Highlands heaven

Peering over the edge of Laguna Quilotoa

Long story short: Chris was bit by a dog, so our travels this month in Ecuador have been structured around being in a large city every given couple of days so Chris can get a rabies shot. From Baños we jogged back north for two nights in Quito so Chris could get his third shot, then we were off again to explore the amazing Ecuadorian highlands. 800 years ago, one of Ecuador’s many volcanoes blew its top in a devastating explosion that spewed lava all the way to the Pacific ocean over 100 miles away. It left behind a spectacular crater lake that is now surrounded by small indigenous villages, some very high altitude farms, and possibly the prettiest countryside we have seen on our trip. From Quito we first headed to the tiny town of Chugchilan, less than 30 miles off the broad Pan-American highway but a slow three hour drive on rutted dirt and gravel roads. On this trip we have relied on a combination of sparse road signs, asking people for directions, and using our compass (no kidding) as our primary navigation tools. Given the absence of any road signs once we left the Pan-American, the sparse population, and the fact that the road continually split into two equally desolate looking dirt roads, we were amazed that we actually got to Chugchilan without having to backtrack. High rolling hills covered with patchwork yellow and green crops gave way to vertical cliffs, craggy peaks, and impossibly steep farm plots. Llamas, alpacas, and pigs grazed by the roadside and we admired the indigenous people’s brilliantly colored cloaks accenting the hills as they tended their farms. After being treated to some very cute children dancing at our hostel before dinner, we bundled up for the below-freezing night and huddled to sleep in our un-heated hostel.

Llamas around the Quilotoa Loop

The next morning we drove another hour to reach Laguna Quilotoa, the emerald jewel of these highlands. We had hoped to hike around the lake, but we found (unsurprisingly) that there weren’t any signs marking the trail so we ended up just hiking down to the laguna’s beach. While the rim of the crater was a wind-whipped foggy moonscape when we started the hike, it was calm and sunny by the time we reached the lake at the bottom of the crater. Enjoying the warmth, we sat on the beach and watched two boys herd their sheep around the laguna. Once the sheep had surrounded us, the brothers tentatively started a conversation after asking about our camera (Chris’s telephoto lens tends to attract some attention). Reuben and Efrem warmed up as we fumbled with our simple Spanish, and they told us about their farm, their faithful dog Rocky, and their family. We ended up walking back to the top of the crater rim with them, gaining some valuable sheep-herding experience along the way. After parting at the crater rim, we spent a warm afternoon at our hostel, reading and listening to our hosts speak Quechua. It has an unusual shushing sing-song quality that is unlike anything I have ever heard. After another freezing night huddled beneath a mountain of rough wool blankets, we were treated to a crystalline day for our drive from the highlands to the coast. We could see several snow capped volcanoes in the distance as we wound our way down through rolling farms, packed village markets, and roadside llamas. We head next for the biggest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil, to visit friends of the family and get rabies shot number number four.

Bathing, biking, and hiking in Baños, Ecuador

Volcan Tungurahua towers over Baños

Driving the aptly named Route of the Volcanoes between Quito and the small town of Baños, we passed 5 immense volcanoes, each taller than 15,500 feet. Despite the fact that many were obscured by clouds or fog, it was still a pretty drive that slowly descended into the valley that shelters Baños. Looming over the town is the threatening and active Volcan Tungurahua, which means ‘little hell’ in the local indigenous language. This volcano fuels the natural hot springs around town as well as a healthy industry of massages, steam baths, and mud facials. The town was hopping on Saturday night, the streets thronged with tourists both foreign and Ecuadorian, all watched by the eerily lit cathedral that adorns the main town square. To keep warm during the cool nights we visited the La Piscina de La Virgen, and alternated between the scorching hot pool filled with sweating adults and the warm pool filled with splashing children.

Taking a recommendation from a friend of a friend who lives in Quito, we biked the Route of the Waterfalls. After checking our bikes’ gears and brakes by riding around the block in downtown Baños, we took off for the mostly downhill ride to Rio Verde. This route winds next to the deep gorge cut by the gushing Rio Pastaza, and took us through a pitch black tunnel, along beautiful roads clinging to the side of sheer cliffs, and across several bridges. Along the way we opted not to ‘bridge swing,’ a different take on bungee jumping and something we’d feel nervous about trying even in the US. We did take a hair-raising teleferico (gondola) ride across the river to see one of the many waterfalls up close. Powered only by a turbo Porsche engine, we were glad that we had the gondola to ourselves, as we weren’t sure what the maximum weight load for the cable could be. Our bike trip ended in the tiny town of Rio Verde, home of the Pailón del Diablo. This roaring waterfall careens over a sharp cliff and crashes onto huge boulders into the boiling waters below. Crawling through a series of caves and narrow passageways, we ended underneath the top of the waterfall. Roaring so loudly we could barely hear ourselves speak, the gushing water was lit a spooky green. Soaked to the bone from this experience we trudged back up to Rio Verde where we tried to dry off while waiting for a pickup truck to give us a lift back up to Baños.

