All acclimatized, we picked up our guide Pablo near Quito. He would spend the next 4 days travelling in the van with us, the first time we had another traveler with us since Nikki’s sister Kyra came to visit in Costa Rica. Try to find a guide who’s willing to live with you in a van – piece of cake!
Off we went to Cotopaxi National Park. We arrived in the afternoon and set up camp at about 4,000m. We met a Swedish backpacker who would try to summit the next day as well, prepared our packs for the ascent, had dinner and then went to bed at around 6pm. After 4 sleepless hours, we had a quick 10pm “breakfast” and started driving up to the trailhead at 4,600m. From there, we hiked up to the refuge, and shortly after we were standing on snow. It was a steady uphill slog for a few hours in the dark, and we got really lucky with a windless night. At around 4:30am, we were just short of the summit and decided to wait out the sunrise. So we put on every bit of clothing we had, and relaxed for a while. Needless to say its quite cold at 5,900m just before dawn! At 5:15 we proceeded to the summit, jumping around and running in circles to stay warm. But the sunrise made it all worth it, the photos can hardly do it justice. And this is in the middle of the rainy season! As we headed down, we got to see some of the downsides of a popular peak like Cotopaxi – lots of vomit on the side of the trail from people struggling with the altitude.
Back at the car shortly after 8am, we nervously started the car up again – high altitude, not so great fuel and cold temperatures are not the best thing for the Sprinter. It started up without problems, but something didn’t sound right. The engine was wheezing and had trouble idling without stalling. Freaked out, we rolled down the hill, hoping that things would get better at lower elevation. Only stalling once, we got back to about 4,000m, and some engine power returned. As the motor was warming up, things got better as well. Finally, below 3,000m things went back to normal. This got us really worried as our next peak, and trailhead parking lot would be even higher than Cotopaxi.
Still, we decided to continue south to Riobamba in preparation for Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak and our first one over 6,000m. We relaxed for the day, went for dinner in the market building (risky…), and fell asleep by 8pm. The next day, we headed up to the refuge of Chimborazo at 4,800m. As it was being renovated, we could stay there for free.
Similar to the climb before, we headed out around 11pm. Within 30 minutes, Nikki wasn’t feeling well. The previous night’s dinner clearly didn’t sit well. But she pushed on (as always), out of guilt or ambition. This climb was an even longer slog uphill than Cotopaxi, but again we were blessed with perfect weather. The only real complication occurred when Nikki couldn’t help but go to the bathroom – roped up on an angled glacier slope – did I mention that you get to know your significant other rather well on this trip? As a rule of thumb, you don’t unrope on a slope when tied up without taking some precautions, but Nikki left no option and wasn’t asking for permission to losen her harness and take care of some urgent business. We continued up through the night, and arrived at the first (false) summit around sunrise. From the false summit we continued over a beautiful saddle to the summit, and what a feeling – clear skies all around; Nikki, Pablo and I the only people at the peak.
We descended quickly again, this time choosing a slightly less exposed route to avoid rockfall danger. Back at the car, I was getting nervous again. How would the car do this time? Surprisingly, it started right up and sounded much better than at Cotopaxi. Exhausted but happy, the three of us got on our way back to Quito. 6 hours of driving is exactly what you want to avoid after a 12 hour climb, but nonetheless, we were heading back. We dropped Pablo off in the afternoon; he couldn’t have been a better guide and we highly recommend him (contact us for his info).
Back in Quito, we got to pick up Leika. It was hard to tell who was more excited, Leika or Nikki.
After our successful climbing adventure, the rest of Ecuador passed quickly. We stopped by Laguna Quilotoa, Baños and then took the jungle route to Cuenca, all quite scenic. In Cuenca, a really pleasant town, we met up with Vanajeros, who unfortunately had been struggling with an engine breakdown of their Westfalia – we’re hoping everything is fixed soon!
Our last stop would be in Vilcabamba, aka Gringobamba, where we stayed at a hostel / yoga retreat that explained the town’s nickname very quickly. Although it’s a pleasant place, I was happy to be out of there!
The final road out of Ecuador would also be one of the most memorable. We took a dirt road to a less frequently used border, with beautiful mountain views and evidence of quite a lot of mudslides. Thankfully it hadn’t rained recently.