Sunday, November 15, 2015

Volcanoes on the Equator

Greetings All,
We're in Ecuador, a small South American country that straddles the equator.  We arrived in the capital city of Quito late on November 3rd.  Here is a map of Ecuador with the places we'll visit.  

Map showing places we'll visit in Ecuador

We had a few days to relax and acclimatize to the higher elevation of Quito at 9350 feet.  On one of our free days we decided to visit the town of Otavalo where there is a market full of brightly-coloured, woven craftwork and the indigenous people of Otavalo wear their traditional dress on a daily basis.

Handicrafts in Otavalo Market

Otavaleno Woman

For lunch we went to Hacienda Pinsaqui 5km north of Otavalo.  First built in 1790, this restored colonial hacienda was originally a textile workshop.  At one time 1000 local weavers and spinners were employed here.  The fabrics woven here were exported to the US in the late 1800's.

Hacienda Pinsaqui

After lunch we visited Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.  At the southern end of the reserve is Cuichoca Lake which means "Lake of the Guinea Pigs."  We took a short walk to the rim of the crater lake which was formed about 3100 years ago by a massive eruption.  Today the weather was not cooperative and we got limited views of the lake and caldera.  We are going to return here in a few days with the rest of our trek group to hike around the rim of caldera.

Cuicocha Lake

The following day the remainder of our trek group trickled into Quito.  Two members of our group arrived from Peru having just done the Inca Trail and the remaining 5 came directly from the UK.  First up on our agenda was a visit to El Panecello (small piece of bread), a 200-meter volcanic hill overlooking Old Quito.  The views were obscured by clouds.  On a clear day we could see the volcanoes of Cotopaxi and Chimbarizo.  On top was a 45-meter stature of the Virgin Mary.  It was engineered and erected by Anibal Lopez of Quito in 1976.  Madonna is standing on a globe and stepping on a snake.  Her wings are unusual in making her look more like an angel.

Virgin of Quito

It was raining as we toured Old Quito.  Street vendors were out in full force selling umbrellas with shouts of "paraguas, paraguas!".  We went to the main square (Independence Square) with a monument to Ecuador's independence from Spain on August 10, 1809. On the eastern edge of the plaza is the Presidential Palace.  We couldn't go in but peered through the gate.  Two soldiers were guarding the entrance.  

Entrance to the Presidential Palace

The next stop was La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (Church of the Society of Jesus) is a spectacularly ornate Jesuit church.  It is decorated with lots of gold.  Unfortunately, photos aren't allowed inside the church.  Construction of the church began in 1605 and was completed in 1765.  la Compañía is one of the most significant works of Spanish Baroque architecture in South America. 

La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús 

Our last stop was the Church and Monastery of St. Francis, commonly known as el San Francisco, a 16th-century Roman Catholic complex.   It fronts onto its namesake Plaza de San Francisco.   The style evolved over almost 150 years of construction (1534-1680).  We discreetly snapped a photo inside this church.

Church and Monastery of St. Francis 

We went to an Ecuadorian restaurant for lunch.  One of our group was brave and decided to try the Guinea pig.  A splayed Guinea pig complete with its head arrived on a platter.  It didn't look very appetizing. 

Guinea Pig Anyone?

These animals play a significant part in the everyday life of Ecuadorians as they reproduce rapidly and need a minimum of food and care to survive. They make for a high protein meal especially for populations living in high altitude.

The next day we woke to bright sunshine, finally!  We returned to Cuichoca Lake this time with our trek group and much improved weather.  Our local guide, Antonio, and his young daughter, Cesa, led us on a hike around the lake.

Cuichoca Lake

In preparation for climbing some of Ecuador's high volcanoes, we did a 3-day trek through the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve.  Our trek started in the village of Pablo Arenas.  We followed a road through the village and climbed through cultivated fields and cow pastures.  We passed many fields growing a tomato-like fruit called Tamarillo on small trees.  We called them the "Tomato Forest."  

"Tomato Forest"

We could see the village of San Francisco our destination on a plateau not far above us.  It looked so close.  First we had to climb down through forest to cross a ravine on two logs with a cable. 

