Two similarities between Ecuador and the U.S.: time zone (East Coast) and currency. Yes, actual U.S. dollars--since “dollarization” last spring  when the sucre had fallen to 250 to the penny. And you don’t need many dollars either, once you get there: a good meal is about $5.00, including a cerveza; a comfortable hotel room for two with bath might be $15.00. (You can also pay a lot more--though still considerably less than in the U.S.--for a lovely, comfortable hacienda. We did this more than once.)
We arrived Christmas, about midnight. The next morning we made our final arrangements with Safari Tours, which consisted mostly of signing lots of travelers checks and trying on plastic boots for my projected ascent of Cotapaxi volcano, 19,300 feet. Thence into a (relatively rare) Quito traffic jam with our guide Fabian. He was a handsome fellow who had scouted locations for the recent film Proof of Life and had escorted Paul Theroux as far as the refugio on Cotapaxi. In the afternoon Fabian drove us south to Riobamba. I celebrated our arrival by falling out the back of the Jeep in an effort to get train tickets for the next day. (I did get the tickets.) At 6:30 a.m. we clambered atop (that’s right, atop) the train along with all the other tourists for the famed trip to El Nariz del Diablo (the Devil’s Nose). This stretch is one of the few still open by rail between the country’s two main cities, Quito and Guayaquil, landslides having obstructed the rest. The ride is uncomfortable, despite the cushions you rent for $1.00, but a railing discourages falling off completely. The most spectacular feature is the Nose itself, a sharp buttress that had challenged engineers about 100 years ago. It has several airy switchbacks that require reversals of direction.
We detrained at the village of Alausi. Fabian was not there to meet us. He had warned that Riobamba might run out of gasoline, and he might be stranded there. We hung around hopefully for an hour or two, then hopped a bus back to Riobamba: $1.00 for a 90-minute trip. Driving in Ecuador seems marginally easier than in Nepal, but presents similar hazards, such as wide paved roads turning into rutted tracks without transition. Also the famed double-pass maneuver, whereby one vehicle overtakes a second, which is itself overtaking a third. There are, however, significantly fewer loose animals than in Nepal, and none of them is sacred, like the Kathmandu cow.
Guamote market, south of Riobamba, is off the tourist path; we saw no other gringos there the next morning. Nor anyone but ourselves wearing glasses. Plenty of pigs, sheep and chickens. Susan bought some bags and belts for $15.00, bargained down from $21.00. Fabian praised the final price. By contrast, the market in Otavalo, north of Quito, was sprawling and touristy on its Saturday, its big day. We were there with a young Swedish couple, and older Swedish-Peruvian couple, and a lean Swiss, plus our new guide--also named Fabian. We took the opportunity to bargain and get lost. Then we had a late and rainy lunch by a gorgeous lake (San Pablo) and were driven back to Quito.
The next four days were devoted to hiking, with some welcome automotive support. We had a new guide, somewhat confusingly not named Fabian. Kerry was a fair-skinned young native of Maine who had come to the country to teach math in school. Finding the students lazy and spoiled, she became a guide first in the jungle, now in the mountains. We spent three nights in hostels, in between hikes and more visits to markets. The New Year was celebrated, surprisingly quietly, in a small village, where nothing seemed to be happening. (We were unaware that a drunken man, somewhere in the neighborhood, had just stabbed a sober one. The assailant had fled.) The hiking was moderate, but I found myself fighting for breath (we were above 12,000 feet). The hostels were cozy In one of them we met a fellow graduate of my high school, 25 years my junior. Like more than half the travelers we met, he had been to Nepal. Ecuador is part of the exotic destination circuit. Another of our group, a young Irishman, had been everywhere--I mean, I could find no place that I had been and he had not. Except Togo. He had lived some time in Australia, and had taken a year getting there and another getting back. Earlier we had met a Harvard Law School graduate who had not only been to Nepal but turned out to be the lawyer (in St. Louis) of my college roommate. Plus any number of folk who had climbed in the Shawangunks in one decade or another.
