Thrills, spills and steep uphills

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Mar 16, 2009

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Where I stayed
The Secret Garden Cotopaxi

Flag of Ecuador  ,
Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Cotopaxi is according to our sources the worlds highest active volcano that has erupted and is higher than the highest peak in western Europe (all unconfirmed, will Google this when I get a chance). So it seemed like a good place to spend a few days and continue our high altitude acclimatisation.
The Secret Garden Hostel in Quito was set up by and Australian and his wife, Tarquin and Catherine who had subsequently moved out to the country and set up another hostel near the Cotopaxi volcano. The location that chose was truly beautiful and had great views across the valley with Cotopaxi and a few other towering peaks as the backdrop. The hostel was more of home stay that a hostel as the dinning and living area were in the main farmhouse and thus had a lovely homely atmosphere.
Besides the obvious attraction of the volcano there were many other activities to keep us occupied thus we decide to spend four nights and not rush anything. The morning after we arrived we felt like getting a little exercise after spending the previous day traveling and catching up on some reading. Together with the two volunteers* at the hostel we hiked up to see the waterfalls a little way from the farm. Most of the hike was uphill and literally in the river as the banks were steep and muddy and difficult to climb. It turned out to be a great little adventure with us wadding through streams, hopping from rock to rock and clawing our way along muddy river bank. The waterfall, although on a about 6 or 7 meters tall was worth the effort and the perfect exercise we needed after all the traveling.
Horse ridding is also a popular pastime amongst the Ecuadorians who seem to be expert riders so even though I am not the best horse rider I decided to join a few of the other quests on a half day ride. The horses where rounded up and I was at first given a little white horse which looked as if it was pregnant or had swallowed a beach ball. We weren't given much instruction on how to operate these beasts and the Spanish speaking guide wasn't much help either. So after struggling to get my little pony to keep up with the others and stop constantly eating along the way I eventually swapped horses with the guide who gave the little white pony a few slaps with the leather end of the reins to get it to keep up.
My new model was a lot more responsive and instantly reacted to my kissing noises and a slight heel to the gut got him off to a trot on no time. I was beginning to feel confident and could imagine how carefree a cowboy's life must have been riding across the parries, just him and his faithful steed. We were told that the horses get a little skittish when packs of dogs come charging or cars pass by. The first few packs of dogs were ignored by my horse and he didn't seem spooked at all but when the first car came by it was a different story.
The car was taking its time to pass on the cobble stoned road so I tried to navigate my four legged friend to the side of the road where he would be safe. Strangely he had different ideas and didn't take kindly to me pulling the reins in on him, must of still had a little free spirit in him. As the car passed and I pulled the reigns tighter he started bucking and turning in a tight circle and at one stage felt like he was slipping on the cobble stone and about to fall over. I took this as a bad sign and half jumped or was half thrown off the ride. I managed to land on my feet but was did this sideways and lost my footing very quickly. I hit the deck and did a little roll before jumping back up as quickly as I could to show I wasn't hurt.
Besides a few scrapes and scratches nothing much was hurt, mostly my pride and confidence but I didn't let this deter me and hopped right back on the horse determined to show him who was boss. Well not really, I was just hoping he wouldn't throw me off again! The rest of the ride went by without incident except for the galloping bit which had me out of the saddle and almost off the horse but fortunately I managed to slow him down to a walk and kept it that way till we got back home. This little experience has taught me once again that I am not, will not and do not want to be a horse rider, ever. Riding something with a mind of its own is dangerous as well as bloody uncomfortable. Officially my horse riding days are over!
The highlight of our stay was definitely our trip to the volcano. To summit the volcano is a fairly expensive outing and needs to be arranged in advance. It also requires that spend a night at the base camp before strapping on crampons' and other ice gear to hiking to the summit at midnight. Walking starts at midnight to avoid slippery ice and possible avalanches as the sun heats the ice. The alternative is to drive up to 4000m by car and then walk up to the base camp or refuge which sits at about 4800m. This might not sound like much but at this altitude climbing becomes extremely tedious.
As we arrived the weather took a turn for the worse and it started belting down with rain, so as quick as we could we put on all our rain gear, which wasn't very much and started the climb up the steep volcanic slope. The group started at quite a pace but Inge-Marie and I took our time and knowing there was no rush. Initially we were able to only climb about fifty steps before burning legs and lungs forced you to stop and take a rest. The higher we climbed the more often we were resting but fortunately the view was spectacular when the clouds parted looking both up and down.
By the time we reached the half way point the rest of the group were far ahead of us and the rain was soon replaced by ice or sleet. We wished it would have been snow but snow isn't supposed to sting when it hits your face nor get blasted in at a 45 degree angle. Together with the steep soft volcanic sand and the stinging ice rain it made the climbing a little more difficult. We were relieved when the clouds parted and we could see the refuge was only a few more meters to go and arrived shortly after cold and soaked to the bone.
The refuge was exactly that, warm, dry and with some hot chocolate and soup waiting, a perfect welcome. We spent almost an hour warming up and having lunch and had a little flash back to the days in China when a few Ecuadorian girls came up to us and asked us if they could take photos with us. After the rest we headed back out into the ice rain for a short trek to the edge of the volcano's glacier. We were told to keep a lookout for the giant Andean condors and Andean wolves which are often seen.
The walk to the glacier was fairly simple and we kept our skywards to hopefully get a glimpse of one of the giant birds but with all the low hanging clouds that was going to be tough. Half way to the glacier a Andean wolf, which looks more like a fox came trotting right past us, stopping ever so often to have a inquisitive look at us before heading off. I can only but wonder what there animals eat at this altitude but must have spent thousands of year adapting to this environment.
The glacier was spectacular even with the limited visibility we had. We kept at a distance as it wasn't safe to get much closer since there had recently been an avalanche when huge pieces of the glaciers broke. It was a reminder that with the threat of global warming glaciers like this were doomed for extinction if drastic action wasn't taken. The guide showed us where just a few years ago the glacier stretched many more meters beyond where we were standing. Besides doing what we can as individuals to reduce greenhouse gasses and conserve energy, I truly hope the new American president will lead the US to reducing its energy dependency and China follow suite as soon as possible. That might be the only chance of our kids seeing these magnificent glaciers.
Walking down was a breeze compared to the steep climb but proved to be a little more dangerous as slipping on the loose sand was common. Thankfully we all made it safely back to the car in one piece and headed straight for a hot shower the minute we got back. Fortunately our cabins were all equipped with their own fireplaces and I took no time to get a roaring fire going and a bottle of wine open. A great end to a great day.
Next morning we were up early to catch a south bound bus to Banos where we'd spend a night before continuing the journey towards the Peruvian boarder. Thanks to the hostels comfortable homely environment we met some lovely people over the four days and dined on three delicious meals a day, which were of course all included in the price. The food was a real treat and was a real surprise so hats off to Catherine and the rest of the kitchen staff for all the wonderful meals.
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