almost the end of the week was that our return meant she was moved out of the dorm room for our benefit. Ooops. That's not the worst of it though... She was moved into Lucas's room (the homestay family's son) and he was moved to some other part of the house, probably sleeping on a couch or something. We sort of felt like jerks but I guess they could've just told us it was a fairly significant inconvenience for us to come back... Oh well.

Our homestay family: Beatriz, Lucas, and Danilo.
Our Spanish teacher, Christian.
As per the plan, we wrapped up our Spanish lessons, completing the basic/introductory level, which included how to conjugate verbs in present, active, reflexive, past and future tenses as well as a wealth of practical vocabulary that should come in handy for the rest of our travels (provided we retain any of this knowledge...). During our final class, the other professors and students burst into our classroom with an enormous cake to, presumably, celebrate our "graduation". They'd also learned an Ecuadorian folk song, which they recited as one of the professors played guitar and pipe-flute. That part was sort of awkward. It was also awkward when one of the new students repeatedly tried to ask me how old I was because she'd misunderstood the reason for the cake, and thought it had to be one of our birthdays. The most awkward part was after the completion of the song when we all sat/stood around eating cake, not talking because we all speak different languages and didn't really know eachother. The cake was good though.

On the next weekend we left Quito with Christa for a tour of Volcan Cotopaxi and Laguna Quilotoa, both located south of the city. Our first stop was Hosteria PapaGayo where we picked up bikes - our mode of transportation down from Cotopaxi. We then began the ascent to the parking lot adjacent to the trailhead for the Cotopaxi Refuge. It wasn't long before we were absorbed by the cloud-cover and felt a noticeable drop in the temperature. We reached the parking lot and got out of the van in the midst of a gale force wind, complete with ice crystals but lacking the "fell voice on the air" a la the pass of Caradhras (Lord of the Rings). Oh I listened for it alright. But I'm no elf.

Puffing up our Canadian chests, we refused to be stymied by a bit of nasty weather and set out on the path up to the refuge. And I do mean "up". It was only a 300-m gain in elevation but over a linear distance of just ~1 km. Still not impressed? Well, I should mention that the ascent begins at 4500 m above sea-level. That is some serious altitude, amigos. I felt like I was 100 years old. Each step required an unreasonable amount of effort and I was out of breath in no time. It didn't help that the path was loose volcanic rock. With the wind and the cold and the lack of oxygen I honestly wasn't sure that I'd make it to the refuge. But I did. And I totally treated myself to a $2 hot chocolate, thank you very much. Christa and I decided not to make the additional ascent to the glacier after the guide took one look at our ankle socks and made a face that I easily interpreted to mean we'd be crazy to try it. Apparently there was a fresh "dusting" of 10+ cm of snow that we would've had to trek through; something no one thought to warn us about before we dressed for the day. Chris hiked up and took photos so it's like we were there anyway.

We returned to the parking lot (significantly easier than the hike up) and prepared for our bike ride down the remainder of the volcano's slope. Initially, I was very excited about biking down because I imagined an effortless cruise while admiring the scenic terrain of the Andes. In fact, I found it really difficult. Not because you had to pedal at all; quite the contrary, actually. You had to brake almost incessantly to avoid careening recklessly down the surprisingly steep road! My hands fatigued from strain and cold not far from the parking lot but I had no choice other than to press on. Or speed on, as the case was. The road was also really bumpy, making for a whole lot of jiggling and jarring. My arms felt very peculiar after a few kms... The drop in altitude took its toll too. I had to stop at one point for fear of passing out. Not sure what the physiological reason was but I definitely wasn't feeling too well. Once we'd dropped to a low enough altitude that I began to warm up, and the road flattened somewhat, I did enjoy the remainder of the ride. Christa and I had left Chris far behind as he stopped to take some great photos of the scenery. Good thing he did because I wasn't really paying attention while I held on for dear life! Ah well, it was an adventure. On a nicer day, it probably would've been much more fun.

We returned to Hosteria PapaGayo where we enjoyed some fresh chocolate cake, followed by some wine while we waited for the staff to prepare the jacuzzi. We then enjoyed a thorough soak and it occurred to me that that was the first "bath" I'd had in 2 months! Normally, at this frigid time of year, I take baths almost nightly to warm up before bed! Could've used a nice bath for the coldness of Quito... We had a reasonably good dinner and then dragged our tired selves to bed early.

The next morning we were picked up by the tour van and headed further south and west towards Quilotoa. We wound through some pretty rugged terrain but Chris did really well. I think the small passenger vans may be our ticket to travelling on the windier roads of South America.

Our first stop was at a market where we tried a hot drink made with mora (blackberry) and some quesadillas. Our tour guides took donations to purchase some food for an indigenous family whose home was the next stop on our tour. It was pretty neat but also sort of sad to see people living in such poor conditions. The guide told us that they used to just give the family money but stopped when the little girl told them her dad spent all the money on booze and would get rough with her mom when he was liquored up.  :S   Tragic.

It was another 2 hours to the town where we were able to access a trailhead for Laguna Quilotoa. As we walked past a row of market stalls and emerged onto a hill we were absolutely blown away by the stunning view. The trailhead is about 400 m above the lake and we were able to stand right on the edge of the crater rim before beginning our descent. The going was much easier than our experience at the volcano of the previous day. For one thing, the weather was far more civilized and, moreover, the starting altitude was a mere 3900 m above sea level. It wasn't easy but the views were breathtaking and we were actually able to visit along the way instead of gasping for air with every tiny step.

It was possible to hire a mule to take you back up but a bit of chiding from Chris quickly erased any inclinations I had towards exercising that alternative.... Okay, he didn't really chide me; he just suggested it would be good training for the Inca Trail and even though I didn't totally agree, my competitive nature kicked in so I had to do it. It was actually a really nice hike! A good workout, earning us another piece of PapaGayo's chocolate cake before we drove back to Quito.

We've spent the past few days in Quito resting and preparing for our upcoming trip to the Galapagos. Part of this preparation involved getting haircuts! You can get a haircut for $4 in Quito. And not a crappy haircut either! I was first to test these waters and am quite happy with the result although I did have to argue with the stylist regarding the minimum length of layers I was willing to accept... A few hours later, Chris decided to join the club and we found a barbershop. For only $18 he got the supreme treatment, even enjoying a massage with a strange, hand-held vibrating machine. Sorry folks, but the hobo beard is gone. Chris figured it was for the best, considering we are about to take a luxury cruise through the Galapagos Islands and then attempt to cross the border into Peru. I think he looks very handsome, though I'm not against the beard (within reason). We also caught The Artist playing at the Quito cinema and really enjoyed it. 

Now we are packed and ready to leave for our adventure in the Galapagos. We managed to get a good deal through a tour agency called CarpeDM, which is actually owned by a guy who grew up in Canada! Anyway, we are really excited and know that this will be a worthwhile splurge! Stay tuned for the photos... We're back March 17. 


  1. Enjoy! You guys are the envy of everyone I know, continue with the photo documentary of this experience! It's amazing!