Now that we are travelling in South America, and thus are no longer tough PCT hikers, we have decided to use our real (or birth) names both for the blog and in real life. The latter should at least give Jacob some reprieve from the awkward introductions he experienced on the PCT, where Americans thought his trail name was ‘Visio’ or ‘Physier’, whatever that is.
We arrived in Quito sleep-deprived following a couple of red-eye flights. The trip from the airport to Quito impressed us both in terms of scenery and in terms of the road we travelled on. There were big gorges with colourful houses perched on cliffs and the road appeared to be very new and high quality, engineered creatively to deal with the dramatic topography. The other thing that went through our heads was, “this country doesn’t look that poor,” or as poor as we’d expected. In particular, we noted that most of the cars on the road were newer than the general fleet in New Zealand. But that probably also reflects the down-to-earth nature of kiwis who love fixing up old Japanese clunkers and generally make no effort to ‘show-off’ their wealth.
After around 40 minutes we made it to the city. We’d read many warnings about safety issues in Quito. We had heard first hand tales from friend’s on the PCT who had either been robbed or knew someone who had. Robberies ranged from someone messing with your bag on the bus to yellow taxis picking up tourists and administering an ‘express robbery’ whereby the trusting tourist is taken to an ATM at knife point and made to withdraw large sums of money. We desired neither of these ‘cultural experiences’.
Being used to the relative safety, solitude, and peacefulness of the PCT, where our biggest threat of robbery tends to be a hungry mouse, we remained on edge for a few days. Also we decided to maintain some of our hiker trash grungy style (e.g. Physio’s magical neck hair, Cashmere’s armpit hair etc) to appear homeless, and thus, poor prospects for getting rich via robbery.
Luckily we were not robbed by the registered taxi from the airport. In fact the Ecuadorian driver was very friendly, coping extraordinarily well with Lorelei’s terrible Spanish. He successfully dropped us by our hostel despite our communication problems.
After a shower and a little lie down we went out to chase down a lesser known guide (with basically no information online) to see about climbing the huge volcano of Cotopaxi on a less popular side. We somehow ended up talking to his brother who spoke no English whatsoever, which didn’t combine well with Lorelei’s tired brain and poor, little-practised Spanish. We never did understand much of what he said but he did give us some phone numbers, one of which was for the guide’s wife who spoke a little English. She didn’t answer nor return our call, probably because Cotopaxi was actually closed due to being on the verge of erupting. Perhaps that is what the brother was telling us. Oops. Our new life of poor comprehension and thinly informed travelling was well underway.
That night Jacob fell asleep around 7:30pm. Lorelei was not so lucky, probably partly because she is better at sleeping on planes and was thus less exhausted, and partly because of the high altitude which she tends to feel. Not yet fully recovered from hiker hunger, by 9pm she was ravenous, but scared to walk across the street for food by herself. Eventually she went anyway and was almost immediately warned by a random concerned citizen that she shouldn’t be out there. He described various ways she might be taken advantage of and robbed. Freaked out she followed said person and got some super weird meaty wrap things. She still doesn’t really know what they were. Then she hustled back to the safety of the room where she ate one of the weird greasy meat things next to a peacefully sleeping Jacob. Welcome to Quito, Hiker Trash!
Off for more hiking – we just can’t get enough
The next day, better rested and ready for adventure, we made our way south of Quito to a town called Machachi and then on to Aloasi from where we would climb a peak, El Corazon (15,715 feet/4,790 m). We had originally hoped to climb this peak as altitude preparation to take on Cotopaxi.
Getting to Aloasi involved various awkward non-comprehension issues at the bus terminal. After wondering around aimlessly for some time we finally found someone who spoke English and he helped us go to the right bus bay. It was certainly an experience noteworthy of ‘unfamiliar public transport travel’ (Lorelei’s PhD topic). We are trying to be concise here so I will spare you the details.
I will tell you though that the bus operations were interesting. First of all, it is so cheap, like US$0.25. They decorate the buses pretty snazzy and opportunists board the buses all the time to try and sell snacks and such. You don’t pay as you board, but rather there is a driver and a ticket salesman. The latter is pretty casual and just seems to approach you for funds when he feels ready. The two have a funny little relationship: they seem to really try to keep the buses moving fast (an aspect that the Bostonian in Lorelei really appreciates) so the driver only stops very briefly to pick up more passengers and then departs before the ticketman re-boards. The latter has to run after the bus and jump on while it is moving. Somehow this all works absolutely brilliantly.
