departed from Cork for Quito in South America, via London and
Miami, on January 5th. The flight was delayed by Uncle Sam at
immigration in Miami, for about two hours. "Place your right
index finger here sir, then your left index finger and look into
this camera sir".
eventually boarded an onward flight on American Airlines and landed
at Quito around midnight to be greeted by a lovely balmy night.
We were met by a representative from the company that was going
to guide us to a few volcanoes.
spent the next few hours acclimatising to the altitude and it
was hard work. Even climbing the stairs at the hotel was a struggle.
We walked around the city which consisted of two parts, the Old
City which is influenced by Spanish colonial times and has spectacular
architecture and lovely museums and churches and the more modern
New City, which is more functional and like any modern South American
we went we came across military and security personnel, each in
their own distinctive uniform. It seemed safe to walk around,
at least during daylight, and it was so quiet I wondered if a
coup was imminent. However we had no problems.
two days walking around the city we got itchy feet and decided
to rent a jeep and drive North to a little market town called
Otovalo, a famous Indian marketplace. All the advice said we were
crazy to contemplate driving at all as the locals were "crazy
drivers". But, never ones to shirk a challenge, we ignored
all the prophets of doom and sat into our jeep and headed North.
aggressively and don't hesitate if you want to make a quick move"
we were advised. My travelling companion Larry was well able to
negotiate the traffic - but then again he had a good navigator
came across a few incidents of road rage but we were somewhat
disappointed it was so tame after all the noise we had heard.
crossed the equator without getting burned and drove through lovely
rolling green hills, not unlike home, to dry, dusty plains higher
up. There were cows and other animals in the fields and many people
were working the crops. The temperature was 30 degrees and it
was warm with low humidity. Great drying out here
would love it.
Indian market had lovely crafts and clothing, with all bright
colours. No dull stuff here.
got back to Quito in one piece and had a few beers at our hotel.
The following morning was going to be the real start of our adventure
into the mountains. We had a leisurely enough start and boarded
our bus which was to be our mode of transport for the next two
weeks in the mountains.
first mountain was called Pasochoa which was 4,200 metres and
started off on easy grassy ground called Paramo, which are the
grassy plains that lie above 3,500 metres or so. We had to avoid
a lot of bulls on the way up but we went well away from them as
we progressed. An altercation with a bull at that early stage
was not on the agenda so we skirted away from any potential trouble.
the summit we saw a few condor birds drifting in the updraft.
They had a huge wingspan of six to eight feet and they were hunting
for dinner. We got down the mountain safely but had major headaches
that left after a rest and some Panadol.
got back to Quito and had an early night as the following day
we were going higher and it was a longer walk. It was Sunday and
we were off to a mountain called Pichincha, another volcano at
4,820 metres or so. This was a different approach to the previous
day as it started with a dusty road on the way up to a refuge
and then it was a track most of the way to the summit where there
was nice scrambling over the last couple of hundred metres.
was also a massive drop into the volcano if you dared look and
the intake of sulphur was not pleasing to the eyes or lungs. A
few people were beginning to suffer the effects of altitude at
that stage and it would halt their progress further on.
the Monday we had an easy start on our next mountain called Illiniza,
which had two peaks, one the north and the other the south peak,
one at 5,200 metres and the other at 5,300 or so. We were camping
on the mountain for this one as the walk-in was pretty long. We
set up our tents and a kitchen and dining tent were set up by
the guides. Camp was at 4,000 metres.
set off at 5am for the summit and some fixed ropes were set up
near the top where there was lots of scrambling and airy ground.
The headaches struck again but we popped the Panadol again and
they had the desired impact.
got down safely and rested in the tent for a while. We were spending
another night there so we got the guides to drive down to the
local village for a few crates of beer. We even persuaded Segundo,
the cook, to come into the dining tent to have a few beers and
he mentioned it was the first time ever anyone had invited him
into the dining tent. He was eternally grateful, though not for
the hangover he had the following morning.
next day we were on the move again to Tambopaxi guesthouse on
the way to the famous Cotopaxi volcano at 5,897 metres. It is
set on dry dusty plains surrounded by hills with great views and
there's a telescope in the restaurant to monitor peoples' progress
on the mountain.
spent one night there before moving up to the refuge at 4,400
metres. There was a big rush on to get a bunk bed but I ended
up on the floor as it was impossible to get out of my bunk without
stepping on someone underneath.
woke early the following morning to bright sunshine and looked
through the telescope to see a party of five come near the summit
only to turn back a couple of hundred metres short. It must have
been tough going.
met e few Americans, from Colorado, who had skied down from the
summit that morning and said it was "a doddle". Yeah
leaving the refuge we spent the evening relaxing and drinking
loads of water. Apparently Cotopaxi last erupted around 100 to
120 years ago and so it was plausible that it could happen again,
but I discarded the asbestos suit as I figured my chances of outrunning
a lava flow were very slim indeed.
that evening we were assigned our guides to which we would be
roped up to once we were on the glacier. The night before a summit
attempt can be very worrying and a number of questions rush through
the head. Will I get sick, fall down a hole or get frostbite?
Will I be able to perform? It was a bit like pre-wedding night
woes. Our guide was loco, we stopped only for five minutes the
whole way up and poor Larry couldn't take any more 100 metres
from the top and had to descend. We had left the hut at 1am and
summited at around 6am. There was a fantastic view of dawn on
top with the sun just rising.
coming down off Cotopaxi we stayed in this fantastic old colonial
hotel called La Cienega, which translates into "swamp".
But it was far from swamp. It was originally used by a rancher
who owned thousands of acres and it was then turned into a magnificent
hotel that was like a museum.
coming off Cotopaxi, looking and feeling smelly, we were met at
the front door by a team of servants eager to take our dusty bags
to our rooms. It was a different world, going back to colonial
times again and we dined in splendour to the accompaniment of
live bands who came to each table in turn to play South American
music and then offer us their CD's for sale.
felt like ordering a carriage for the morning and taking a tour
of my estate just to see that all was in order. Instead I handed
in the dirty laundry and I got it back the following morning with
even the tee shirts on hangers.
drove through a city called Ambato which was the Motown of Ecuador.
Everywhere you went there were car shops and repair shops and
showrooms. 'If your Chevy is feeling heavy bring it in for a requesto
where it will come out running like a bat out of hell'. There
is car insurance available only for new cars. If you crash otherwise,
you settle with the other driver. So young boy racers of Kerry
should go to Ecuador where they can put a seven litre engine into
their Honda Civic and burn off everyone except the gringo who
has a ten litre engine in the back of his beetle.
later stayed in a tourist town named Banos where everyone spent
the night on the tiles, including the guides and the bus driver.
We went to a disco where samba and salsa dancing were prerequisite.
I met this woman in a bar who was from Ecuador and she sang Irish
songs into my ear. She had been to Dublin on an English language
course and claimed to know Sinead O'Connor. She told me she had
a CD coming - but I had to move on. They had a habit of throwing
drink over each other at the disco and we were totally inebriated.
It's par for the course over there apparently. Live today, tomorrow
you die, being the motto.
final trek into the mountains was the day after this night of
madness to Chimborazo. Most of us were in no shape to go up this
mountain after the excesses of the previous night but four did
make the summit.
took one final run up the Pan-American highway which runs all
the way from Alaska to the tip of South America, headed back to
Quito for another couple of rest days. And as we sipped coffee
with the locals on Avenue Amazonas, every hawker under the sun
appeared and tried to sell anything they could. I was constantly
plagued by shoeshine boys even though I was wearing runners. I
think they might need a wash.