Wednesday, July 8, 2009

viva la gran vida

Ever since we started toying with the idea of travelling to South America I had been dreaming of experiencing the Andean highlands. I'm not sure why I wanted to experience them so much - since it's really quite barren, but there's a certain mystique to it, plus the sheer ruggedness of being up in the mountains.
A fellow named Brian had just arrived in Quito (he's the best friend of Julie's cousin Ryan) and we were looking for something to do before we all went to the coast on the weekend. A couple hours on the internet and phone in the morning found us a hacienda up in the hills and another trip with our friendly driver George.
the first cotopaxi hacienda we found. Nice, but nothing exciting to do
Heading out of Quito - I'm not quite certain of the direction, but I'll say south - we looked for the mile marker that the fellow at the Hacienda told us to turn at. We never saw it. We found another hacienda at the side of the road, and it looked very nice but there wasn't much for activities - everything had to be booked in advance and that did not suit our last-minute planning. So we turned the little car around and went back down the rolling, rut-filled road that I'm amazed the car navigated. (that was just the drive into this hacienda - the highway was fine)
George started calling our target hacienda for directions and even he could not quite understand where we should go. We ended up on another rut-filled road that only trucks could drive down so we stopped and waited. And waited until someone's brother's friend with a truck came down
from the hills to pick us up.
El Porvenir Hacienda
When we finally arrived at El Porvenir it was marvelous, and surprisingly busy considering how hard it was for us to get there! A fire and a hot cup of cedron tea warmed us up as we realized we may not have brought enough warm clothes to survive up here!
our sleeping quarters
Our sleeping quarters were pretty basic and suitably rustic but quite comfortable and most
importantly - warm.
The serenity of the location was only broken by the yelps from the large group of teenagers who were running around the place. Fortunately Brian, being a high school teacher, handled a pair of attention-seeking girls with the skill that only comes from handling these mind-field personalities on a daily basis.
We went out for a bit of a hike around the place and as the sun fell behind the mountains it made for a spectacular view.

An early start today cuz we've got all these activities to do!
Brian got geared up in a hockey bag's worth of wool, fur and high-tech polyester to spend the day on a horse with a guide. Julie and I took off on a pair of mountain bikes to spend the day even higher up in the mountains riding around the famed Cotopaxi mountain. I suppose something got lost in translation when they were describing the day's tour to us... For when we started driving up the side of the mountain in the Land Cruiser, going higher and higher and snow started blowing around us we were wondering what we were
doing here! And then even more so when we got out of the truck into the blizzard and started CLIMBING the mountain! I apologised to Julie - insisting that I had no idea that we were going to climb another mountain. We were obviously more acclimatised to the higher altitudes on this day than we were last Novemeber when we climbed Kinabalu. The gravel scree filled our shoes with stones as we trudged our way up the slope, trying to stay on the leeward side of the hill to reduce our exposure to the whipping wind.
We made it to the "refugio" and were grateful to be out of the wind and a chance to warm up. A cup of hot chocolate for $1 and a pot-belly stove did the trick nicely. I explored the building and there are loads of bunk beds upstairs in what I think would be an uncomfortable place to spend the night. But I suppose if one is a mountain climber and properly prepared then this would be great. And as we left the refuge for our trip back down, what looked like experienced climbers were making their way up and past the refuge towards the glaciers above. We felt that 4800m was high enough.
Just below 4000m the weather drastically improved and the bikes were unloaded off of the truck. It's downright fantastic cycling up here: there are myriad colours of little flowers eking out survival in the sprawling valley, peaks rising all around, glacier-fed streams splashing over rocks, and the best thing is that our ride was almost ALL downhill.
If anyone's seen the Discovery Channel commercials "the world is just awesome", it is. The line kept repeating in my head as we zoomed down the gravel trail, bunny-hopping over boulders sticking out of the ground and the occasional horse "pie".
Great day!!

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