Latacunga is a plateau town 89km south of Quito on the Pan-American Highway. It is 2,760 metres above sea level and the climate is cold and windy. I went there to climb the Cotopaxi volcano, which is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and at 5,897m, the second highest summit in the country. Cotopaxi is an almost perfectly symmetrical cone and the whole upper part is covered with snow.
My ambition was to get up near the crater of the volcano, hopefully in one day. I signed up for a tour with a local guide and four others to the base of the glacier that covers the summit. I knew it would be cold so I wore almost every article of clothing that I had with me.
We went by truck to a small refuge on the south face of the volcano. From there we started the walk up the mountain, a walk which became slower and slower as we climbed higher and higher—to over 4,500m. The winds were so strong that at times I could lean backwards and not fall over; they kept me upright.
I was really struggling as we neared the summit and my legs began to feel like dead weights. By the time we were up 4,900m I thought my heart was going to jump out of my chest. I could only walk for about 30 seconds before needing to recover.
Our efforts were rewarded for we all reached the glacier and the view was clear, which only very rarely happens.
The Quilotoa Loop
The Quilotoa Loop is described as one of the most spectacular routes through the central highlands of the Ecuadorian Andes, passing through numerous small indigenous villages high up in the mountains. To get to the start of the loop, I took a bus from Latacunga to Lake Quilotoa.
Lake Quilotoa is said to have been created by the last eruption of the Cotopaxi volcano. It was difficult to scramble down the side of the mountain to the water’s edge and I met locals along the way who would ask if I’d like a mule ride back up. ‘¡No gracias, estoy de muy bien salud!’, I would confidently reply, still proud of my performance at the volcano the day before.
I had a peaceful time at the lake but when I started the climb back up I wasn’t even a third of the way when I gave up. I prayed that one of the boys with a mule would come by and indeed one did. His name was Juan and I gave him $5 for the ride and taught him to say ‘Would you like a mule ride back up?’ in English. I hope that phrase has had significant impact on his business. It was the least I could do for someone (and his mule) who got me out of that situation!
Later I hired a man who owns one of the hostels at the edge of the Laguna to guide me along the path to Chugchilan, 14km away. It was a scenic walk down the side of the mountain, through thick brambles, by little shacks, then back up the other side. We met many indigenous people along the way. It is not the gringo trail! Soon I was all scratched up and covered in needles and I decided this little excursion was not much fun. So we went in search of a road and a car. What we ran into instead was Juan and his mule! It took us 4 hours to make it to Chugchilan and by the time we entered the village we were a procession: me on the mule, my guide, Juan, Juan’s brother, and two indigenous women—one elderly and the other carrying a baby—who had been trying to overtake us on the path.
I felt like the Virgin Mary in the nativity scene but in this story there was thankfully room at the inn, the Black Sheep Inn.
I wanted to get to the Thursday market in Saquisilí early for it is one of the most important indigenous markets in the country and I wanted to watch the people as they came down from their remote villages to trade livestock, fruits and vegetables, meats and cheeses, and probably many stories.
I could get a local bus that would pass by the Black Sheep Inn at 3am. No one else at the hostel was keen to go at that hour but I was determined. So I strapped a headlamp to my forehead and headed down the path at 2:45. At 3:30, with samba music blaring, an old bus came towards me and I flagged it down and took the last seat for a very long, very crowded, very noisy, three hour ride.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. When we arrived things were just getting started. I wandered alone through the animal markets without another tourist in sight. I bought breakfast at a stall and just sat and watched the action: little old ladies man-handling sheep into carts, llamas spitting, villagers bartering over sacks of potatoes, bales of corn stocks, piles of used clothing.
By 8am the craft vendors started to arrive just as many of the villagers were packing up and heading home. Then the first bus carrying other foreigners started to roll into the square.
As they got off the bus, I got on for the return trip to Latacunga. I was tired, dirty and sore, but yep, it was worth it.
Photo credits Alison Payne
Edited from an interview with Alison Payne and from her blog.
© Riding the buses 2011