The one accommodation place listed in our guide for Aloasi ended up being full once we walked to it and asked. As we walked back down the hill, away from El Corazon to investigate a place the innkeepers had mentioned, we saw the bus full of gringos driving up to the inn to occupy all their beds. They looked like richer, older Americans and we knew maybe we didn’t belong there anyway.
Now in a rural area, unspaded dogs, some with a great deal of mange, barked at us from everywhere as we walked down the cobblestone road (not comfortable to walk on, by the way). We even saw one dead dog lying in a ditch on the side of the road (he smelled increasingly worse over the next few days). We seemed to walk away from the poorer more pastoral homes and were soon next to a few bigger, fancier looking homes, one with dogs barking incessantly from the roof. We looked up to give the dogs a “seriously? shut the f@#k up” look and saw a sign that said ‘Hostal Aloasi’. Hmm… We knew nothing about it but decided to give the doorbell a ring to see what happened.
Next thing you know we have somehow arranged to stay in a decent enough room with a private bathroom, bed and TV for $15. We achieved this even though we really didn’t understand much of anything the woman was saying. There was something about the shower, maybe she was like, “please get in it, you look homeless”. The hostel was empty but the price was right and it looked fine. We asked about the restaurant mentioned on the sign but there wasn’t one. “Guess we will walk to town, anyway we need to pick up some groceries for the hike tomorrow” we thought and set about showering and getting moving.
Next thing ya know there was a knock at the door. It was a different lady from the hostel looking very smart. At first, Lorelei, who has a guilt complex, immediately assumed we were in trouble. Our poor understanding of Spanish didn’t help. Eventually we realised she wanted to feed us soup and would bring us to town to get groceries. Crazy.
Eventually we learned she was the daughter of the woman who checked us in and she worked in Quito. After getting some groceries we had dinner up in the family’s apartment which was great and they refused to take any money. They invited us for coffee in the morning despite our planned early wake up. Somehow that turned into us being fed some extra breakfast. Man that $15 room was really becoming a serious bargain. It seemed we had now been adopted by this family who kept feeding us and taking care of us.
Based on our written guide’s estimated hours required to ascend and descend the mountain, we told our new Ecuadorian mother we would be back around midday and probably check out then.
It would seem the guidebook’s time estimates were based on being dropped part way up the mountain, rather than starting several miles further down the hill in town. Needless to say the climb took far longer than our guidebook suggested. The combination of altitude and a relentlessly steep gradient left us panting (we were clearly not on the PCT anymore). We didn’t return until almost 6pm, by which time our new Ecuadorian mother was panicking and considering ringing the police. Whoops. She let us rent the room another night anyway.
The hike itself was totally different to the PCT in terms of more than just gradient. We walked through farms with potato fields, and as we got higher we checked out some super weird alpine plants.
Our views did give us occasional glimpses of surrounding volcanos including a steaming Cotopaxi in the morning and Mt Antisana in the afternoon, but there were also long stretch of farm views, Quito, and other human developments.
To reach the summit of the now extinct El Corazon involved a great deal of rock scrambling which wasn’t easy nor for the faint-hearted.
On the top we met some Swiss hikers who’d come up the other side. Meanwhile on the side we had climbed we had only seen Ecuadorians, most of whom seemed to be travelling with a guide. Our written guide had said the hike was fairly straightforward. The route also seemed to be mapped on a great offline map app, Maps.me, so we didn’t think we needed a guide. There were many parts of trail where the route seemed informal (pick-a-path) but we were fine overall. We probably did seem a little weird to the locals on the mountain.
It was a big long day and we were pleasantly exhausted afterward. We went to a little family-run street food spot and had some food.
That evening we met the niece of our new Ecuadorian mother and she spoke a little English. We told her we planned to go to a little touristy, outdoorsy town called Banos the next day. She told us it was school holidays so we shouldn’t go there as it would be very busy and expensive. So we decided we would go to the Quiltoa Loop which was supposed to have a crater lake and awesome views.
The next morning brought a knock on our door. We were to come upstairs for breakfast and ‘don’t bother bringing your granola this time’. Okay. We were once again waited on and spoiled silly, though our Ecuadorian Grandma did tell us we needed to have babies. Our new mom reinforced this and said we couldn’t return until we had at least two. The family said we should avoid Quiltoa too as it was expensive also. “Any other ideas?” we asked. We had a day or two to kill before we needed to head back to Quito to meet Barb (Lorelei’s stepmom) and her friend Elizabeth.