Enjoying the view from Olga’s house along the Sendero Bellavista

Our last full day in Baños we hiked a loop trail in the surrounding mountains. Heading up to the first lookout, we met Olga who lived along the trail. She invited us into her home for some cold soda and we chatted for a while, happy that our Spanish is now sufficient that we can really talk to people. Raising 7 children as well as tending her farm perched on the hill keeps Olga quite busy, but we hope she can take some time to enjoy the great view she has of the valley below. Continuing up the mountain, after a couple of wrong turns along the unmarked trail that forked 3 times, we found the trail that led to the tiny town of Runtun. While we never actually found the town center (we’re not sure there actually is one) we met three young sisters walking home from school. After saying ‘hola‘ and realizing we were walking the same direction as them, they grabbed our hands and tried to lead us to their house. We walked with them for about 10 minutes before heading back on our trail. They claimed they were leading us to the town of Runtun, but we think they really just wanted to take us home with them like a couple of friendly stray dogs. We then meandered back down the mountain, stopping for lunch at the spectacular resort of Luna Runtun. We’re definitely adding this place to our list of hotels to visit when we have more money at some undetermined point in the future. We were back in Baños in the late afternoon, as the sun broke through the clouds and lit the valley with a golden glow.

Catching our breath in Quito

At 13,500 feet, looking down on Quito

Flying in to Quito, Ecuador from Boston left us breathless, literally. Going from Boston (sea level) to Quito (10,000 feet) had us wheezing as we lugged our backpacks up one measly flight of stairs so we could collapse into our beds at our hostel. Deciding that we hadn’t challenged our lungs quite enough, the very next day we took the TeleferiQo (gondola lift) up another 4000 feet into the mountains surrounding Quito to enjoy spectacular views of the city. After only an hour at that elevation headaches and a chilly breeze chased us back down into what felt like deliciously rich oxygen in Quito.

Supposedly on either sides of the equator
Quito’s blustery foggy nights and ring of towering mountains almost made us forget that we’re only 25 miles from the equator. Luckily, it’s a quick 30 minute drive out of the city to celebrate and learn plenty of fun facts and fiction about the equator. There are two rival tourist traps to visit here, each entertaining for wildly different reasons. 30 years ago La Mitad del Mundo (the Middle of the World) park was built on the site where the equator was thought to be. This park commemorates 0,0,0 latitude with a giant obelisk, trinket shops, restaurants, a miniature recreation of Quito, and a surprisingly informative ethnographic museum detailing the many indigenous Ecuadorian peoples. Once GPS technology could exactly identify the location of the equator (about 200 m away from La Mitad del Mundo park), Museo Solar Inti Ñan, a smaller quirky park, sprung up to compete. According to Google Earth however, Inti Ñan is not on the actual equator either, but who knows. This cactusy park offers a bizarre smorgasbord of information on native peoples, a real shrunken head, giant pythons preserved in glass barrels, and plenty of cleverly faked demonstrations. We really don’t know how they did this, but they ‘demonstrated’ how the Coriolis effect causes water to drain in different directions on either side of the equator, balanced an egg on its end (supposedly only possible directly on the equator), and showed how our muscles were weaker on the equator than off the equator. Impressive, but we’re pretty sure the demonstrations were all fake.
Acrophobia inducing view from one of the Basilica’s towers

We also spent an afternoon exploring Quito’s beautiful Old Town. It is packed with several churches per block, indigenous folks selling Chiclets and handicrafts, and a couple of lawsuit-worthy opportunities if this were the US. The gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional towers high above Old Town, complete with grimacing gargoyls, giant stained glass windows, and delicate towers. For just $3/person, you can climb up to the highest points of two of the Basilica’s towers. After crossing rickety wooden plank platforms, climbing rusty rebar ladders, and scaling almost vertical stairways, we were rewarded with great views across Quito, unimpeeded by pesky safety barriers or railings. Once we were safely back on firm ground, we wandered through several other old churches, admiring the gold filigree and bloody crucifixes. After the sun set, Old Town was beautifully lit by streetlights. By chance we stumbled across a dance and music performance of traditional Ecuadorian arts. Sponsored by the Foundation of Art and Culture, the performance ranged from ancient fertility dances to more recent Spanish influenced waltzes. The dances were all accompanied by the bright live music of guitars and flutes and complimented by gorgeous costumes. We next head to the chill mountain town of Baños to soak in the hot springs and enjoy the views of volcanoes and waterfalls.

On vacation from our vacation

Game 7: Celtics lose to the Orlando Magic

We have been out of the US for 8 months now, and think it will take about 8 more months to complete our trip. Using frequent flier miles kindly donated to our cause from my father, we flew back to Boston for 3 weeks to visit friends and family, see some Boston sports, and do some errands that have been nagging us for the last couple of months. We also took advantage of the excellent internet connetions available in the US to work on several websites that needed our attention. It’s amazing how busy you can get when you’re unemployed and on vacation! We return to Ecuador on June 2, and will continue our adventure from there. In the meantime, we’re filling up on sushi, cereal, pizza, and all sorts of foods that just aren’t the same in Latin America. Hopefully we won’t forget too much of our hard-won Spanish skills, but it seems to slip away so easily if you don’t practice.

Boston sweeps Toronto at Fenway Park