“It’ll be alright, one of them will stop. Relax.”
I tried to make the words sound as assuring as possible, but I was beginning to have doubts of my own as another bus roared by without even looking at my outstretched arm. Everyone from Luis to Esteban to our guide at Cotopaxi had assured us that getting a bus back to Quito from Cotopaxi would be “no problema”. As more than a dozen passed I began to wonder if I was translating that phrase incorrectly.
Another bus rolled past in the darkness I began to wonder how far Latacunga was, and how safe it would be to walk down the Pan-American towards it. I had seen plenty of locals doing it, but none since the sun had set, and there weren’t any street lights to guide the way. I started sticking my thumb out to any passing vehicle who might be willing to take a few gringos back to Quito.
I was hitchhiking on the Pan-American highway in the dark. A few hours earlier I had been on top of the world. A lot can change in a few hours. I zoned out and thought back to the hike earlier.
Before coming to Cotopaxi I had never been higher than 3000m, and that was a few days ago when I arrived in Quito. So far, the altitude had only a mild effect on me. Some fatigue climbing hills, but nothing more. The hike to the refuge in Cotopaxi starts higher than 3000m, and after a few steps Cary and I both knew it was going to be a tough climb. The snow, driven horizontally by the heavy wind, pummeled our faces as we ascended further into the clouds.
We began our climb to the top of Cotopaxi slowly and methodically. Fernando, our guide, was taking a group all the way to the top of the volcano later that night. He trudged slowly in front of us wearing a pair of heavy, reticulated boots. I said a silent prayer to my New Balance Minimus’ that they keep my feet warm, and assumed Cary was doing the same. I would have asked her, but conversation wasted oxygen. Little was said during the climb.
To the left and right of the path a black and orange a layer cake of obsidian and lava rock litter the mountainside and the cliffs. Where the stones aren’t packed into dense layers they are strewn haphazardly on the steep hillside, deposited either by the volcano’s explosion or the movement of ice. I found myself thinking about the effects of pressure and heat on rocks and wood. I thought about how charcoal is made, burning wood in a low oxygen environment. I imagined my muscles shrinking into little square Kingston briquettes as I climbed. I thought about breaking into a run, just to see what would happen.
With every switchback I expected to look up and see the refuge. The clouds had surrounded us now and visibility was too low to see more than a dozen feet. We kept our heads down and took it one step at a time. Finally, we looked up and saw the yellow tin roof of the refuge. We may have sped up a little then. We were promised hot chocolate at the top, which might have helped. A fox was wandering around the refuge; perhaps he had been promised chocolate as well.
We walked around unsteadily at the refuge, taking a few pictures and looking up into the clouds. We wandered in to the log cabin atmosphere. A stew was simmering on the stove and the scent pervaded the little wooden hut. We took a seat at one of the tables and Fernando disappeared into one of the little back rooms, looking for cocoa and something to eat. He came back with three steaming glasses and some kind of croissant stuffed with cheese. We gladly accepted and made what conversation we could with our broken Spanish. Fernando had summited Cotopaxi many hundreds of times it seemed; for him, this was just another day at work.
The promise of hot chocolate kept, we stepped out of the refuge to find the clouds had parted, revealing the summit of Cotopaxi for the first time all day. Cary quickly snapped as many photos of the summit as she could, while Fernando cried “Cotopaxi loves you!”. It was a satisfying moment. We took the opportunity to leave on a good note, shook hands with Fernando, and stomped heel first down the hill.
At this point Cary and I were feeling confident in our traveling capabilities. The morning had been rough, but we still made it to our destination and were heading back just in time to reach the road before dark. We discussed future travel plans, especially our intent to reach the top of Cotopaxi on a subsequent trip. Perhaps high on the thin oxygen, we made it back to our ride and happily crammed into the Toyota for the rough ride back. I might have even offered to wipe the windshield with the newspaper if the rain and snow hadn’t given way to a steady afternoon sunshine. Everything was looking right with the world.
And then a cab flashed it’s lights in the darkness, and I remembered I was hitchhiking on the Pan-American Highway.
In broken Spanish it became clear that the off-duty cab driver was on his way to meet some friends in Quito, fifty or so kilometers away, and would take us as far as the south bus terminal.
“How much?” I asked.
“Three dollars.” Came the reply.
We hopped into the car and the entire way I second-guessed the sum the driver had given me. Three dollars? A beer at a cheap restaurant costs me that much. Surely he meant thirty. Cary and I counted out extra money just in case we had it wrong while the driver bobbed and weave through traffic to Quito. Even if it was thirty, I would gladly pay, and our driver’s skill more than merited it. In the end the fee was exactly three dollars.
“Keep the change”, I said as I handed him a five.
It was getting late and we needed to head back to Old Town Quito. We flagged another cab who announced that his fee would be seven dollars. I groaned, wishing that our off-duty driver had been going our way. We thought we might stop and get some dinner, so we asked the cab to take us to The Ronda. In simple Spanish that two road-weary gringos could understand, he told us that the Ronda wasn’t safe tonight, and dragged his thumb across his throat, making a sound you only hear in movies. We raised our eyebrows and told him to take us to Jumbo instead.
When we arrived a steaming hot plate of empanadas was on the table, courtesy of Luis’ wife Maria. We gladly accepted the cheese and onion filled pastry with a coffee and chatted with Luis and Esteban. They were discussing the particulars of the farm and how to organize the cabins for the best exposure. Not wanting to interrupt we excused ourselves and stepped out to find some dinner.
We didn’t realize how hard this would be. In a country that is 90% Catholic literally nothing is open on a Sunday night. After an hour of walking the empty city streets we found exactly one restaurant open. And it was in a hotel. We stepped into the [Plaza Grande] and asked for a table for two, hoping for little more than a few beers to cap what was becoming one of the most ridiculous days we’d ever had. We sat down and ordered a few cold ones.
Suddenly the lights went out. I thought perhaps the Hotel had lost power but when I looked out into the illuminated lobby I knew that something was afoot. A funeral dirge began to play over the speakers.
“Oh god, now the KKK have arrived” Cary announced.
A man dressed in a pointed purple hood and long robes ambled out of the kitchen. The Grand High Wizard of the hotel delivered two bowls of ice cream to a table nearby, folded his hands and walked away. The the lights came back on, the music stopped, and everyone continued as if nothing had happened. Cary and I looked at eachother.
“I’m gonna need another beer.”
“Yeah, me too.”