Travelling Part 3
We've made it to the third and, sadly, the final part of the trip. I've got mixed emotions at this point. One part of me never wants the adventure to end, having new experiences every day and no responsibility other than enjoying myself. However, there is another, slightly smaller, part who is missing the people at home and is a bit tired of living out of a bag! We say goodbye Franky in Quito and say hello to Freddy, and make our way to Otavalo.
I didn't know what to expect at Otavalo, but I knew I love a market and this small town is based around one. The entrance of the market looked a little bit like any other market you might find in London, just 3 times the size, with knock-off Adidas and identical t-shirts at every stall. We followed the street and popped out in the centre of the market, which stretched further than we can see with gorgeous handicrafts, jewellery, clothes and blankets. Laura and I popped to a coffee shop to refuel, before taking our time moseying through the stalls. I'm a lover of silver jewellery, and here I was surrounded by it. Freddy had told us that haggling is expected here, but it's never been anything I've been any good at. Fortunately for me, Laura is, and I ended up with a colourful ring that represents Pachamama and a pair of dungarees which I wish I could've bought in every colour. Some members of the group made a journey up to a waterfall which looked beautiful, but I felt a little waterfalled-out and was happy to sit back for the afternoon.
The following day we left Otavalo to make our way to Cotapaxi volcano, and on the way, we took a pit-stop at the true equator. This was such an interesting place, the staff were so knowledgeable and I was hooked listening to every word- just a shame I can hardly remember any of it! There was lots about the stars, gravity, mind-boggling space stuff that I could've listened to all day. A bunch of weird and fun things can happen at the equator, too, such as a little trick we were taught. If someone squeezed their thumb and index finger tightly together when stood in one hemisphere, it was near impossible for someone else to pull them apart, but when they were stood on the equator they came apart easily. No one believes it until it happens to you! Apparently there are a few sites in Ecuador that claim to be the true equator which I think were discovered by ancient communities, but a quick check of our co-ordinates showed that this was the real deal. Back on the bus and to Cotapaxi we go!
Hands down, this was my favourite place I stayed for the whole trip. 20 minutes driving up a bumpy rustic road had me wondering where we were going to be staying, but I was in love as soon as we stopped the bus. We pulled up to a rustic thatch-roofed building and fields of horses, and were quickly greeted by the wonderfully warm owners. Before we found our rooms we were ushered into a beautiful living-room space, with a log fire to help us to adapt to the drop in temperature. We were then brought mini empanadas, aji, and canelazo. The latter is a welcome drink which, to me, had a bit of a Christmas taste to it. It's citrus and cinnamon, with a sweet sugar-cane liquor, should you chose to add some (duh). I was in heaven.
Fredy ran through the activities that were available for us, and after scoffing enough empanadas to feed me for the day, I decided I wanted to learn how to make them in a cooking class. Finally, Laura and I were shown to our (beautiful) room and, after lunch (I had a beautiful tomato soup which was heated with a volcanic rock!), we decided to go for a walk with a few other lovely ladies. The scenery on our walk felt oddly close to home, with green rolling hills and a cold wind. Lisa, from Scotland, had remarked how similar it looked to the Scottish Highlands. We managed to walk right past the waterfall we had gone to see but enjoyed the walk and the views nonetheless. At the highest peak of our short trek, we did manage to catch a glimpse at Cotapaxi before it hid behind the clouds again.
We got back with enough time to put our feet up for a moment before I got cooking. It was just Tammy and me who had decided to cook, which meant we ate far too many empanadas to ourselves! But it was great fun and I've already had another go making them at home, I just need to work on my dough twisting techniques that our teacher had made look so easy. It was such a delight to find a hot water bottle and layers of alpaca wool blankets when we slid into bed, feeling very relaxed and slightly disappointed to only be in this mountain paradise for one night.
