Ayer, yo subo al volcán

Who ever thought I’d be able to say the words “Yesterday, I climbed a volcano?” I feel like that sentence needs a “freakin’” in there somewhere!

Let me start by saying that thus far, I’ve really enjoyed my time Ecuador. I’ve discovered, however, that many things local people tell me tend to be relatively untrue. For instance, “Oh, the walk is easy” – 30 minutes later I’m huffing and puffing up a gigantic hill. “Oh, it’s always cloudy, overcast and completely freezing there” – meanwhile, I’m sweating through my long sleeves and long pants. “Oh, we’re open every day” – the gate is clearly shut and locked. Maps are inaccurate, signs lie, and “mas tarde” – a general term for “later” – rules all. I’ve come to refer to these inaccuracies as Ecuadorian distance and Ecuadorian time.

That being said, our school here has been less than informative about the activities we’re signed up for. Oh, yeah, you’re going to go to a volcano called Cotopaxi. Lunch and a guide is included. Meet at the school at 6:20 AM. Have fun! is essentially what our instructions looked like for our day yesterday.

The real instructions, which we received en route to our destination: We are hiking up that volcano, mountain biking down some mysterious road, oh, and btw, its miserably freezing and probably below zero at the top, so you may want scarves, gloves and a hat. And bring 2 liters of water with you! I’m so glad I got all of this information before I packed my backpack for the day. Not.

Regardless of the lack of communication, climbing up the volcano was breathtaking. Literally, in that the altitude was so high it was incredibly difficult to breathe, and we were climbing up very steep switchbacks for over an hour, but also figuratively — the view of the valley below and the other volcanos in the distance was absolutely incredible.

The group, which consisted of 15 people, about a third of which were associated with our Spanish school, trudged up rather quickly. I took my time, stopping often to catch my breath, take pictures and just take in the view. I was enjoying myself thoroughly… until it was time to climb down.

Now, here for all to read, I will admit I am a wuss. I am my father’s daughter, and I can be both a complainer and a coward. However the path down Cotopaxi was one of the most unsafe, ridiculous challenges I have ever seen. Easily at a 75 degree incline, the path was covered in loose dirt, gravel and rocks with no stairs, no railings and no markings whatsoever. You could barely “climb” down slowly. Instead, you were forced to run-walk, your body pushed down with the force of gravity as you attempt not to tumble down the mountain. My shoes had more rocks and sand than a beach when I reached the bottom.

I ate shit several times and on my last fall, I managed to stop myself from tumbling face forward by catch myself with my right ankle… twisted underneath me. I think the shock, anger and fear caught up with me, and by the time I reached the bottom I was shaking with tears in my eyes. After I calmed down and realized the throbbing in my entire body was more fear than actual pain, I knew I was okay, but I will say now I would definitely not recommend that hike to anybody else.

Regardless, knowing I climbed to 4,810 meters (15,780 feet) on one of the world’s highest active volcanos is certainly an experience I won’t soon forget.

After we hiked down, the van dropped us off on the side of the road with our mountain bikes, handed us some helmets and said “see you in 10 kilometers and 45 minutes!” The road was under construction so it was dusty, rocky and altogether relatively unpleasant. Though I try not to be a debbie downer on vacation, I had a hard time enjoying the view while I was concentrating on not flipping over my handlebars, so about halfway through the descent I put my bike back on the trailer and climbed into the jeep. I’d had enough!

Of course, Stella had to make an appearance…

After a bizarre lunch of fruit, guacamole, ruffles and a terrible – and tasteless – mystery brocoli soup, we drove the 2 hours north back to Quito and said our farewell.

Random side-note – a couple we’d gone to the Isla de Plata with was also on the exact same Cotopaxi tour with us. Such a crazy small world!

And now, the rest of my pictures!

Adventuring to the cloud forest

Before I write about our day in Mindo, a few quick updates.

On Wednesday evening, we took a trip down to the Papallacta hot springs. I was hugely skeptical, considering we drove 2 hours on windy mountain roads, in the rain, to get there and I was being asked to put my bathing suit on when it was probably no more than 50 degrees outside, not to mention pitch black by the time we got there. But once I sunk into the amazing hot water, lay back and got to look at a sky full of stars, I knew immediately why the school prioritized this trip. My pictures are unimpressive because it was so dark and steamy, but believe me, it was amazing, and completely relaxing!

And here is a picture of me, Pascal and Kathleen hanging out with the Ecuadorian equator line on Thursday. The museum at the line was mostly cheesy, but it was fun to be at the actual equator regardless!

