*Written 2010-07-07; posted with WIFI access 2010-07-10*
We’ve spent the last 3 days hiking around various places in Ecuador.
First, we drove to El Angel National Park on Monday. El Angel is in the remote northwest of the country, about an hour’s drive from the Columbian border. Getting there involved a 45 min. trek down the bumpiest road of my life, during which we passed many extremely poor indigenous residences eking out an existence far from… anything. The park itself is the only place in the world that the frailejone grows. This plant looks like a miniature palm tree with more rubbery, upward-growing leaves. Not only is it the only place where frailejones grow, but they are practically the only thing that grows there, and grow there they do–the park is covered with them and little else but some grasses. Murphy’s Law at work: The bumpy road made me really need a toilet, so of course the ranger station at the end was closed (we were the only people in the whole park except for a few that lived near its edge); and of course the grey clouds that had been on the horizon all day decided to dump rain on us the minute we began our hike, and to stop dumping rain the minute we began to drive off. Nonetheless, we made it to the high point of the trail and were able to look out at the park full of strange plants.
Then on Tuesday, we were on the opposite side of the Andes at Cotopaxi National Park. Cotopaxi is the name of a volcano (and thus of a province, as all provinces are named after volcanoes). The road inside this national park was… somewhat better, although we forded a few rivers (and by forded, I mean drove through) and crept through a few mini-canyons in the road. The park also had a few more visitors: one busload full of white high-school-aged boys, and one lone traveler named Jeff from Canada (who hitched a ride from us down part of the road). The park used to be owned by a family, which still retains a small part of the land on which they run a restaurant where we ate lunch. We then drove through a lot of near-barren land covered in dandelions (and thus appearing a lovely shade of red/purple) and began ascending the volcano. We ascended the volcano by car until an altitude of 15,000 feet, at which point it began to get foggy. I am still amazed that I can be so high and have it be… maybe 40-50 degrees fahrenheit and no snow. From there, we climbed another 1000 feet to a shelter at the snowline, 16,000 feet above sea level. This is one of the highest shelters in South America. It was difficult to ascend those 1000 feet due to the extreme altitude; we got tired very easily and had to go very slowly to ensure we could continue breathing. Going down was interesting–the ground was soft such that you could make each step slide a foot farther down the mountain just through the loose soil. It began to snow on the way down and I couldn’t even see the car from 20 yards away, but it took about… 10% of the time it took to ascend.
Today (Wednesday, or so I’m told), we drove west across the valley between Cotopaxi and the western Andes, and crossed the Andes to their western border to a Crater Lake. Crater Lake is owned and run by the local indigenous population, who have opened a restaurant at the top (lunch) and keep mules and horses to sell hikers a ride back up. Crater Lake itself used to be the summit of a volcano, until the volcano imploded. It is now a lake some 1200 feet below the edge of the crater, with the lake itself being another 230 feet deep. I thought that hiking down to the lake would be similar to when we hiked down into the Grand Canyon, but there were some major differences: it was cold instead of hot (this was good) and the ground was soft instead of hard (this made it more difficult). It was fun riding two horses back up out of the crater, but it was difficult for the horses–especially mine, which was smaller and older and had to stop often to catch its breath (or eat a flower). Ted also bought himself a hat from the local people, who have apparently adopted a sort of Swiss hat to go with their native garb that he thought was cute.
In between each of these hikes, we have driven through a *lot* of the Ecuadorian countryside and stayed at 3 very different places. Monday night, we stayed at a resort in the middle of nowhere (i.e. Papallacta) on the road back east toward the Amazon rainforest, and the resort happened to be built on top of a bunch of hot springs. Immediately outside all of the rooms were “thermal pools”, or man-made in-ground pools fed with water from the underground springs, and therefore hot! The hot water was so exciting; we finally spent a night just relaxing. Tuesday night, we stayed at an Hosteria at a town nearby Cotopaxi called Hacienda La Cienega (The Swamp). The first room they took us to smelled like cigarette smoke (which I can’t handle) and when our guide asked for a better room and told them we were on our honeymoon, they gave us the best room in the hacienda. It was the master suite, in the center of the second floor with a balcony overlooking the front and a surprisingly modern master bath (that didn’t match the decor of the rest of the place at all but that was a really nice bathroom). And when I asked for some aspirin due to our double headache, they gave us some Coca tea to go with it. Apparently Coca tea is the local remedy for headaches, and Oregano tea is the local remedy for stomachaches. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to enjoy the place too much because we fell asleep with the lights still on immediately after dinner and woke up with the lights still on in the middle of the night… but we took a walk through the hacienda’s gardens this morning and saw the chapel and the grounds. The air was fresh and crisp and the sun was out and the grounds were lovely. We are now on our way to a place in Riobamba, farther south down the PanAmerican Highway.