Weather can be a cruel travel companion. Sometimes its best version comes along on a trip and makes everything better and brighter. Most times, it simply hovers in the background, a wallflower friend, neither making nor breaking the voyage. But on rare occasions, it becomes the escort from hell, a negative force that colors every aspect of a trip.
For much of our recent trip to Ecuador, we were accompanied by a physical and proverbial black cloud, making this country – a place that others have celebrated and which well-traveled friends had recently described as “a place everyone should see” – a bit of a disappointment to us. While almost all of our frustrations were directly or indirectly caused by variations on the theme of bad weather, there were other disenchantments as well, and it took our powers of positive thinking to salvage our week.
In Quito, my sister and I imagined we’d find a vibrant capital city with flowery colonial balconies, lively indigenous markets, and sunny plazas bordered by churches of every variety, all surrounded by Andean peaks. What we found was a smudged outline of that picture: a somewhat tired city, smothered in low-hanging clouds and choked with the black exhaust from dyspeptic buses and private vehicles. The historic part of the city had some of the requisite charm in the most popular tourist patches, but the rest of the hugely sprawling metropolis felt nondescript and lifeless to us. I like straying off the tourist paths, but this time the quieter streets and areas held little interest and even gave us a sense of uneasiness at times. We first stayed in La Mariscal, a neighborhood recommended for its energetic nightlife and restaurant options, but what we saw were some weary-looking prostitutes, a smattering of good places to eat, and bars and cafes seemingly meant to attract 20-somethings on a men’s outing.
Our optimistic natures saw beauty in the colorful houses tumbling down the steep hills surrounding the valley in which the city lay. Laughing at ourselves, we tried to make artsy photos out of the mist cloaking the skyline. We managed to find two tasty dinners even though the first restaurant “ran out” of all white wine and the second said the entrée brought to us was different from what we ordered because they recently revised the ingredients but hadn’t bothered to change the description. Oh, okay. And some of the suggestions mentioned by friends and online sources were simply rendered useless by the weather; why pay to take the teleférico for a bird’s eye view of the city when the city is covered by a big, gray flannel blanket? When we returned to the capital at the end of our week, we moved slightly north, closer to La Carolina Park and a more vibrant barrio and that small shift, along with a few hours of sun one day, was helpful in redeeming the city a bit in our eyes. Would we have felt differently overall about Quito in the sun? Hard to say, but probably.
After seeing everything we wanted to see in the capital, we eagerly anticipated what was to be the highlight of our hiking menu for the week. We had arranged a driver and guide to take us to Cotopaxi Mountain, an active volcano that we intended to hike up to 16,000 feet or higher if we felt good and the weather permitted. Friends who had been here a week before basked in the sun at the refuge and took stunning photos of the summit, and we were primed for more of the same. (Maybe we should have adjusted our expectations based on this couple’s attempt to take wedding photos with Cotopaxi as the backdrop …)
On our Cotopaxi morning, however, we woke to very cold temperatures, some 20 degrees below normal, as well as the extremely dense clouds and rain that we had apparently dragged along to Ecuador with us. We put on or packed all of our cold and wet weather gear, and went downstairs to meet the guide … who was a no-show. Several increasingly impatient and irritated phone calls later, we secured a replacement, who arrived 90 minutes late, a big deal because the weather worsens on Cotopaxi Mountain as the day progresses, even on a good day.
The late start, followed by a halting uphill slog on unpaved roads now running with mud, led to a miserable ascent on the cinder paths up the side of the volcano. We (hilariously and optimistically) chose the path that afforded great views of five surrounding peaks, but all we saw when we could lift our altitude-challenged heads was a haunting, blackish-gray slant of ash punctuated by squawking seagulls, whose eerie cawing as they wheeled above our heads just reinforced the gloomy doom of our surroundings.
We made it to the refuge at 15,900+ feet (see it? … squint hard; it’s there, below), but after resting and warming ourselves briefly, we took one look at the now snow-covered trail leading up to the lip of the glacier and decided we’d had enough.
Smart move. Seconds into our descent, we were lashed by small hail pellets that stung our faces and pinged off our rain jackets. A crack of thunder sounded as we rounded the first switchback, and our guide – slow and careful coming up with the high elevation – began to walk at a pace that required us to almost jog down the slippery ash to keep up.
As we dropped lower, the icy pills turned to wet snow and then to cold rain, soaking us to the skin anywhere we were not totally waterproofed. Back in the 4×4, we skidded down the mud tracks to leave the national park, learning that our guide was even more nervous than we were about being on the side of a mountain in an electrical storm.
We left Quito quite happily, hoping that crossing the mountains into another province might lead us into a different weather system. It did – a worse one! Our first day in the mountains at a rustic lodge surrounded by dozens of hiking trails was a rain-fest. We hiked anyway because, well, we are hard-core and stubborn. Our jackets were sopping, our hiking shoes sodden and muddy, and our spirits as dampened as our clothing. But we (sort of) got our hikes in.