Now, onto our day in Mindo! 

My host family (who, btw, are super sweet, I’m so sad to be leaving them tomorrow!) had mentioned over dinner one night that Mindo, the cloud rainforest just two hours northwest of Quito, is really beautiful and that it’s a shame I didn’t have more time in Quito to spend some time there. I had been itching to get to a rainforest, especially since I don’t want to go deep into the Amazon on this trip. I mentioned Mindo to Kathleen and she was interested as well, so we decided to ditch classes on Friday and spend the day there.

After gathering a plethora of detailed instructions and information from our teachers and administration at the school, we hopped in a taxi at 7:30 AM and headed to the bus station. We got on the bus to Mindo no problem (and for a whopping $2.50 each), and were on the road by 8 AM. We arrived at 10 AM and found a tour agency, where we bought tickets for the Mindo Canopy Adventure – a 13 line zipline course. The lady at the agency showed us the location of the zipline course on the map, saying we could pay $4 for a taxi or just walk ourselves. Eager for some physical activity, the course looked close enough on the map, so we opted to walk.

Mistake numero uno.

South American maps are wrong. And deceptive. Okay, a gross exaggeration. But this isn’t the first time I’ve been deceived. A tiny little squiggle of a road in the bottom right corner of the map turned out to be a gigantic hill with many, many dusty switchbacks that we had to climb. We got to the course and were absolutely drenched in sweat. We had both significantly overdressed, considering how cold it was in Quito, and we quickly discovered our long pants and long sleeves were completely unnecessary. We did, however, take a nice little break at an adorable juice stand with cute wood swings for seats, and each indulged in batidos, amazing, fresh fruit smoothies. I never loved maracuya (passionfruit) in the States, but the fruit here is so fresh, maracuya has quickly become my favorite.

Stella loves fresh juice stands too!

Kathleen being super silly in front of our new favorite juice stand!

When we finally arrived, we signed waivers, checked our backpacks, got all strapped in and got our basic instructions for the zipline. In our exhaustion/excitement to start, we had rolled up our pants/leggings but forgot to put on bug spray.

Mistake numero dos.

After the first amazing, totally exhilarating zipline, we had to hike. And when I say hike, I mean up a very long, serious set of steps and along paths with very steep inclines. That’s when the nausea and altitude sickness began to kick in, and when I realized aside from a few bites of granola on the bus and my juice, I hadn’t eaten or drank any water yet that day.

Mistake numero tres.

Feeling totally faint and completely out of breath, we continued on the course. I was having a blast when I was on the actual ziplines, ironically, but when we had to walk — I mean hike — between lines, I was worried I was going to faint. I was seeing spots and ridiculously dizzy. Not safe! Luckily, I held it together and didn’t pass out, and when we finally finished I  chugged a ton of water and was all set.

Mistake number two became a reality when I looked down at my legs at the end of the course to discover at least 20 bug bites covering the space between my knees and my sock line. Oops. As I type, I am trying desperately not to scratch my legs off.

We hiked the mile and a half-ish (it’s questionable how long the walk actually was, but it was a solid 25 minutes, so we’re guessing at least a mile and a quarter, if not more) back to town and indulged in a delicious pizza lunch. We ordered two salads as well, which turned out to be wayyyy too much food, but completely delicious regardless.

Possibly one of the best veggie pizzas I’ve ever had. So delicious!

Suddenly, I looked down at my watch to realize it was 2 PM, and the last bus back to Quito, which we’d bought tickets in advance for, was at 3 PM. We figured we’d walk down to the butterfly garden, spend twenty minutes there, then hike back to town for the bus.

Mistake numero quatro.

We should have learned from our mistake that morning. The butterfly exhibit might have looked close on the map, but after a solid 30 minutes of fast-paced walking along a very curvy dirt road, each turn anticipating the butterflies to appear out of thin air, they were still nowhere to be found.

When we booked the canopy tour, the lady had asked if we were taking the 3 PM bus or the 5 PM, non-direct bus. So, wanting to take advantage of the fact that we were all the way out in this beautiful little town and wanted to have as much time as we could for the day, we decided to screw the $2.50 we’d spent on the 3 PM bus tickets and opt for the 5 PM instead.

Mistake numero cinco. (In case you can’t count in Spanish, we’re up to 5 mistakes thus far)

When we finally got to the butterfly garden, at just around 2:45, we asked the nice man working the front desk for some more information about the 5 PM bus. Turns out, this instance of non-direct means the bus takes 4 hours, not 2. Oh, and btw, he explained in Spanish, it doesn’t actually go to Quito, it goes to Santo Domingo, a far away suburb of Quito. And the second bus we’d need to catch to Quito from Santo Domingo doesn’t really have a schedule and picks you up at a random, yet very typical Ecuadorian, unmarked side of the road bus stop. We looked at each other and shrugged. We would just take a taxi back, knowing it would cost a fortune but it was too late, and worth not dealing with 5 plus hours of miserable local busses.

