Updated: Aug 1, 2019
Living all your life at sea level and suddenly landing in a place almost 30 times higher is not easy. At an altitude of 9,350 feet [2,850 m], Quito is the second highest city in South America, after La Paz in Bolivia.
After two days flying, practically without sleeping, I finally arrived in the capital of Ecuador at dawn on a Thursday. Like a zombie, I went straight to Laura’s house, a charming lady that welcomed me with open arms in downtown Quito and prepared a colossal breakfast that I devoured before resting, in the middle of the day, in a cozy bedroom.
After sleeping for several hours, I decided to explore the city and sort some things out. That’s when travelers come in contact with a new city for the first time and feel the changes. In my case, it felt like chaos and disorder at first. But after a few minutes strolling down the streets, I began to feel like a part of that confusion, which quickly transformed into something very familiar. It was a kind of “contagious” disorder: neither cars nor pedestrians respect the signs and, as it’s common in large cities, everyone seems to be in a hurry. Unconsciously, I was too. Until I had a terrible headache that made me return to Laura’s house. The effects of altitude change and jetlag started to show.
I had arrived in South America less than a day ago and I was anxious to get lost in its landscapes. So I decided to leave Quito the next morning (I’ll be back later to visit it properly) and head south to Machachi, to explore Cotopaxi National Park. Diego, a certified guide and founder of Alpes Climbing, kindly welcomed me at Casa del Montañero. There are thousands of mountain activity options in this small town surrounded by volcanoes, like Pasachoa, Rumiñahui, Ilinizas and Cotopaxi. But my objective, like that of other guests who arrived on the same day, was to go up the Cotopaxi Volcano. Its name means “Neck of the Moon” in Quechua, due to the position of the volcano under a rising full moon, when it looks like its neck. Luckily, my headache was gone, making me believe I was ready for the climb.
Thanks to Diego, the next morning we went to Cotopaxi National Park (you need the authorization of a guide to get in). Fog, cold, volcanoes and a devastating and inhospitable scenery: we were in the Andean páramo, a territory inhabited by the largest flying bird on Earth, which is rarely spotted. We were driving up an uneven road that leads to the parking lot when, suddenly… stop! Stop! Stop! We all looked to the right and saw this majestic Andean condor, taking advantage of a strong air current at over 50 mph [80 km/h]. I had my camera, but my telephoto lens was in my backpack… it’s a shame I wasn’t able to take a good picture of this animal.
After we parked the car, we went up toward our objective: Refugio José Rivas. We already were at an altitude of 14,765 feet [4,500 m], with just 985 feet [300 m] to go. But the lack of oxygen and the sandy terrain made the climb very hard. I had to stop every five steps, otherwise I felt like my head was going to explode. When we finally arrived at the refuge, amidst the fog, I tried locro de papas for the first time: a delicious traditional Ecuadorian soup. It was snowing outside, and the soup was just perfect.
On the way back, Diego left me in the camping area of the national park and took the other guests back to the lodge. After several hours with an intense headache, I set up tent, grabbed my camera and decided to walk to Limpiopungo Lake, one of the most emblematic places in the region. Luckily, as the sun was setting, the clouds started to dissipate, giving way to a miniature rainbow at the foot of the Cotopaxi Volcano. The páramo wind is overwhelming. I went around the lake watching the fog disappear and was able to make a time-lapse video of the whole thing.
After seeing a landscape like this, my headache was gone and I was able to sleep very well in this extraordinary place. I think I can go to the Andes now. I have adapted to the heights.