A Reddaway Away

Learning to follow my feet


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Defying altitude on Cotopaxi

About a week before I had to leave Quito, Pearl and I signed up to go on a tour to the Cotopaxi Volcano. At 5,897m it is one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world. Its snowy peak can be seen from Quito and the volcano dominates the plain that surrounds it. Moreover, I have just read that it is a part of the so-called “Pacific Ring of Fire” (the chain of volcanoes around the Pacific Plate) and that it has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world. Anything that is in something known as the Ring of Fire wins in my book.

So I really wanted to go.

I rarely go on organised tours but this one was fun. For the first time I had the very strange experience being on an English-speaking tour surrounded by Europeans after what had been a predominantly Spanish-speaking few months. None of them spoke English as a native language but Germans, Dutch, Austrians and Swiss have a tendency to speak English better than most native English speakers so it made little difference. The tour also involved breakfast and lunch, which made me happy.

We made the trip up to the volcano in stages, stopping for 10 minute breaks to acclimatise to the altitude and once for 20 minutes thanks to a most spectacularly stupid car crash two cars in front of us. We were encouraged to eat lots of chocolate (definite bonus) and drink lots of water. It was also my first time drinking the famous coca tea to help with the altitude, which tastes a little bit like nettle tea. Coca tea became a staple in the next few weeks in Peru and the coca products extended to coca toffees, coca sweets, coca leaves, and coca chocolate (Never eat coca chocolate, it is disgusting. I only bought it because I thought it might be green. It wasn’t.)

After ooh-ing and aah-ing our way across the plain towards the volcano we arrived at the car park at 4,600m, from where we were to begin our initial trek to the refuge 200m above. At first I scoffed at the guide’s estimation that it would take us at least 45 minutes to reach the refuge. Oh how wrong I was. After 15 minutes struggling to get footholds on loose sand and wheezing like a maniac I realised that 4,800m is high, even when you start at 4,600m. I had also only gone about 1/4 of the way and had a splitting headache, a dangerous sign at altitude. I almost went back down, but instead gave myself a long break and continued on at the fraction of the speed of a snail. I stopped every 10 steps. I was the very definition of slow. To give you an idea of the time scale: by the time I reached the refuge Pearl had arrived and ordered and eaten a hamburger. I collapsed in a heap at her table and didn’t move for 15 minutes until it was time to continue to the bottom of the glacier at 5,000m.

The last bit was still hard but I was much more mentally prepared for it and took it slowly. When we got there I was so glad I hadn’t turned back. The views were breathtaking (not just because of the altitude) and the glacier was incredible*. I was so proud and elated that I practically skipped my way back down, grinning madly and feeling like I could do anything..

…Except for ride a mountain bike back down from the car park, I chickened out of that. Most of my cycling experience has involved me screaming “Get me off! Get me off!” One step at a time.

I definitely recommend a trip to Cotopaxi. There are lots of organised tours and expeditions (try Gulliver Tours) but you can also go independently. There’s a hostel there called the Secret Garden which has a twin of the same name in Quito. Apparently it has a hot tub. The Secret Garden hostels have a weekly transfer or you can go by bus to the entrance to the park. From there you have to hitchhike in.

*Sorry Dad.

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Baños

While writing programme information for a travel agency in Quito I wrote so many descriptions for Baños that I lost count. One day I decided that I should go to Baños and check it out for myself. All for the benefit of my work, of course 😉

Baños is a town about 3 hours south of Quito by bus, still in the mountains but at a lower altitude. It is overshadowed by the Tungurahua Volcano, which erupted in July without causing any damage to the town. The town gets its name from the baths heated by the volcano, much like the town Bath in England is named after the Roman baths. Baños is really easy to get to because buses leave regularly from the south terminal in Quito, although getting to the south terminal takes a long time in itself. Buses in Ecuador are fantastic. Ridiculously comfy with ample legroom, long distance buses usually show films on a big telly at the front to keep passengers entertained. Obviously you have to keep a hold of your bag, but so far I’ve had no trouble. Often the terrible films give you something to talk to your neighbour about, as I discovered when I had to sit through Anaconda and my neighbour and I laughed so hard we were reduced to tears.

