Mind you, running at altitude is a bit weird. Picture shuffling along at your slowest training pace when the visual world starts to get darker, similar to your computer screen just before it launches a pop-up. Your body knows it is not pushing hard (it is not complaining to the brain), but there seems to be an element lacking in the mix. Or technically, a compound, known as O2... We found it almost amusing that we could only run about 400 meters flat, before being forced to walk. Even walking at 2800 meters above sea level takes a surprising length of time, before there is enough oxygen in the legs to consider assuming a running pace.
Ecuador is a series of contrasts. With some foresight, they have vastly improved the road infrastructure, in what I assume is an attempt to prepare for more tourism and a 21st century lifestyle. However, a large percentage of the buildings are old or unfinished. By unfinished, think of buildings with a completed ground floor in which people are living, yet the second floor is partially built concrete block walls with rebar sticking out the top. I heard many reasons for why this was happening. I am not sure which are true; likely all are factors. Ecuadorians would simply build until they ran out of money, then stop until they saved up a bit. Or they had failed to obtain the proper permits and work was stopped. Another "rumour" is that they prolong the building period, as the tax is not increased until the building is completed. As long as they can complete 10% each year, the building is considered under construction. So, there is a modern airport in Quito, excellent 6 lane highways, with 18th century buildings along the way.
Private roads are another matter. Again, only what I was told, but maintenance of the smaller roads is performed by the locals. They would pool their funds and provide the labour. The private road we traveled upon near the Quito airport was comprised of rocks embedded in sand. Similar to cobblestone roads, but much rougher. Tires last about 2 years for those who must travel these private roads on a regular basis. I can see a rally race along these roads!
Travelling in Ecuador is inexpensive. Our flights were about $600 CAD each. Hotels (Hostals) range from $25 to $70 for a private room. We stayed at Las Orquideas hotel in Ibarra for 3 nights. Including 3 breakfasts and doing our laundry, our bill came to $75 USD. Mind you, they waived the laundry and the $2.50 breakfasts. Meals are also less expensive, although wine is on par with Canadian prices. There is considerable tariffs on the import of wines.
Our first day was spent touring the old section of Quito. We elected to stay at the same hotel for the first 2 nights, to help acclimatize to the altitude. This had an added benefit, as my luggage did not make the flight from Bogota to Quito. The airport was able to send my luggage to the hotel the following day.
Our third night was spent in Latacunga, a staging area for the Quilotoa Loop hike. The next morning we set out for Sigchos, were our hike would start. We were travelling with Barb and Manny (Manfred), as our schedules aligned nicely. Barb and Manny are also retired. Things went south quickly for Barb, at this point, as she succumbed to the flu. Picture travelling in a coach bus along rough and steep mountainous roads, with the flu. I am not sure how she did it! Mind you, there was little choice. Getting off the bus in the mountains was not an option.
It is always a good idea to have some flexibility in your travel plans. Barb was in no shape to hike from Sigchos to Isinlivi. So, while Lee Anne and I hiked, Barb and Manny took a taxi to Llullu Llama, out hostal in Isinlivi. This 4 hour "warm-up" hike presented incredible vistas and one taxing uphill climb, with a pinch of altitude. The next day, while Barb recovered a bit, Manny, Lee Anne and I hiked a loop trail and we all stayed a second night in Isinlivi.
Again, Barb was in no shape to hike, so while they took a taxi to Chugchilan, Lee Anne and I hiked. This was to be the theme for the Quilotoa Loop. I almost feel bad (we owe Manny and Barb big time) but while Lee Anne and I enjoyed hiking with one light pack, Barb and Manny drove in a taxi to the next hostal, with our heavy pack. The pack I should have been carrying!
The hike from Chugchilan to the Quilotoa crater is tough. There are two long steep climbs, the second of which reaches 3900 meters (12,800 feet). Fortunately the hike is relatively short (5 hours), so although the altitude takes its toll, it is not coupled with complete exhaustion. Mind you, sleeping at 3900 meters is a nuisance. Imagine having a minor hangover for the duration. No one slept well that night!
The next day we set out for Ibarra, where we had planned to hike the nearby Imbabura volcano. Since the volcano was a significant hike (over 4600 meters / 15,000 feet), we decided that it would be a better idea to tackle something less technical and altitudinal (it's a new word, buddy) and opted for the nearby Cubilche volcano. At 3800 meters, it would make for a satisfactory hike. It also had a cute little lake at the top!
For the hike up Cubilche, we hired Emerson Obando, a professional guide. Emerson is extremely fit and guides tours in the area 2 - 3 times per week. I still can't figure out how he ran up a steep hill at 3800 meters, while I had to stop every 50 feet to avoid blacking out. I thought I was in shape! Hiring a guide provides one pleasant bonus. We did not have to spend hours scrutinizing trail maps and questionable directions. Simply admire the views and take pictures. Emerson did all the navigation. Emerson is positive, talkative and very sensitive to the environment. I'm sure that it was not part of the tour, but we helped Emerson collect garbage at the crater lake. If you ever plan a trip to Ecuador, consider using a guide. Emerson also runs a hostal in Esperanza, basically a suburb of Ibarra. Check out his website at:
After returning from the hike to his hostal, we donned traditional garb and enjoyed a photo op!
Our last day was spent at the Otavalo market, which has a huge variety of traditional clothing, leather, art and food. Prices are great ($5 for a Panama hat, $15 for a Llama wool shawl) and the atmosphere is something to experience. I normally don't like shopping (this is an understatement), but there was so much to see, it was bearable...
One reason our flights were inexpensive was because the return trip was not ideal. We left the hostal at 2:00 AM for a 05:20 flight. We had considerable excitement at about 04:00 when Lee Anne figured out that she dropped her money bag in the back seat of the hostal van, on the way to the airport. After some panic, she was able to contact the manager, who drove the van back to the airport and delivered her money, credit cards and birth certificate.
After a short flight from Quito to Bogota, we had an 8 hour layover. Time creeps ever more slowly when waiting for a connector in an airport. For fun, I converted my USD into Columbian pesos, then into CAD. Yeehaa! We finally embarked on the last flight and landed in Toronto at 9:40 PM. Daryl (son-in-law) was kind enough to pick us up and drop us at Manny and Barb's place, where we had left our car. The drive to Creemore was quick as there is little traffic after 11:00 PM on a Sunday night. I activated the woodstove in record time and it was almost warm by the time we went to bed, at about 1:30 AM. Almost a 24 hour day!
Hiking in Ecuador will take you out of your comfort zone. This becomes important as you get older and avoid new experiences because they don't fit your schedule. We experienced some inconvenience in the hostal in Latacunga, where the average age was about 18. But we most definitely gained incredible experiences not available in a package deal to Cuba. Consider hiking Ecuador because it requires some effort to absorb the culture. Then we will have earned our lattes and petit four...