– visited July 2014 –
The first task after crossing the border is to find transport to the small town of Zumba. I need to get there in time, I have seen all the games of Germany in the Football World Cup so far. We are playing France today in the quarterfinal and I want to see the game. I have managed to be in South America at the time of a World Cup being played in a South American country. Six out of the ten Latin-speaking countries in South America were qualified but I managed to spend most of the time of the World Cup in Peru, which was not qualified, and only reached Ecuador after their team had been eliminated. A TV can be found, Germany wins and I can move on.
My first major stop is Cuenca, another town whose centre is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. The New Cathedral is the focal point. Constructed between 1885 and 1975, it offers space for 9,000 worshippers. On Sunday, the faithful stream out of Cuenca’s churches. To my surprise, they are being met by specifically set up snack stalls right outside the church gates. Seems to be a good business model.
Devil’s Nose Railway
The provincial town of Alausi is a stop on the railway line that once connected Ecuador’s capital Quito (2,850 m) with the sea. It still does, but nowadays only for well-paying tourists. The devil’s nose is a feat of engineering as the train has to manage a steep descent. It does so by using two switchbacks forcing the train to reverse its direction twice. Trains for tourists run that stretch regularly.
I am on a bus to Quito and I want to go to Quito. Nonetheless, I leave the bus in Ambato. Germany is playing its semi-final today against Brazil and I do certainly not want to sit on a bus during that game. To my surprise, no restaurant at the modern bus station seems to have a TV where the game is shown. I have to head into town where I end up in a small café. Interest in the game is low in Ecuador, I am basically the only customer. The owner and his friend are football afficionados though, with every German goal, they heap more praise on the German team and at the end it is a remarkable 7:1 victory against the host nation of Brazil. I am glad I stopped in Ambato, I pick up my backpack again and proceed on my journey to Quito.
Ecuador’s capital city was part of the first batch of inscriptions on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1978. It is a beautiful city with many colonial treasures and it is also a beautifully located city. Ecuador is part of the so-called Pacific ring of fire and Ecuador is one of its more active regions. The country has 27 potentially active volcanoes and some of these are amongst the most active in the world. Travelling the Central Andean Valley of today’s Ecuador in 1802, the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt coined the term “Avenue of the Volcanoes”.
One of these volcanoes, Pichincha (4,696 m), is right outside of Quito and can be climbed with the help of a cable car. It is finally time for the world cup final and I watch the game and celebrate the victory at the Cherusker German Artisanal Brewery. Afterwards, some Ecuadorians throw a spontaneous party for their new German friends.
I somehow lost the battery charger for my camera. Maybe it was even stolen. Pickpocketing is common in Ecuador; nowhere else have I heard so many stories about things being stolen from the luggage you take inside buses. Anyway, I need a new one as I am running out of power to take pictures. Not an easy task in Ecuador, I ask in many shops but keep hearing that I should try in Colombia. My batteries won’t last that far. I speak with some guys taking video on the street with a decent camera. They recommend a shop but I can’t find it. As I am ready to give up, I suddenly stumble upon the shop I was directed to. You have to ring the bell, say what you want and only then the door will be opened. They do not have a charger but they have a camera for sale that uses identical batteries. They agree to sell that charger. It is not cheap but I badly need it.
Another site to visit around Quito is the Equator. Ever asked yourself where the name Ecuador is coming from? In Spanish, the country and the imaginary line separating our world in north and south are the same word. The equator runs 25 kilometres north of Quito’s centre and a monument marks the spot where the eighteenth-century Franco-Spanish Geodesic Mission fixed its approximate location. The monument is dedicated to the “Mitad del Mundo”, the Middle of the Earth.
