Over the weekend, I free-falled for a couple seconds down a muddy root-covered wall, I spent six hours on two different horses, and I got to see one of the tallest continuously active volcanoes in the WORLD (conflicting reports say it is the tallest). All I can say is MAN does my body hurt today. But it was all worth it.
Cotopaxi Volcano and flowers, Ecuador.
Friday after work, Allison, Emily (the two VIVA interns) and I still hadn’t made a concrete plan for how we were going to get to Cotopaxi the next morning, but we did plan to meet for breakfast. Hey, it was a start.
My stomach had been churning and doing the familiar parasite dance that I have unfortunately become accustomed to here, but I was not missing out on this volcano, even if I had to spend the weekend in a hammock. Cotopaxi was only an hour and forty-five minutes away; I figured this was a distance I could handle.
We met for breakfast on Saturday and I had a vague idea of how to get to our hostel. I was in charge of logistics, but I was hoping Allison or Emily would surprise me with the perfect plan because my stomach was hurting and I didn’t feel like organizing. I wasn’t too concerned. I had no idea how, but I knew we would get to Cotopaxi.
Cotopaxi Volcano. Ecuador.
The plan slowly formed: we were going to take a trolly in Quito to some stop none of us could remember, to hail a bus of some sort to a town called Machachi. We weren’t exactly sure where to hail this bus, but – like everything – we’d figure it out. I knew it was up some steps (yep, that’s about it) on some street (nobody knew the name) so that was something, right?
As we were about to leave brunch, I was feeling just awful. But hey, I’m used to feeling awful now. So, we headed out prepared to take some trolly to some station to some set of stairs to hail some bus on some street to some town called Machachi, which was 45 minutes away from our final destination. Hmm.
Then, like some sort of gift from the universe, there was a taxi waiting directly outside the restaurant. I remembered my Plan B: as an alternative, we could take a taxi to the huge Quitumbe bus station 45 minutes outside of Quito where there were always buses headed all over Ecuador. The cab driver asked if we wanted a ride, so we all agreed to go with my vague Plan B and hopped in the cab.
Off we went, to Quitumbe. When we arrived, I quickly found the information desk and asked which bus to take to Machachi, where and when to get it… The woman was very helpful and we quickly dashed away to catch the bus. As soon as we left, I heard her yell back for me, so I went, thinking I had left something. She simply asked “De que pais son uds?” (What country are you all from?) I proudly said the United States (not Canada this time), and she just gave a big smile and said “Ah, great. Have a wonderful trip!” I think she was impressed by our Spanish and general kindness. It was refreshing, and walking away we all felt just a touch happier.
Flowers, Cotopaxi in Background.
Out of many colorful buses, we found the bright orange and yellow one that was supposedly ours. I remembered reading on the website to tell the bus driver we wanted to be dropped off at “the statue of the horse at the turn-off to Machachi.” (This is how bus travel in Ecuador works.) So, I hopped on the bus, full of locals munching on all sorts of local snacks, found the bus driver, whose wife was sitting in the passenger seat with a baby on her lap (quite common) and asked, 1) If this was the bus to Machachi, 2) If he could drop us off on the highway where the statue of a man on a horse was in Machachi, and 3) If he could let us know when it was time to get out. This third request was key, as often the buses don’t really stop moving and people get on and off while it is in motion. In order to get out of our seats and past the seven or eight giys standing in the aisle, we would need advance notice. I’ve learned that you must always ask them to let you know when to get out, because any random patch of highway could be a bus stop and time estimates mean pretty much nothing in this place.
We got cozy in our overheated, overcrowded seats. I sat hugging my backpack while a very indigenous-looking man with dirt in every crease of his hands practically sat on me for most of the ride, and families of two or three sat piled up in one chair.
Much quicker than I had expected, the guy checking tickets called to tell me it was time to get out. I was like “Now?! Here?!” To me it seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere on a highway far away from any statue of a man on a horse, but I rounded up Allison and Emily and pushed my way out of the packed bus with my fingers crossed, as the bus drove away.
Llamas in Cotopaxi.
