In my last Ecuador installment, I talked about the bike ride on Cotapaxi. When we finished that ride, we loaded into the Land Rover and headed for Quilotoa.
Quilotoa is the name of a pueblo, a volcano and a lake.
We arrive on the Saturday after a long drive from Volcan Cotapaxi. Besides Rolf and me, there are three other couples—two from England, and an Irish Swiss combo. The others think we are cool, being so old and doing this. Actually only two of the couples are in their twenties. Johnny from Ireland is forty-five and Patricia is in her thirties.
I am muy cansada, very tired, after my bike trip. We are in the back of the Land Rover with two of the couples. The other couple rides up front with the driver. Our guide, Fernando, is in the back with us. There are a few photo op stops. Then about 6:30 pm, just after sunset, we roll into the tiny pueblo of Quilotoa, at about 4000 metres (about 13,000 ft). Here the average daily temperature is 9 to 12 Celsius. I think it goes lower at night, but not to freezing. There’s no snow but it’s windy.
We take our packs—day packs—into the big room where we will all be sleeping. I have brought my night gown, fresh socks, toothbrush and paste, comb and sun block. I’m wearing my convertible pants (which will only be converted in the Galapagos), a t-shirt, my MEC long sleeve shirt with all the pockets, my MEC purple fleece, and my MEC Gore-Tex jacket, as well as MEC head band and mitts. MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) marks you as a Canadian the way maple leaves used to.
This casa (house) has many rooms as it has been added on to over the years. The roof is tin, and so there is a thatch mat strung up under the roof. Otherwise the condensation would drip on you at night. There is also electricity. The wires are laced through the thatch and the light sockets are not attached to anything. They dangle there, and the light browns out about every fifteen minutes.
There is also running water and flush toilets—with the usual “put the used paper in the waste basket instructions”. This is due to low water pressure. There is also Hot Water—which is advertised as “hot water 24 hours”. This means an in-line water heater. I skip the shower. We all do. And anyway, the drowned moths in the shower stall just don’t work for me. I keep my eye on the huge spider on the bathroom wall while I am using the facilities.
I can even wash my hands after. There is this tiny sink down the hall. A pipe drains away water, and over the sink another pipe comes out of the wall with clean cold water. But don’t drink it or use it for brushing teeth. This high mountain area has a water problem so they have built a big underground reservoir and they have water trucked in. You’d think they’d move but they have no options. They own this land and that is all they own. Up here, they raise sheep and each day they take them down to the lake for water. More on the lake later.
These are the indígenas (indigenous) that you see in the Andes pictures. They all wear those felt hats that don’t blow off in the wind, like my Tilley hat does. The women have a “uniform “ which is the hat, the colourful shirts, the black skirt that goes to the knees, the white stockings, and the black shoes with inch heels that look like they belong to a conservative business dress. The woman’s long hair is pulled into a pony tail and wrapped with multi-coloured strings. A scarf is worn over the mouth and nose to keep out the cold.
Enough of description. Now it’s supper time and we are in another big room, the main room of the house. It has a tiny stove throwing tons of heat. The German shepherd dog, Rambo, is next to the stove with the two cats. The men and the women are sitting around talking to Rolf (he was here two years ago) and the guide Fernando (who was also Rolf’s guide two years ago). The rest of us are experiencing serious culture shock.
But then we have dinner. We are sitting at one long table, and a group of students from Boston University are at the other long table. The students are here for a six month semester of immersion, studying Spanish and other subjects as well, like micro economics. Our guide serves us dinner which was prepared by the indígenas in the big kitchen. Soup, spaghetti and your choice of meat sauce or tofu sauce, followed by a tiny dessert of sliced banana and pineapple. You can buy agua (water) or tea for 50 cents. Or cerveza for a bit more, and the beer comes in super-sized bottles.
And here’s the thing. There is something about being with a group of people when you are tired, cold and hungry, and borrowing toilet paper and asthma inhalers. You bond very quickly. You learn about what the Colombian countryside is like, if the trek up Machu Picchu is worth it, and what it’s like to take a bike tour of Ireland. You tell very strange jokes and talk about how your bowels are performing. It’s not your usual dinner conversation.
