Updated: Oct 27
Quito is a cool city, a long sliver of smog and noise nestled in the Ecuadorian Andes at 2800M. There's an interesting mixture of Colonial Spanish buildings, complete with whitewash walls and huge wooden doors, next to corrugated iron roofed buildings and modern concrete.
The people are mostly short and often chubby, but they would fly past us on the steep streets as we huffed and puffed, trying to fill our lungs with the thin and fumy air.
Simply walking up the stairs to the Air BnB was enough to merit a rest but regardless, we decided to hike to the top of Rucu Pichincha, just over 4700M on day 2, the 29th of April, Ben's birthday. (At that point he was on a flight out to meet us, having had to work the Friday before coming.) It was a tough hike and we all felt it, especially Yan whose broad build meant he was carrying an extra 10kg of timber on Liam and I. Liam took the mountain in his long, lanky stride and I struggled to match his pace towards the top. I'm not sure if we were secretly racing each other.
We summited around 16:00 and it felt like a great success to begin our trip. The views from the top were decidedly Scottish, pure clouds! However, halfway down we got a spectacular view of Quito, snaking its narrow way through the hills below. On that hike down I couldn't help but run a few kilometers as the excitement burst out of me. For the next 7 months I'd be crossing a continent following rivers and it felt bloody amazing to just think about that!
The next day we had the best trout of our lives, fished from a pond that we found at the end a precarious cliff top track, above a river, north of Quito. The idea was to have a look at the river (not ours but similar) to give us an idea of the flow and dangers. The power of it was daunting, charging its way through a very deep gorge
with evidence of major land slips on either side. South American geography was going to be interesting. The eco-farm that we stumbled across at the end of the track was beautiful, nestled on a lush grass bank with fruit trees aplenty and horses and llamas grazing. A friendly and lovely looking Quechua lass showed us around which added to the intrigue. We caught the trout in a fish pond beside the river and she prepared them expertly, using mysterious seasoning, completing the experience.
With Bens arrival that night (30th) and the lost bag arriving with him, we had the full team and all equipment with us. With the full compliment amassed, we split callsigns to "get shit done". Yan and I went to visit Ivan of Salango Kayaks to discuss the boats he would be making for us. He was a contact I'd been put in touch with through Jose. Jose was a contact I'd found through the magic of Glenelg in Scotland. A friend of a friend and someone who was trustworthy and able to advise us throughout planning. Jose was arranging our mountain guides. Ben and Liam went to visit Christian (one of the mountain guides) on the same day, we were ticking off the to do list methodically. Liam and I then got predictably 'stung' hiring a Chevy SUV for reconnaissance of our route, but we thought that this would be our last major expense so had to take the hit. Between the canoes, car and mountain guides we had basically used all the funding we'd raised, but we were now self-sufficient and optimistic that we could do the next 7 months without much expenditure. We headed off with confidence to recce Stage 1 and the beginning of Stage 2.
Reconnaissance and Preparation
Leaving Quito with two massive boat bags strapped to the roof and rucksacks rammed between bodies inside, we were glad to be heading out of the smog. We all had sore throats from breathing it in for 4 days. Liam dodged car sized potholes, sometimes successfully and we all navigated because of course we are all expert navigators, and all needed to have an input. We planned to go to South to Cotopaxi and climb it but on route, the road turned from tarmac to a very uneven cobbled track and our weak motor couldn't haul our kit up the hills, despite 3 of us getting out to walk behind. So the plan changed, and we continued to Baños, a town situated on our route, to find accommodation and reassess.
In Baños we met Fabrizio of Montano Hostel. He is a fantastic host, and this place became our headquarters for the next month. The morning after arrival, Ben gave us a thorough lesson on the ropes and climbing equipment, generously donated to us by Grivel and Bell Access. The timing of the lesson was perfect because we didn't expect the excitement that we would find later that afternoon. After the lesson we drove down to the E45 Bridge that crosses the Pastaza and looked at the river as often as we could in the area. It was big, shockingly too big for canoes despite our intention to "put in" farther upriver. We drove further, looking for a viewpoint of the Pastaza, towards Copataza, but instead we stumbled across a cave on a short exploratory walk into the forest.
A waterfall fell, down into its bottomless black depths. I wanted to descend; I could see Liam was keen too. Ben, overseeing rope safety was more cautious. Yan was happy to use the drone to film us. I pressed the urge, "this is why we are here!" and we all agreed that Ben would set it up and Liam and I would abseil in. When we got back to the car to get the kit, we assessed that we had 1 hour of sunlight. It'd be a quick evolution.
Ben set up the ropes and down I descended. The cool air shooting up from the abyss was a welcome change to the close jungle heat. It was extremely slippery and although leaning back I kept slipping from feet to knees. Unfortunately I could only allow myself 20 minutes so that Liam could have a go too. This meant I didn't even nearly make the bottom. I just hovered above and hole and got some footage on the 360 camera. In fact Ben later discovered that the hole was 70M deep. Longer than our rope by 10 meters. Liam had a play above it too before we hurriedly packed up amidst a swarm of mosquitos and headed back to the car for the long drive back to Baños.
Next day we proceeded up river driving though (soon to be) one of our favourite spots. Penipe is a town beneath Volcán El Altar and the locals there do the best tortilla de maize in Ecuador. We wanted to get another acclimatization hike in, especially for Ben who hadn't done Rucu Pichincha with us. We went to the bottom of El Altar, named by early conquistadors who thought its jagged peaks looked like monks kneeling at an altar. We began the hike, and a tiny shepherd lass came running up the hill to stop us. Again, we were blown out just walking and were immensely impressed by her ability to run up the hill to catch us at such an altitude. She was born here, and it was evident. The surrounding farmland was lush and green with horses, mules and sheep grazing and trout ponds spread out sporadically. Some of the hills there are completely covered in agriculture, the ones closer to El Alter are completely forested but you can see the beginnings of pasture creeping in, in places. We follow the shepherdess down to her farm where she explains to us that due to rain someone was recently washed 400m down the mountain and died, so the mountain is closed (Sangay National Park). These flash floods are apparently common, something we've yet to experience. We beg to be able to hike some of the route and she permits us to go up for 1 hour.
We go up for 2 hours, through farm tracks, then follow an extremely muddy mountain path. Ben notices that much of the fauna along the trackside is similar to that of Scotland. It reminds me of the sandy road at Capielaw, lined with brambles, gorse, and other similar plants. We follow what looks like cattle hoof prints up into the clouds. There is no view and once we feel we have had a decent workout, we turn to head down. It's the first day we feel that we haven't achieved what we wanted to. We return to Baños a little jaded.
An Enjoyable day in Ecuador: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLT2NavhYlA
The Bottomless Cave: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ra8bnsbhdKM