We had an amazing time with the butterflies — they were so beautiful and the garden was literally chock full of them — taking a ton of photos and just relaxing.

A female owl eye butterfly with its wings spread — such a gorgeous bright blue!

Owl eye butterflies… everywhere!

These guys were my favorite — such vibrant yellow and orange wings.

Oh, and Stella made some friends! Who knew butterflies and ducks got along so well 😉

More butterfly pictures in the gallery below!

An hour and a half later we made our way back through town, had a tour agency call us a cab (which we had accepted at that point would cost us $50) and hopped in our private SUV. A few minutes later, a killer headache set in. Luckily, we made it back to Quito in one piece — unfortunately, there was a dog that our driver hit somewhere along the way who can’t say the same. Ecuadorian drivers are insane, that’s all I have to say.

My headache was so bad at that point that all I had the energy to do was shower off the dirt and snuggle into bed to pass out, even though it was only 7:30 PM when we got home and I hadn’t eaten dinner.

Despite our several crucial mistakes, we had a blast, and the town of Mindo was adorable, and the surrounding rainforest absolutely beautiful. We both agreed that had we had more time, we would’ve spent the night and a second day — checking out the waterfall 7 km away and taking a tour of the local chocolate factory. Maybe next time I’m in Ecuador!

All of my favorite pictures from the day:

Bienvenidos a Quito

What I´ve learned during my first 48 hours in Quito:

  • Just like in Boston and New York, one minute it’s sunny and beautiful here, the next it’s windy as hell. Five minutes later, it’s raining cats and dogs. As my professor said, take your umbrella and your sunglasses because it will be sunny, and regardless of how clear the sky is, it will rain at some point.
  • Despite my desperate wishes, I am not escaping four hours of straight Spanish class. Just like in Manta, we have classes from 8 AM until 12 PM, with a thirty minute break at 10:30.
  • Humans shove themselves onto busses here the same way they do in Boston. In fact, the school children who get on and off at the stop near our spanish school might possibly be just as obnoxious as all the BU hipsters on the B line. A bold statement, but it’s true.
  • The mountains here are to the west, a confusing geographic difference. Regardless, they’re beautiful, and I love the way the buildings rise above you onto the hills.
  • People bury their heads into their cellphones as they walk, not paying attention to anything around them, exactly like in the US.
  • I have seen just as many Pizza Huts, Dominos, KFCs and McDonalds in Quito as there are in any town in the US.
  • In fact, Ecuador runs on Dunkin Donuts, just like America supposedly does.
  • The mall 5 minutes from my homestay is ten times nicer than the Cambridge Galleria, and much nicer than the Beverly Center. There’s a gigantic “Tiffanys Coming Soon” sign in the entrance, to match the Bulgari, Lacoste, Ralph Lauren, North Face, Zara and other American brands housed in the mall.
  • In Ecudor, the economic classes are titled pobre, medio, y ricos – poor, middle class, and rich. Quito is one very large, very long city. In the northern suburbs, where our school is, is where all of the wealthy people live, which explains the expensive mall. Closer to the Centro Historico — the center of the city — are the indigenous peoples and middle class, and the poorer suburbs are in the south. In Quito, 60% of the population is indigineous peoples, and 40% are mestizos, of mixed indigineous and Spanish heritage. (My Spanish teacher gave us a great history lesson this morning.)
  • The delicious $2 or $3 Menu de Dia that I’ve become accustomed to thankfully still exists in Quito. The family I’m doing my homestay with owns a restaurant, and their food is cheap and absolutely delicious. This afternoon, I had salad, chicken and potato soup, chicken, rice, pasta salad and a dessert (banana with chocolate ice cream) for $2.50. Score!
  • Ridiculously salty food is just as prevalent in Quito as it is in the rest of Ecuador — my bloating is here to stay.
  • We may be in a major metropolitan city, however the milk is still not refrigerated and you cannot flush your toilet paper.
  • Taxes on imported goods in Ecuador are ridiculously high — a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese is $2.75, but the Ecuadorian version is 33 cents.
  • Yo amo Quito! It´s so nice to be back in a major ciudad, the people may speak spanish and the cuisine may be a little bit different, but I feel right at home.