Greetings all, and time for the update on the second leg of our practice high altitude hikes in preparation for the Inca Trail, now just 60 days away. Really getting down to the short hairs here! We are back in our home at sea level, on the coast of Ecuador, and ramping up the training.
We had a great time in Quito, as we hosted an information table at the International Living: Fast Track Ecuador conference, and I gave four talks on different aspects of life in Ecuador. Although business we had to take care of in Quito earlier that week (we filed our documents for citizenship) and then weather changed our final hike plan of climbing to the top of Pichincha from the upper Teleferico station, we did have a successful visit to the Chugchilán/Quilotoa area. This is a fascinating and beautiful area, and I’ll be doing more detailed reporting of our hikes there as part of the Exploring Ecuador series, but for now, here’s a quick summary.
Back on June 14th, we left Cotacachi after shaking hands and hugging the management and staff at La Cuadra, then set off on the drive to the Black Sheep Inn in the little village of Chugchilán, just north of Quilotoa. This Inn is a very rustic setup, and dedicated to being eco-friendly. We knew that our cabana would only be heated by a wood stove, and that we would be served only vegetarian meals. Still, we would get breakfast and dinner as part of our stay, and as a bonus, we would also get a packed lunch to take on whatever daily excursion we chose.
I don’t think we were fully prepared for the general chilliness of the room, even with the wood stove. The stove just tended to make it very hot in the bedroom, and did nothing to warm up the bathroom. Speaking of the bathroom, we were also unprepared for the composting toilet – really and indoor outhouse – and although the shower produced warm-ish water, stepping out into the 50 degree room was, shall we say, bracing.
However, we tried to be philosophical about it. If we couldn’t stand four nights of indoor camping, how were we going to take three nights of sleeping on the ground and squatting in the bushes on the Inca Trail? And too, I had not had a repeat of the fever I had in Cotacachi, although I was still producing an irritating amount of snot. But while not entirely healthy, at least I was also not entirely sick.
All in all, it wasn’t really that bad, and the food was truly excellent. Breakfast and dinner were served in the lodge, with everyone grouped together at big tables, so it was a very social time. We were able to meet people from North America, South America and Europe who were there to enjoy the area. Of course we were the oldest people there, but we tried to ignore that.
As a place to practice for the Trail, this was a great choice. For one thing, the Inn is at 10,557 feet, which is pretty much where we will be sleeping each night in Peru. Then there are some great trails you can take in a variety of terrains, and we did get to experience a wide cross-section.
We started off the first morning choosing to try what they called the “Overlooking Loop” hike. This trail takes you up about 500 meters as you climb one ridge, walk along it, climb another, and then walk back along the páramo , or high grasslands, before descending back to the Inn. This is a self-guided tour of about 5-6 miles, so it seemed like a good warm-up hike.
Our host, Edmundo, took me out where the trail started, and with broad sweeping gestures, gave me the basic rundown on where the trail would take us. He also provided me with a plasticized printout, with color pictures of landmarks along the way and detailed instructions. Piece of cake, right?
With water bags filled and our lunch of a cheese, onion, mustard and mayo sandwich, carrot sticks, popcorn and a cookie safely packed away, we set off on the trail.
The first part was relatively steep in places, but we were soon up on the first ridge line, and treated to some wonderful views. We spent the next hour or so walking along the ridge, admiring the scenery and sharing a few words with locals that we met along the path. They were very friendly and pleasant with us, although their children were very shy. If they were amused at how decked out in equipment we were for what they consider a minor stroll, they had the manners to keep it to themselves.
We were doing fine on our landmarks, looking for a big white stone that would mark where we turned uphill once more, when the trail suddenly petered out into a sheep field. No white stone, no landmark, no path. Looking around with faces just as dumbfounded as the sheep looking at us, all we could find was sort of a path that went up in more or less the right direction. Actually, it was less of a path, and more of a drainage ditch. As we struggled ever upward, it was sometimes only as wide a one hiking boot, and we alternated between walking the razor’s edge with drop-offs to either side, and being completely surrounded by earth as we squeezed up these sudden canyons.