It was finally the big day, the walk up Cotapaxi volcano. Thus far I had been lucky and felt no real effects of the high altitudes that we had experienced all over Ecuador. I think I probably put any feelings of shortness of breath down to my asthma. Due to this, I think I had become a bit too confident and had no idea of the challenge I was about to face. We drove what felt like quite a way up the mountain to where we would begin our walk, and I felt maybe a bit deflated when I saw where we were walking to, as it didn't look that far. What a naive numpty I was. There was a direct path to the top but Fredy insisted we took the snakey one to allow ourselves to adjust to the altitude, and I am never one to ignore the advice of a local, so off we went. It wasn't long until the group had split into little pockets on our way up, as some of us began to tire whilst others (Gia) have lungs of steel and powered on up. Laura and I stuck together through this one and caught up to Renee and Tammy further along our trek. Turns out I hade greatly overestimated my abilities in this environment, and I am not shy to admit that I really struggled. My breathing felt as though I was in the middle of a 5-mile run, my vision hazy and my head spinny, and I was very hot and sweaty until I was hit with the cold mountain wind again. Nausea came in waves. I had been told that if you had a dizzy head you should come down as it means your brain isn't getting enough oxygen, but I'd gone that far there was no way I wasn't going to make it. I took very regular breaks and, with no shortage of support from the ladies around me, I made it to the 16,000ft high refuge. I've never felt a joy like it, I was so proud of myself! I felt wonderful as I sipped my coca tea and looked at the view. It was a weirdly reflective time. I remember feeling a mixture of pride, being almost overwhelmed at what I was looking at, and a little melancholy that I couldn't share it with my loved ones who I hadn't seen in so long. It looked like we were above the clouds, and could even see Quito. It felt even better to welcome everyone else up to the finish line as they made it up in their own time. The atmosphere was not one of competition or judgement, just encouragement and, ultimately, relief! The journey back down was far smoother, except for my not-appropriate shoes on the slippery terrain at the top, and I near enough skipped my way back down tor receive yet another warm welcome at the bottom. Never again will I underestimate altitude.
Next stop, Alausi. Our hotel here had a really cool Bohemian vibe that I loved, and spirits stayed high as we had dinner here. Our bedroom had a little balcony and 4 beds in total, so we were spoilt for choice, but I didn't love the big religious statue staring right in our upper window as I got out of the shower. We'd come to Alausi for The Devil's Nose train. Up until now, we'd been incredibly fortunate with the weather, so it was about time we had a little bit of fog. The poor, lovely train conductor was telling us all about the views we couldn't see over the side of the mountain! Her narration about the train's construction was still interesting, though. We had two stops on our tour, the first was a spot in which we could take a photo of the train and the Devil's Nose mountain itself, should we have been able to see it.
The next stop had a lot more to do, including a $1fee to have a photo with Rose-Marie, which I think gave me far more joy than it gave her. There were locals showing us some traditional dance which, later, some members of our group would become a part of. I bought a little souvenir whilst on my way to the museum. Built into the mountain was a demonstration of what an indigenous village would look like, and the guide took us from room to room explaining how the locals who live in this valley carry out their daily lives. The train conductor had told us that The Devil's Nose had gotten its name from its shape, but our indigenous guide informed us that it was named because the first train of passengers to run along the tracks disappeared without a trace- spooky. When I asked him if his community still lived in these mountains, what I wasn't expecting was an exchange of phone numbers and an invitation to come and live within the village and learn the local way of life, for free, whenever I would like! Fredy laughed at this story and said it was wise to not accept this offer! On our ascent back up the mountain, the skies had cleared, and we were able to see all of the wonderful views we had missed on the way down.
On our way to our next city, Cuenca, we stopped at some Inca ruins. I had wanted to go to Macchu Picchu on my South American journey but wasn't able to fit it in my budget, so this was a cute taster of what I will do another time.