Our Ecuadorian mom’s son, who had now appeared, (so I guess he was our brother) suggested a place called Pasochoa. Online it looked good and like there would be good hiking, camping and a place we could cook dinner. Our ‘brother’ offered to drive us there for $20 too. Sweet. After some time, including photos with our new family with their hostel sign (Lorelei was determined to get the hostel into guides to get more business), we set off.
The ride was fun and our translating sister/cousin came with her son to help (Lorelei’s Spanish still wasn’t rocking, nevermind Jake). However, when we arrived at Pasochoa the reserve warden said we couldn’t do a hike more than an hour without a guide, who we would have to hire in Quito. That wasn’t going to happen. We were allowed to camp but there was nowhere to cook and we still didn’t have stove fuel. Hmmm. We asked if he could suggest somewhere else for us to go and he suggested a place called Molinuco. We were told Molinuco has camping, waterfalls, and hiking. We paid our driver/brother another $20 and after some difficulty finding the place and driving by passing numerous places where we observed “cuy”, guinea pig roasting on the streetside, we were taken to where no Gringo seems to have ever gone before, an Ecuadorian adventure park. We were also the only people camping there.
It was super random but we loved it. We paid $5 each to zipline. We tried to see waterfalls without knowing the length of the associated hike and thus ended up walking in the dark, unable to see the waterfalls. We got to sleep in our tent again. It was gringo basura bliss.
We got back from our waterfall escapade so late (7pm) that the karoake restaurant was closed. We would have to cook dinner on the campfire – too bad it was pasta and we didn’t have a lighter to start the fire. Luckily we were able to borrow a few matches though and the eucalyptus trees that have been introduced to Ecuador from Australia burned as well as it does in its native home. We managed to boil water on the campfire grill. The tomato paste from the shop was awful, tasting metallic and way too salty but hey it was food and we managed to boil pasta on a campfire!
After dinner we went and tried out the two “flying foxes” on the property now that the park was dark and completely free of children and potentially judgemental parents. The flying foxes were terrifying and clearly not designed for full grown gringos. They were comprised of a swing attached on rollers to a thick wire running down hill. They were designed to be sat on (presumably by children). With an adult on it, the first flying fox ran so fast and so close to the ground we were never sure if we would lose all of the skin on our butts. After flying precariously close to the ground at high speed the ride came to a bone jarring halt when the flying fox hit a tyre and nearly flipped us upside down. The second one didn’t bring is quite so close to butt scraping but also had a pretty crazy tire jolt at the end which was followed by some big bounces after. We weren’t quite sure if we would cause ourselves spinal damage or not. It was a magnificent end to a frustrating day.
The next morning we made a new doggy friend who accompanied us on a good bit of our hike. We loved him – until he rolled in poop.
First we walked to a viewpoint of the surrounding volcanoes but it was too cloudy to see much. Fortunately the viewpoint offered a jungle gym that challenged us tremendously and had safety credentials that never would have been permitted in western countries. Jacob repeatedly abandoned his, “I will never go up that” sentiments as Lorelei took on the challenges. They tended to involve climbing vertical walls that were falling apart and severe wind.
After we’d mucked around there long enough we walked and actually saw the waterfalls we had sort of seen the previous evening. Jake even jumped off one but hit his feet on the river bottom below. The water was also freezing, being glacial melt from Cotopaxi.
Then we headed back to our campsite, packed up, got a ride to where we could get a bus to Quito. We were now on our way to meet Barb and Elizabeth in the afternoon.
After heading back to our first hostal to get Jake’s surfboard, we caught a taxi to the hotel Barb had booked, which was actually a fancy mansion. It was so awesome to see Barb and Elizabeth but we were a little distracted by how out of place we felt. We walked in carrying lots of outdoor gear and wearing some of our trashiest clothes.
To make us feel even more out if place the mansion had upgraded our room to a ‘deluxe suite’. The bathroom had rose pedals everywhere (including in the toilet bowl) and there were several long stemmed roses plus a private garden behind the room. The room itself was bigger than our whole apartment in Melbourne had been. We felt like we were in the White House Presidential suite but we definitely didn’t belong there.
We were now beginning our next phase of travel with Barb and Elizabeth, characterised by better organisation, fancy accommodation and much less language miscommunication as we could speak English the whole time. We’ll tell you all about it in the next post.
Muchas gracias para leer (thanks for reading!)