Ecuador; a ski expedition near the Amazon

In the Warren Miller movie “Off the grid” skiers talk about how great it is to see the world through skiing and I have to say, for me it really is. When some Austrians, who I had met in Bolivia during a high altitude trekking, recommended me to climb Cotopaxi, I started doing some research. Soon it became clear that skiing one of the highest active vulcanoes in the world is possible and my excuse to visit Ecuador was born.

After my adventure to Antarctica I had to go back home to the Netherlands. My insurance allowed me to travel for a maximum of a year. That year ended November 30. I arrived at Eindhoven airport where friends and family awaited me. The 10 days that followed were packed with dinners, drinks and a national holiday. It was great to have different conversations than the regular jibberjabber while on the road. The Indonesian cuisine, my favourite, delivered again and again. But most important, of course, the warmth of all the people made me realize where home is. Thanks guys!

At the 11th of December, I left the Netherlands and flew to Madrid where I took a plane to Quito the next day to start my next adventure for about 4 months. Most people visit Ecuador for one and the same reason, the Galapagos islands. The beauty of these islands can best be enjoyed under water. As a little boy I cried for hours when swimming lessons were on the agenda, resulting in terrible skills. Therefore I decided to spend my money differently. My main objective in Ecuador was to ski from the summit of Cotopaxi (5897 m), just because it seemed a cool idea to me. Well, and because I’d like to explore my boundaries within the sport of skiing. So far, I had only skied up to an elevation of 4200 meters. Skiing down from nearly 6000 meters is a different game (the combination of some steep pitches, significant exposure and exhaustion after every turn make it mentally tough and therefore a nice challenge). In order to do so, I had to acclimatize first. A couple of days in Quito (2800 m) and trekking / climbing three lower peaks would hopefully do the job. The East of Ecuador is known to have some nice jungle which is officially part of the Amazon region and since my love for tarantulas is immense, I booked a trip to check them out. In between a visit to Baños would give me some days to transition from high altitude activity to dealing with weird scary creatures. At the end of my visit to Ecuador, a night in Otavalo should give me more insight in local culture and some time to reflect on the trip.

Quito has a new airport that recently opened its runways. The old airport was quite dangerous because of its short runways and therefore a new one was desperately needed. The Mariscal Sucre International airport, the new one, is built in the middle of the mountains because, uuhhm, there was space. Now almost every flight has to deal with strong turbulence. While my flight went smoothly, I still arrived in the middle of the mountains. From there it took me at least 2 hours to get to downtown Quito. As usual when traveling to a non-typical-ski-destination, I had to explain multiple times what was in the huge bodybag. The guy at customs wished me luck when he found out that skiing Cotopaxi was my goal…

the historic center of Quito

the historic center of Quito

My 4 nights in Quito were spent in the Auberge Inn, close to the historic center of the city. This guesthouse is highly recommended and I can see why. The rooms are comfortable and cheap and the breakfast buffet is delicious. I wanted to spend a couple of days in Quito before my climbing adventures started in order to acclimatize a little bit since the city is located at an elevation of just over 2800 meters. Of course I also wanted to get a climpse of what the highest capital city of the world (la Paz is higher but is only considered to be the political capital of Bolivia, Sucre is their official capital) has to offer.

The first day I walked down to the historic part of town. This area is filled with beautiful churches and monasteries in a colonial setting. A mix of tourists (both national and international) and merchants fill the streets. In the afternoon I wanted to walk to the top of a hill. After a couple of minutes uphill two local ladies made clear that I would be killed and/or robbed in case I continued my journey. Since I still wanted to ski Cotopaxi, I turned around…

