Travel Stories

Update for 7/23 – Cordillera Occidental

…we could not break away from the 75+ people who were gathered around us asking questions about our gear and our trip. The amazement in their eyes when they heard that we had walked there from as far north as Quito was really a sight to see.

Hey everyone, thanks for all of your replies to our last update. We have currently made our way to the small town of Simíatug, which is as far south as Ambato. The last two weeks in the Cordillerra Occidental (Western Mountain Range) have been eventful to say the least.

We left Latacunga after spending way too long walking in circles around town where navigation is much more difficult than in the mountains, and took a bus, straight west to a town called Capagua, that really doesn´t exist. We had to show the bus driver the map several times, for him to know where exactlly to stop. We got off the bus and were quickly aware of the fact that we were back in the elements. As wind and rain pelted us in the face, we pointed the compass south and began walking. We soon crossed a pass around 14,000 ft, and dropped into a valley that is occupied by Comuna Mucata. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 families working together and living cooperatively. They trade for goods with one another and use the land for just about everything they need. As we crossed into this valley, coincidentally talking about communal lifestyles, we soon crossed paths with a man in his thirties by the name of Cesár who was collecting wood from a nearby town. After asking a few questions about what was being grown and his life, Cesár invited us into his home. When I say home, it is surely different than most of you are thinking. A kitchen consisting of a pile of food in one corner and a propane stove, was connected to the only other room in the house. Cesár´s brother Juan, and his family (3 kids and his wife) lived in there. All in all the whole cabin was about 20ft by 30ft. As we walked in, the women who had been cooking dinner were a bit surprised to see the giant gringos (average height in Ecuador can´t be more than 5´4) in their home. We were told to sit on the only wooden bench in the place and were examined thoroughly by the children. When I offered the two families a loaf of bread that I had been saving for breakfast for the week, they made us popcorn. When Deia asked if it would be alright if we cooked dinner there, we were invited to join the family to eat their rice and mutton. When we asked if it would be alright if we camped outside on their land, we were invited to stay the night inside with them. We spent a good deal of time playing music on the harmonica and Juan´s trumpet. Since they had never seen a harmonica, it was quite the hit. Also, we traded letters. When we asked for an address, what we got instead was a letter about who they where and what they do. I guess mail isn´t delivered at 14,000ft in the middle of nowhere. The welcomed feeling that we get from the people in Ecuador has been more than incredible to say the least. It only continued for the rest of the hike as well.

Leaving the family, we walked on to the tiny town of Angamarca. On the way into town, descending nearly 3,500ft. the entire town was on their way up the hill returning from Sunday church. There was not one person who didn´t stop to shake our hands and ask about our journey. It was clearly not often that backpackers arrived in this place, and it was clear that everyone was as interested in us as we were in them. The Spanish is different here and not even the primary language. Quechua is the language of the indian descendants of the Incas and these are the people who live in the heart of the Andes. In fact, we have not come across many people outside of cities that are not Quechua. We left town and steeply ascended 3,500 ft. to set up camp on a hillside far above the lights of Angamarca, with stars that easily rivaled the lights of town in brightness. The next day we walked up and over the ridge to find ourselves in a new valley, with new challenges. Steeper than either of us has ever descended we dropped again nearly 3,500ft. The problem was that to continue south, we had to climb and drop over four times. We figure that on this short four day hike we have covered around 27,000 vertical feet. So to say the least these are difficult mountains to traverse. Between allergies to foreign plants, trails that disappear into vegetation so thick you cannot see through it let alone walk in it, and the heat which has reached 80 degrees with 100% humidity, we have developed a very deep respect for the difficulty of the days to come. As we learn more about these mountains, and the best ways to navigate through them, it will become easier, I will say however that with every step the views of volcanic ruins pouring into one another into folding valleys, sunsets that are seen through mists that fill the air, rainbows everyday, and greener, redder, browner, purpler valleys than even the greatest painters could imagine, it is well worth the challenge.

We finally arrived in Simíatug more than exhausted and the hospitality we have been experiencing continued. Maríana who runs the one local restaurant where the menu consists of ¨breakfast, lunch, dinner¨ spoke to one of her friends, and we were invited to spend the cold night on the town assembly hall stage. Maríana let us use her shower, and was more than kind to two strangers she had never met. The next day, we missed our bus to Ambato which is directly east of Simíatug. We missed it not because we were late, but because we could not break away from the 75+ people who were gathered around us asking questions about our gear and our trip. The amazement in their eyes when they heard that we had walked there from as far north as Quito was really a sight to see. We showed them how we cook and passed around a few pieces of gear and the crowd just kept growing.

Despite the feeling of being in a high mountain town, we dismissed ourselves to Quito via Ambato where we were greeted at the bus station by Juan Carlos and Nicholas. Juan Carlos is friends with a man named Santiago we had met at a hacienda on our last hike, actually with his son Manuel, and would be our guide for our first big glacier climb. Cotopaxi is almost 5900 meters (19,000ft.) high and an incredibly massive active volcano. The hike up to the refuigo was even challenging. During the next day, Juan Carlos taught us a great deal about crevasse rescue and other things we would need to know in order to successfully and safely summit glacier covered mountains and volcanoes. As we prepared for our climb that would begin at 1 am that night, both Deia and I were battling stomach pains from something we had eaten. We had trouble sleeping, but the excitement of our first big climb was enough to get us going. We climbed to 18,050ft. where we both were felling strong and the altitude was affecting us very little, when Deia´s fingers became dangerously numb from the cold. We were forced to turn back and regretfully are unable to say that we saw the crater on top of Cotopaxi. We do plan to return to Cotopaxi with some warmer gloves and every bit of the same desire to summit. We are currently in Quito resting up from our climb and will continue walking south tomorrow.

Gregg Treinish