Sure enough, in the distance and across the highway, there was a statue of a man on a horse. That had better be the one! The hostel had given me a phone number of a cab driver to call once I got there who would take us the last 45 minutes. We stood by the statue as I called. It didn’t take long for us to notice one of the scariest looking guys I have ever seen. Right behind us, a man with jet black hair that looked like it had was permanently blowing away from his face paced back and forth. He had on pants, but one entire leg was slashed from his crotch to his diseased-looking foot. He was filthy and had bulging white eyes under a layer of caked-on dirt. He just walked all the way in one direction, clenching his hands, looking like a murderer ready to kill, then walked all the way in the other direction, staring us down. We were totally alone. The cab driver said he would be there in ten minutes. I have not been so uncomfortable and felt so unsafe in a long time. Allison, Emily and I just tried to ignore him and look strong. At least there were three of us.
Finally, a pick-up truck swerved by the pacing man. He started honking and holding a sign none of us could read. On his windshield in huge white letters it said “GOD FORGIVES ALL OF US!” or something to that extent, so I thought he was just another Ecuadorian honking and haggling us for being obvious gringas. Then he parked, ran out and asked for Rachel while holding the sign for our hostel. WHEW — he was our guy!
We hopped in the pick-up truck and off we went — last leg of the trip. I was a little scared when a guy crouched on the road jumped up, pounded on the door, and hopped in the back of our truck. As normal and accustomed to this as I have become in Ecuador, it still gives me a little jolt every time because there are so many horror stories. But in hilly towns like Machachi, hitch-hiking and pick-up “taxis” are a way of life.
Finally, we had arrived. The hostel (Secret Garden Cotopaxi) was beautiful, and even though Cotopaxi was hiding behind some clouds, we could feel its presence. We were up high (about 3,500 meters/11,500 ft) where the green of the hills was overwhelmingly green and the blue of the sky was overwhelmingly blue. It wasn’t long before we were asked if we wanted to go on a 2-hour hike to some waterfalls. Without much thought, we enthusiastically said YEAH!
Green of Cotopaxi, with Dalmation. Just before sunset.
We were told to put on some rubber boots and get going before it got too late. A nice German guy took us, and the hostel dalmatian and dachshund followed. I never really did like those wiener dogs until this one who became my little cuddle buddy for the weekend.
Anyways… I was expecting a walk, a stroll if you will, through the woods to a nice little waterfall. Well, I should have figured I was in for an adventure as nothing in this country has been smooth sailing for me! The moment we had to open a barbed wire fence and then climb down some mud covered path into what looked like a ditch, I knew this wasn’t going to be the walk in the park I was hoping for.
We literally had to walk along the jagged edge of a stream, hopping from slippery stone to slippery stone in huge rubber boots. As if that wasn’t bad enough (all I could think of was PROTECT your KNEE Tavel… PROTECT YOUR KNEE. Watch EVERY step. NO INJURIES!). I hated myself for saying yes to the hike, because every step was one step away from slipping, sliding, popping, dislocating… all the horrible things I now know can happen to my body, and I couldn’t stand the idea of back-tracking on my progress. My knee ached as I was forced to jump from stone to stone, and eventually we had to literally ROCK CLIMB small cliffs just to get around deep water.
Allison on the waterfall hike. Easy part.
I was too scared for my life to take photos of this stuff, but imagine me clinging to mud, rocks, vines, anything I could, while my size 9.5 feet tried to find their grip through loose rubber boots in the crevices of slippery stones. One wrong step or slip, and I’d drop ten or so feet into the ice cold, sharp and rocky creek below. I honestly was shaking in my boots. It wasn’t so much that I was scared of doing this (2 years ago I would have been fearless), but once you injure yourself in such a way that you lose so many things you love so fast (for those who don’t know, I messed up my knee two years ago and have the longest recovery ever), you don’t take these things for granted. I’ve been to freakin’ IGUAZU FALLS in Argentina — I was not ready to risk my knee health for some puny waterfall in Ecuador. But… I also wasn’t going to turn around easily. So I kept going.
Waterfall hike surroundings.
At one point, we had to pretty much hug a wall of dirt, grabbing roots of trees for support to get over the water in a certain area. I was about halfway across when I grabbed a couple roots that detached from the ground. I started sliding down the hill and I just thought, “There it is. Here I go. Prepare for the regret and the pain…” And somehow, a couple seconds down, I found something else to grab that broke my fall into the stream. I seriously thought I was about to tumble to my death, and poor Allison had to watch the whole thing right before it was her turn. Miraculously, we made it.
When we got to the waterfall, it was definitely pretty and all that, but I just couldn’t stop thinking about how I had to reverse the hike and get back the exact same way. But I was focused and ready to get back as cautiously as possible.