The next day I wanted to visit “Mitad del Mundo” (middle of the world), the park where the equator is officially located. Or at least in the old days measurements showed it was there. According to more modern methods, the line is located more than 200 meters from the one in the park although its validity is criticized as well (as is the case for the point near Cayambe and an Inca monument, both claiming to be on the equator too). There is no certainty where the real equator can be found in a country called Ecuador, strangely enough. I decided to visit the place that was built to commemorate the site where a French explorer calculated the world’s equatorial line in 1743. The city has a population of around 2,2 million people. However, those people are spread out over a huge mountainous area which makes transportation complicated. In order to get there I had to take two local buses. In just under two hours they will take you from the center to this park which is located around 15 km outside the city. But, you’ll only have to pay 50 dollar cents…

one foot in the Northern - and the other in the Southern hemisphere, well, according to old measurements that is...

one foot in the Northern – and the other in the Southern hemisphere, well, according to old measurements that is…

In the evening I went to a jazzclub called El Pobre Diablo. Since Quito can be classified as a shithole in my opinion, I had no idea what to expect from a jazzclub here. First, I needed some money in order to enter the club. Cash machines are abundant in Quito, but the ones that work are limited. I had checked about five ATMs every day but none had worked. The one that seems to work for most tourists is Pichincha bank. However that one didn’t seem to work either. Apparantly my main bank had blocked all my cards. After some phonecalls I could finally get some money and life on the road continued. Close to 10 pm I arrived at El Pobre Diablo to witness a concert of “The faculty”, a jazz sextet with a female Russian singer (you can read more about my visit to El Pobre Diablo by clicking here). The club was surprisingly nice with a bar, a balcony and a nice stage. This place could have been anywhere in the world (well, apart from Sudan perhaps…). After two sessions of good music, I called it a night and went back to the guesthouse.

After three days of exploring Quito and acclimatizing a bit, time had come to start going higher with the ultimate goal of skiing from the summit of Cotopaxi, with its 5897 meter a serious challenge. Together with three others and a guide, I started with two hikes around Quito: Rucu Pichincha (4698 m) and Guagua Pichincha (4784 m). These two peaks are located on an active volcano with Rucu meaning “old person” and Guagua meaning “child” in Quechua, the language spoken by the indigenous people in the Americas. Luckily for us there were no eruptions on the agenda and we all succesfully made it to the summits before we left to a small town called El Chaupi.

on the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4698 m) with Quito in the background

on the summit of Rucu Pichincha (4698 m) with Quito in the background

El Chaupi is located near two other popular peaks in Ecuador, called Illiniza Sur and Illiniza Norte. We climbed Illiniza Norte (5126 m) as a last preparation before attempting Cotopaxi. We left around 4 am in order to summit before the bad weather would come in which normally happens early afternoon. A long easy walk led us to the hut at 4700 meters where we enjoyed a drink and some food before we started the final part of the climb. The more than 400 remaining meters of vertical to the summit are steeper and more of a scramble or easy rock climb. A fun climb which was made a bit unpleasant because of my headache that turned up. However, we all reached the summit. A beautiful panorama was blocked by a thick layer of clouds, just like the day before at Guagua Pichincha. In other words, we couldn’t see a thing!

Back at the hostel in El Chaupi we had a rather small dinner, not optimal during a couple days of intense exercise. The next day we set up camp at around 3800 meters on Cotopaxi. Normally climbers stay at the hut at 4800 meters but since we were not all acclimatized well enough, the guide decided this was a better option. During the day it became clear we were going to be guided by two non-English-speaking guides together with Pablo, the main guide. When the guides messed up our drinking water, I decided to say something about the situation since we were all disappointed. We booked a trip with English-speaking guides and we all relied on the drinking water provided by the agency. As a result of my confrontation Pablo didn’t want to ski with me anymore. Because of my questions, he concluded I was a bad ski mountaineer. What can I say, not all guides are beautiful minds…

After some strong words from my side (this is the understatement of the year!) we went to bed. We were having breakfast at 10….10 pm that is! Yes, that is the second breakfast of the day. I had no intension of going out anymore since I was there to ski Cotopaxi. Filled with adrenaline I couldn’t sleep. At 10 pm however, Pablo had changed his mind a little bit. He suddenly wanted to try to ski with me again. Maybe he had taken my suggestions a bit too literally…