I want to take my chances to see humpback whales. Puerto Lopez is the place to go to. As I arrive at Quito’s bus station an hour before departure all the buses are already fully booked. As an alternative, I decide to head to the much larger Guayaquil from where I will have to take an early morning bus to Puerto Lopez. It is definitely the worst overnight bus ride of my time in South America and maybe of my whole travelling life. As we leave around 11 P.M. they start showing a film. I am relieved as it ends around 1 A.M. just to see another film being started. No problem as long as you switch off the sound. They rather turn up the volume. This bus ride is a total exception to my other experiences in South America. I would rate this continent as the most developed in forms of long-distance bus travel. Usually, long-distance buses are comfortable and the drivers take care to drive gently, the sequence of a bus slowing down twice to allow each axis to gently roll over a speed bump will be etched into my memory forever. On some routes you are even surprised with snacks and drinks. For a little extra money, you can sometimes buy ejecutivo (executive) seats, which means that you have only three seats in a row and accordingly they are bigger. In an ejecutivo seat, I can sleep like a baby. Often countries have a central bus directory making it easy to check which bus is running where and when. On some buses, a video is taken of all the passengers and bags before departure to try to guarantee more security and with some companies (Cruz del Sur in Peru for example) you check in your bags airport style. Only in Venezuela the system has a quirk, buses tend to be extremely cold, I repeat, extremely cold. I was warned, so I came prepared. People around me even brought stickers to close the valves that would otherwise release cold air into the bus. What is the sense of cooling a bus down into a territory where everybody finds it uncomfortable? No idea why people do not complain.
Puerto Lopez is a small coastal town with waters rich in humpback whales. These giant creatures reach a length of 12 to 16 metres and a weight of up to 30 tons. The best thing about them is that they like to stage a show. They do not just swim slowly and unnoticeable below the surface of the water but, being mammals, they need to come up and breathe. But more than that, for some reason they like to slap their pectoral or tail fins onto the surface of the water. The fin comes out of the water and with a loud boom slaps the ocean before it disappears again. Sometimes the whales also breach, throwing two-thirds or more of their bodies out of the water and splashing down on their backs sending fountains to the sides.
Watching them involves a small boat (smaller and lighter than the whales are) and if a whale would breach on a boat it would be easy for them to make the boat capsize. But no worries, they are friendly creatures. The sea is sometimes rough but I manage to cope. The boat basically goes where it can spot a whale and we get some good sightings and I even manage to get some decent pictures. Taking pictures of the breaching is difficult as the whales suddenly shoot out of the water with no warning.
I also visit the Isla de la Plata which is marketed to me as a poor man’s version of the Galapagos Islands. For some reason the local blue-footed boobies do not fear humans and can be approached without taking flight. Somehow amazing. Besides that, there is a large colony of frigatebirds and on the way to the island we see some more humpback whales.
The Quest for Cotopaxi
As I travel in Ecuador, I am acutely aware that I have to hurry up to have enough time to reach New York in style for my return flight to Europe. I basically only visit a few major points of interest; I will have to come back to this area of South America anyway. The Galapagos Islands are too special a place to miss. After ten days in Ecuador, I am ready to leave. But then another thought pops up in my head. I always wanted to climb one of these beautiful high mountains the South American continent has to offer. It should preferably be a volcano, 6, 000 metres high and possible to climb with little high-altitude mountaineering experience. I was always waiting for the perfect opportunity. It somehow never came. After some time, I had trained my sights on Huayna Potosí in Bolivia. Being in Arica in Chile it would have been one overnight bus to La Paz to be able to access the mountain. But coming from sea level without any acclimatization that plan would rather have resulted in my premature death than in a successful ascent of the 6,088 metre-high Huayna Potosí. I instead opted to approach the mountain slowly via Peru, slowly gaining altitude and thereby acclimatization. If there is one thing to regret about my journey to South America it is that I spend weeks on high altitude in Bolivia and northern Argentina but instead of continuing on high altitude to Peru and Ecuador I descended and spent several months in the lowlands of the southern part of the continent before coming back to high altitudes again.
