Posted by: Patrick | February 21, 2010

Summit or Plummet

Fresh off the ocean we returned to the mainland of Ecuador and decided some more mountains were in order.  Our first stop was the touristy town of Banos at the base of the active volcano Tungurahua.  We spent almost a week there hiking, biking and enjoying some great restaurants.  Yes, good food can be found in Ecuador!  The weather didn’t always cooperate but we did get out to the “Avenue of Waterfalls” which is a nice cliff side road leading down to Devil Falls.  We rented bikes for the day and had a great time.

Waterfall number one on the ride from Banos to Devil Falls.

Caroline has internal combustion envy.

After the short hike down to Devil Falls we crossed the bridge and climbed up behind the waterfall.

The falls were really powerful and there was a great path that brought us right behind it. We got soaked, didn't bring the camera back there, sorry.

From Banos we hit the road again and headed south to Riobamba, which is the city at the base of Ecuador’s highest volcano Chimborazo.  Actually, we found there was not much else to do in Riobamba besides visit the volcano.  So we took a tour which let us hike up to the refuge at 16000ft and then we mountain biked down from the parking lot to the next town below.  It was lots of fun and we finished the day with a Llama steak feast!

Wild Lamas, called vicuña, that live above 13,000ft on Chimborazo.

Caro wins the race down from Volcano Chimborazo.

Llama steak and quinois was on time.

Continuing our southern run we bused it down from Riobamba all the way south to Cuenca, Ecuador’s third largest city.  While Cuenca is charming and colonial, it is still just a city, and we are getting a little tired of cities.  So after two days of visiting we decided to head back to a place that we fell in love with before: The Secret Garden – Cotopaxi.

As you might recall we visited the Secret Garden when we first arrived in Ecuador, before the going out to the Galapagos.  At that time there was some discussion of climbing Cotopaxi but we opted to just do a short day hike up to the glacier and refugio.  This time however, we had a little more time and got more serious about it.  After talking to a few folks that had done it recently and recruiting another climber, Jake (a volunteer at the lodge), we booked our guide and decided to have a go at the summit!

We had three days and nights to prepare at the lodge, which was great for acclimatizing because it’s up at 11,500ft. To help prepare us even more and to increase our red blood cell count, we hiked up the ‘hill’ behind the property called Pasochoa (~13,800ft).  Jake led the hike and we all made it up in a good time, which made us feel pretty good about our chances on Cotopaxi.

Back for more? Cotopaxi seen from the slopes of Pasochoa.

Pat, Jake, and Hayden on the summit of nearby Pasochoa.

Feeling good around fourteen thousand feet on Pasochoa, part of our acclimatization routine.

On February 17th we met our guides Marco and Gustavo and got lots of warm layers of fleece, waterproof parkas, pants, mountaineering boots and crampons.  This was Caroline’s first mountaineering experience and she was a little nervous but very excited (or was it: very nervous and a little excited?).  So we all hopped in a land cruiser with the guides for the ride up to Cotopaxi’s parking lot.  From there we slogged up the steep slope for an hour to the mountain refuge, or refugio, at ~15,500ft.  We rested there and had a quick lunch followed shortly there after by dinner, then went upstairs to try to sleep until midnight.  Almost everyone who climbs Cotopaxi starts from the refugio around one in the morning to try to get up to the summit by sunrise.  This is done for a couple of reasons, most importantly because the snow and ice of the glacier is at its most stable when it’s frozen.  Once the sun comes up it warms and softens the snow, there are a couple of snow bridges over crevasses that must be crossed on the route and that would be very dangerous during the day.

Starting up from the parking lot of Cotopaxi in the clouds, wind and rain.

Jake and Caro settling into our space in the refugio.

Some hot soup to warm us up that evening.

Foggy glasses and rented fleece, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

After a few hours of trying to sleep Marco woke us up at midnight.  We put on many layers (four on the legs and four on top) and turned on the headlamps for the long climb up at 1am.  We could hear the wind howling outside the refuge around midnight and it only got worse on the ascent.  It took about an hour to cover the rocky trail to the start of the glacier, but most of that was semi-protected from the wind.  It was a clear night and there was no moon, so the stars were incredibly bright and beautiful.  It felt great to be back on a big mountain again and I was loving it. Caroline was slightly less keen to be out in the freezing cold and wind at one in the morning – she was focusing intently on the challenge ahead.