We were getting tired and hungry, but pressed on, given some glimmer of hope by a pole and power line we could see waaaaaay up ahead on what must be the next ridge. Pinning our hopes on where there’s a power line, there may be a road, we continued.
We did indeed eventually emerge onto the top of the ridge, up on the páramo, which was truly beautiful with the grasses rippling in the wind and the view of clouds both at our level and below us in the surrounding mountains. There was also a small road, and miracle of miracles, we were right next to one of the landmarks on our cheat sheet! True, it was five or six pictures down the list, but somehow we were back on track.
We celebrated with our lunch, sitting on a small rise, enjoying the view, and feeling much refreshed and a bit cocky, we were once more on our way.
The rest of the hike was uneventful. We were up above everything, so we could see where we wanted to go, and even where we had hiked earlier. It was clear that we were doing the slow loop around that would take us back down to the Inn, so we were free to enjoy the vistas.
We ended up back at the Inn just before 3pm, a little less than 6 hours since we set out. We covered 5.52 miles, and reached a top altitude in the grasslands of 11,727 feet, so not too shabby. No real problems, aches, or pains, and more importantly, still no signs of altitude sickness.
The next morning, we were up and ready to go once more. This time, we chose the “Toachi Canyon Loop”, which our host told us was about 5-6 miles. Turns out he is lousy at converting from kilometers to miles, but he did make an excellent suggestion – take a guide with you. So about 9am, we set out with our guide Miguel on what we thought would be a 5-6 mile hike down to the Toachi River, along it to the Shui River, which we would follow for a while before climbing back out of the canyon and returning to home base.
Sounds great on paper.
The first mile or two were very easy, just a gradual descent along the road and then a dirt access road, so easy walking.
That soon gave way however to much steeper descents down a twisting trail that was often very sandy and loose. Using our poles and moving carefully, we made our way to the canyon floor, trying to ignore the fact that Miguel was stepping lightly down the path, no poles, just wearing wading boots, and not even showing the courtesy of breathing hard.
More easy walking along the river, until we reached a bridge. There Miguel pointed to an apparent goat path up the side of a cliff. We laughed about it, until we realized he wasn’t joking – that was our path. This started a section of the hike that had us scrabbling up and down hills, most of which were trying to slide out from under us.
We also had to cross the small river several times. To do this, Miguel would find some large stones or a tree branch, and toss them in the water to make a ford. We were expected to lightly hop from stone to stone. Somehow we made it each time without falling into the river, and only stepped in mud up to our ankles twice (successful test for keeping our feet dry, hiking boots!).
After a series of teases, where we would go up steep paths and think we were on our way to the top of the canyon walls again, only to plunge back down to the riverside, Miguel finally called a halt to stop for lunch on a sunny, grassy field about 500 feet above the river. While we ate and relaxed a bit, I checked our progress on the GPS tracker, and saw that we had traveled just over 5 miles. “Great!”, I said to Rita. “Looks like we only have a mile or so left.”
I asked Miguel about it, and got the bad news – “no, un poco mas de la mitad“, he said, which means “a little more than half”. This was when we learned of Edmundo’s problems with kilometers vs miles. But however bad his estimate of distance was, we did appreciate having Miguel along. Not only did he build our “bridges”, he also helped pull us up in some tight spots where we may not have made it on our own. Also, we would have been hopelessly lost, as several times there was no discernible trail, simply walking through grasslands, where he guided us to gates to let us in and out of properties along the way. In one field, I looked back and saw Rita was being followed closely by a cow. I’m sure it did not hurt to have a local along with us while we were technically trespassing.
After lunch, there was only another half hour of the ups and downs, before we made it to a dirt access road. For the rest of the hike, we followed its slow and easy ascent until we were back up in Chugchilán, and soon back to our little indoor outhouse in the woods.
Total mileage on this trip was 8.92 miles (thanks, Edmundo), and we went from 10,557 feet down to 9,026 feet, then up and down and up and down, etc. until returning to 10,577. All told, my GPS tracker said that we had gone down a total of 2195 feet, and up 2119. It certainly felt like it.