Victorious. (L to R: Me, Allison, Emily)
The way home was no easier. When I crawled out of the little ravine into the blue sky and green fields again, just before the sun went down, I can’t tell you how grateful and RELIEVED I was to have made it back without some horrendous fall. I was covered in mud, my stomach was still hurting from the parasite and my right knee ached, but I couldn’t have been happier. Emily, Allison and I could finally breathe.
We spent the rest of the evening hanging out with an awesome group of Danish, Spanish, British, Canadian, German, Irish and Swiss people with whom we shared a bunk room in the hostel. I slept underneath an Irish girl and in between a Spanish guy and a Canadian lady. Gotta love the hostel experience.
The next morning, we had a plan: we were going on a 6-hr hoseback ride from 3,500 m (11,500 ft) to about 4,500 m (14,750 ft), to the peak of Ruminahui. We were on our horses by around 8 am and ready to ride. I kept asking which were the fastest horses because I like to gallop and get the horse to go as fast as it can. As soon as we were told to pick a horse, I realized everyone had already chosen theirs (the large, beautiful, sturdy looking ones) and I was left with the choice of two slow pokes or a small spunky guy. I am usually one for a large horse (I love big horses, big dogs, and big boys — just sayin’) but I decided to go for spunk this time. Luckily, my horse had a lot of fire, and I could quickly see that the next six hours might be spent holding him back rather than trying to get him to move.
Front of the pack. Beginning of Trek. Cotopaxi.
The second we had open road, me and a couple other horses took off like bats out of hell. We’d gallop and gallop, then try to slow them down so we could get more comfortable in our incredibly UNCOMFORTABLE Ecuadorian-style saddles and stirrups (which basically looked like wooden clogs and were an English saddle rider’s worst nightmare). An hour into the ride, the Spaniard — whose horse was a firecracker that didn’t want to walk — had to get off. He had literally burned through all the skin on his skinny culo (ass) and was in a lot of pain. But we were only an hour into a six hour ride. He had no choice but to man up. I just tried to remind him that his country won the World Cup this year. I think it helped.
The ride was absolutely stunning. Passing through the green pastures with Cotopaxi constantly in the distance made me feel fresh and alive, excited and happy to be exactly where I was with all these other travelers. Moments like that, you just feel FREE. Capital letters, FREE.
But as we climbed the mountains, the horses began to slow down, and the wind picked up. The wind whipped my face like it was some sort of ancient torture ritual. Our horses were literally getting blown around. The wind was so strong and so powerful during some passes that we could barely move forward and certainly couldn’t hear. It was painfully windy. Brutal gusts seemed unrelenting as we climbed higher and higher into the thinning air.
When it was finally the halfway point, I had rubbed burns and blisters from the leather stirrup strap into my shins. It hurt every second, but I knew I had three more hours to go. My ass, my knees, my ankles — everything just hurt, and we all took turns complaining about aches and pains while we took in the awesomely beautiful surroundings. I have to say, I’ve never felt such strong wind in my life. Between the sun and the wind, my face burned. My eyes stung from the constant dust and dirt that had been kicked up by a trail of horseshoes. At times, I just had to ride with my eyes completely shut and trust the horse, because there was so much shit being blown into my face it was just painful to keep them open. After the ride, I spent hours wiping the black dust out of my eyes, and didn’t even notice the streaks of dirt across my face. All I could think of was how much everything hurt…and how good a shower was going to feel later.
Going up, fighting the wind.
In every adventure, there is a moment when – no matter how many people are around – you get lost in your own experience. At least for me. Well, during this trek, I really did get lost! Basically, at the halfway point, we all crashed in some sharp tall grass to take a “natural bathroom” break, down some mint tea and banana bread, and give our aching bones a rest. When it was time to get back on the horses, the Canadian girl was asking anyone with a fast horse if she could trade her pregnant (or fat) horse for a more lively one. There was a lot of horse trading going on, and I felt bad for her because my horse was so awesome and hers was a lame duck who barely moved, so I said that she could have mine if she really wanted a fun ride, and I could whip her’s into shape.
Horses in Cotopaxi.
This was when everything began to go downhill. What I didn’t know is that one of her stirrups was totally twisted and was going to cause me pain in my left ankle and knee for the next three hours. I also thought I was experienced enough to get any horse I wanted moving, but this horse was practically dead. After spending the first three hours in the front of the back I found myself stuck in the back with only one horse slower — the Danish girl’s horse — and in a lot of pain. I tweaked my back, my knees were killing me, and the rubbing against my shins had already blistered my legs. Now I had to spend three more hours with leather and denim rubbing against the raw skin.
