Over the course of the last few weeks this motorcycle ride has taken a decidedly different turn. I’ve been living above 2,000 meters for the last nine days and it’s only up from here. We crossed into winter just before Quito and every day on the road takes us further into the cold. Of course this hemisphere is working its way toward summer, but that’s four months away. Until then, the shorts and tee shirts will stay at the bottom of my stuff sacks with flannels and jeans on top.
Friday the gang was ready and we headed for the hills. Garmin doesn’t make maps for Ecuador so Charlie’s GPS couldn’t save the day on our way toward Cotopaxi. We had written directions, though, and they were good enough. There was a lot of head scratching, but by 1:00pm we pulled up to the Secret Garden hostel via ten miles of wet, slippery cobblestone road. Charlie and I have both decided that we are getting better tires as soon as possible. The Pirellis we currently ride are fine for tarmac, weak on gravel, and dangerous in dirt. With Peru and Bolivia in the distance, we are each going to buy a pair of Continental TKC-80’s (the stock BMW dual-sport tire) as soon as we can find them. Until then, we’ll just have to do what we did Friday: let the tires slide and do your best to keep the center of gravity on top of them.
Our hostel in Quito for the first two days was called Secret Garden. It was a decent night’s sleep, but we had complaints. More than the inflated prices, cold showers, and weak Wi-Fi, the security guard pissed us off the most. Quito municipal law states that city-wide quiet hours start at 11:00pm, so Secret Garden shuts down all common areas at 10:30pm and hires a contract security guard to enforce the curfew. Being treated like children is annoying enough; when the hostel staff first told me to go to bed at 10:30pm I laughed. It’s inconceivable. Then I met the security guard and while taking a leak in the public bathroom past curfew. He was an asshole and yelled at me for wandering around past curfew. The night only got worse from there for the other guests. Two people caught the guard trying to pickpocket them. He advanced on half the female residents. Worst of all, he pulled his baton out and threatened to whack an Australian for eating chicken in the common area with the lights off. We found the Aussie minutes later finishing the meal on the toilet in our dormitory. All this for just $10/night!
Secret Garden in Quito grew old real quick, but everyone kept saying that the real gem was their outpost hostel out in the hills near Cotopaxi National Park. We showed up on the bikes with high hopes, and for the most part, they were fulfilled. I’ll get the bad out of the way first. The food at Secret Garden Cotopaxi was a joke. Every meal left me hungry for more and starved of protein. I’m struggling to keep weight on right now and getting ¼ hotdog per meal did not help. Sure there were all the free bananas you could eat, but they were also the base ingredient for most meals. Which leads me to the toilet: a composting dung heap. There was also very limited electricity. Candles are great, but often the rooms didn’t have enough to see across the room. The only heat was a fireplace in each dorm (actually pretty cool). The whole point of Secret Garden Cotopaxi is to be green and self-sufficient, etc. But at $30/night for a bunk bed, I expect a bit more than bird food and a glorified outhouse.
That said, I did enjoy my stay in the mountains. There were three volunteer hosts who had the most interaction with us and they were great. Eli and David from Utah as well as Dominic from Germany created a super fun, laid-back atmosphere the entire time I was there. The day we arrived Charlie and I did a two hour hike to a nearby waterfall with Dominic. It wasn’t too intense, but the 3,500 meter elevation had me wheezing the whole way. That night over our vegetable soup main course we committed to a tour into Cotopaxi National Park that included a hike to the glacier.
Charlie, Cass, and I hopped in a Mazda pickup with our certified guide Carlos Saturday morning set off for the world’s highest active volcano (Andy decided to hang back and plan the route to Peru). It was an hour and a half ride out there on roads that were better suited for our dirt bikes. The terrain was surreal; sparse grassland with giant boulders scattered across it. Every so often a pine forest would pop up and then disappear just as quickly. By the time we arrived at the trailhead parking lot there were patches of snow in every direction and we were high in the clouds.
With the wind blowing at least 15mph, we got dressed for the cold and followed Carlos to the trailhead. Carlos walked us right up to a shale hill and pointed up. 300 meters above was a building in the distance. It was a kilometer hike straight up with nearly 1,000 foot gain. There were no switchbacks, just one foot in front of the other for forty-five straight minutes of struggling to breathe. About half-way up Cass was forced to turn around with the initial signs of altitude sickness. Charlie and I kept plodding along following 5’8” Carlos who’s tree trunk legs powered straight up like a machine. By the time we reached the destination both Charlie and I were absolutely winded, but excited to finally get some exercise.
The building on top is a refuge and starting point for mountaineers attempting to summit the peak. The elevation: 4,810 meters. Highest I’ve ever been. We stopped inside for a hot tea and a Snickers. The tour usually continues on to the base of the glacier, but Carlos learned in the refuge that an avalanche had cut off the route to the glacier for tourists like us. That’s alright, we had proved ourselves. Charlie and I climbed a little higher for some pictures; it was cold. Not Alaska cold, but I figured out it was about -7F degrees with wind chill… on the equator. Charlie walked past the eves of the refuge and saw icicles for the first time in his life. They don’t have real mountains in Australia.
Satisfied, we descended in about fifteen minutes taking bounding steps like astronauts shuffling down the slope. We found Cass fully recovered at the bottom and all piled in the truck. Carlos got us home by 2:00pm. Around 5:00pm the clouds lifted and we got to see the snow-covered peak for the first time. They say Cotopaxi is one of the most perfectly formed volcanos. I understand; it rises out of nothing and comes to a perfect point at the top. All of us agreed it would be a treat to watch it blow. We still haven’t seen lava on this trip and that needs to change.