Once we hit the glacier though, things got tough.  We roped up with Marco in the lead, Caro in the middle, and me bringing up the rear.  The first bit of ice (~100ft) was very rotten and steep, so we were not feeling super confident about the rest of the climb.  Bare in mind this was Caroline’s first time in crampons and she was scaling a steep sketchy slope in the dark at about 17,000ft!  Very impressive.  Once that section was finished the ice turned to snow, the grip got much better and the route slightly less steep.  Unfortunately, at this point the wind really picked up and was beating us back as we tried to climb up.  This went on for about four more hours!  At one point a hail storm engulfed us and we had to literally crawl to avoid being pelted in the face by marble sized ice bullets, it was nuts.  There were a few times when we almost turned back, but we had expended so much energy by this point and were so close to the summit that we decided to push on.  Glad we did, because once the sun started to come up we felt a little better and could see that the summit was in reach.  Cotopaxi had other ideas.

As we neared the summit, about the last 200ft to the top, the wind slammed us.  The headwind must have been over 60mph (at least the ice bullets were gone) and we barely made it over the crest to the rim of the crater.  Once there we made our way to the actual summit and celebrated with hugs and high fives and a few tears.  It was by far the hardest climb I’ve ever been on, and Caroline’s first!  At least everything from this point on will be pretty easy for her.

We started up on the rocky trail from the refugio at 1am and hit the glacier about an hour later.

Summit! We made it up just after sunrise at 6:30am after a really tough climb in the dark.

High speed clouds whipping over the crater. Winds were reported to be at 60mph here. Felt like 100!

Standing on the clouds.

The sun pops up on February 18th.

Success!

The shadow of the mountain just after sunrise. Marco took our camera and got some great shots of us on the way down.

Wind turns the snow and ice into wild shapes near the summit. The volcano Antasana is visible in the background.

The steepness of the slope is clear in this shot. No fall zone.

Power breathing the whole way up and down was necessary as the air was very thin.

Don't look down! There were a few crevasses we had to hop over, but nothing too wide.

Basking in the sunshine at last.

One at a time over the snow bridges.

Yo estoy cansado.

We were so relieved to get down off the glacier, it was about nine hours round trip and we were spent. We still had another 45 minutes of slips and slides down the loose rock to the refuge.

Our guide Marco led us well and took the photos of us on the way down. Thank you Marco!

Next stop Buenos Aires!  Uhh, make that Lima.

Posted by: carogouin | February 9, 2010

enchanted ecuador

Clouds clear up to reveal a recent snowfall on the Cotopaxi volcano.

Despite the setback in Popayan, we continued our journey south and welcomed another country under our belt – Ecuador. The bus ride to the Ecuadorian border was actually one of the most beautiful drives, as we hugged the edge of canyons and overlooked lush valleys below. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a camera to take pictures, so you’ll have to take our word for it. Our 5th border crossing went very smoothly and consisted of a quick walk across a bridge and a few smiles to the custom officers who gave us free 90-day visas. Doesn’t get any better than that.

Our first stop in Ecuador was the small town of Otovalo, a lively city most famous for its sprawling Saturday market. Stands occupied the whole of the Plaza de los Ponchos, including almost every side street leading up to it, and featured all kinds of textile, jewelry, artwork and tapestry in the most vibrant colors. We only bought a few essentials, such as a new day bag for me.  Although there were wonderful souvenirs at shockingly low prices, we had to resist the urge, since we have no room in our backpacks and shipping costs home are outrageous.

We then made our way to Quito, the capital of Ecuador and the second-most populous city in the country. Our time there was mostly administrative, since we were occupied with finding the best deal on a good camera (I use the word “best” loosely, since electronics are at least 40% more expensive here than in the US), and arranging a once in a lifetime trip to the Galapagos Islands! We were mostly successful, since we bought a new Canon and booked our flight to the Galapagos. We weren’t quite satisfied with the price of last minute deals on Galapagos boat cruises – which we had heard is by far the best way to visit the islands – so we decided to wait it out and see what we could get once on the islands, fingers crossed.

