The volcano and the Quilatoa loop
16.01.2008 2 °C
Leaving the car alarms, honking horns and choking fumes behind, I left Quito in style. I met two charming americans, Jonathan and Mark, in my hotel and they invited me to travel with them for two days. They were going in my direction - Cotopaxi-wards - and it made sense to team up for the journey.
They had planned to mountain bike down from the 'refuge' at the base of Cotopaxi, and this seemed like an attractive prospect to me, as I clocked up a lot of extreme cycling back in the days...
Bicycles secured on the roof, we drove on the panamerican highway to Cotopaxi national park, a fairly barren area of protected land, thinly forested in places, and very cold and windy.
The temperature dropped further as the jeep climbed towards the refuge carpark. The refuge is a small cafe and resting place for those intrepid trekkers who want to brave it to the dormant volcano's summit, a challenge which requires some experience and a good level of fitness.
The carpark itself is a good 30 minutes hike below the refuge. We saw an old photo of the hut and were interested to note that the glacier reached well below the refuge some 35 years ago. Now the refuge sits on clear ground, the glacier only beginning quite far above it.
When we got out of the jeep I had second thoughts about cycling down. The 4,800 metre altitude combined with a ferocious wind made standing, breathing and keeping the blood circulating a task in itself.
Mark was not well, so he opted out and kindly lent me his alaskan thermal undergloves plus an extra fleece. By the time I was kitted out, I was wearing a wool undershirt, 3 thermal sweatshirts and a goretex jacket; leggings under my jeans; two pairs of wool socks; two pairs of gloves; a fleece hat under my helmet, and elbow and knee pads. But I still couldn't feel the handlebars.
Jonathan, a heavy-set guy, charged off down the steep slope while I flapped around, trying desperately to sit on my saddle while the entire back end of the bike was continuously whipped into the air by the vicious wind. Eventually I managed to weigh it down and set off, wobbling and veering wildly as the huge gusts played havoc with me. The excercise was not aided by the surface of the ground, a nasty, gritty path which would, I knew, prove lethal if I skidded off. Jon chivalrously waited for me once, enabling this misleading depiction of me careening down Cotopaxi ahead of him!
Gradually I got the hang of it, but corners were treacherous, especially if we were turning into the wind and there was a jeep, or worse, a bus coming up. By this time my hands, arms and legs were numb, even though the temperature was rising and the wind dropping as we descended towards the small lake.
Mark was so encouraged by the sight of us apparently having a whale of a time that he got out, kitted up and tried a stretch or two before deciding that he wasn't well enough after all. We made it to the lake without falling off. I felt quite shaky but fairly proud of myself, having never attempted anything quite so thrilling in all my years of cycling around Europe.
We went for a well-deserved lunch in a beautiful hacienda which dated from the 19th century.
After this we continued on to the famous Quilatoa loop, without doubt one of the most stunning areas I've seen in Ecuador, or the world.
After spending the night in a friendly family-run posada where I rode a llama(!)
we drove to the Quilatoa crater, an extinct volcano which is filled with acidic aquamarine-coloured water. There is no life in the lake. The cutting wind was again a feature, making it difficult to stay long to admire the incredible view.
Some years ago, a local lad fell 300 feet into the crater after some late-night revellry. His body was never found - only his shoes.
I parted from Mark and Jonathan at the lake and got a lift onwards around the loop with a friend of our driver. This man was taking an american woman to Chugchilan, the tiny village where I was headed - 20 km of slow, rocky, sometimes tortuous road in a surreal landscape which bears the scars of an earthquake.
The charge for this transport?