Saturday, 25 July 2009

A taste of the Andes

(Thursday-Saturday, 23-25 July 2009)

Google map:,-4.064941&sspn=12.739664,28.168945&ie=UTF8&ll=-0.830812,-78.767166&spn=0.33642,0.700378&t=h&z=11

This is known as the Quilotoa loop – a several-days hike through the small rural villages around the volcanic lake of Quilotoa.

I spoke to a fellow traveller who had been in Ecuador before, 10 years ago. Back then, he told me, tourism was a all different story, and the Quilotoa lake, for instance, was pretty much unknown and unexploited. Today the lake has a few souvenir stalls around (not enough to ruin the atmosphere, though), and the hike is recommended by pretty much every travel guidebook.

I was afraid of getting into an overdeveloped route, but the truth is that I haven’t. For instance, I didn’t cross any other tourist in the treks during my 3-day hike, and happen to be all alone in one of the hostels I stayed in. I was able to see stunning scenery, get to know a bit of the life in remote rural villages in Ecuador, and engage with some of the locals, either when they crossed my way and I had to ask indications on the path to follow, or playing volleyball in the main plaza of the village, at the end of day.

It felt to me the right level of tourism development – enough so that you can easily find relatively good trail maps and indications on how to get to the different places; enough so that you have 1 or 2 decent hostel options in each village; but not too much so that the hike looses authenticity.

To be honest, it was a 5 stars experience…
=== Day 1 - Zumbahua, Laguna Quilotoa and Chugchilán ===

The view while departing Zumbahua on a truck - classic Andes landscape, no?

Laguna Quilotoa - why go so far, to Ecuador, to see this? I could go to Açores instead, right? ;-)

Frequent crossings with locals, navigating the trails on their daily lives, from one village to the other, from one field to the other. Despite speaking Quichua (and not much Spanish), they're were instrumental in keeping me on the right track these three days...

=== Day 2 - From Chugchilán to Isinliví ===
The Quilotoa's crater, seen from afar

As I said in a previous post, volleyball courts everywhere...

Alone in the hostel in Isinliví. And I really mean alone: even the lady who takes care of the place went away for the night; all I had for company were these kittens (and their mother)

=== Day 3 - From Isinliví to Sigchos ===

(Half) Way around volcano Cotopaxi

(Sunday-Tuesday, 19-21 July 2009)

Google map:,-78.449936&sspn=0.33642,0.700378&ie=UTF8&ll=-0.791677,-78.409424&spn=0.336424,0.700378&t=h&z=11

At 5897m, Cotopaxi is the second highest volcano (and mountain) in Ecuador. Given its proximity to Quito, and the relatively straightforward – even if very tiring! – climb through ice to the top, it’s also a (very) popular tourist destination.

For a bit more than hundred dollars you can hire, through a tour agency, a guy who tells you the basics of walking on ice and guides you to the top of the mountain – 6 hours up, from midnight to 6am, and then around 3 hours more to get down. You’re transported on a 4WD to a mountain refuge at 4800m, in the north face of the volcano, so that most of your energies are spent climbing the summit, and not getting close to it.

The prospect of having to pay that amount of money and, at least as important I’ve to say, getting boxed in a packaged tour and having to share the experience with up to 12 or 14 other people, made me seek alternative ways of enjoying Cotopaxi. (OK, and to be completely honest, if I have to go on one of those tours, let it be to Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest mountain and the Earth’s closest point to the sun!! :-D)

So, after some investigation, I decided to go for a solo circumvallation of Cotopaxi, starting in its southwest side and going around the crater anticlockwise. I had read of people doing it in around 4 days or so.
I had a few unsuccessful talks with tour operators who, in the prospect of getting no tour fee from me, either declined to rent me any equipment or provided me (ridiculously) erroneous information along the lines of “you can’t set a tent on the easter side of the volcano as the soil is to hard there”. Yeah...
Finally I found a generous soul who, as excited with my enterprise as myself, not only rented me the equipment I needed but also provided me plenty of information. Apparently “hiking around the volcano is not something that is done everyday because of lack of tourist appeal but is very doable, including if you're alone”. Moreover, “you won't get completely lost, as you always know more or less where the volcano is, and in case you loose track of where you are - it happens - you can always go back on your footsteps”. Great: I was convinced and there I went, for a 4-day adventure.

It was a great experience, one that considerably expanded my comfort zone, pushed me from a physical point of view, and provided spectacular views.