It was time to begin my climbing program, which Susan sensibly elected to skip. With guide Gasparo and fellow American client Rud, I puffed my way up to a bleak refugio for an attempt on Illinaza Norte, a rock scramble of about 16,400 feet. The place was full: 19 other climbers, all much younger than I. But I recklessly arose with the rest at 4:30 a.m., affixed my head lamp and switchbacked up sliding volcanic sludge to a ridge with fine views at dawn. A near-vertical peak blocks the ridge; it is elided to the right, over something called “death pass.” It is not a pass and not particularly deadly, but it is exposed, so Gasparo fixed a rope. A few hundred meters more, and a few more fixed ropes, brought us--the entire refugio crew--to the rocky summit. The view was spectacular: the higher south peak of Illinaza, a great snow dome with swirling clouds.
Descent to the refugio was rapid. Now it was just an hour back down the trail to our Land Rover. With my encouragement, Gasparo vanished in the mists ahead of me, promising to wait at a trail junction. I don’t know where I missed the way. Had it been all at once, I would have trudged back up and waited for the rest of the refugio crowd. As it was, I became aware, too slowly, that the trails were proliferating yet growing indistinct. The terrain was open, but obscured by cloud. I just followed a coppery stream down, no problem. After a while I recalled the Australian trekker who spent two months lost in a cave in Nepal. But this was only Ecuador. Soon I came upon a bunch of cows and an old dirt road. To my disappointment, the cows were uncommunicative and the road ended as abruptly as it had appeared. Several times I had to drop down into thick trees in order to cross streams. It was well past noon, more than an hour since I had known where I was going.
I reached an unsettling conclusion: I was lost.
Not a dire situation: I had food, water and a sleeping bag. The weather was no worse than damp, and there were no wild animals, except the cows. I was exasperated rather than alarmed. Still: Susan would be waiting for me in considerable anxiety; Gasparo and Safari Tours would not be happy to lose a client, even temporarily. The local police, if they were not coping with the intermittent general strike, would be out looking for me. It all seemed pretty undignified.
An hour later, I heard Gasparo calling from an adjacent ridge. Reaching him required the messiest stream crossing yet, plus a nasty scramble up 60-degree dirt. He wondered how I had missed my way. So did I.
Rud told me I should be furious with Gasparo, but I couldn’t be. Although he was not a client-friendly guide, I was supposed to know my way around terrain like this. I was too embarrassed to be angry. Later, when Fabian #1 asked me what had happened, I expressed mostly irritation with Gasparo’s impossible exhortations on the ascent like, “Don’t stop there” and ’Breathe through your nose, not your mouth.” I mean, I would have had I been able.
Cotopaxi requires a short slog to a refugio (Susan had been there in my absence), followed by a midnight start up some 4000 feet of snow. Dawn on top is said to be memorable. I wouldn’t know. In a rare outburst of good sense, I decided to rejoin Susan immediately for our final days in the country. This included two nights at a hacienda set in Inca ruins, with wood-burning fireplaces in the bedroom and the bathroom. Extensive delicious meals were furnished at unpredictable times (English not spoken).
Thence we headed south for a visit with the well-known traditional weaver, Alonso Pilla. Alas, Senor Pilla, who is also a musician, was in the Galapagos with his band, but his daughter showed Susan the back-breaking local weaving style. We also washed our hands in a local potion guaranteed to improve our lives immeasurably.
The drive down to the resort town of El Banos is spectacular with mountains and gorges. Ten thousand feet above looms the beautiful volcano, Tungurahua. Is it active? Well, the town was recently evacuated for about half a year.... The placed is named for its hot baths. Best patronized very early in the morning. Fabian promised a visit, but only Susan actually made one.
A general strike had been scheduled January 2, to protest fuel and transit costs, but such affairs take a while to get started in Ecuador. Susan had seen a road closed by burning tires, an international technique. On the return to Quito, however, we passed only a small demonstration. The city itself was quiet. A final pre-dawn start returned us to the airport. Our international encounters continued on the plane. Our seat-mate, Kim, was a Korean-born resident of Ecuador with a recent degree from Brigham Young University. Her affect was one hundred percent American: “I got here at 7:05 and they almost wouldn’t let me on the plane. It’s ridiculous, I wasn’t that late. They made me remove my belt.” She showed us the detached belt as evidence. “I mean, hel-lo. I was afraid I would have to take my clothes off. It’s ridiculous.”
Kim settled down. The plane landed on time. Newark Airport was nasty with snow.
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