July 14 to 21, 2010
We left the Amazon in rain – torrential, by-the-bucketful, rain. As we headed back to Quito, we passed a fresh accident scene on the slick pavement. A family in a pick-up truck had side-swiped a large truck, but luckily, they appeared to be unhurt, if not slightly shaken as they stood on the side of the road. It reminded me that things can screw up quickly while driving, so with the family in my mind, I slowed down. Our destination was Mindo, a small town a couple of hours north of Quito that had been recommended to us by both Rom, our guide at the Cuyabeno River Lodge, and Theresa, the young German gal we met at the Lodge. Even though we had thrown out our Quito maps (thinking we weren’t coming back) and I didn’t have a GPS map of Ecuador, we managed to get through the sprawling city with a minimum of head scratching and before long, we were on the road to Mindo. We had decided to forgo the faster highway route in favour of the more scenic “back road” and within minutes, it was clear we had made the right choice. It turned into one of the best driving experiences of our trip so far. The mostly deserted dirt road twisted through a narrow, lush valley with rock walls on one side and sheer drops on the other. We continued to climb higher into the dense cloud forest canopy, at times barely able to see ahead of us as the constantly drizzling mist turned into fog in the late afternoon light. It was magic. Nine hours after departing the Amazon, we rolled into the little adventure town of Mindo.
Having subsisted on bland food in the Amazon for the past week, we happily devoured a yummy pizza as we watched the sleepy town’s doggy dramas unfold in the street. We camped “poolside” that night at the Kumbha Mela Hostal, then moved the next day to the more tent-friendly Hostal Bambu next door – a green oasis owned by an absent Dutch man (isn’t that weird?) (Roz: Trond thinks you’ll get his Austin Powers’ Goldmember reference). For a few days, we just hung out and ate. Then we got off our fat arses and went ziplining! It was the first time for both of us and Roz was a little nervous and almost chickened out. But she put on her big girl pants and pushed through her fear – what a trooper! After her first run, a 300-metre zing above a cloud forest valley, Roz was in hysterics. And not the bad kind. She literally exploded with laughter. Body parts everywhere. I think she liked it.
Two other highlights of our time in Mindo was a visit to a butterfly farm and to the El Quetzal Café (http://www.elquetzaldemindo.com/), where the owner, Joe, gave us a tour and demonstration on how chocolate is made. Fascinating. Evidently, it comes from cacao seeds and not a vending machine. Who knew?! Joe, who spent most of his life as a mechanic and garage owner in Michigan, had returned to his Ecuadorean homeland a few years back to spread the word of chocolate. He now works with the farmers of a nearby village who harvest the fruit from cacao trees just for his café. (ROZ: Chocolate factoids: The fruit, or “pod”, of a cacao tree contains anywhere from 20 to 60 seeds, or “beans”. Once the beans are removed from the fruit, they go through a fermentation/drying/roasting process to become cocoa nibs, which are then used for a variety of chocolate products. It takes 20 to 25 pods to get 2 pounds of cocoa.) Joe also also works with a farmer who grows coffee beans just for the café. Both the chocolate and the coffee are processed in Joe’s café and the results are to die for. I’m not kidding – his Americano coffee and chocolate brownies were the best I’ve ever tasted in a lifetime of gorging. I kneel before Joe and his café. Thanks for giving meaning to my life.
After the tour, we hung around the cafe and had a great gab with Joe, his brother Francisco, and two lovely sisters from the U.S. who were just starting their “Eating their Way Around the World (in a year)” journey. Hours later, we closed the café vibrating on sugar, caffeine and good conversation.
On the day we left Mindo, our netbook’s power transformer died (not even a year old – friggin’ Toshiba!). We casually mentioned this to Joe when we popped in to say goodbye (and load up on coffee and chocolate). He was soon on the phone to help us out and, within minutes, had found a Radio Shack in Quito that had a replacement transformer. He then gave us clear, detailed directions on how to find the Radio Shack and what roads to take afterwards to avoid Quito’s core. What a great guy. With big hugs (and our mouths full of brownie), we said good-bye to Joe and delicious Mindo. It was fun!
