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Saturday 21 Dec 2013
Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Dizzy heights and dizzy heads

Today represented the biggest challenge of our trip.  The altitude at the Hacienda was 2,900m.  Today’s itinerary saw us climbing part of the Cotapaxi volcano to the Jose Rivas refuge at 4,800m, with the option of continuing another 200 vertical meters to the snowline if we wanted to.

Andreas drove us up to the entrance to the Cotapaxi National Park and gave us 20 minutes or so to acclimatise while we browsed the craft stalls of the Sumbagua tribe.  They came from Peru with the Incas in the mid 1600s and still wear their traditional costumes – women wear fedora-like hats and below the knee skirts, with bright shawls draped over their shoulders.  We bought knitted hats, alpaca scarves and I got a llama-wool Christmas jumper with a pattern of llamas across the front.

We then drove a further 6km up an increasingly steep dirt road with sweeping views across the Cotopaxi park to the surrounding ring of volcanoes.  Ahead of us, the snow-capped symmetrical cone of Cotopaxi rose majestically into the cloud rolling over the summit.  At 5,897m, it is the highest snow-capped active volcano in the world.  There is a major eruption every 100 years, the most recent being in 1904.  There was a gaseous eruption in 1974, but the big one expected in 2004 has yet to happen, making locals believe it will be even bigger when it does come.  The evacuation zone is 50km in all directions and it will threaten Quito when the time comes.

We drove to a car park at 4,500m and set off very slowly up the dirt track.  We had only gone 20m from the car park when we spotted a lone mountain wolf looking for handouts near the cars.  The air was considerably thinner here.  Just getting that far had been an effort and neither of us was prepared to walk back down for a photo so Andreas jogged back down with my camera.  He climbs this way with tourists almost every week and informed us his 3-year-old son had climbed it too, but they live at 2,800m so are already better acclimatised.  The trail wasn’t difficult in itself.  It lead through a bleak landscape of black volcanic rubble and zigzagged its way up to the refuge.  Our biggest challenge was the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere, which made even the simplest activities hard.  Ailsa had brought her walking poles, which proved essential for balance.  I didn’t have the same issues going up, beyond the occasional head rush when I turned the corner too quickly at the end of each switchback.  We stopped regularly to catch our breath and calm our pounding hearts.  Feeling my heartbeat in my chest is one thing, but having it pound so hard it felt like it was trying to get out under my collarbone was more than a little unnerving. 

The sunny skies and clear views we had on the way up in the car disappeared fairly soon after we started climbing.  The clouds rolled in and out across the valley, revealing fleeting glimpses of the green and gold hillsides below or the snowline above.  At one point we caught sight of a vivid red streak through the next valley, where previous eruptions had deposited a layer of iron ore.  In general, we couldn't see more than 20m past the path, so we just kept climbing.

It took us an hour to reach the refuge at 4,845m.  We were very satisfied with ourselves and Andreas congratulated us on our efforts, admitting he wasn’t convinced we’d make it, as most of his groups didn’t.  We decided to quit while we were ahead and left the snowline to the other climbers.  The clouds were so thick that we wouldn’t have seen much from there anyway.  The altitude affected me far more on the way down and I got very dizzy.  I thought I was ok while I was looking at the path, but when I looked across the valley to the opposite peak, I felt it accelerate away from me at speed and realised I was about to fall over.  I followed Ailsa’s suggestion and sat down for a few minutes to get my head straight.  Luckily we had the chocolate we bought in Quito yesterday to reward ourselves on reaching the car.  We saw the same wolf again and this time I followed him down to take a few pictures.  When I looked back up to the car, I decided even that much was beyond me, so Andreas and Ailsa picked me up on their way down.

We stopped for lunch at a local restaurant where I had a delicious lamb and orange stew, while Ailsa had some kind of entrail soup.  Andreas drove us back toward the edge of Quito, before turning off up another valley.  The pass rose back up to 4,000m, clinging high on the side of a steep ravine, before descending to a mere 3,300m in the small town of Papallacta.  The last 45 minutes were driven in thick fog where we could only just see the vehicle in front.  Even so, crazy drivers still overtook on blind bends.  2km before we reached Papallacta, we turned off up an even steeper dirt road, passing a water delivery truck on its side in the bend of the road.  It had come around the corner too quickly and overturned.  Our final destination for today was the gorgeous Termas de Papallacta, a thermal springs resort.  Our room was in a row of little wooden cabins wrapped around a courtyard with a few private pools.  There was another section of the resort open to the public, but we were very happy with our private corner.   We were able to soak our weary bodies in the hot water and relax, moving around the pools to find the hottest points. 

The roses we'd been given in Quito were managing surprisingly well for being out of water during the day.  They had started to open out into the biggest blooms I've ever seen.


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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #3 Ecuador and Galapagos Islands

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This is the big highlight of the year. Joined by my parents and reunited with Ailsa, we'll spend Christmas in Quito, then travel to Galápagos for New Year, celebrating in style with a week on the Queen Beatriz catamaran visiting the southern islands.

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