Overall though, we were still feeling just fine. We had now walked over 15 miles in two days, and with no ill effects. I was still blowing my nose a lot, but no more fevers, so I was fine with that. Only one more hiking day left!
Next morning, we took to the car to drive to nearby Lago Quilotoa, a crater lake with a notoriously steep path down to the lake from the crater rim wall. We planned to at least go down to the lake and back, maybe explore a little of the rim.
Originally when planning the trip, we thought we would go to Quilotoa twice. This plan changed on the drive in, however, when Rita saw the condition of the road between Quilotoa and Chugchilán. She decided she did not want to spend anymore time on that road than absolutely necessary, so we changed our plans to one trip to the lake, then one more time on the road to head back to Quito the next day.
We made it to the lake with no problems, and were soon ready for another reverse hike – where we start at altitude, go down, and then back up. This was a record hiking altitude for us, starting off on the rim wall at 12,673 feet.
If you have never been to Quilotoa, it is hard to describe just how beautiful it is. The water is an incredible green, sitting at the bottom of a huge rocky bowl. Mountains are ranged in the distance all around you, and if the weather is clear you can see the snow-capped peaks of Las Ilinizas in the distance. I never get tired at looking down on clouds, either.
So after a few minutes to appreciate the stunning views, we began to work our way down the trail. It is just as steep and interesting as advertised. It also has some very sandy patches, so sometimes the footing was rather loose. The signs say about an hour to descend, but we took our time, stopping for photos often, and to rest our knees oftener. But within about an hour and a half, we were down at the lake bed, having descended to 11,443 feet.
It is just as beautiful from that perspective, especially looking back up at the trail we had descended. Our admiration was only marred by the nagging thought that shit, now we have to climb back up!
We relaxed a bit, ate a few handfuls of trail mix, took some pictures, and then started the hike back up to the rim wall. There are horses and donkeys that you can rent for $10 to get back up, but it didn’t seem fair to the animal to make it carry my fat ass back up the slope. Also, they are guided, so if you ride up you are also making someone else walk up – again, it didn’t seem like a nice thing to do.
So we carried on, schlepping the 1200+ feet back up the winding trail. I won’t say it was easy, and we took frequent rest breaks, but we did make it up to the top in slightly less than an hour and a half. We were sucking wind at several points, but we made it back to top still in good shape and with no problems. Unfortunately (or fortunately), clouds were beginning to roll over the rim wall, and the weather started changing rapidly. We ate our lunch in the car while we waited to see if it would clear enough to walk the rim a bit, but we were definitely cloud-bound.
That was it for our hiking adventures. We had planned the Teleferico hike in Quito, but it took us longer to get our documents filed for citizenship than we expected, and then questionable weather took our last opportunity from us. We did get in a relatively simple 3 mile stroll through Parque Metropolitano at a mere 9700 feet, but our practice hikes had officially come to a close.
The results were very encouraging. We hiked at altitudes within 1,000 feet of the highest point on the Inca trail, and we slept for four nights at similar altitudes. We walked almost 30 miles, and were able to field test our equipment. We slept in our sleeping bags and found them quite comfortable, and in spite of having colds and even fevers, we never did feel any problems at all with altitude sickness.
Now that we are back with two months to go, we’ve kicked up the training routine. We are now taking the stairs down from the 19th floor every morning, walking at least three miles, and then taking the stairs back up. In the afternoon, I’m going down the stairs again to our exercise room, where I work on equipment to strengthen knees, back, arms and legs, then walk back up the stairs. Finally in the evening, once more up and down the stairs with a three mile walk in between. My weight is down to record lows, and I still hope to get it below 200 pounds by that fateful day when we start on the Trail. We also are going to try one more practice trip in August, to tackle Fuya Fuya and the Teleferico, so we can get above 13,000 feet a couple of times.
Feeling good about where we are now, feeling good about the future, and feeling good about what incredible experiences we have had and the beautiful things we have seen here in Ecuador.