Marc Crossing the Ravine

We climbed out of the ravine on a steep muddy track.   We had to climb back down to cross another ravine and then had to climb another 600 feet To reach the village of San Francisco at 9600 feet. Camp had been set up on a soccer field.

Camp at San Francisco

We left San Francisco the next morning and headed up toward the clouds.  We climbed barren hillsides where the forest had been cleared to grow crops and graze cattle.  We saw some beautiful red and blue tanagers and hummingbirds.  

Sapphire-vented Puffleg

We had to cross a forest covered ravine whose slopes were too steep to clear.  The trees in the mountain forest were draped in moss.  

Hiking through the Mountain Forest

We wondered how much of this mountain forest remains.  We climbed steeply out of the forest and into the high grasslands called paramo to the high point for the day at 13,200 feet.  We traversed a few ridges where cattle were grazing (they aren't suppose to be in the reserve but the locals ignore the rules).  Finally we could see camp set up next to Yanacocha Lake below. 

Camp at Yanacocha Lake

It was a long 4500-foot descent back to our bus the following day.  We started the descent by climbing up to a ridge.  As we were approaching the high point for today's trek, Marc spotted a White-tailed deer on top.  It ran off at our approach.  The descent back to the bus took forever.  We stayed high, traversing ridge after ridge but not dropping into a valley.  We saw a second deer running off below us.  We stopped for lunch still high on a ridge.  Finally, we started dropping down and down.

Descending from Yanachocha Lake

On November 12, we climbed our first volcano, Imbabura.  We drove up to just over 10,000 for the start of our climb.  We hiked up the road a bit and turned off to follow a muddy trail through eucalyptus trees.  We pushed our way through bushes and tussock grass.  It was cloudy and misty as we climbed higher over hills of tall, wet grass.  We left the main trail which climbed straight up the ridge to climb some switchbacks.  We rejoined the main trail which headed up the ridge.  As we turned a corner, we were hit with a fierce, cold wind. I followed Raoul, our local guide, closely up the ridge which was becoming narrower.  We arrived at the rock scrambling section which was not difficult with lots of hand and foot holds but there were some exposed sections.  Fortunately for me, the long drop offs were covered in clouds and I couldn't see how far I'd fall if I missed a step. We arrived at the north summit at around 15,000 feet.    The view was obscured by clouds but we still posed for a group shot on the top.

Our group on the summit of Imbabura Volcano

Now for our next objective, Cayambe Volcano at 19,000 feet!  It is both Ecuador's third highest peak and the third highest peak in the Americas north of the Equator. It also has the distinction of being the highest point on the Earth's surface through which the Equator directly passes. The climb starts from the Bergé Ruales Oleas Refuge at around 15,000 feet.  When we arrived at the Refugio, Cayambe loomed high above us in bright sunshine.

Us with Cayambe Volcano Behind

We had an early dinner before settling into our 6-person bunkroom which I shared with 4 men (including Marc). 

Our Bunkroom at  Bergé Ruales Oleas Refuge

We didn't get much sleep before getting up at 11PM to prepare for our climb.  There's so much equipment (plastic double boots, crampons, ice axe, climbing harness, helmet, headlamp, plenty of warm clothes, water and food) to assemble for a high altitude climb.  We headed out in darkness around midnight and scrambled up some rocks before reaching the glacier where we put on our crampons and roped up.  Marc and I were on one team led by Diego who is also our trip leader.  It took us a grueling 7 hours to climb 2.5 miles to the top!  There were times I felt like quitting but I kept pressing on.  We jumped over deep crevasses as we made our way up the massive Hermoso Glacier.  Around 7AM we reached the summit.  The wind was blowing fiercely, my heart beating wildly and I was gasping for air but we had made it!

Us on the Summit of Cayambe

We were above the clouds.  Cotopaxi Volcano was spewing ash to the west and we could just make out Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest peak, on the southern horizon. 

View of Erupting Cotopaxi Volcano 

We didn't linger on top for too long.  It was cold and we wanted to get down before the snow conditions changed.  We followed the same route down but now in daylight I could see what we had missed on the way up.

View on the way down from Cayambe

As we neared the bottom of the glacier it started to sleet and rain but a rainbow emerged over a tiny lake brightening my spirits.  It took us 3 hours to return to the refuge.  What an exciting and challenging start to our Ecuadorian adventure!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc