Stop 1: Baños de Ambato
We spent days two and three in biking and rafting respectively. Our biking trip took us mostly down a valley lined with a number of impressive waterfalls. Thought we might do 60k all the way to Puyo, but settled for only about half that, and still jumped on our truck ride back with tired legs. Had a great time with two travel friends: Mike, a TV cameraman from England and Laura, a speechless girl on a “voice vacation” from Canada. The next day we rafted the Pastaza river on a perfect sunny day. The rapids were enough that you made sure your foot was well wedged under the inside lip of the raft. Lynsey was tossed once at the end, but only because a very kind but uncoordinated German guy fell in and brought her with him. I enjoyed the whole scene immensely. Well worth the $30 per person, though we did keep hearing that Tena is the true whitewater hotspot for Ecuador.
Baños is certainly a tourist town with lots of activity options but not as much character. The only good look we got at Baños' culture was during the slightly chaotic soap-box car derby - part of the biggest celebration of the year for the town. It was really nice seeing the locals engaged in something other than selling adventure packages to tourists. Nature certainly provided the highlights for us as we hiked, biked, and rafted our way through the unique volcanic and semi-tropical landscape.
Stop 2: Lago Quilotoa
An 8 am bus in Baños got us to Latacunga comfortably around 10:30 or so. After a 10-minute walk to the bus terminal we were reeled in towards the bus we had actually hoped to find - Iliniza. We paid a contested $3 ticket to Quilotoa direct to leave at 11:30. Being Saturday perhaps, the bus was especially LOCO. Wish no space left below, L and I were forced to move our bags from place to place within the bus to keep out of the way of people and their cargo. The aisles became piled with humungous sacks of rice and pasta, packs of 3-liters, PVC piping, and eventually our big backpacks. Buses in Ecuador are not a strictly ticket and destination affair, but instead are defined by a flowing stream of getting on and off at nondescript roadside pullouts. Each new passenger entering or exiting the bus had to climb up and over the cargo to move through the bus - balancing on an obstacle course of people and their things. We feigned sleep for 2 hours before gratefully and clunkily exiting the bus at the intersection for the sleepy town of Quilotoa.
L and I had mixed feelings about Quilotoa. On one hand, we enjoyed the opportunity to interact more directly with indigenous Ecuadorians, something rare for us in Cuenca. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking; the small town perched on the rim of the volcanic crater filled in now with mineral-rich aqua-green water. In the distance we observed the Iliniza brothers, Norte and Sur, Ecuador's 7th and 8th tallest peaks respectively. Even more intriguing to us was the glacier-clad peak showing its crown to the east - the giant Cotopaxi that we would attempt in a short few days!
The town had clearly experienced a somewhat recent burst in tourism and the transformations that follow. Though we did appreciate speaking more with indigenous residents, we quickly tired of the inevitable soliciting. Artisan crafts? Guide? Room? Horseback ride? Then, unfortunately, the child who asked for a “dolarcito”… We were also a little disturbed at the number of children we saw working. The first thing we did upon arrival was buy water, having read that the water from the crater was undrinkable. In the tienda we encountered a girl, maybe 10 or 12, running the small store ON HER OWN. It wasn't her first day either, as she had the prices of all the various sizes of water bottled memorized. The next day we bought water from a street vendor, again a young girl.
Our original plan was to camp for 2 nights at the lake, but we ended up settling for 1. With HEAVY backpacks we slowly trudged down from the crater's edge for about an hour to the shores of the lake for our first night. We found a beautiful secluded spot and set up camp just before losing the sun behind the western lip of the crater above us. Immediately the temperature dropped and long undies went on. After a salty dinner of “Oriental Noodles” (a.k.a. Ramen) we settled in for the quietest night we had had in some time. Our gear held strong to keep the cold at bay and neither of us complained of chilly toes.
When the old man arrived the boy still didn't leave, and what's problematic about all of this attention on us is that we were not ready to shell out nearly as much cash as these horse-wranglers would have liked. Each horse was $8 to the top, but I attempted to propose $16 for 3 horses (one for our bags). The old man agreed, or so I thought, only for me to hear him add up $24 once we got over to the horses. Confusion ensued, and much to his disappointment we only requested the services of one horse to haul our big backpacks up. $8 well spent, but still then we had to grind our way up the horse-apple ridden dusty path under the power of our own legs - better though we thought to prepare us for the ice of Cotopaxi where no horse could ever venture.
A noisy generator provided enough hot water for quick showers before huddling under 3 blankets for a very chilly evening. We took local instead of Lonely Planet advice and missed a morning bus, only luckily to be picked up by a pick-up heading to Zumbahua ($2pp), with regular buses to Latacunga ($2.50pp), and then towards Machachi ($1pp) where we walked the Panamerican highway before finding our hostel outside of Cotopaxi National Park. Got all that?