Cuenca would be our last stop as a whole group. Sue, Nigel, Laura and I had only booked an 'Inland and Amazon' portion of the trip, so wouldn't have been continuing on to the coast (although I wish I had!). Cuenca is a fabulous city and I wish we could've spent more time here! The journey took most of the day so we arrived for dinner, which was possibly the funniest dinner we've had! The wine was flowing and we were ready for the night to carry on, forgetting that it was a Tuesday so the nightlife was hardly happening. We managed to find one bar that said it was open for another hour, and it was a real gem. We had enough time for one more drink and a good laugh before they booted us out for closing time.
The next day Fredy gave us all a fabulous tour of the city. We stopped at the Panama hat factory (which are very much from Ecuador and not Panama), took in the mix of modern and old architecture, and enjoyed the warm weather. We had lunch in the most beautiful square of restaurants with a great view of the church we had just visited, and I was loving Cuenca even more. It had started to rain after our tour, so a small group of us dove into a coffee shop and chilled out for a while. As mentioned, I wish I could've spent more time in Cuenca. It had this trendy, cool vibe that was different from anything we had experienced so far, yet still included the architecture and energy I had become accustomed to in Ecuador. We said our goodbyes to the group, as we had to be out at 5am to get our flight back to Quito, and headed up to bed.
After a bit of drama actually getting on our flight, the four of us were, once again, back in Quito. It was a bit of a bummer to be back here, we had a whole day and a half to kill before our respective flights (by chance Laura and I were flying at the same time, even though I'd be going home and she'd be going to Lima), but we were determined to make it feel as though our holiday hadn't ended. We went back to Los Tres Gatos for lunch, and I was surprised that the friendly barista recognised me from a week ago and asked how my travels had been. After another delicious meal there, we decided to take the cable car to what was said to be a beautiful viewpoint. We climbed much higher than I had expected, and it made a notable drop in temperature, especially as Quito was particularly warm that day. We wandered around the viewpoints and enjoyed the scenery, and I finally got to buy an alpaca wool jumper, before heading back down to the city.
We had a great dinner in a cheerful Mexican restaurant that Laura recommended, and headed out for a few beers to celebrate our last night. We hugged goodbye in the morning as Nigel and Sue headed off for their next stop (which, unfortunately, with the current circumstances, didn't happen). Laura and I had time for one more stroll around the city, another lovely lunch with an even lovelier host, Jerry of Jerry's Cafe, and lounge on the roof terrace of our hotel for our first and last bit of Quito heat.
We took separate cabs to the airport as I had already pre-booked, and reconvened at our departure gates which happened to be next to one another. At this time we knew that the Coronavirus pandemic was becoming a global issue, but we didn't really understand the extent of it and, sadly, Laura's travels weren't able to continue either, which she found out once she'd arrived in Lima. I'd had a few messages asking about my flights come through before I took off, but nothing too much. My connecting flight was in Madrid, where I had 5 long hours to kill at the airport. All shops and most eateries were closed, so I tried to take a nap and entertain myself until I finally boarded my flight back to Heathrow. Once I landed here, my phone blew up with messages and missed calls of concern. Little did I know, I was on one of the last flights out of Madrid before Spain closed borders altogether. I was tired after almost 24 hours of travel, and this felt like a lot to process, so I sat and ate in Paddington station and emotionally rang everyone I could to tell them I'd made it home safe. I was relieved when I got on my train and was finally on the last leg of my journey home, and had a little cry again when my partner met me at Plymouth station at midnight.
I reflected on what I had experienced over the last month or so, and it all felt a little too much to take in. In a way, it still does, and I can't believe I was there! It always feels as though you never went when you get back from a holiday, but this was a bit different. I'd missed my family so I felt so happy to be back, and full of energy to tell everyone what I'd done. Unfortunately, lockdown came too quickly afterwards and so I never really got back into the swing of life, and we're all separated once again. I'm now even more grateful that I was able to have these experiences, and I have something to write about in all my free time! I'd love to travel again. I'd go at it alone, but I'd like to take someone to share it all with, too. I'd also like to see more of South America and, for now, urge anyone to visit Ecuador.