The following is a report of the trip I made to Ecuador in August 2011.
Sunday 31 July 2011
There were four of us booked on this trip, Jennie, Ben, Stuart and myself. Stuart was travelling direct to Quito from Australia but the rest of us were first flying from Leeds, Norwich and Manchester to Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam where we were to meet. I'd asked the tour company to pass on my mobile phone number to make it easier for us to meet up as we had no means of identifying each other. Jennie texted me in advance saying she would phone/text when she arrived at Schiphol.
My drive to Manchester airport was uneventful as was my first flight but when I embarked at Schipol I was surprised not to have a text message awaiting as Jennie was to arrive an hour earlier. We were very early for our connecting flight to Quito and there were few people waiting so Jennie, Ben and I were able distinguish each other. Jennie's phone wouldn't connect in Amsterdam hence the absence of a message to me. We chatted until we boarded but our plane seats were far apart so we had to wait to get to know each other better. Departure was at 23:40 and I was quite tired already.
Monday 1 August 2011
It was fifteen and a half hours before we disembarked at Quito. There were hour-long stops on the way at both Bonaire, formerly part of the Netherlands Antilles, and Guayaquil the largest city in Ecuador. Passport control was fairly well-organised in Quito airport and we got through in reasonable time, picking up out luggage just as it was coming through on the carousel. Our guide, Pepe, collected us outside and whisked us away to our hotel, the Reina Isabel in the heart of the "new town". It was mid-morning in Quito. We just had time to drop our bags, wash and change and meet Stuart before being driven off to La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the World). Here we saw the Middle of the World Monument, a monument on the line of the Equator. We got this view from the top which shows the yellow line on the ground denoting the Equator. In fact it is 215 metres out, but as the monument and the shopping complex has already been built no one feels like moving it. Within the monument there are several floors of an Ethnographic Museum portraying the customs and dress of Ecuador's indigenous tribes.
We had lunch in a restaurant here and I got my first taste of Ecuadorean food. The soup, Locro de Papa, made from potatoes and often with half a avocado floating in it, is widely available and usually very tasty. The (undetermined) Pacific fish I had tasted a bit old and I found it disappointing. The Ecuadoreans like their fruit juices and the large glass of guanabana (soursop) juice I had was most enjoyable. Indeed it became a firm favourite along with mora (blackberry) and to a lesser extent tomate de arbol (tree tomato).
There is another museum nearby, the Museo inti Nan, which claims actually to be on the Equator. Here one can attempt such stunts as trying to balance an egg on a nail, or trying to walk along the equatorial line with one's eyes closed both of which are claimed to be more difficult on the Equator. Why this should be I don't know and as I had not slept for over thirty hours I was beginning not just to lose interest but also the will to live. The guide also tried to demonstrate the Coriolis effect on either side of the line showing that water whirls down a plughole in different directions on different sides, just a foot away, of the line. I was, and remain, unconvinced.After that we returned to our hotel. They had two free internet terminals for guests' use so I had a quick look at the BBC news before going to bed. We arranged to meet to go out for dinner at 7:00 pm. I was hoping to be sleeping by then so I suggested they should go without me if I wasn't there promptly. I slept solidly for nine hours, right through a cacophonous evening thunderstorm. Ben apparently also stayed in bed leaving Jennie and Stuart to go to the Magic Bean restaurant for an evening meal. One liked the place, the other didn't.
Tuesday 2 August 2011
Our guide, Pepe, came to collect us by car after breakfast for a morning's guided tour of Quito. We firstly visited a 30 metre high monument of the Virgen de Quito who gazes benignly over the city standing on an orb with a serpent at her feet chained to her arm. We climbed up to the viewing platform for a view down on the city and a look at the Pichincha range of volcanoes with which we were to become much closer shortly.
We were driven down into the "old town" where we next visited the Basilica del Voto Nacional, the tallest church in Ecuador, where we climbed via some rickety vertical ladders the smaller single tower and one of the tall ones. Here are smaller tower taken from the larger and the larger towers taken from the smaller. The clock on the right tower was correct with the one on the left not far off London time. The nave is also impressive.
