Handmade rope at the Saquisili market
Two hours south of Quito by bus is Latacunga. Not a very charming town in any regard but a convenient one for visiting nearby Cotopaxi Volcano, the highest active volcano in the world. On a clear day the volcano towers over the city to its south. But the clear days are not so common. So with some reluctance I walked to the tour place in the rain and signed up for a tour to go see the volcano the next day. When I asked the guy at the tour place if it was going to be clear tomorrow he replied by saying that there is an expression in spanish which translates literaly to, "the weather is like a woman.
On the morning of the tour the weather looked decent, it wasn´t raining and it seemed to be starting to clear up. Our first stop was at a weekly market in a nearby town, which had the usual collection of animals, foods, and junk. After that we proceeded to the national park via a somewhat rough dirt road. It was still impossible to see the volcano as it was totally shrouded in clouds. As we rounded the volcano and approached it from the north side, the clouds began to clear and we finally got a view of the peak and the rest of the mountain. It was really a nice view as the volcano has a near perfect conical shape with an interesting snow line. After taking some photos we drove up to the parking area which is at 4500 meters and then hiked up to the refuge at 4800 meters.
Cotopaxi from the parking area at 4500 meters
It was quite steep and pretty tiring because of the altitude. We passed many people carrying their climbing gear up to the refuge. It is pretty popular to climb to the top but you need to use crampons and ice axe and other gear to make the ascent. I decided against climbing to the top because they didn´t have boots in my size, only up to size 12, and I would have had to leave at 1am with 50 other people in a single file line for the 5-6 hour climb up with a chance of it being totally shrouded in clouds. I thought it would be better to just hike up to the refuge. Even though it was up at over 15,000 feet, when the sun was out and the wind wasn´t blowing, you could have laid out like you were at the beach in southern California. But when the clouds blocked the sun and wind picked up it was probably only a few degrees above freezing with the wind chill.
A wolf resting near the snow line with the parking area and valley below
Up around the snow line there were three wolves scavenging for food. They weren´t bothered by the Ecuadorean military taking photos with their camera phones only 10 feet away. Before we started to descend the clouds started to come back in and soon the peak was covered in clouds, talking to some other people who had gone a few days before we were actually quite fortunate to have seen anything.
To the west of Latacunga is the town of Zumbahua, famous for, what else, its market; and the nearby town of Quilotoa perched on the rim of a spectacular crater lake. I took the bus to Quilotoa and the scenery was great once the bus left Latacunga and got out into the countryside. There were llamas grazing on the slopes of mountains with cell phone towers on top and I saw a bridge made from a single tree trunk with hand ropes next to the well paved road.
Quilotoa crater from the rim
After two hours of winding through these mountain roads and dropping off indigenous people in the middle of nowhere so they could get to their farming plots the bus reached Zumbahua. The town had about 8 streets and I was very glad that I had decided to go straight to Quilotoa rather than spend the night in Zumbahua; I have no idea what I would have done the rest of the day. It was only 12km more to Quilotoa, and it was pretty much straight up. When the bus arrived at the town, being the lone tourist on the bus I had to pay for the $1 tourist ticket to enter the town. The town consisted of about 4 hotels, all including breakfast and dinner because there were no restaurants in town save for two houses advertising that they served lunch. There was a basketball court for some reason, and a few houses scattered here and there and that was about it.
The lake in the crater and a horse grazing
I walked around the rim of the crater for a little ways and then hiked down to the lake, which was down over a thousand feet on a really steep path. After some time on the bottom I made the climb back up which was much more tiring than the climb down. As the sun started to set it began to get pretty cold as the wind picked up as well. Most of the people that lived up there wrapped scarves over their faces when they walked around outside to keep the dust and wind off their faces. Dinner consisted of a piece of chicken and rice, they were nice enough to cut up the chicken so that I got the piece of the spine right behind the neck so that there was exactly one piece of edible meat on it. Because they didn´t have any kindling left for the wood stove in my room and the bigger damp wood wouldn´t light I had to sleep under the thick blankets to ward off the 40 degree night-time temperatures.
The Saturday market at Zimbahua
In the morning they drove four of us back to Zimbahua in the back of a pickup truck that had wooden benches installed. On a bus leaving the market I had the privilege of seeing what must have been at least a 200 pound pig on the roof of a bus struggling to stay upright as its hooves skidded on the metal roof while the bus navigated the windy mountain road. How said pig made its way to the roof of the bus I am not sure. On the bus that I took from Zimbahua back to Latacunga I saw them haul a lamb up to the roof by its leg and then down again later along the route. I guess the livestock are not permitted to ride inside the buses in Ecuador, lucky for me and the other passengers.