We did Baños Friday-Sunday, arriving late Thursday and leaving early Sunday. We stayed in the Hostal Nomada near the bus station, which is nice but you need to be careful because the owner is prone to ripping off tourists. It also doesn’t have dorms but private bedrooms so can be expensive for the solo traveller (which it turned out I was to be during the trip, otherwise known as The Time I Accidentally Went On A Weekend Away With Three Couples). The town is really small so everything is very close and accessible on foot so it takes very little time to get anywhere, unless you spend half an hour looking for a restaurant that doesn’t actually exist because your friend remembered the name wrong.

On the Friday it was just Pearl, Carlos and me. We decided to go on a chiva (a wooden, open bus) to see the famous waterfalls, of which there are many. We found the cheapest way to do it was to pay the driver directly, spending $3 rather than the $5 most of the shops and hostels were charging. Often used as party buses, the back of the chiva has an open space with a pole in it. We sat in the back where we were entertained by a Puerto Rican dad whose dancing was hilarious a wonder to behold. I would marry one of his sons just to have him as a father-in-law. The advantage of the open layout is that you can see all the views of the valleys, rivers and mountains, which are beautiful. At our first waterfall we went in an aerial tram across the river to get a better view, which was a lot of fun but I think there are probably better ones. Each chiva seems to have a particular friend with a business they always stop at.

At one of the stops we did canopying, which was really fun. Attached to a wire in one of various positions (superman, upside down and sitting among others) you glide over a valley or a severe drop as if you are flying while admiring the view.

The best part, however, was the Pailon del Diablo, by far the biggest waterfall. This waterfall is very iconic in terms of Ecuadorian tourism because photos of it are always used in adverts. There are two entrances, the one we took went down a very steep suspension bridge to underneath the waterfall, where we got completely soaked. The other entrance, however, is far more impressive and visible from the bridge. It features steep stone steps in the rock that go nearer to the bottom of the waterfall and I hear gives stunning views.

The chiva trip lasted a couple of hours, after which we ate and then decided to go visit the Cafe en el Cielo, a cafe which is part of a hotel up the mountain overlooking the town. Initially only planning to spend an hour there, I think we left about 3 hours later. It had a very nice terrace where we drank juice and then later Canelazo, a hot drink made with aguardiente, hot cinnamon water, and sugar, all topped off with lemon, while watching the sunset over Baños. When it was dark we went down to the baths to try them out. Crowded at the weekends, there are two big hot pools and a few cold pools. When we went everything was very full but still good enough for us to try again the next night!

On Saturday we were joined by some more people. The group diverged a bit as Carlos and Pearl  rented bikes to go cycling and the rest of us lazily took a taxi to the nearby zoo. The zoo I do not recommend, the animals are interesting but the enclosures are small and tourists have a habit of banging on the glass if an animal is not being interesting enough. The area around the zoo is lovely, though. There are great views and a really beautiful waterfall, which we climbed down to admire before heading back to pay another visit to the even more crowded baths.

The rest of the time in Baños we spent walking around and eating. There is a great Mexican restaurant called A Lo Mero Mero run by a lovely couple who do amazing food if you’re prepared to wait- the service is quite slow. There’s also a really great burger place called Panchos. The basic burgers are only $2 and delicious and it’s actually very nice inside, too.

There are lots of other things to do in Baños if you have the time- the famous swing at the edge of the world is up the hill, you can also hire buggies, there’s lots of places that do canyoning. You name it. One thing I would beware of is the jungle tours. Never take the one day option because they will not take you into the rainforest- it’s not as close as they say. They will only take you to Yana Cocha, an animal rescue centre/ zoo in Puyo, 2 hours away. I know this because I met the volunteer programme coordinator there and he says they often get groups of very disappointed daytrippers. Be warned.

Anyway, you have been reading my waffling for a while now, have some photos:

How to get to Baños from Quito:

Take a bus or taxi (around $10 from the centre) to the Terminal Quitumbe. Bus tickets to Baños are sold on the first floor and they leave regularly. You can also get buses to Puyo, Tena, Riobamba and Cuenca from Baños.