Cotopaxi is part of the chain of volcanoes around the Pacific plate known as the Pacific Ring of Fire. It has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world, which starts at the height of 5,000 meters. At its summit, Cotopaxi has a 800 x 550 m wide crater which is 250 m deep. We started our climb at 11:30 pm from the parking lot around 4600 meters. My skis were carried by two of the guides (I didn’t ask for this service but Pablo insisted…). We slowly progressed and soon we arrived at the glacier. Crampons and ice axes were needed from this point. Shortly after the start of the glacial ascent, it started snowing heavily and my headache turned up again. To summarize: a human being walks up a mountain in the middle of the night, in heavy snow, with a headache, for about 9 hours, with three guides of whom he hates one and can’t communicate with the other two, and paid money for it. Yes, if you put it like this, I am an absolute nutcase!

standing on top of Cotopaxi (5897 m) in a complete whiteout

standing on top of Cotopaxi (5897 m) in a complete whiteout

Early morning the others went back down and I was left alone with Pablo. Regardless of our fight the previous evening, we continued to the summit. Completely exhausted I arrived at 5897 meters, only to realize there was no visibility at all. The beautiful crater and the high altitude panorama could not be seen. Well, every single time I ascend a volcano with a crater in order to ski it, I couldn’t see a thing on the summit. Let’s say it was no surprise…

Because of the snowfall, the conditions to ski were not too bad. In fact, they were pretty good. A beautiful descent was waiting for me after all. Making turns at an elevation close to 6000 meters is tough though and care had to be taken. Every now and then we passed some climbers walking down but in general it felt like we had the whole mountain to ourselves. Pretty good feeling if you’d ask me! The descent ended at the hut at 4800 meters where I enjoyed a nice drink before walking back to the parking lot. The others were all waiting of course and we quickly made our way back to civilization. For a more detailed report of my ski expedition to Cotopaxi, click here.

The adventures in the mountains were finished and I could finally leave Andestrek and went to Baños, or Baños de Agua Santa in full, to enjoy my freedom. Baños is a popular town both with national – as with international tourists. All sorts of activities are offered making it the adventure capital of Ecuador. It´s located about three to four hours by bus Southeast of Quito and is a small and laidback town. A nice change to Quito in that regard. However, the presence of too many tour agencies offering rafting, canopy, canyoning, mountainbiking etc. ruin the charm of this town. The first day I checked out the main hot springs (Baños means baths in Spanish) and of course I got heavily sunburned. The next day I tried to escape the town and checked out the ¨Ruta de cascadas¨ or the waterfall route. Baños is located in the middle of some mountainous terrain, with Tungurahua (the most active volcano of the country) around the corner, and therefore many waterfalls can be found here. The first few were not that impressive but as the journey progressed the falls got better and better. Looking back at the route, I should probably have visited only the last one since ¨El pailón del diablo¨ (the devil’s bucket) made all the other waterfalls look like insignificant streams…

"El pailón del diablo" in its full glory

“El pailón del diablo” in its full glory

After three nights in Baños my journey continued to the Northeast of Ecuador. Close to the border with Colombia, Cuyabeno National Park is located. Five days in this remote jungle should give me an idea of what life looks like amongst big trees, curly rivers and a lot of creepy animals…

The busride from Baños to Lago Agrio, the starting point for tours into this part of the jungle, had to be the most uncomfortable one I ever experienced. My seat was directly behind the driver, meaning legroom was limited. The combination of unlimited sharp turns and a wannebe Michael Schumacher (in terms of his driving, not his skiing…) made sleeping simply impossible. And, the one time I did get some sleep, a police officer entered the bus to take some pictures while using his flashlight in the middle of my face (yes, this is a dodgy area close to the Colombian border so they want to record all the passengers in every bus). The bus was supposed to arrive at 8 am but around 4:30 I was sitting in front of Hotel d´Mario where I would be pickup up around 9 am. A pleasant start of my tour to the jungle…