We went to a cafe next where I was introduced to "mochachino". Mocha I know of as a fine coffee from the Yemen but in Ecuador it is a mixture of coffee and chocolate. Mochachino comes layered with chocolate on the bottom and cream on the top. We had a look round the cathedral, where photography is not allowed, and then got back into the car for our return to the hotel. On the way back smoke started pouring out of the front grille of the car which we thought had caught fire. All escaped rapidly and once the bonnet was up it was seen not to be on fire but there was a major electrical fault. We walked back to the hotel leaving Pepe to sort out the car's rescue. That evening we ate at Mama Clorinda's where Stuart tried the fried guinea pig which looked something of a trial to eat with no substantial pieces of meat. I had sea bass which was not great. There was live music which was good while it lasted but we caught the very end of one act, a long break, and the very beginning of the next. Tomorrow would be our first walking day.
Wednesday 3 August 2011
Pepe picked us up the next morning in a different car - the one we used the previous day was being repaired. Today was to be the first climb of our trip and we were driven to Pasochoa. There are three peaks to this volcano which last erupted some 100,000 years ago. The first peak can be seen in the distance on the horizon. We climbed to the second, and highest, from which our view comprised Antisana on the left, Sincholagua in the centre and Cotopaxi on the right. All are somewhat obscured by cloud. Antisana, at 5753 metres the fourth highest Ecuadorean peak, last erupted in 1802. Cotopaxi, second highest at 5897 metres erupted in 1940. We reached around 4,200 metres on this occasion not bad on just our third day of acclimatisation. Pasochoa is well known for condors, the largest flying land birds in the Western Hemisphere. We didn't see any that day but we had seen a pair flying over Quito from the basilica the previous day.
It was the first time Pepe had given us packed lunches. There was bread and salad etc. for us to make our own sandwiches, and a bag of snacks each which typically included chocolate bars, biscuits, raisins, crisps made from plantain, turnip or potato and cereal bars. These were the most interesting I've had on any of my treks. That evening we ate at La Boca del Lobo (The Wolf's Mouth). It is a garishly decorated restaurant in vodka bottle and chrome chic. The menu had just two or three dishes described and pictured on each page and we found we could buy a copy to take away with us for a mere thirty US dollars. Ecuador's native currency collapsed some time ago so everyone there uses US dollars. I had sea bass again but this time it was a thick piece of fillet, succulent and cooked to a turn with herbs from the Amazon basin. It was the best sea bass I've ever had. It came with blue cheese croquettes and salad. Absolutely delicious.
Thursday 4 August 2011
The Reina Isabel is probably the best hotel I've stayed in on this sort of trip, but the bath taps provided an interesting puzzle. There were five of them. I found that two provided hot an cold water to the fixed shower head or bath tap, one determined which of these two destinations and the other two supplied a shower attachment on a flexible hose. None of them were marked. The hot taps turned out to be on the left and cold on the right. Hot taps were turned clockwise to increase the flow and cold ones anticlockwise. There was a clothes line available to stretch across above the bath but no plug for the wash basin to keep water in to wash one's clothes. There was one in the bath but of a different size from the wash basin's. I'd taken a universal plug just in case.
Today Pepe collected us for a trip to the Pichincha range. His other car, a 4.5 litre 4-wheel drive Toyota, had been repaired. It was a necessity on many of the Ecuadorean mountain roads. We reached a parking area from which we set off further up the zig-zagging road to a moutain refuge where we had to sign the log book to gain legitimate access to the mountain. It was a tough slog from here up the path to the crater rim where we had a break for a snack. Pichincha last erupted in 2004 and there is smoke seen rising from the crater on the left of the picture. Further up we were able to get a better look into the crater. Previous trips had been able to go down into the crater to see the fumeroles venting steam but it has been too lively of late with the spewing and venting leading to an incessant rain of ash landing on nearby Quito. We continued our climb with a scramble to the summit of Guagua Pichincha, at 4787 metres the highest of the range. Here we stopped for lunch where we were joined by a young, remarkably tame bird of prey who was hoping for scraps. From this summit we could look across to Ruca Pichincha, the second highest in the range.Our descent was down a steep ash slope which we were encouraged to run down like a scree run back home. It was a good day of walking lasting about five and a half hours.