The old town of Quito from the hostel

In the meantime, we had a few extra days to spare and were anxious to leave the noise, traffic and pollution of the big city, so we high tailed it to the countryside – best decision we made. We headed to Cotopaxi National Park, home of the highest active volcano in the world, and stayed at one of the most beautiful places and accommodations we’ve been to yet – The Secret Garden in Cotopaxi. This sustainable and well-managed hostel consisted of dorms, tents and cabins with a warm and friendly lodge where we ate all of our gourmet meals. The best part was the view overlooking a patchwork of colorful pastures and meadows with the jutting ice-capped Cotopaxi volcano as the pinnacle. It was truly spectacular and exactly what we needed to unwind and regain our sense of security and peace.

The beautiful countryside of Cotopaxi.

The serene grounds of the Secret Garden – we stayed in a cabin on the right.

The Secret Garden dining room table prepared for a breakfast feast.

Hiking down from the hills behind the Secret Garden hostel.

Llama ‘Oreo’ with her mother.

Of course it was not all lounging around, since we went on long hikes around the area and headed straight to the pinnacle itself – Cotopaxi, which means “Throne of the Moon”. A Jeep drove us to the base parking lot, where we continued on foot all the way to the refuge and finally to the foot of the glacier. Keep in mind that the plain on which Cotopaxi stands is already at 12,500 feet. It was easy to feel the elevation, though fortunately staying a few days before in Quito at 9,186 feet helped us acclimatize. When we finally reached the glacier, we were well over 16,400 feet. This is the highest that I’ve ever been (I haven’t made it to the Himalayas yet like Pat), and it was necessary to take deep breaths. The clouds were rolling in and out so we did sneak a peek at the summit several times and of course at the plain down below, which was as breathtaking. We were also lucky to share the experience with a great group of American girls (and one Dutch man). After we all headed back to the hostel, we cozied up in the lodge in front of the fireplace and enjoyed a wonderful candlelit-meal.

A full moon lights up Cotopaxi: the Throne of the Moon.

Cotopaxi gleaming in the sun.

The steep hike begins – we’re already over 12,500 feet.

On the trail up to the glacier.

!

At the foot of the Cotopaxi glacier.

A mountain fox waiting for handouts in the parking lot.

We made it to the glacier at 16,400 feet. The summit sits at 19,347 feet, maybe someday?

The hostel Dalmatian taunts a bigger version of itself.

We weren’t too thrilled to get back to Quito, but it was necessary in order to board our flight to the Galapagos! After countless 12+ hour bus rides winding over mountains, we were ecstatic to get on a plane and have a smooth and comfortable ride for once. They even served us lunch! You hardly find that in the US anymore. After landing on the island of Baltra, we had to make our way to the town of Puerto Ayora using a combination of bus-ferry-bus. This is where a lot of the boat cruises take off from. We found a local tour operator and asked her to make as many calls as she could to see what we could get at the very last minute (leaving the next day). She was persistent and ultimately successful, as she found us a 5-day/4-night cruise on a first class boat for a third of the price!

The next day, we boarded the Millennium – our palatial home for the next 5 days. It was exquisite and completely opposite from the Winfli sailboat from Panama to Colombia. This luxury catamaran was 82-feet long, held 16 passengers in 8 cabins with private bathrooms. The entire boat was air-conditioned, except for the boarding and deck areas equipped with lounge chairs. The food was amazing and served to us at the ring of a bell. Our naturalist guide, Vicky, was very knowledgeable and friendly and took us on at least 2 hikes and 2 snorkels per day to explore the various islands. We motored from island to island mostly at night, so every day we woke up next to a new beautiful island with the day’s agenda already set. We didn’t have to think or work – we just followed and enjoyed. It was a wonderful mini vacation from our vacation.

Our catamaran – the Millennium.

Lounging on the deck of our first class boat, ready to tour the Galapagos!

We were lucky again to have a great group on board.

The crew all dressed up for cocktails.

Our classy room with balcony.

I'm on a boat and... It's going fast and...

The Galapagos are known for the abundance of wildlife everywhere. They’re not kidding. Around every corner you’re bound to glimpse or step on sea lions, iguanas and loads of crabs and lizards. Most of the animals are endemic to the islands, which make it all the more exceptional. We saw giant tortoises and blue-footed boobies and a plethora of fish under water. The snorkeling was out of this world! We swam with all kinds of parrot fish, angel fish, sea turtles, sting rays, sea lions and even white and black-tipped reef sharks.

