Home on the (Mountain) Range

Friday, March 26, 2010

Cotopaxi is the highest active volcano on the planet reaching a height of 5897m (19,347 ft) above sea level. Planes, to put it in perspective, generally fly at around 35000 ft. Despite its home a few dozen kilometres south of the equator, it is so tall that its crown is covered in glacier. It is a perfectly shaped cone of black, red, and white with looks that would make it stand out even without the breathtaking (literally) heights. And it sat outside my window at the Secret Garden hostel, itself resting on the fringe of Cotopaxi National Park. The hostel itself is a bit of a paradise, too. At $30 per night, you are given a warm and comfy bed in their dormitory and a spot around their large kitchen table where the hostel owner’s wife sets gourmet food (she’s a professional chef) every night. Every meal is at least two courses and is either an appetizer and main or main and dessert. Breakfast and lunches are likewise included (not to mention all the coffee, tea, water, or soft drink you can swallow) though they aren’t quite up to the lofty dinner standard. Every room has a fire waiting for you after dinner not to mention a big fireplace and comfy couches around the main lodge. Additionally, volunteers take you on very cheap or free treks up to waterfalls, nearby volcanoes, and more. Jump on a horse and ride to a nice lookout for lunch, take out a free bike on the country roads, and come back to sit by the fire before dinner. It might be paradise.

The Secret Garden in Quito (owned by the same Australian-Ecuadorian couple) does $5 shuttles to their Cotopaxi operation every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and I found myself in the back of a pickup truck with an Argentinean named Mauricio heading south. He wasn’t comfortable speaking in English so I got plenty of Spanish practice on the way there. In the cab of the truck were an older American couple from near Seattle named Bob and Gayle and another girl from Winnipeg named Stephania. We arrived in time for lunch very hungry to find it ready and waiting for us. Unfortunately, it was cream of vegetable soup – except without vegetables. So lunch was a tasty broth with some warm croissants which tasted great but wasn’t exactly filling. We took off in rain boots 20 minutes after lunch to hike up to a waterfall and were grateful to return to a 5:00 snack. The walk was nice and a great way to get into the swing of things here. The dogs of the hostel, Basil, Milo, Mash, and Daisy all accompanied us as well as Connor, a Calgarian that was volunteering at the Secret Garden. After the snack as the light of day waned Dylan, the other volunteer (from Barrie, Ontario) here got the fire going in the low-oxygen air which is no mean feat. We sat around the fire and got to know all the cool people both living here and visiting with us.

Dinners here are one of the main reasons that the Secret Garden is famous. Monday night was a vegetarian lasagne with a creamy cheese sauce, Tuesday a thai beef curry, Wednesday was meatballs in a peppercorn sauce, Friday Chicken Stroganoff, and Thursday (which I intentionally saved for last) was thin crust pizza cooked in a wood-fired clay oven. Mango chutney, goat cheese, rocket, and a sprinkling of oregano topped one of the pizzas. Chicken, peppers, olives, and a three-cheese topping made up another one of the pizzas, and the third pizza was tomato, eggplant, four cheese, and carmelized red onion. Add to this that Dylan is also a professional chef and conversations about marinating scallops in red rooibos (or blueberry) tea, making Popcorn shrimp with an actual popcorn puree rather than deep-frying, and “root” fries of parsnip, carrot, sweet potatoes and regular potatoes were common among us. Not to mention Duck Confit. Connor once said he could probably get a job as a chef just reciting everything Dylan had said about Duck Confit. He probably right. I guess it’s no wonder I was hungry so often; and they say altitude is supposed to diminish your appetite. All the meals also included an appetizer or a dessert – I’m not sure we had any appetizers but desserts included orange cake drizzled in chocolate sauce, hot chocolate, custard, and so on. It’s lucky that you tend to weigh less near the equator.

The day we arrived was overcast and Cotopaxi was nowhere in sight (especially after a thick fog settled in) but the following morning was absolutely stunning. There was Cotopaxi, as described; right out the window looking like it was painted on the skyline. Breakfast in these parts is at 7:30 AM and don’t worry, I won’t get into it. After, we loaded into a Land Rover and drove to the base of Cotopaxi. Today’s hike was for acclimatization and not to summit the mountain and it was a beautiful day to do it. The walk was pretty slow going up towards the refuge but not hard aside from needing to breathe a lot more than usual. The refuge itself was at 4800m and from there were hiked another 168m to what, at the time, was the highest elevation I’d ever reached outside a plane but sadly 32m shy of the 5000m mark. Coming down was maybe the best part as we basically ran down and let our feet slide in the sand like skis. It was great to half run half ski past tired looking people making their way uphill. Afterwards, it was back to the hostel for lunch and then an afternoon of rest and relaxation in the many hammocks and sofas all around the place. Which, essentially, was the plan for Wednesday as well, except that I brought out the Spanish books and exercises I had with me and studied most of the day. Mauricio left that morning which was too bad as he was a cool guy, into great music, and we got along well in spite of the language difficulties. I gave him some Canadian music and he gave me some cool Argentinean music and also a t-shirt for his favourite band. I offered him my Che Ramon shirt in exchange for this unexpected kindness but he refused.

A whole new group of people were slated to arrive Wednesday which I wasn’t excited about. I quite liked our small and already close-knit group. Bob, I discovered, was a retired electrical engineer for Boeing so you can imagine that we had a lot in common not to mention that his wife was awesome and had been to most of the places I have – except in the 70s when people didn’t do such things. Mauricio was gone but I got along really well with Steph as well though I think she could get along with just about anyone. But the Wednesday crew arrived and turned out to be really great as well; I think some hostels just attract cool people. We added a Korean-Australian named Nikki, a couple Dutch girls named Lian and Daphne, an English girl named Rosemary whom I’d met in Quito, and another couple to our mix. Their arrival was an excuse to finally break out the drinks and we celebrated that night with a lot of Uncle Ron (Ron being Spanish for rum). That night ended at about 4 AM which is really late here but I was up at 7:30 for breakfast and in fact set out on a hike that morning too. I was going with Gayle and Bob on a small loop up into the mountains but as we walked up there – past wild horses and everything – and Volcan Pasochoa loomed overhead I knew I had to walk to the top in spite (or perhaps because of) lack of sleep and excess of rum. So after a snack for lunch I headed up on my own and made the summit.

The top was cool. On the side I’d hiked up was a very arid ecosystem that bordered on desert but on the other side of the ridge was lush cloud forest as a result of the fact that the sun only hits the one side of the ridge. The difference is too stark the put into words. You could also see all the way back to Quito (which is apparently a 6 hour hike if you go right over the mountains) and several of the snow-capped volcanoes in the area. Dylan was waiting for me at the arranged meet up point when I came back down and we walked down together quickly to catch the others who’d taken a scenic and flat loop around another mountain. We were back 13.4 km later in time for lunch and to meet yet more arrivals. Friday came and I had to say goodbye to pretty much the whole crew from Monday and Wednesday. Luckily, Steph and Nikki kept me company until the new crew arrived and among the new arrivals were two of my three climbing partners. Paul, whom I'd already met at the Secret Garden hostel in Quito was one of them and the other was an Icelandic guy named Bjorn. So Friday went pretty quickly although I was already getting antsy to climb Cotopaxi. That journey would begin Saturday morning and hopefully end in our return Sunday afternoon.

Cotopaxi National Park Photos

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