Back in Quito we chose to eat at Pims restaurant. With Jennie's help, she was the only one of the four of us who spoke any Spanish, I asked the waiter what came with the garlic prawns which he told me at length. That's what I ordered, but that's not what arrived. I got some dish with fried eggs on potato patties. It took some time before he was persuaded that was not what I ordered and by the time my garlic prawns arrived the others were well finished. The food was good but the confusion had put a damper on the occasion. For some reason I slept very badly that night waking at about 1:00 am and not getting back to sleep. I was to pay for that later.
Friday 5 August 2011
In an attempt to reduce traffic in the capital drivers are not allowed to use a particular car one day per week. This day, or part of a day, is determined by the last digit of its registration number. We did notice that quite a few cars didn't have registration numbers, apparently because it is not required until a car is a year old. That must make it hard to track down motoring lawbreakers. Pepe couldn't use his car until 10:00am this day so we were rather late in setting off for the Ilinizas, one of which, North Iliniza was to be our next peak. We were to camp for the next two nights and apparently Pepe didn't want us around whilst he and the rest of the crew were pitching camp he dropped us part way up and made us walk the rest of the way. Although it was a comfortable camp and we settled down early, I had a dreadful night, not sleeping at all. I'd not expected this as I'd not slept the night before either.
Saturday 6 August 2011
There was a beautiful sunrise, which I wasn't able to capture as my Nikon was locked in the car and my mobile phone couldn't cope well with the lighting. I did feel both exhausted and unsteady on my feet and decided not to join the others on the day's climb. I tried to sleep during the day but failed and just pottered around the camp taking a few photographs. This was the view down the valley towards Rumiñahui, and extinct volcano named after an Inca warrior who led the resistance against the Spanish in the northern part of the Inca Empire (modern-day Ecuador) in 1533. The Ilinizas could be seen from our camp. Iliniza South, the snow-covered peak on the left, is a technical climb which is beyond the scope of our trip. Iliniza North, on the right should have been well within my capabilities under normal circumstances.
Sunday 7 August 2011
I did sleep well that night and awoke to this sunrise. The beautiful cone of Cotopaxi is on the right, Rumiñahui right of centre and Pasochoa left of centre with Cayambe, Ecuador's third highest peak behind and slightly further to the left. I can't identify the distant peak on the left. Cotopaxi deserved a picture of its own.
We packed up the Iliniza camp and were driven along the Pan American highway towards the town of Cayambe. Some of that highway is decent quality dual carriageway but I was surprised to find ourselves passing through village high streets with all the accompanying local traffic and pedestrians. Just outside Cayambe we stopped at the Hacienda Guachala to settle into our rooms and for lunch. The hacienda, one of the largest in Ecuador, was founded in the 17th century and was for many years owned by one family and passed down through the generations. Agrarian reform laws of the 1960s and 70s limited the amount of land anyone could own and the owners of Guachala got rid of all their lands by giving some to their workers, selling them in lots or donating it to their descendants. The family still live in the main buildings which are also operated as an hotel, conference centre and riding school.
We had lunch outdoors by the hacienda's colonial patio. There was a pool where we could relax and I tried lying in a hammock for the first time in my life. The hacienda has both a church and a chapel. In the afternoon we visited Otavalo market where there was a wide range of local handicrafts available including Panama hats which originated from and are still made in Ecuador. For my evening meal at the hacienda I chose chicken soup, which comprised soup with a quarter of a chicken in it, and steak which was of excellent quality. My room was large with double bed and en suite shower, but two other members of our group had bedrooms with two and three beds in them. There was a fireplace with paper, kindling and logs all set to be lit, but I was too tired to mess about with it and retired to bed with an extra blanket. The hacienda is at quite high altitude and got chilly in the evening.