OK, I wasn’t successful on my attempt of walking 360º around Cotopaxi – I did more like 180º or something... But I put in practice everything I learnt during my 6-days hike in El Cocuy (Colombia), and learnt something new: the importance of having a reliable map with you. Quite obvious lesson, isn’t it?! And, more importantly, I tried. It may sound ridiculous, or at least hard to understand, but that means a lot me…

By the way, the guy who rented me the equipment was right. Perhaps not about the “you won't get completely lost” part, but on the “in case you loose track of where you are, you can always go back on your footsteps” bit. God bless! :-D

=== Day 1 - from Latacunga (2800m) to Cotopaxi's south face (4000m) ===

Waiting for a bus in Latacunga (the largest city closet to Cotopaxi) that would take me to Mulaló, a small village closer to the edge of the volcano (check the Google map). Bolívar shows the way to Cotopaxi? No, actually the volcano is in the opposite direction...

Weather, and thus visibility, sucked in the first day!

View from Cotopaxi's south face, at 4000m. You're supposed to see Ecuador's "avenue of volcanoes" from here, but only clouds that day...
=== Day 2 - from Cotopaxi's south face to somewhere in the northeast face! ===

View of Cotopaxi from the south face. The day started with mixed weather prospects - relatively clear at the top, but quite cloudy at lower altitude, meaning those clouds would sooner or later move up... I decided to continue with the hike, nonetheless
It's quite easy to keep sense of direction while climbing a volcano - after all, there is one obvious reference, right? The tricky thing is that the mountain is rich in deep canyons like this one, where lava used to flow when the volcano was still active. Unless you cross them close to the crater, where they start and thus are much less deep, these canyons are often just... impassable!

Still in the south face, facing... one of those canyons!

The deep canyon of a few pictures above becomes surmountable closer to the snow-capped peak. This is where you can cross it from left to right, climb further up and finally negotiate the high-mountain passage just by the glacier, to move on from the south to the east face of Cotopaxi (the high-mountain passage is further up, to the right, behind the black rocks - not visible in the photo)
Already in the east face of the vulcano, but with lousy weather that didn't allow me to see much beyond lunar-like landscape. The terrain close to the snow-capped peak (at around 5,000m) is relatively flat, making it more or less easy to navigate. The problem is when you try to go a little bit further up or down...

Yep, as expected from the morning outlook, the weather got completely closed and rain came in

Very optimistic after coming downhill in the east face of the volcano. The weather was a bit better, and, from the map, it was supposed to be just a few hours walk until I could find a decent trek again

Damn canyon! You cannot see it here all the way to its bottom, but it was a few hundred meters deep. I could not find a way of crossing it, or understand exactly where in the map (or sort of map I had - see below) I was. The alternative was to climb up the mountain again (around 2h, for sure!) and try to cross the canyon further up. That sounded a bit risky, as in addition to not knowing exactly where I was, from the look of the 2 other canyons ahead the same could happen again (i.e., having to move up and down in search for a crossing), what would mean up to half-day of precious hiking time...

You cannot find a proper, detailed and navigation-oriented map of Cotopaxi anywhere near Cotopaxi, only in Quito - this was the best I could get. I thought having the volcano's crater as a reference would be enough to compensate for the shortcomings of this map, but ended up getting stuck somewhere between "Cerro Chiguilasin Chico" and the deer antlers sign in the map. From there, it was completely impossible to anticipate steep cliffs through level-curves, or even identify exactly in the map where I was due to the lack of detail. Very helpful indeed...
After 3 hours going up and down the cliff, trying (and not being able) to find a way to cross the canyon, it started raining again. I had been walking for 7 hours non-stop, was bloody exhausted, and decided to call it for the day. Setting up the tent and trying to have some rest at... 3.30 pm!

The weather cleared up a bit at the end of the day (and the night was spotless, with a clear sky full of stars, without any artificial light around to ruin the view). After considering my options, and being already half-way through the planned time for the hike (and the food I had with me), I decided to go back on the following day
=== Day 3 - from somewhere in the northeast face back to Latacunga ===

Back to higher up in the mountain, reversing my steps of the previous two days. This time, with much better weather... and views!

Back in the south face of the volcano. After talking, on my return to Latacunga, with the mountain guide who had rented me the camping equipment, I understood where my mistake was: after crossing the high-mountain passage that allows you to move from the south to the east face of the volcano (behind the rocky peak, to the right of the photo), I had two small trails to choose from, one further up and another further down; I took the wrong one... in the morning of day 2! It would have been useful to know that back then, right?

The weather got worse again, later in the day. View of Cotopaxi from much further down - at around 3,000m - when I was already far on my way back to Latacunga

End of the walk. Wasn't too bad to catch a ride to run the last couple of km to Mulaló - I had been walking non-stop for 7 hours. For the second consecutive day...