Together with two other travelers, I hopped in the minibus towards Guacamayo ecolodge in Cuyabeno National Park. In around two hours we made it to the entrance of the park. A good chance to catch up on some sleep. We all registered and another two hours of transportation awaited us, this time by motorized canoe. Beautiful landscape passed by and around 1 pm we arrived at the lodge for a nice welcome lunch. After lunch we all got a briefing for the days to come. Our exploration would be done by foot and by boat. We would also visit a local village with their shaman. However, the most disturbing message of our guide was that we had to make sure we checked our hut for snakes and tarantulas before going to bed, thanks for the comforting words my friend…

The first night, after our excursion to the big lagoon for a swim, I survived the check of the hut. The following morning was spent in the motorized canoe, after I watched one of the guests catching a piranha from the pier. We were mainly looking for all sorts of birds, turtles and monkeys. Pink dolphins were also around but, because of the low waterlevel, not very likely to show up. On the way back to the lodge we changed the motorized canoe for one with paddles. This way we could manoeuvre quietly through the jungle (and the lodge saved some money on fuel…) in order to spot more animals. Our hard work paid off as we found a big group of Saki monkeys, high up in the trees. In the evening we went for a nightwalk. We saw a scorpion spider and some very well camouflaged frogs. Around sunset, when we still had to walk back for two hours, I noticed my left hand had swollen because of some bite, interesting. As Guns N’ Roses once sang, welcome to the jungle baby…

a Saki monkey in Cuyabeno National Park

a Saki monkey in Cuyabeno National Park

The lodge also featured a nice tower making birdspotting really easy in the early morning. Just after sunrise a beautiful concert was played. It has to be said, the birds only perform when it isn’t raining. A lot of different birds were around. The most notable were the blue-and-yellow macaws and the toucans. Unfortunately they were not flying close enough to the tower for some great photographs but they provided some nice early morning entertainment. Once birdwatching was finished, breakfast was about to get started. Breakfast usually consisted of fresh fruit juices, some bread, eggs, a pancake and fruit. Together with some nice tea with milk, it proved a solid way to start the day with some canoeing. After another beautiful day on the river, we got back at the lodge. That evening it started raining (please, don’t take the dry season in Ecuador too literally…), resulting in a lot of insects in both the common areas and the huts. During dinner suddenly a lot of people were gazing at the roof above the entrance. A huge tarantula showed up! And he was not alone, there were two others, one smaller version in the restaurant and an even bigger one in the hammock area. Taking a photo was not easy with my hands shaking like a leaf…

a tarantula in the restaurant, both beautiful and disgusting at the same time...

a tarantula in the restaurant, both beautiful and disgusting at the same time…

Luckily for me I didn’t spot any tarantulas or snakes in my hut. Who knows they might have been there but I have had decent nights of sleep regardless of all the hidden creatures. Others though, were complaining about big spiders (no tarantulas) and beetles in their cabin. After five days of exploring the jungle I had seen quite a few animals. Many different species of birds, beautiful blue butterflies, a decent amount of monkeys, a giant otter, some turtles, caimans, a harpy eagle (the largest eagle in the world!), tarantulas and frogs to name a few. Unfortunately our group didn’t see any pink dolphins. Besides seeing all these animals, we also paid a visit to a local community. Sceptical as I am, I wasn’t expecting much. Maybe a fake dance or some singing with some handicrafts for sale at the end…

A two hours canoe ride finally brought us to the shaman. A shaman is a doctor of an Indian tribe, called the Siona community. On arrival he told us the resident anaconda was visible, however hidden deep inside the trunk of a tree. One by one we laid down on the ground and put our head in the trunk in order to see one of the biggest snakes in the world. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see its face, but it was still another wildlife encounter. Next, the shaman explained the working of some of the plants surrounding his house. Ayuasca and the stronger Angel’s trumpet are two plants that are being used to get both the shaman and the patients onto their spiritual journey. The shaman then communicates with the spirits and asks them to heal the patient. What I liked about this shaman is that he admitted he can’t cure all diseases. When he can’t help the patient, he tells them to go to the hospital for surgery. I guess he keeps up with modern times…

left: the Shaman of the Siona community, right: a local lady is preparing some cassava bread

left: the Shaman of the Siona community, right: a local lady is preparing some cassava bread

After showing us a healing ritual with a volunteer (not me!) time had come to say goodbye to the doctor of the Siona community. However, we still had to visit the other people of the community. After a short break to have lunch on a deserted beach, we entered the village to make an original cassava bread and play some Indian darts (blow darts through a huge blowpipe), MvG eat your heart out!