Monday 8 August 2011
Our guide had gone back to Quito for the night and to pick up a second guide for the ascent of Cayambe so we were quite late getting away in the morning. The road to Cayambe refuge got gradually worse as we left more and more farmsteads behind and was so bad before the refuge that we had to leave the car parked by the road and carry our packs with sleeping bags, etc. the last 50 metres or more of ascent. The refuge comprised a dormitory (apologies for the blurred image) two small kitchens, a small shop, three WCs and three wash basins, and two common rooms. Our guide rigged up a rope to the ceiling supports of one of these where we did some training. I'm not a climber and had no previous experience of rope work. I learned to tie a fisherman's knot and a figure of eight. Then we learned to Prusik. This required two Prusik loops, each of mine comprising about five feet of six millimetre cord tied into a loop with a fisherman's knot. These were wrapped around a climbing rope and tied with a Prusik knot. This is a friction knot which one can slacken to slide up or down the rope then when weight is put on the loop the knot tightens firmly around the rope. With our feet placed in the loops we could in this way climb up and down the rope as if the loops were moveable rungs on a ladder. This was to be a means of escape if we fell into a crevasse. It was good fun but exhausting at this altitude, around 4700 metres.
Later we went out into the sunshine to look at the mountain and the glacier between us and the summit. In this picture the summit is hidden from view. The refuge is seen along the ridge. This glacier is the only one in the world to cross the Equator.
Tuesday 9 August 2011
Today we awoke in the refuge to enjoy scrambled eggs cooked by our guides and a morning of crampon, ice-axe and rope training on the snow slopes of Cayambe. We went out wearing our climbing harnesses, climbers' helmets and snow goggles, all appropriate for what we were doing. There was a brisk wind but Pepe found us sheltered areas. We were split into two groups and in ours Pepe, Jennie and I roped ourselves together using the knots we'd learned the day before and attaching our harnesses to the rope with the figure of eights, karrabiners and Prusik loops. Here I was taught techniques for climbing firstly gradual snow slopes, which I've been doing for years in Lakeland, then much steeper ones requiring assistance from the ice-axe. We also did some practice arrests, stopping ourselves when sliding down steep snow slopes. One holds the axe across one's body digging the spike of the axe into the snow at shoulder level with one's weight distributed between there and one's knees. Crampons are held off the snow to avoid tumbling down the slope and/or spraining/breaking legs. I've practised this in my mind over and over again but this was the first time I'd been able to do it in real life. My mental preparation had proved satisfactory. At one point Pepe suddenly launched himself at speed down the mountain, but I realised what he was up to straight away. My crampons were firmly fixed in the snow and I just hit the ground driving the spike hard into the snow. I held him with surprising ease.
We spent a very enjoyable three hours training but when we got back to the refuge our gloves and outer layers of clothing were soaking wet. There were fires in both common rooms but neither were prepared to work properly. Clothing was draped over every available surface to dry and as we were to set off to climb Cayambe at midnight it needed to dry by then. I retired to bed very early but slept very little. The wind was howling round the building and getting louder as time went on. By 23:00 it sounded life-threatening and I expected the guides to cancel the climb, but at 23:30 the guides came up and said they would try to take us up to 5300 metres but the summit would be impossible. Stuart, who had twice been driven back from Aconcagua in similar weather, said to count him out. I was reluctant to try and the other two said nothing, although I found out later they might well have gone if Stuart and I had. The attempt was off. I went to sleep and woke around 2am. There was complete silence. The wind had stopped. I began to think I'd made a terrible mistake. By morning it was clear I hadn't. One team had gone out and they had returned within the hour the conditions were so bad. There had been heavy snow overnight.