Meanwhile the American students are having their conversations. The children play cards by the fire. Rambo the dog looks for attention, and Rolf teaches Roberto and his wife and a bunch of their kids how to use a video camera. (Rolf gave them our old Canon video cam. I took some footage of the lesson.) They are all mega happy.
About ten, it’s bedtime. A young boy stokes the fire in our room. Two young indígena girls are looking at the photos on Chantal’s iPod. Then we settle under layers of blankets. It’s hard to fall asleep because my legs are aching, but at least I can breathe. Rolf has trouble getting enough air. He has to think about breathing. And overnight, Michelle develops full blown altitude sickness with headache, vomiting and diarrhea.
We wake up about 6:30 am and dress quickly because the fire in the stove has gone out. Breakfast is buns, very hard margarine that has sat on the table overnight, raspberry jam they make, scrambled eggs, and milky oatmeal. Now we are ready to go to the lake.
The volcano blew up near the end of the 1700s, and now a hot spring feeds the lake in the crater. Andy and Chantal, Patricia and Johnny, and Rolf hike down with Rambo the dog. Steve stays up to look after his girlfriend Michelle. The guide Fernando stays as well. I stay because the hike down into the crater is 900 metres and my knees would not make it. And even if I did make it down, I don’t think I would have been able to hike back up. It’s almost a kilometre of climbing and every time I try any elevation, I am out of breath.
I do go down the trail a little way, with the sheep and the boy shepherd. Then I stand and listen and it feels as if I have stepped through a time portal. The mountain is silent, like a sleeping giant, waiting to erupt again. The rim is jagged from the blast over 200 years ago. The water in the crater is green and inviting. If you swim near where the hot springs feed the lake, you are warm.
I take my time and climb back to the top, then I walk along the path at the edge of the mountain. The wind blows over a bleak land. An indígena woman in traditional dress passes me. She is collecting some kind of greens that look like weeds to me. In the distance I hear what sounds like those pan pipes, but that’s not what they are. It’s an old man whistling, out walking with his dog.
Around 11 am, a big tour bus arrives, downloads the sightseers, and they stand by the fence above the crater and take pictures of each other. Watching the tourists, I feel like I know, like I understand something, that those people on the tour bus will never know. They have not eaten with an indígena family and slept in their house.
I’m not doing a very good job of describing this. I’m afraid it’s one of those things you have to experience.
And now it’s about noon. Rolf has made it back from the lake. The rest are still down there swimming. Our guide Fernando drives Rolf and me to the top of the first big hill and we start a downhill part of the bike trip. This portion of the bike trip takes us over several valleys and past the tiny dwellings of the indígenas. They live all over the hillsides, probably the same way they have lived for over a hundred years.
After about an hour and a half, the other bicyclists are passing us. The Land Rover and Fernando, on his bike, catch up with us. Michelle with the altitude sickness is sleeping in the front. Chantal wasted herself climbing up the 900 metres from the crater lake so she is sleeping stretched out in the back. Fernando asks how I am doing. I err on the side of caution and end my biking for the day. Rolf goes ahead. The driver and Fernando load my bike, and I climb in the back. The Land Rover ends up following behind Rolf for the rest of the trip, so I am going the speed of his bike, and snapping dozens of photos. Fernando stays with Rolf to make sure he gets up the last big hill, and then he goes ahead.
As we descend to lower altitudes, Michelle revives. About 3 pm, we end our trip. We have a roadside picnic, take groups shots and exchange email addresses. Then we load back into Land Rover. Along the way, we stop to let Johnny and Patricia break off from the group. They don’t want to go back to Quito because they are travelling further south. Same with Steve and Michelle who break off a bit later. In the back, Andy and Chantal, and Rolf and I listen to Fernando’s stories and tell some of our own. And finally we reach Quito, tired and hungry but full of new experiences.
Rolf and I finish off the day at Tomates with pizza that tastes very Canadian. I feel like I know the world a little better and love Canada even more.
Have you ever visited a place that is very different from your home? Did you find it overwhelming and extremely interesting at the same time?