Usually Jed and I avoid large cities. We tend to think of ourselves as small town folk and prefer not to deal with the traffic and herds of people that come along with city life. Luckily though, we were sucked into Quito, the capitol of Ecuador, because it was the most logical place for us to re-acquire mountaineering gear. Otherwise we may have never spent so much time in and around this little gem of a city.
Wandering in to the streets the Sunday morning after the soccer game we found another great surprise waiting for us. Every Sunday Quito closes down the main streets through the city to cars and opens them solely to bicycles and pedestrians. Jed and I quickly abandoned our plans of beginning to check out the gear shops for the day and rented bikes to do some exploring instead.
The city of Quito proper is basically a long strip, running north to south, split in to three districts; the old town, the new town (Mariscal district) and the south (residential district). And scattered throughout the strip of the city are several parks, little and large. We set off on our bikes towards the old town to check out the old Spanish colonial architecture and found that in every one of the parks along the way there was a different form of entertainment going on. There was live music, theatre, comedians, traditional dancing, artists, clowns on stilts and more. Plus there were food vendors everywhere. We skirted through the city that day biking from one park to the next. It was such a wonderful way to see the city and to spend the day.
Plus with the freedom of being on a bike it saved us from the overwhelming head game of trying to navigate a truck and camper through the maze of one way streets that is Quito. We even checked out a few of the off-the-beaten-path hotels and found an amazing pent house apartment that we rented for $16 a night.
The next day we began our search for mountaineering gear. We had looked in to shipping all of ours over from the states, but the best price we received was over $600 solely for shipping. This price didn’t even include the 110% tax on the price of our own gear that we would have pay customs when we picked it up. We decided it was going to be cheaper just to replace most of it. We scoured the city for the best deals and somehow managed to spend five days doing it. However it was an enjoyable time. We parked the car for the week and either walked or rode the extremely overpacked buses everywhere. We found some great resturaunts and even a grocery store with amazing things like granola bars and cheddar cheese! Unfortunately, nowhere in the city could we find boots to fit Jed’s gringo feet.
With a little more research Jed discovered that we could send a package under 8.8lbs through the Ecuadorian and US postal service and you supposedly wouldn’t have to pay taxes on it. We set up to have a package sent over and then with our best guess that it would take at least a full week, maybe two, and with nothing more to do but wait for the mail we left the city to explore the mountains.
We first headed back up north towards the Colombian border. We had already been up this way, but to us it was as if it was the first time because on our original drive through, the clouds were so low we were not even aware of the giant mountains merely hundreds of feet away. Our plan was to test our lungs on one of the lower peaks in the area,Volcan Imbambura, at 15,190ft.
With all the temperamental weather we had encountered since entering Ecuador, we couldn’t believe our luck. Blue skies abound, we enjoyed a great climb with beautiful views of Volcan Cayambe and the surrounding towns and lakes below. The climb was basically a long hike with some scrambling up to a false summit, which is where most parties turn back. Following the false summit there was a long skinny ridge line with sheer cliffs or steep scree to each side. This took us to a final scramble up loose rock to the real summit. The mountain really waits until the last 30ft to get your adrenaline pumping but it doesn’t hold back then.
We set out the next morning towards Illiniza Norte, our second object on our peak quest. This was south of Quito and to get there we decided to take the eastern roads around the city and try to find this climbing area we had been told about. And thought we didn’t find exactly what we were looking for, we were not complaining with the canyon it led us through. Stunned by the beauty of this area, and with gas prices practically egging us on, we ended up detouring through the rock filled canyon, past the tall reaching peaks of the Cayambe-Coco reserve, past Ecuador’s tallest waterfall, skirting an ever intensifying rushing river all the way in to the outskirts of the Amazon jungle.
That evening we put ourselves back on track towards Illiniza Norte and made a late camp only to find ourselves upon daybreak under the shadow the grandiose Cotopaxi. This textbook glaciated volcano that seems to just suddenly erupt from a valley floor demands your attention, and we obviously had no choice but to stop for an obnoxiously long photo shoot before venturing on.
Aha, Illiniza Norte at last! Or so we thought. We were turned back at the first manned gate we had encountered in all of South America thus far. The man told us we needed a guide. We argued that Jed was a guide. He wanted to see a card. Well okay, I think I know where one of those can be created.
We went to the closest town to use the internet and found a message that our package had arrived and cleared customs. This was only 3 business days since it had been sent. And after all the nightmares we had read on the internet about shipping to Ecuador we couldn’t believe it was true, but decided we better head back to Quito and check in anyway.
We went to check back in to our pent house apartment, only to find two very familiar motor bikes parked in the garage. The Australians had snagged our spot. So much for sharing friendly info. Out of the kindness of our hearts we let them keep it ;) and checked in to another basic room in the building.
The next day we went to retrieve our package and we couldn’t believe how easy it was. We filled out a couple papers, gave them five dollars and they handed it over.
We ended up spending a couple more days in the city taking care of some car maintenance and important things such as creating a “guide’s license”. Then we were off to mountains again. And after all that trouble, this time there was no one at the gate to Illiniza and we drove right in.