The plan to acclimatize myself via Peru sounded good but by the time I had reached the Bolivian border I had acquired a severe cold that made climbing a 6,000-metre mountain a bad proposition. I abandoned the attempt. Now, I am in Ecuador and I am running out of chances. So far, the immensely enjoyable Cerro La Campana in Chile is the only peak I climbed during my trip but at 1,880 metres it is hardly a giant. I make the decision to climb Cotopaxi. It is 103 metres short of the 6,000-metre marker but at least it is a volcano and it is a beautiful peak. The higher Chimborazo (the point on earth closest to the sun) was out of question for financial and mountaineering reasons. In order for a successful climb, I treat myself to a training programme. I am not allowed to climb either Iliniza Sur (5,248 m) or Iliniza Norte (5,126 m) without a guide but I can ascent to the Refugio Nuevos Horizontes at 4,700 metres and spend the night at that altitude. Fabien from France wants to climb Cotopaxi as well so we decide to share a guide. After some more preparatory climbing on Cotopaxi itself (riding there by bike and ascending until the snowline) we feel ready for the climb.
Serious mountaineering involving snow and ice usually starts in the middle of the night. The idea is to reach the summit around sunrise to be able to descend while the snow is still cold and not warmed up by the sun. In 2014, attempts on Cotopaxi have to deal with an additional difficulty. Usually the ascent involves hiking up to the Refugio José Rivas at 4,800 metres in late afternoon, sleeping there for a few hours and starting around 1 A.M. for the final 1,100 metres of altitude difference to the summit. But in 2014, the Refugio is closed for renovations forcing people to sleep in tents lower in the valley, leave earlier and hike the additional 200 metres of altitude from the end of the road to the Refugio in the push for the summit. Our plan is to go to bed at 6. P.M, get up a 10 P.M., have some “breakfast” and leave for the mountain around 11 P.M. My problem is, I cannot sleep in the afternoon so I end up lying in my sleeping bag for four hours without ever falling asleep. As we depart for the ascent, one of the most difficult physical challenges of my life, I have already been awake for 14 hours and there are many more to come. We hike up to the Refugio and being tired and with more equipment it is a lot more challenging than on our exploratory afternoon hike two days before.
The rule is one guide for two climbers and all the equipment you need is included in the tour. I do not wear my own shoes as they could not fit any crampons. I find it tiring to walk as a roped party. You cannot choose your own steps but have to adapt to the rhythm of the guide. We slowly make our way up the mountain as it becomes ever icier. I received three pairs of pants which I found excessive but as I feel the cold despite the three pairs, I knew it was exactly right.
We do not reach the summit. After slowly making our way up the mountain for several dark hours my French companion is too exhausted to carry on. The guide also had no real interest in bringing us to the top. As Fabien complained that we need to walk slower, the guide said that he would do that but then proceeded at an even faster pace than before. As a roped party, the guide determines the speed of all. And of course, Fabien quickly said that he couldn’t do it anymore. It was probably the right decision; at high altitudes you do not only need to have the energy to reach the summit but also to get back down from the mountain safely. I just didn’t like the way we came to that decision. And for the guide it is a clear advantage to get back from the mountain earlier, in the afternoon he would start leading the next group. We turned back at an altitude of about 5,700 metres, only 200 metres below the summit. In a normal year, starting at the Refugio 200 metres higher we would have made it. For me, it was very disappointing, I was tired as well but I think I would have made it to the top. But if you go as a team, you either win together or loose together. Cerro La Campana would remain the highest summit of my trip. I do not regret trying to climb Cotopaxi, it is another world up there, and I am glad I got to know it. I will be back one day.
After the failed attempt to climb Cotopaxi, I want to leave as quickly as possible. I head north, towards Colombia, sleep the night in Ibarra before reaching the border town of Tulcán. I have seen many beautiful cemeteries with elaborate graves, statues, mausoleums and all that but I have never seen anything like this. The graves are nothing to write home about but the topiary sculptures are stealing the show. José Maria Azael Franco began in 1936 to cut a species of Mediterranean cypress in shapes of animals, human beings and geometric forms. Today, it is one of the most elaborate topiary displays in the world. It is simply breath-taking. And thanks to the flower shop for guarding my backpack.
As I try to leave Ecuador, I am told that my information cannot be found in their computer system. I crossed from Peru at a fairly remote crossing point but I have a proper stamp in my passport. I have to make some extra photocopies to give them a proper record of my trip.