The cassava bread is still eaten on a daily basis and therefore witnessing the process was authentic to me. We took some yuca from the ground and rasped and dried them before the final breads were cooked. By visiting the Siona community, I expected a touristy affair but I was wrong. I actually got a little insight in the daily life of an Indian community.

After five days I left the Guacamayo ecolodge. I had seen many animals and made some new friends. Of course, you know me, there were also some people who could have stayed away if you’d ask me. Most important though, I had experienced the jungle or at least I felt I had. At the goodbye dinner one of the main guides described life in the jungle as follows:

“For most people life in the jungle seems to be dangerous. There are so many scary animals and you can get all kinds of diseases. However, for us, people of the jungle, life here is simple. Life in the city is dangerous for us with all the people and its traffic.We don’t care about tarantulas and snakes and we couldn’t imagine a better place to live.”

I guess it’s great to live life from a different perspective from time to time to widen your horizon. Thanks Dario for being a great guide!

I took a bus back to Quito and arrived late at night. I quickly booked a bed in one of the hostels in Mariscal in order to continue towards Otavalo the next morning. Just before new year I wanted to check out its famous market in order to capture some more culture before I would leave to Colombia. Arrival in Quito happened at the Quitombe terminal, all the way in the South of the city. A taxi to the center cost me just as much as the eight hour journey by bus, 8 USD. In order to get to Otavalo, I had to take a 10 USD taxi ride to Carcelén terminal in the North of the city followed by a two hour busride costing me 2 USD. What a city…

The market in Otavalo is at its largest on Saturdays. However, during the other days of the week its size is still significant. All kinds of goods were offered ranging from fruit and vegetables to clothes and handicrafts. A DJ provided some music and all the food stalls provided enough energy to keep exploring and shopping all day. Local women wear a beautiful traditional costume. Together with all the colourful produce, it made for an enjoyable stroll. In the evening I checked out the best Mexican restaurant Ecuador has to offer (that’s not a significant prize since Mexican food is pretty bad in this country!); Taco Bello. Both the taco and the burrito tasted delicious!

a vendor is having lunch at the Otavalo market

a vendor is having lunch at the Otavalo market

Time to summarize. It might be obvious that Quito is not my favourite city in the world. The city lacks atmosphere in my opinion and doesn’t feel very safe. ATMs don’t work very well and logistics are very complicated and time consuming. I guess it serves as a base to explore the country but nothing more than that in my opinion. Climbing and trekking are, besides the Galapagos, the main attractions of this country. I have mixed feelings about my high altitude adventures. The company I had booked with, Andestrek, didn’t deliver great service making it a bit annoying. However, I accomplished my goal of skiing from the summit of Cotopaxi. This of course, is a great feeling and a great experience to add to my bag. I wish I had a clear sky on the summit but I can’t control the weather. The only memory I have now, is the one in my mind. The jungle was a completely different but good story. Who could have thought that I survived being within a meter of several tarantulas. Exploring the jungle in a canoe was very nice and falling asleep with the sounds of the jungle was great. To mix things up, and to relax a bit in between adventures, Baños and Otavalo are nice places to go. Overall, not a bad trip!

Next on the agenda is Colombia. During my travels so far, I have met too many people raving about this country in order not to visit this part of the world too. The people are supposed to be very warm, friendly and welcoming. Nature has several things to offer there as well. Let’s check it out!

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Ecuador!

One Response to Ecuador; a ski expedition near the Amazon

  1. Jelle says:

    Nice story again Paulus! Hope you will enjoy Colombia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*