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Political marketers: one idea

(Friday, 17 July 2009)

Forget political flyers handed in to distracted citizens in a hurry. Stop throwing money away in electoral posters or billboards. Disregard even the most dramatic campaign efforts of offering a refrigerator for every vote. Do like in Ecuador: paint every single house in every insignificant and little town to advertise the newest candidate to the local elections.

First I thought that the selected houses were either property of the candidate, his/her family, or a hand full of very enthusiastic supporters or volunteers. But then there were just too many houses painted like this, so it couldn’t be the case. You must be paid to get your house screwed up like this, or something!

Humm… do I get paid too if I get it tattooed in my ass?!

P.S.: in addition to the candidate’s name and colours, the number of his/her list is also advertised; I’ve seen numbers as high as thirty-something – how many candidates do they have around here?

Ecuador vs. Colombia

(Friday, 17 July 2009)

I haven’t been for too long in Ecuador yet, but there are things that strike me as in deep contrast with Colombia. Here are a few…

Ethnicity. While walking on the streets or riding in the buses you quickly realise you’re in a country where indigenous people if still a minority aren’t exactly a rarity. You can see from the way people look and dress that the mix of bloods skewed less towards the European side here than in Colombia. It reminds me of Guatemala, on that aspect.

Telephony. In Colombia you’d see people everywhere (and I really mean everywhere) advertising minutes of air time – that meant you could use their mobile phone(s) to make calls to any network for a fee. Here, in Ecuador, that role is taken by bricks & mortar stores, where you can make your calls in old-fashioned booths. Lower contribution to the employment rate, but better for the real estate business, I guess.

Dirt. With the honourable exception of some areas of Quito, there is a lot of garbage wondering around. Streets are often dirty and smelly. The sides of the roads are coloured here and there (actually with more frequency than what this expression conveys!) by plastic bags and bottles. No wonder - here goes an example... On my 12 hour long (!) bus ride from Puerto Lopez to Quito I saw with contentment the auxiliary taking the time to collect litter from the bus floor (good call – it was needing it!). My surprise when the man, with his hands full of garbage, struggles to open a window, with some effort and skill finally manages to do it, and there he goes – throws everything overboard, with the bus still in movement. Shocked faces aboard? Only mine…

Sports. If football is #1 in both countries in terms of media attention, people’s time is more often spent playing something else. In Colombia, it’s billiard. Even in the most remote village, in the least accessible Andean valley, you can be sure to find 2 or 3 large billiard & pool places, with a few tables each, likely with electrically heated cloths. In Ecuador, it’s volleyball. For every football pitch, there are 3 or 4 volleyball courts. Everyone plays, men and women, the young and the elder. But while in Colombia billiard & pool playing skills reach very impressive levels, the same cannot be said about how Ecuadorians play volleyball… Have you ever heard of the catching & throwing fault, people? And, by the way, what about trying to spike for a change?

Volleyball action in a market. Now judge the skill level for yourself, namely regarding the catching & throwing fault and the need for a spike here and there! (photos & video taken on 22 July, in Latacunga, Ecuador's central highlands)

What if Che Guevara was a monkey?

(Wednesday-Friday, 15-17 July 2009)

Well, he would have a proper picture, or portrait, already!

Che’s immortal profile (or something vaguely resembling it) on a mototaxi, in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador

Google map:,-4.064941&sspn=12.739664,28.168945&ie=UTF8&ll=-1.323735,-79.068604&spn=2.690685,5.603027&z=8

I hadn’t heard great things of Ecuador’s coast – it’s often described as shabby, a bit dodgy even perhaps, and not that pretty. It’s the people that makes it worthwhile visiting, they say.

Well, perhaps. But after visiting Puerto Lopez, I don’t feel like investigating much more of it. That region, the “ruta del sol”, is described as one of the prettiest – or less ugly… - of the all coast, a place not yet destroyed by beach resorts for the Ecuadorian middle class, and with enough natural interesting sights to justify a visit.

I found a very (very, very) dirty town, with nothing to write home about, but with a mysteriously overdeveloped tourist industry for foreigners. I guess the possibility of whale-watching just a few miles from the shore explains that…

I said no to all that, spend a day walking in the natural park by the coast – not that impressive, I’ve to admit! – and decided to move on, further inland.

I know I might be loosing the opportunity to meet great people and get to know the local culture of the coast, but mixing the worst of two worlds – dirty uninteresting towns, and overdeveloped tourist industry crowded with tour operators (oh! how I love them!) – is just too much.

I’ll take my chances on missing this one.

Views of the Parque Nacional Machalilla. Nice, but not too much to write home about, especially if bearing in mind the "beauty" of Puerto Lopez... By the way, my mobile phone "died" right here, when it fell from the cliff - I'm only reachable by email now! Next time I'll remember not to keep it right next to the bottle of water on my backpack...