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Ecuador 2005

by Ger O'Sullivan

We 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".

We 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.

We 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 city.

Everywhere 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.

After 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.

"Drive 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 beside him.

We came across a few incidents of road rage but we were somewhat disappointed it was so tame after all the noise we had heard.

We 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… my mother would love it.

The Indian market had lovely crafts and clothing, with all bright colours. No dull stuff here.

We 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.

The 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.

On 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.

We 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.

There 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.

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.

We 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.

We 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.

The 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.

We 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.

We 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.

We met e few Americans, from Colorado, who had skied down from the summit that morning and said it was "a doddle". Yeah right!

After 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.

Later 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.

After 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.

After 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.

I 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.

We 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.

We 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.

Our 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.

We 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.

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