My first day in Quito should have been a hint that this stop was going to be…exciting. I was walking in Old Town for no more than 20 minutes when I heard the crowds. I followed the noise all the way to Plaza de la Independencia and sure enough, the whole city of Quito seemed to be there. Apparently every Monday the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, makes an impassioned speech from his balcony, touching on the notions of national unity and democracy and basically how good of a job he’s doing with both.

image

And I guess each Monday there are throngs of supporters and opponents alike, waving flags and screaming various declarations with equal fervour. I was a bit alarmed by the dozens of police as well as those in full riot gear, but a waiter at a nearby cafe told me it was no big deal. it’s an every Monday thing and the police only have to intervene sometimes.

image

All in all, I loved getting lost in Old Town at some point each day, poking my head into museums and shops and cafes and scoping out the people. I met great locals and fellow backpackers and spent too much time and money on Calle La Ronda and anywhere that served ice cream apparently, which leads me to the question…how much ice cream can a person who doesn’t eat ice cream actually consume?!

image

I found Quito fascinating but the real draw was the variety of activities to partake in outside the city. I found an amazing tour company Carpe Diem that has a variety of cheap day packages and rave reviews online. I booked two separate tours with them and neither was a regret, even the one where I almost died. Don’t worry, I’ll get to it.

image

The first was to Volcan Cotopaxi, about an hour outside Quito. The still active volcano is the second highest peak in the country at an impressive 5897m. I climbed Kilimanjaro a few years back which is 5895m – the difference being you can drive up Cotopaxi most of the way, so it makes for a nice day trip.

image

On the drive up, you still have to stop every 1000m or so for 10 to 15 minutes to become better acclimatized which our guide made interesting by teaching us something about the mountain, area and vegetation. He also made sure we were having fun and always made jokes about going to the beach since it was pretty damn cold and only getting colder as we went up.

image

You finally start the climb at 4600m in frigid temperatures, wind, and hail pellets battering your face as the weather is more Canada, less Ecuador for the sake of stereotypes. And the climb itself…oh, the climb. Even though it was only about two hours up, it was hard as hell. Perhaps it was the change in elevation, bouts of dizziness I felt or because my arse is the biggest it’s ever been, but I struggled up and needed periodic breaks to catch my breath, drink water and contemplate my sanity. My guide was amazing though and hurled enough you can do it’s! at me that I actually did.

image

At 4864m you get to the base camp and if you choose, you can walk to the glacier point at 5007m. The weather prevents any semblance of a view, but just getting up and admiring the glacier was worth it, not to mention proving to myself I could do it.

image

The second tour was a three-hour drive to Quilitoa Crater Lake, which included numerous little cultural stops along the way. The first was to an animal market in some dinky little town in the middle of nowhere. Being a lover of all four-legged creatures I felt nothing but sadness as we walked around and I stared at the dozens of tied up cows, sheep, pigs and llamas. I don’t want to come across as a hypocrite because I have no problem eating them in hamburger form but I swear I heard a few whisper “help” as I walked by.

image

Next we went to a different market which was a bit of everything and quite interesting. I went through my usual buy-tons-of-shit-I-don’t-need routine, knowing I’d have to throw out some of my stuff to make room in my backpack, but I thought it’s never stopped me before so why should it now?

image

However, it was the food section that I found intriguing as I had my first view of the guinea pigs. A national dish in many South American countries, I passed up the chance to eat it then since many of the cooked ones still had their teeth and little eyes intact and were not too far from the very alive cute ones I’m used to seeing as pets. If I do eventually try it, I will likely do it in somewhat denial, via a fancy dinner where it’s dressed up in a fancy sauce and I can pretend it’s fancy chicken.

image

Next we stopped off at the home of a village elder who lives in a hut with his wife, eight other family members, a few dogs and OVER 100 GUINEA PIGS. Yes, peeps, over one frickin’ hundred of those critters were crawling around the hut and subsequently on us. Apparently they help ward off evil spirits brought into a house, so it’s safe to say this family is covered for generations.

image

Finally we were on route to the crater which was the highlight of the day. I was busy blabbing away as usual, practicando mi espanol in the front seat with the driver, so it feels like I almost missed what happened next. A few rumbles and shakes and the next thing you know, the truck is swerving and the right front tire pops right off and goes flying. I only know it did because one of the girls in the backseat screeched, “oh my god…there goes the tire”! as it rolled over the adjacent cliff.

image

At this point we start skidding across the road while our driver worked to regain control of the vehicle. I can only imagine there were a ton of sparks coming from the strut or axle or tire-pole-thingie that usually keeps shite on point because we were all over the road on that sucker. Thankfully we veered and slid right because left was a scary-ass cliff. And the new home of our tire.

image

Once we came to a stop and our guide made sure we were all okay, he didn’t even skip a beat. He got us all out of the truck and flagged down the first flatbed pick-up that drove by so that we could hitchhike to the crater and lose no more than a few minutes of our trip.

image

And the locals we hitchhiked with were so friendly, even stopping at key places for us to take pictures and enjoy their slice of paradise. It was unreal. Once at the crater, we enjoyed a walk down (and obviously up) and took in the spectacular views, nature, sun and exercise.

image

And after the day we simply hitched a ride back to Quito on a big tour bus that just happened to be half empty and leaving right when we were ready to go. It was such a great day with great people; it was as if almost sailing off a cliff never happened.

And it was all meant to be that way. I think.