Wednesday 8 August 2011
We had breakfast, packed and headed down to the car. It was snowed in. There were two shovels in the car and the younger ones, ie not me, cleared enough snow to get it out, but there was still drifting on the road to contend with. Here is a picture of the road. Part of it is visible on the left and it can be seen down the valley in the centre. There was one point down the road where a drift about three feet high had collected. We all got out to help shovel it away but Pepe decided the car needed some ballast and that I should be it, all 120 lbs of me. He edged the car through, perilously close to a steep drop at times, and I'd rather not have been the ballast. Further down the road there was a two-wheel drive car stuck, which had to be towed out before we could get by. There was a public holiday in two days and quite a lot of people had set off for Cayambe early. Some had abandoned their vehicles and were walking up to the refuge including a party of schoolchildren. We were glad to get back to the hacienda and sort out our belongings before setting off for some thermal baths. The baths were in another national park, some distance away. I had no swimming trunks and would never get away with wearing my skimpy underwear so I couldn't bathe. I just had to shelter from the rain. I was rather tired of getting wet! According to Pepe all the visitors apart from us were locals. It was quite a large complex. This is one of the many pools. After the baths we went to a nearby trout farm where we had some of their produce for lunch and very nice it was too. That night at the hacienda I lit the fire in my bedroom to help get warm and dry my clothes. This didn't work out so well as the only way I could get the smoke to go up the chimney was to leave the window open. I remember having steak again for dinner, and guanabana ice cream for dessert.
Thursday 11 August 2011
We were disappointed at not being able to summit Cayambe but we had been warned the odds were around 50%. Our next, and final, summit was to be Cotopaxi where there was a 75% chance of success. Pepe had taken our other guide back to Quito as he was going to join another team with another company in an attempt to climb Chimborazo. It is not just the highest peak in Ecuador, it is the furthest point on the surface of the earth from the earth's centre, eclipsing Everest due to the equatorial bulge. The suitability of Chimborazo for mountaineering has declined substantially over recent years. Retraction of the snow and ice fields has led to frequent rock falls and poor conditions and now only 15% reach the summit. The company we were with no longer offers Chimborazo as an option as they consider it unethical to take people's money on such a slim chance. Other companies still do.
Pepe arrived back to collect us and drive us off to Cotopaxi. We stopped for an excellent lunch at the Hacienda El Porvenir before entering the north gate of Cotopaxi National Park. We were to stay that night at Tambopaxi Lodge. There was a very good restaurant with a view towards Cotopaxi and a high-powered telescope to see it. The toilets and showers were immaculately clean and upstairs there were dormitory-style bedrooms. Ours slept eight and had a view directly to the volcano, very much like this view from outside.
Pepe went back to Quito for the night but not before telling us of a pool about an hour's walk away where at dusk animals, including pumas, came to drink. We did go to visit it but needed to return for our evening meal before it got dark enough for the animals. This was the pool with Cotopaxi in the background.
Friday 12 August 2011
Friday was, once again, the day Pepe couldn't use his car until 10:00 am. It was a national holiday and he ended up stuck in a traffic jam in Quito, not arriving at Tambopaxi till late. We then drove round to the west gate of the national park where four of us spent time in the park's museum whilst Pepe went to collect our other guide from the train station. He'd had an unsuccessful attempt on Chimborazo with his other party. We then needed to get up the a car park below the Cotopaxi refuge. There was a lot of holiday traffic in the park and we were held up for about an hour by traffic police as cars and buses came down from the car park trying to get back the the park gates before they closed for the night. I don't know what happened to them if they were late. Once they let us go we all rushed up together. We had 40 minutes climb with full packs to the refuge which was far more Spartan than Cayambe refuge. There was no running water in the taps, toilets had to be flushed by hand using water collected from storage tanks in canisters, and the place was packed. Our guides snaffled bunks for us as soon as we arrived but they were top bunks with very little headroom. Our guides rustled up some food and drink and we all entered our names and other details in the register. I found I was the oldest person there by at least 15 years. After our snack we retired to bed to try to snatch some sleep before we set off at midnight to climb the mountain.
