On Wednesday the 17th I took the 8 hour ride north from Cuenca to Latacunga, back along the "Avenue of the Volcanoes". I had fleeting thoughts of getting off along the way for some off the beaten path adventures, but decided against them. This route was the first major bus ride I took of my trip going from Quito to Cuenca, though that time it was mostly at night so I didn't get to enjoy the views. This time it was almost all during daylight, adn the views were spectacular all along the way. About half-way through as the bus passes the town of Riobamba the Chimborazo volcano comes into view, which at 6,310m is Ecuador's tallest volcano. I also used this long ride to weigh some more options on my trip, and to finish Angels & Demons, which I liked a lot more than DaVinci Code. By the time I got to Latacunga I had a better idea of what I wanted to do, but still no definite plans for my time after Latacunga.
That night I checked in to a small dingy hotel/hostel, and went out for some food at a pizza place that was recommended in my guide book on the corner of the town's main square. I walked around this small central area a bit, but went back to the hostel for bed fairly early, because I had a long day planned for tomorrow.
One of the main factors pushing me to get into Latacunga at this time was so I could visit the large local market at Saquisili on Thursday morning. But I made a separate entry with photos about my experience there, so you can read all about it in the next entry.
I got back from Saquisili before noon, with most of the day left since I had headed out so early. So first I decided to get some business done, and began investigating tours of Cotopaxi. By this point I had decided I wanted try climbing the volcano Cotopaxi, which at 5,897m is Ecuador's second highest volcano, and is the world's talles active volcano. I figured I climbed the active volcano in Chile, I should be able to do this one too. So I went to the different tour agencies in the area and got all the info necessary from them. More on that later.
Then the rest of the day was fun exploration, and a really good example of what solo travelling with less reliance on a guidebook could be like. During my relections on my trip that I had been doing so often recently, one of the things I kept going back to is that really I had done a great job of planning my agenda. It may seem like there was a lot of spontaneous decisions, but even these often came from a guidebook and still were planned in advance. This is the way I travel, and I enjoyed it all obviously, but I still wondered what the trip would be like if I really just travelled with the wind and relied on locals and other travellers only for advice. I don't think I could ever do that, but there are plenty of examples of people who do this successfully, and usually come out with much crazier and interesting stories than the ones I have to tell. So this was my tiny little taste of that one afternoon. Though it was really not by choice, since the guidebooks offer very little about what to do in Latacunga. Even the Saquisili market in general, and how to get there and walking around the area was all exploration and help from locals, since the books mention the market exists, but nothing else. Anyway, walking around Latacunga I heard about a nice park called Parque de la Laguna, so I wanted to check it out. Near the town's cental plaza I asked a cop for directions on how to get there, and while I was talking to him a family pulled up in a car and also started asking him something. So in the end the father offers to drive me there after he drops his family off at home. On the way he spoke all about the history of the area, and local traditions and celebrations they have such as the Fiesta de la Mama Negra. Literally, the Festival of the Black Mother, a major annual festival that commemorates African slaves that lived and worked in the area. It is technically Christian but has much more traditional influence.
Once I got to the park it was nothing special. A public space around a man-made pond/lake, which had since been drained, that housed a restaurant (now closed) in the middle of it connected by a bridge. Still, I walked around the entire area for a while and made a sort of photo session out of the place. My main focus being a group of women washing and drying their clothes on the bank of a river, while their kids played nearby and Cotopaxi loomed visibly in the distance.
From here I walked back to the center of town and my hotel, which was not very far at all. I did some follow-up investigating on the Cotopaxi tours, and since I would not be able to go on a tour the following day, solidified my plans to visit the crater lake in Quilotoa, but on my own wihtout any guides or tours. I also went out for a dinner of the local specialty, Chugchucaras. It is a plate of fried pork, toasted corn, fried pork skin, banana, popcorn, and small cheese empanadas. It was a lot of food for a little money, and despite the minor heart attack it can cause, was damn tasty. From there I went out and bought some snacks for my Quilotoa hike the next day, and went to bed.
To fill you in on where my plans were at the time, an email I wrote home that day:
"I'm going to Quilotoa as a bit of an acclimitizing exercise, because Saturday and Sunday I am attempting to climb Cotopaxi, an active volcano at about 5,300 meters (17,490ft) and the second highest peak in Ecuador. The rim of the lake at Quilotoa will take me to about 3,800, already 1,000 meters higher than the city of Latacunga, and if I walk all around the crater I will reach even higher at some points of the jagged edge. But I will then be able to get back down to Latacunga the same day and recuperate.
The typical Cotopaxi climb leaves mid-morning and gets you to one of the refugio's on the inside of Cotopaxi National Park for lunch. You then go out in the afternoon and practice using the equipment on the snow. You go to bed early, wake up at midnight to get all the gear ready, and by 1am you are starting your summit attempt. You should be at the summit by 7am, if you make it. But due to the tremendous change in altitude I'm hearing that only 50-70% of the people actually get all the way up. You basically gain about 3,500 meters (11,550ft) in less than 24 hours, which is not good for anyone, and all the more reason I want to do some exercise tomorrow at altitude at Quilotoa.
There is just one catch. The organizations that run this tour only go with 2 people at a time, and it costs much more for one person to go solo. As of now I have nobody else to go with me, and the only hope is that tomorrow someone shows up alone who also wants to do the summit. If not, I either go anyway and pay much more, or I actually go to Quito Friday night. That way I'll get to spend my final weekend in a city, there is a lot better chance of meeting people who want to do the climb there, and I can wait until Mon-Tues to do it. Since Quito is so close the tour agencies there run the same trip, and I do not need to start from here in Latacunga.
And thats the extent of my plans. Either way Wendesday will be a final surreal day in Quito, and Thursday morning I wake up real early for my flight home. I should be landing in NYC by 6pm.
See you there,