As much as I LIVE for horseback riding, I suddenly realized I was not having the best time. I was hurting, and I was moving so slowly it felt like I was going backwards. After endless kicking, grunting, and slapping the horse… I just got tired. It all hurt me even more, and every time we finally ran, my knee and ankle, back and shins just throbbed. I felt like I aged 70 years on that horse, but it was a long way home, and we still had to pass back through the blasting wind.
Siesta in the grass with Cotopaxi.
The way home may have been three of the longest hours of my life. I had to stay behind and watch as all the horses took off. For a New Yorker, that is NOT easy. The dragging horse, combined with my aches and pains, made the ride torturous and LONG. Eventually I caught up and ended up riding with the Canadian girl who was on my spunky first horse, and the Spaniard, whose culo was killing him. As a car turned down one of the roads, the Canadian’s horse spooked and bucked her right off. The poor girl went flying onto the dirt road and I quickly rushed over to see if she was ok. She was, although spooked as well.
I rode up ahead to get Darwin, our group leader (yes, I asked if that was his real name or if it was some sort of joke, and it was definitely his real name. OOPS.) I told him she had fallen off and he dashed back to meet her.
At this point, I had a choice to make. I could either hang back with the Canadian and the Spaniard, or try to catch up to the rest of the group (I am NOT used to being in the back of the pack when I ride…) There was about 1.5 hrs left of the trek and I suddenly found myself completely alone in the mountainous green pastures of Ecuador. So, I decided to keep walking. Surely, I’d catch up to the group.
Losing the group. Cotopaxi horse trek.
Every ten minutes, I though I had to be closer to the pack… but they were nowhere to be found. Every twenty minutes, when I’d pass an actual human being, I’d ask him if he saw a bunch of gringos on horses and he’d point me in their direction. By then, it was about 1:30 pm. I had not eaten since 7:30 am. I had been on a horse in the sun for about six hours. I was hurting everywhere, I was starving, and I was exhausted. And now, I was lost. Shit.
The group in front of me assumed I was with the group in back, and the group in back figured I had caught up to the horses in front, but NOPE. I was alone, for about an hour and a half, in no man’s land. I think I began to have some sort of spiritual experience, in which I began to imagine a whole bunch of worse-case-scenarios followed by shutting each one of them out of my mind. I was tired and a little lost, but trusted my sense of direction and my lazy-ass horse, who kept tripping and huffing (something was not right). I actually started talking to the horse in my extreme frustration, talking to myself maybe and to nobody, and to Ecuador. I was hurting so badly I considered walking over and over again, but knew it would only extend the already brutal trek. I was so happy but so angry at my body. In heaven when I looked around but in my own personal hell when I let myself feel where I was. Never in my life have I wanted to get off a horse so badly… I decided that I temporarily HATED horses. I was frustrated as heck, but I had at least an hour left to go and I still had to find my way back, all alone.
Alone on a horse with Cotopaxi bulls.
When I finally saw a sign to the hostel, I wanted to cry with joy. But then I saw how far away it still was, and I wanted to cry with exhaustion and hunger, like a baby. Of course I didn’t, and I trekked on with my horse, because there was no other option. I savored the alone time, the quiet, the colors that were so bright I could barely accept their reality, and eventually, after what felt like an ETERNITY, made it back to the hostel.
HOME STRETCH! Hostel in sight. Cotopaxi.
I dismounted my horse and could barely walk for the first few steps, but I had survived! When I hobbled in, everyone was already seated at the table having lunch, sun and wind-burnt from the morning. They had no idea I had been alone in the Ecuadorian wilderness on a half-dead horse, or that the Canadian had fallen off the horse I had given up. But we could all commiserate in our pain, which finally, at the end of the long journey, felt much more bearable.
I’ve gotta say… I am sore as hell today. I felt like I could barely move when I woke up. Last night, I couldn’t keep my eyes open past 8 pm (they burned, and I was still rubbing black dirt out of them when I went to bed). Allison, Emily and I shared some good laughs this morning in the office as we recounted our adventure and groaned each time we tried to move.
Despite all the battle wounds, the near-death experiences, the scares, the almost-disaster moments, the lack of a plan for how to get to the hostel and the unexpected torture that came from something I actually, truly, love, I have to say: the weekend in Cotopaxi was fucking BEAUTIFUL. There’s really no other way to say it. And fast horse or slow horse, underneath all the aches and pains, I know there was a smile the entire way.