Saturday 13 August 2011
We got up at 23:00 to find almost everyone else had the same plan. We had some coffee and I was in good spirits when we set off. The weather was calm and clear. After about 50 minutes climbing my head torch started to misbehave, going off for a few seconds then coming back on again. I'd put new batteries in three days before and they had been working fine, and as it's an LED torch a set of batteries lasts for many hours. Gradually it got worse with the light flickering on briefly about every 20 seconds. I thought maybe the batteries were not fitted properly but taking them out and replacing them made no difference. Pepe thought there was a loose wire. I wasn't convinced. It seemed to have gone into an emergency strobe mode which some head torches have, though I wasn't aware this one had such a mode. Whatever was wrong I didn't know how to put it right and there was no way I could safely navigate the crevasses on the glacier without a light so I had to turn back.
I got back to the refuge feeling gutted. Everything had been going so well. There was still some hot water in the Thermoses so I made myself some coffee and sat down cursing my luck. I had some spare batteries so I thought I would try them. As soon as I replaced one of the used ones the torch sprang into life. Then I replaced the other used one with the one I'd taken out and the torch still worked. Then I put both the used ones back in and it still worked. I retired upstairs to bed in the deserted dormitory and just as I was climbing into bed the torch failed again. I just lay down, baffled, and went to sleep.
I was awoken by a commotion as the dormitory filled up again. I checked the time on my phone and it said 5:00 am. Even the stronger teams weren't expecting to get to the summit before 6:00 and here were my three teammates back already. I asked what had gone wrong. There had been talk the previous afternoon about a team that had gone up during the day when the ice and snow on the glacier is soft and fragile. Apparently they had damaged the only known ice bridge over the main crevasse and it had collapsed leaving the night's climbers with no safe route across it. One team managed to get a rope fixed over and clamber across it but no one else was prepared to risk it, so they all came back. The whole dormitory was in uproar by now with some talking about the night's disappointment and others trying to sleep. We tried to sleep before finally getting up, packing and walking down to the car park. From there we returned to Tambopaxi a decent lunch and some revision of plans.
Pepe said there would be team of guides going up Cotopaxi that night to try to find an alternative route and that it would be possible for us to set off up the mountain the following night, the early hours of Monday, provided a route could be found. This was no use to Ben or me as we were booked on a flight out of Quito early on the Monday morning. Stuart had booked an extension to his holiday climbing Antisana and Jennie was going to the Galapagos so both were able to get a second chance at Cotopaxi. I've not yet heard from either of them so don't know the outcome.
Sunday 14 August 2011
The following morning Pepe took the two of us back to our hotel in Quito before he returned to Tambopaxi. We decided to spend the afternoon on the Pichinchas. There are hordes of yellow taxis in Quito and we got one to take us to the TeleferiQo, a modern cable car that rises from around 3000m to Cruz Loma at 4000m. The taxi was cheap but not as cheap as the city buses for which there is a standard charge of 25 cents for any journey. We left Cruz Loma and headed towards Rucu Pichincha the second highest of the range. Neither of us were dressed appropriately for the full ascent, neither did we have the time, but it got us high enough for some excellent views, such as this. Ben had decided he wanted to try properly cooked guinea pig before we left and Pepe had recommended the La Choza restaurant. One guide says it is the place Ecuadorians go for top-shelf home cuisine. It took us a while to find it, largely because it was in darkness. It closes early at weekends. Finally we settled on the Magic Bean where the others had eaten the first night. I had a very enjoyable main dish of garlic prawns and also my last guanabana juice (possibly ever).
Monday 15 August 2011
We had to leave at 6:30 am for the airport to catch our flight back to Schipol. We stopped only at Bonaire on the way back but the journey still took me 22 hours by the time I'd flown from Schipol to Manchester and driven back to Kendal. It was a great holiday, despite the disappointments of missing out on the summits of Cayambe and Cotopaxi. We had excellent food most of the time, the people were very friendly, and the scenery was spectacular.