Remember the second harrowing drive I describe yesterday? The road all the way up to the Cotopaxi Cara Sur lodge? Well, we biked down it this morning. But before our brake-clutching decent, C and I took a hike up the slopes of Cotopaxi. The first steep hill above the lodge was almost too much for me (remember, we were at 13,123 feet!), but I pushed on and was sure glad that I did. We could see the snow-line of the volcano ahead of us, but it was much too far for us to hike to. So instead, we enjoyed a nice climb along a ridge that dropped several hundred feet to each side. There was a stunning canyon farther down the slopes behind us and ahead of us were gentle slopes and narrow ridges. The vegetation was sparse and fragile – small patches of lichens, a few hardy flowers that resembled Indian Paintbrushes, and stunted scraggly trees that could be well over 70 years old. The last time Cotopaxi erupted was in 1904, and the plants are still trying to find purchase in the harsh environment.
After about 15 minutes of walking (and stopping for breath), we spotted some llamas off in the distance, not too far off the trail. We made our way over there and they promptly circled back onto the trail behind us. I’ve dealt with horses and cows and sheep and pigs, but never llamas. Do llamas bite, kick, charge, or spit like camels? They seemed curious – one even cautiously made her way over to us, but never quite came within hands reach – but I was still a little wary of getting too near. Since the herd of llamas were between us and the lodge, we slowly tried to edge our way around them, and eventually they skittered off the trail and into the scraggy brush, letting us pass.
Back down at the lodge we were greeted by six donkeys. I knew they were friendly because they came right up to C and nudged him with their heads to get him to scratch their ears. They were so cute I wanted to take one home as a pet!
And then it was time to get back on our bikes. After admiring the snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi one more time, we loaded our bags into the jeep and set off down the steep, rutted, and serpentine road to the bottom of the volcano. The clouds had rolled in and everything was swathed in mist, making our decent rather ethereal. C was ahead of me most of the time and I only saw brief glimpses of him through the mist, eerily reminding me of chasing a ghost.
Switchback after switchback later, we finally made it to the bottom and from there we continued on by bike with Arie leading the way in his jeep. We passed through small towns with dogs chasing our wheels and over incredibly pot-holed roads where we traveled faster than the trucks. When we reached the intersection of the Panamerican highway, we got back in the jeep and continued on to our next destination by car. Quilotoa was about a three hour drive up and down and around the mountains and past a patchwork landscape of hand-sown agriculture. Each turn presented a photo opportunity, but I resisted because tomorrow we’ll be biking back the same way. We finally arrived at the small town of Quilotoa (3850 meters, 12,631 feet) and while Arie was preparing us some sandwiches, we stood in awe at the top of the beautiful lake-filled crater of Quilotoa volcano. After a quick lunch, we dropped our bags off at the hostel and then C and I took off down the path into the crater. It was a steep and sandy descent down to the lake, but we took our time and enjoyed the view. C said that it reminded him somewhat of Crater Lake in Oregon. Once at the bottom we sat on the pebbley shore, soaking up the warm sunshine and felt the lake water with our fingers. I expected it to be cold, but it was surprisingly warm. An Indian girl offered us horses to take us back up to the rim, but we declined, preferring to keep warm by hiking up the steep trail. It was a good hike, our hearts were beating fast in no time and we had to stop mid-way to shed a few layers.
Then it was back to the hostel for a hot shower (yay!) and a bit of relaxing in front of the wood stove with hot tea before dinner. Tomorrow we visit the colorful markets of Zumbahua.