Ecuador: Everything from Amazon Jungle to Andean Volcanoes
The final stop on our South American vacation was Ecuador. We flew into Quito – the 2nd highest capital city in the world! – and while it’s at 3000m we didn’t have any problems acclimatizing to the altitude as we’d just come from Bogota which is also pretty high.
We arrived the day before New Year’s Eve and checked ourselves into a cool, chilled-out hostel in the tourist area of town. We met a few of the other backpackers in the hostel and the next evening went out to see how the Ecuadoreans celebrate the New Year. The answer? They start with a bang and end with a whimper! The celebrate in the evening with a parade of floats, lots of music etc., but come 10pm the streets were empty and they’d set alight their floats! Tradition apparently…
On New Years Day we met up with our mountain guide and drove to Iliniza, a nearby dormant volcano, to do an acclimatization hike. It was a tough hike and we both felt the effects of altitude, ascending to the summit at 5200m. Unfortunately it was cloudy and we couldn’t see a thing from the top!
The next day we drove to our objective – Cotopaxi volcano! At 5895m high it is the second highest mountain in Ecuador, and a top and reasonably technical ascent on snow and ice. We drove with our guide in a 4WD up to the top car park at around 4000m (!) and then hiked up to the refuge at around 4800m. We stayed there that evening and tried to get some sleep, but nerves, noise and the altitude made it a tough endeavour.
We got up at midnight and got our gear on while eating an early breakfast. We let some of the other teams break trail and started climbing at around 1am. We ascended through the night, first on rock and then onto the glacial ice, and we rested each hour for about five minutes. As we climbed higher the weather got worse and worse and it was easily the most miserable weather I’ve climbed in – it was windy and an icy cold sleet/rain fell and froze on our clothes. Throughout the morning we passed teams that had turned around because of the weather/altitude, and we were soon one of the few teams on the mountain. Eventually Andy made the decision to go down as he had a killer altitude headache. I continued up with the guide in white-out conditions and got to within 50m of the summit before deciding that there was nothing to see at the top anyway!
Our next destination was the town of Banos in south-western Ecuador. We’d heard this place was good fun for a few reasons: thermal baths, a downhill bike ride from the Andes to the Amazon, and the fact that it was directly below a smoking volcano! We teamed up with a group of three Aussie guys (Jamie, Dean and Lee), a filthy Irishman and a couple of Chilean girls (Fernanda and Valentina) and rented bikes for the day. We left Banos and spent the better part of the day riding down the valley along sealed and dirt roads. As we dropped lower and lower the temperature and humidity rose as we descended into the rainforest. We stopped off along the way to visit some great waterfalls and to cool off in a small stream.
Andy and I rented four-wheelers for a half day and drove up the mountain on the opposite side of the valley from the town of Banos. The road kept on going up and up and we got some great views of the volcano along the way.
Our final destination was the town of Riobamba, the starting point for the "Devil’s Nose" railway, where you can ride on the roof of the train (fun for the first five minutes, then the diesel fumes get to you!). The train slowly wound through the Ecuadorean countryside towards a small canyon that it then descended. Slowly is definitely the word – the tracks were in need of some serious maintenance (rotten sleepers) and we had not one but FOUR derailments during the day!
We had one last night in Quito and went out with a group of backpackers that we’d got to know around the hostel. We partied hard as our flight left early the next morning.
We flew back on the most indirect routing I’ve ever experienced. Our plane flew from Quito to Caracas via Bogota and Medellin (Or was it Cali? After the last night all-nighter I slept like a baby…). We then transferred to our flight back to Europe which was routed through the Canary Islands en route to Lisbon (where we were given the 3rd degree for having been in Colombia). We had some time to kill there so we caught up for lunch with our mate Luis, and finally got on our flight to Zurich and home.