Baby giant tortoises, marked so they can be brought back to their native island when they are of age.

They grow up fast.

A colorful yellow land iguana endemic of the Galapagos.

A school of sting rays swing by.

A baby sea lion feeding from his mother at our first stop.

An alpha male sea lion guarding his territory.

One of the famous blue-footed boobies – endemic to the Galapagos and awesome hunters.

A visit to the mangroves revealed a dozen sea turtles swimming in the lagoons.

A land iguana to the right and lava lizard perched on a rock to the left.

A cute little Galapagos penguin, they were fun to swim with, so fast!

A colorful crab hiding in the rocks.

The baby sea lions were just too cute.

A marine iguana – they are excellent divers.

Baby sea lions coming right up to us. Back away slowly.

With all of these animals, you’d think that these islands would be overflowing with vegetation. In fact, these volcanic islands are quite arid, with only a few cacti and other small bush. That’s enough for land animals to survive – the water in the cacti is tasty. Jump in the water though, and you understand immediately. It’s an aquatic animal’s dream.

’The Chinese Hat’ – one of the many arid islands in the Galapagos.

Morning breaks upon Bartolome island.

Bartolome island.

We didn’t get to visit all the islands, but were so happy to have seen what we did, especially on our budget. And that means we still had to splurge, but it was well worth it. And it was a nice break from our usual routine. It’s hard to see everything the continent has to offer, so we do our best to choose what we think are the highlights. Cruising around the Galapagos was definitely one of them!

Posted by: Patrick | January 24, 2010

it was a nice camera

Sad to say we got robbed on Thursday afternoon while walking up a hill to a viewpoint in Popayan, a town in southern Colombia.  First of all, we are both completely fine, not hurt at all.

Around two in the afternoon we were taking a walk to this hill nearby called 3 crosses which overlooks the city, a popular tourist spot. The path up there was a dirt road through some woods and was a little remote.  We know better, but were feeling complacent in a nice seemingly safe small town.  We did bring the hostel owners’ dog with us, not that she helped!  Halfway up the path when no one else was around these two young guys walked up behind us.  They came up and showed us a knife and took our small North Face bag.  It happened really quickly, obviously all they wanted was the bag.  Unfortunately, in there was my sweet camera and some other small stuff.  We both had cash in our pockets which they did not take. We did what we were supposed to and did not resist.  The robbers just took the small pack and took off back down the path.  Obviously frightened, we quickly got up to the top of the hill where there were other people and called the police.  The police were there in a few minutes and took good care of us.  They made an effort to look for the guys – no luck though.  We went back to the police station and filled out a report, which we now have, and will need to make insurance claims for the camera, memory card, bag, headlamp, etc.

We are of course upset that it happened, but we are still fine.  We had a great time in Colombia, just too bad this happened on our second to last day there (we´re in Ecuador now). More upset at ourselves for having brought the camera and pack up there in the first place.  But glad that the only things stolen are replaceable and we weren´t hurt. We didn´t lose any pictures either, just the ability to take new ones!  We’ll look for a new camera in Quito tomorrow, so hopefully we won’t be without one for long.

Unfortunately not all of our stories are happy and fun, though we try our best to keep them that way.

Posted by: Patrick | January 21, 2010

the heart of Colombia

Hiking into the highlands of Colombia near Solento.

After the excitement and drama of the Lost City trek, we spent a few days relaxing and resting around Santa Marta then headed back to our favorite city, Cartagena.  It was sort of in the right direction and there were a few touristy sights that we had missed the first time.  Those were the excuses I used, but really, we just love the charm of the old city and wanted to enjoy it all over again.

From Cartagena we caught an all-night bus to Medellin, the geographic heart of Colombia, and Pablo Escobar’s old hometown.  A lot has changed since they gunned down ol’ Pablo on that Medellin rooftop, and we enjoyed five days of exploring in this changed city. For the first time we entered the lush mountainous area that Colombia is most know for and which is far different from the Caribbean coast.

Luckily for us the hostel we checked into was conveniently located near the Medellin Metro, a perfectly executed public transportation system that’s clean, efficient and cheap. There’s a north/south main line and a western spur, plus a new gondola system that links the lower-income neighborhoods up in the hills surrounding the city.  We spent a few days exploring the city via the Metro and also took a trip up to the mountains for some paragliding.  It was beautiful!  Caroline and her pilot ended up landing in the valley below and took a taxi back up top, while my pilot and I flew around the ridges for a while. We both had a great time.