Even though we were surrounded by a smorgasbord of trails, all of the hike descriptions given out by the lodge were inadequate or incorrect, and none of the trails was marked in any way. Throw in the feral dogs that we were supposed to beat off with the sticks we got at the lodge, and it’s understandable that we might have aborted a few hikes before their natural ends.
After a surprisingly great night’s sleep in our little woodstove-heated room, we rose to a hallelujah moment – SUN peeking out from the clouds and revealing a deep and verdant canyon in full view from our window. We wolfed down our breakfasts, loaded our backpacks, and took off.
We got in a solid five hours of hiking before the deluge began. The elevation changes in this part of Ecuador are extreme; starting at 10,500 feet made it even more challenging, but we were euphoric over a short ridge hike to start the day. We clambered a steep half mile up to the top and then completed a big loop with fantastic views. At the end we inched down through farmland that looked like it was built on the side of an Aztec temple or an Egyptian pyramid. The crops planted at 45-degree angles were a vision of geometric landscape art. We were happy girls this morning.
After a quick snack and water refill, we were back out for a hike down, down, down into a canyon and then up, up, up onto a plateau. We met the scariest snarling dog of the trip, baring his teeth and hungrily staring us down from a perch four feet above us. We waved our sticks and carried on, but we ultimately found the plateau hike boring, and the maps made so sense at all, so after a while we ate a snack and then did the reverse down, down, down and back up, up, up.
Undaunted, we decided to take one more short hike because we knew mid-to late afternoon would bring rain. We pushed it a little too far, racing back under black clouds and, at the very end, buckets of rain dumped all over us after we had finally dried out all our gear the night before. Sigh.
Quilotoa morning dawned just like Cotopaxi day: completely socked in with dense fog. By some miracle granted by the gods of travel (or maybe Instagram), the clouds retreated just as we arrived at the rim after a thirty-minute drive to the crater.
We took full advantage, snapping away with our cameras before we took off on a three-hour trek across a portion of the rim and, as the clouds inevitably returned, down into the town of Guayama, getting sprinkled upon for much of the walk.
Here we needed to make a decision: continue walking the whole way back to Chugchilán, which was another three to four hours, or get a ride back with the driver who awaited us there.
We had plenty of energy, but the rains persisted lightly, and our guide’s description of the route was unnerving. We would descend for about two hours on a very narrow path that started out as a cat’s spine walk with steep precipices on both sides and then turned into an even thinner path that snaked down the face of the canyon to the river. After that, we would need to climb back out of the gorge and walk back to our little village. Having seen the washed out roads and mudslides that littered our route in the car that morning, we could hardly imagine what a rain-soaked trail would look like and what danger it would present to us if the showers were as torrential as they had been the previous two days.
Seeing both our worry and disappointment, the guide and driver conferred and decided to take us to an alternate route so we could at least hike the bottom of the gorge and make the climb out of the canyon. While certainly quicker, we soon saw that the rain-damaged road down was just as scary as the trek would have been, and we squeezed our eyes shut, then took fleeting peeks at the drop-offs that beckoned inches away from the car doors. We couldn’t wait to get out of the car and start walking again, no matter how steep or frightening!
Do I even need to say it started to rain on us as we staggered out of the steep canyon walls that afternoon and wound our way back to our muddy, tree-dripping, bone-chilling, bugs-in-the-shower, eco-lodge room? Or that a 300-pound pig began snorting and squealing and trying to nose its way into our room as we hung up our drenched clothing? We slugged back a glass of box wine and a huge local beer in the main lodge at dinner, struggled to make conversation with the motley crew of backpackers there for the evening, and crashed into our rock-hard beds for one last night.
Back to Quito and the Equator
Back in Quito after our stay in Chugchilán, we spent one final day thawing our bones under a few hours of high-altitude sun and turning our previous six days of rain, questionable lodging, and bizarre acquaintances into funny stories and the beginnings of good memories. We overpaid for a ride north to the equator sites (there are several, one of which was semi-interesting and, fortunately, the one recognized as the most accurate location).
We agreed that Ecuador is a physically beautiful country that was just not able to show itself properly during our time there, but that even in great weather it may not have delighted us the way many other destinations have. I couldn’t help but compare Quito to buoyant Bogotá or historic Cusco or rocking Mexico City – all high-altitude Latin American cities that have charmed me to death, and Quito just couldn’t stand in the ring with those places, at least this time. Rural beauty is there in spades, but the infrastructure and information were sadly lacking throughout our time away from the capital, and we didn’t connect as well with the local people as we would have liked either. Because our experience seems different from that of many other travelers, we’ll just have to give Ecuador the benefit of the doubt and try again someday when we go back to the Galapagos or the Amazon!