The highway route to Quito was fast enough that we had time to stop at the Inti-Nan Solar Museum located exactly on the equator. Our guide, a young English-speaking hipster named Juan, showed us a few cool science-fair tricks that were only possible at the equator. We watched water drain out of a sink in opposite directions depending on what side of the painted equator line the sink was on. (ROZ: My personal fave was when the water drained straight down the sink that was directly on the equator.) The museum also included indigenous artifacts – like shrunken heads! Yup, there was even a “how to” diagram on the wall for DIY types. Nice. Our next stop was a monster mall on the outskirts of Quito where we found the Radio Shack. As usual, the mall was full of zombie shoppers shuffling from one shiny store to the next with that dull look of consumerism in their eyes. It kind of creeped me out and I was glad to get out of there. Give me shrunken heads any day.
Using Joe’s excellent directions, we drove around Quito and within an hour a beautiful vision appeared before us — the object of our next destination — the mighty Cotopaxi, one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world. Even miles away in the distance, Ecuador’s second highest peak, at 5,897 metres (19,347 ft), was striking. Especially with the afternoon sun reflecting magnificently off its snow-capped top. It was definitely calling to us.
We spent that night at the cold, but friendly, Hostal Chiguac in Machachi and the next day, we drove south on the aptly-named “Avenue of the Volcanoes” section of the Pan-American highway to a road that took us to the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park. We signed in, paid our $20 entrance fee and drove into the park on a well-graded dirt road. We took a few photos along the way, but we couldn’t wait to get high. High up on Coto baby! Yuki the Suzuki took us up one switchback after another until finally, at 15,000 feet, we found the parking lot on a shoulder of Cotopaxi. Full of 4×4 tour trucks and buses, this was obviously a popular place. And windy!! So we donned our windbreakers and wool hats and began the 1,000 foot climb up a steep slope to the refugio – a climbers’ hut – at 16,000 feet. It was an epic climb (for us!) that took over an hour. A thousand foot climb is usually pretty easy for us, but at that altitude, it was incredibly taxing. After every 5 or 6 steps we had to stop for 30 seconds to catch our breath. The crazy, whipping wind added to the adventure of it all and we began to pretend that we were summiting Everest. Like all good climbs, our efforts were rewarded with incredible views – the glacier-topped peak of Cotopaxi above us and the wide open plains below. The hut was basically a large dorm for tourists (mostly European) to overnight in before making a bid for the summit, another 3,000 feet up. We met a group of Frenchmen, all in their 60’s, who were going to climb Coto the next day. I was impressed.
After descending to the parking lot (much easier going down than up), we went hunting for a place to pitch our tent for the night. Unimpressed with the formal campgrounds, we cruised through the vast, empty landscape of the park until we found a nice flat wild spot with a great view of the volcano. (ROZ: Best of all, herds of wild horses were constantly running past us. What a majestic sight!!) It was cold that night, but the stars and moon were stunningly bright. The next morning, I went for a hike around the area with the camera while Roz tried to make breakfast. I say tried because while I was gleefully tip-toeing through the tulips, Roz was engaged in a mighty battle with the wind. I returned to find a couple of broken eggs on the ground and a very grumpy Rozzy. I really didn’t understand why she was so upset and my lack of empathy led to a fight in the car as we left the park. Windy or not, I could have stayed another night. Incredibly, this was the first “wild” camping we had done on our trip and I was digging it. I wanted more, but Roz was done with fighting the ferocious air (and not sleeping due to the altitude and the cold). (ROZ: What can I say? I was having a bad air day.) So we compromised and did what she wanted. Thankfully, by the time we left the park and turned south onto the Pan-American highway, we had made up. But the incident was a foreshadowing of things to come in Patagonia. Not for Roz, but for me. I would soon come to eat my words, “Dang woman, it’s just wind! Deal with it!” Ah, but that’s another story.