With two mountains under our belt and all our gear re-aquired, we decided it was time to attempt the glacier covered Cotopaxi. We headed in to the park and drove up to the parking lot at 15,000ft. The climber’s refugio is a 45 minute walk up from the parking lot, but being the cheap travelers we are, we decided that it would be fine if we just slept in our camper and started out from there in the morning instead of paying to sleep in the Refugio.
We arrived in the parking lot around 6pm in a snow and hail storm. We packed up our gear anyways in the hope that it would clear up by 1am, our planned departure time. After about 3 hours of anxious sleep we awoke to a thick fog, but no precipitation. So we threw our packs on and headed up.
We arrived to the glacier line in about 2 hours, at 3am. There had been some spitting rain during the approach, but the weather seemed to be clearing as we threw on our crampons and tied in to the rope. With high hopes we set out. After winding our way around the crevasses for about two hours we encountered a guide and his clients retreating from the mountain. The guide told us “There is weather coming in from the east. You have about three more hours to the top. Be smart.” as he scurried past.
We continued on for another half hour, but this information was turning over and over in my brain killing my psyche. Just below the black rock headwall, supposedly the crux, we made the decision to be safe rather then sorry.
Looking back it was still probably the best call. The weather stayed clear for a bit but came in strong in the late morning. However, there is just something about not finishing an attempted summit that really eats away at you. We even spent another night in the parking lot with the plan for a second attempt, but again were greeted with sleet and snow.
Reluctantly we packed it off further south, still toying with the idea of returning in a couple days, but needing at this point to dry out a bit; not to mention wash up after four days of hiking and camping.
On this end of things our luck returned. In the town of Banos, Ecuador we found a local hot springs bathhouse. Where for two dollars each we indulged in the hottest showers in months and thoroughly soaked and stretched our muscles in the spring fed pools. And afterwards we found the local market where for 75 cents each we nourished our insides with tall glasses of fresh squeezed alfalfa, carrot, banana and strawberry juice.
Ahhh yes…Just another high class spa day for Jed an I!
We spent the rest of the day exploring this little town, which is nestled at the foothill of one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Inside the town’s cathedral there were several drastically detailed paintings from which we learned many stories of the history of this little town’s epic entanglements with this mountain of death that occasionally sends downs rivers of fire in to their town. Back in the day there was only one tiny bridge for which the townspeople could cross the river to escape the burning.
Banos is a beautiful town with and interesting past! It was great to enjoy for a day, but the lure of the mountains was too strong.
Cotopaxi was still taunting us, but we decided we had spent enough time up around there and we should just keep heading south. We researched and found Volcan Carihuarizo, neighbor to Volcan Chimborazzo, Ecuador’s highest peak, along our immediate way south.
This Volcano was very fun. It was the only we had done thus far where there were no other parties. In fact there wasn’t even a trail. We drove the car up as far as we could where we followed a series of ridgelines up to gain the quickly melting glacier to the top. There were wild llamas running all through the hills. It was amazing to watch how quickly and gracefully they could move along the rugged terrain and it was also surprising to us to hear their sounds, which we at first thought were chirping birds.
We were back down from the mountain by 9am that morning and decided to continue south. We found a gorgeous and quiet camp spot that night and planned to sleep late and enjoy a relaxing morning. However at 8am when we were descended upon by a large group of over-aged scouts we realised this wasn’t going to happen.
We did learn from one of the counselors who was questioning us about our trip that that day in Cuenca, our next destination, was a big festival. This got us really excited, because through out our trip we always seemed to be either a week early or a week late for local festivals, but this one we were going to hit right on!
In Cuenca, we decided to find a parking garage and ask to stay in our car, instead of paying for a hotel. We easily found a family owned garage who, of course, was happy to let us stay in our car. The problem came when they informed us that they, as well, were going to be joining the festivities and that to get back to our car we either had to come back before 8pm or after 1am.
After living in out car for the last 7 months, with the sun going down at six o’clock, Jed and I had adopted a typical bed time of 9. It was a sad conversation arguing with a this couple at least two generations older than us that 1am was just too late. So we decided, if they can do it so can we. The party must be that good!
However, come 11am we must have missed the invitation that told us where to go next, because the bands packed up and the streets started clearing and we still had two more hours to go. To stay awake we invoked the theory of “just keep walking”. We scoured the city streets and when were finally allowed back in to our car we felt like we had just climbed our hardest mountain yet. It’s official, we have become pathetic partiers, but we did manage to stay up longer than the security guard.
The next day we decided to check out what was said to be the best rock climbing area in Ecuador, just north of Cuenca. Well, it’s possible we just picked the wrong route, but after tunneling our way through spiny jungle for 20 minutes to reach the route we found that the jungle didn’t stop there but continued up and out of every crack and crevasse in the wall. We climbed the first pitch before reaching the conclusion that in Ecuador it’s better to stick to the mountains.
It was time to move on to Peru. Ecuador was amazing! It completely fueled our fire and we hope to return someday (primarily for Cotopaxi) but at this time Peru was calling our name.
So until next time Ecuador, please don’t change a thing!