One of the Metro Cable stations, which connect the hilly suburbs to the Metro trains in the valley below.

Overlooking Medellin from the Santo Domingo neighborhood.

Santo Domingo is high enough above the city to have a cooler climate, it was fun to explore around the steep and narrow streets.

The Biblioteca Espana is a new public library on one of the many hills overlooking the city.

Metro map: we stayed near the Sur Americana station right in the middle.

Caroline takes off on her first paragliding flight!

Continuing south we took a minivan (breakneck speeds, overtaking on blind curves, passenger throwing up in the seat behind us, the usual…) then a bus to the charming mountain town of Solento, high up in the Zona Cafeteria (Colombia’s coffee growing region).  The evening we arrived was the last night of Solento’s annual festival, so we partook in some great street food, entertainment and enjoyed the fireworks.  Following the good advice from an Argentine backpacker we met in Medellin, we stayed at Hostal Ciudad de Sergorba, which was more a B&B than hostel.  Enrique, the proprietor, was extremely friendly and made our stay there very enjoyable.  We went for a long day hike in nearby Parque de Cocora, a visually stunning region known for its tall wax palm trees that grow randomly throughout the cloud forest and farm land.  We met two nice German backpackers Anne and Mario who joined us for the hike, and we all ended up getting briefly chased by wild horses.

Looking down on Solento.

The view into town from our hostel.

Ever friendly Enrique from the hostel in Solento.

The wax palms drop into the farmland for quite the contrasting image.

Hummingbirds were all over this feeder, at least five different types!

Hummingbird feeding time. This makes a great desktop background by the way.

Lunch on the trail: Hot Chocolate, flat bread, block of cheese and two fried eggs.

Cloudy up here but you can still see the sun shining in the valley below.

These friendly looking horses chased us down the hill just after I took this picture. It was sort of scary and funny at the same time. Eventually they just took off away from us.

Our crew after having survived the horse chase: Anne, Mario, Caro and Me.

Wax palms are everywhere.

Caroline takes in another great day.

We hiked back down through these fields, a very surreal environment.

Mario joined us the next day for a tour of an organic coffee farm just down the road from Solento.  Honestly, I’m not much of a coffee drinker but I’ve started to really enjoy it here. Plus I just feel dumb ordering tea in Colombia, it’s a coffee country.  The tour was very interesting. Since coffee needs lots of shade to grow best, they intersperse banana, orange, pineapple and other trees/plants throughout the property.  So as this nice old farmer was showing us the whole coffee growing/picking/peeling/drying/peeling/grinding process, we were snacking on some fresh organic fruit too.

Pick the red ones, leave the green ones.

After peeling them, let them dry out for about 8 days or up to a month if it's been cloudy.

After a 40 minute roast, you grind away.

Nature's way of saying "Don't Touch."

A popular spider path on the road to the coffee farm.

Our next stop was Bogota, the massive capital of Colombia. Once a place that was avoided by travelers, it is now a highlight of the country.  We stayed in La Candelaria, which is the old colonial district in the center of downtown filled with trendy, tasty and cheap restaurants.  The highlight though came from a personal connection through my Dad’s client Carlos.  Carlos is a Colombian who lives in Frederick, but his brother-in-law Arturo runs a transportation & tour company in Bogota.  Arturo graciously provided us with our own driver and van for two days!  Fabio, our driver, took us all over Bogota and the surrounding towns for two days of sight-seeing.  It was fantastic!  We hiked up to the sacred laguna outside of Guatavita and explored the massive underground salt cathedral in Zipaquira.  Thank you!

A fine view from our room in Bogota.

Caroline in La Candelaria.

Above the sacred laguna.

Old Guatavita was a nice stop for lunch.

Fabio and Caroline in front of our ride.

Down in the Salt Cathedral.

The mirror pond in the Salt Cathedral. This place was impressively huge.

We paid a little extra for the 'Miners Tour' which meant we got to walk around with sweet helmets.

Arturo and I in Plaza Bolivar - downtown Bogota. We were very lucky to experience some real Colombian hospitality.

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