A Travellerspoint blog

January 2008


The volcano and the Quilatoa loop

semi-overcast 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.

It had its own chapel, to one side of a tranquil, cloistered garden.


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(!) P1010629.jpg
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?
A dollar.

Posted by Eleniki 08:54 Archived in Ecuador Tagged bicycle Comments (0)

Faces and places of Ecuador

The road south

semi-overcast 12 °C

Impressions of this beautiful country of extremes and contrasts are many. I include a few of the images I managed to capture, although they are only pale imitations.

Kenneth Williams Llama
'Que bonita!'
Churned up earth, Chimborazo region
I took the famous 'devil's nose' train from Riobamba (the name is a mixture of Castellano and Quechua, from 'Rio', river, and 'bamba', the Quechua word for 'plain'). The ancient train rattled and ground along the slowly ascending track south. It was freezing on board, and the temperature dropped steadily as we climbed higher. We passed Chimborazo, the highest volcano in Ecuador.
The word 'majestic' seems ordinary in comparison to the awe-inspiring sight of the mountain, whose icy winds sweep down on the town of Riobamba. From my carriage, I saw much of the landscape and the lifestyle of the people unfolded before me. Train travel is a wonderful thing - you feel you are right inside the countryside, that you are privy to secrets the road does not yield. People always stop what they are doing and acknowledge the passing of a train, particularly an old, slow train like this one. Some lean on their tools and just watch; others wave or nod and smile; children always race alongside for as long as they can, hoping for a treat thrown from the window. There was a man on board, selling sweets and lollies for that precise purpose. I was not immune to the pleading little faces, dirt and snot streaked across their mouths and noses, raggedly dressed but full of life and joy. Lollies were purchased, and lollies doled out... P1010739.jpg
Elderly couple, Chimborazo - these people are hardy and healthy - happiness is in their eyes

This little girl was hanging fiercely onto a lolly I gave her
This girl mother was no more than 15

The patchwork land

A face of character

No dentists here

The train went by a busy station, set up deliberately as a market for tourists. I stayed on board, preferring to take pictures from my open window than experience further wheedling to buy the local artisans´products. You need a will of iron in order to cruise a line of stalls and not succomb to the selling skills of the indigenous women. To engage at all is fatal - consider it sold. So I stayed where I was and caught some faces in the crowds.
Three different styles of dress. meaning three different tribes, but they all speak the same language..

This hat is made of boiled wool, placed on a mould and the damp felt beaten to its bowler shape

The colours and shapes vary from community to community, but the basics for women are skirts to the knee or long, ornate blouses, heavy wool shawls, fastened in front with a pin, and of course, a felt hat

The Caparina indian men of the Quichua speaking communities of the Chimborazo region south of Riobamba wear red ponchos and wool hats. They look fantastic

This stunning baby was being carried on the strong back of his mother, who wasn´t slow to ask for a dollar in return for a picture. The people make a business out of photo opportunities from snap-happy tourists, be it with their babies, a colourfully decked-out llama or even a black lamb. And who can blame them?

These huts on the high sierra of the Quilotoa loop look like haystacks from behind - the door is on the side most sheltered from the relentless wind

These children appeared out of nowhere - they seemed to be made of the grass itself. The tiny girl was adorable, like a doll. She smiled hard for the camera, knowing a 'propino' was forthcoming

We stopped in a village, where I visited the oldest church in Ecuador. It had beautifully carved doors, depicting saints and stories, and cloistered gardens with stunning plants. The village itself was an oasis of calm, the evening sun warming the white walls of the houses.

Finally I left the train and caught a bus further south towards Cuenca, my destination. However, the mountain roads in the Andes are littered with uncertainties...
An everyday occurence in Ecuador. A large pipe was being laid in the middle of the day - it took an hour and a half to clear the road. We got out and hiked till the driver caught up with us

The following day I found myself in a jeep travelling across the high terrain of the Sierra, that vast area between either side of the double ridge of the Andes, the backbone of South America. Here the wind was bitingly cruel, despite the enticing play of light and shadow on the coloured landscape. I kept asking the driver to stop, so that I could get out and breathe in the astonishing quality of the air, the wind, the light which came and went, changed and played with the undulating land, stretching away into distant shapes. Of all the places I´d been, this was the most moving in a way I can hardly explain - it was a magical place.

This mountain on the Quilotoa loop is known as the sugar loaf, and is revered by the local people


Posted by Eleniki 07:20 Archived in Ecuador Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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