When we refilled our gas tank the total came to 12 dollars. We thought we’d read it wrong. A full tank of gas for a tiny car in Ecuador costs 12 dollars. I regretted not renting an SUV, bad environmentalist that I am. Troy, Magda and I were on our way south towards the Quilotoa Loop, a scenic trip through some of Ecuador’s indigenous villages. On the way we stopped in Saquisili, an unspectacular town known only for its vibrant market. Where Otavalo was geared entirely for tourists, Saquisili was holding a giant market by and for locals.
As we strolled through cages of rabbits and guinea pigs, stacks of metallic fish, piles of handwoven baskets and rows of live chickens and furniture, Troy and I engaged in a deep discussion about tourism vs. voyeurism, a common concern amongst the more empathetic Western traveller. Were we there to gawk or to revel in the details of another culture’s daily routine. Were we patronizing of fraternizing? As Troy and I discussed, Magda documented the merchants who seemed genuinely indifferent to our presence.
Back on the road, we slalomed around potholes and were stymied by a circuitous detour. Eventfully we found the proper road. It was newly paved, thankfully, since it wound through the mountains like an unspooled ball of yarn. We ascended high above the tree line into a dense fog-bank. We descended into lush forest and around sharp pinnacles of rock. We did this a dozen times, passing through little mountain towns and by fantastic vistas.
Magda exclaimed as we went through the little pueblo of Zumbahua. Far below the main road, a little stadium was full of people watching a bullfight. I asked if we should go visit and Magda and Troy gave a resounding yes. I’m not a fan of bullfights, but I am a fan of little mountain village festivities, so we veered off the highway onto a steep brick street. We followed it down towards where the bullfight was, through the crowds of people heading that direction. Here in Zumbahua, the people were Quechua (in Ecuador: Kichwa), wearing the traditional felt hats, lush dark fabrics for skirts and multicolored scarves of the old Inca Empire.
We drove through a thick crowd that was stopped in the street. A scuffle had broken out and one man was roughly pulling another’s shirt collar. It looked like this was going to be a good party. When we reached the bullfighting arena, we parked and got out of the car, preparing to participate in the fiesta. As we crossed the road though, the scuffle we’d passed had metastasized and was rolling towards us: fists flying, hats askew. I admit that I was at first amused. It had looked like nothing more than a drunken scuffle, but now more townspeople were breaking away from the bullfight and running towards the brawl. It wasn’t how these things usually went. Don’t people usually run away from trouble?
My amusement turned to concern. A man who’d lost his fedora also had blood streaming from his temple. Troy and I looked at each other as the chaos closed in.
“Let’s go.” He said.
I agreed. Magda stood a little ways away and I could see she wanted to take a picture (it was a beautiful sort of chaos). I shouted to her, and all three of us ran back to the car. Once I’d clumsily disabled the alarm, we were off, sad that we’d missed the bullfight but relieved to remove ourselves from another contest where we may have become more than mere spectators.
We drove out of town, the brawl behind us showing no signs of slowing. Stopping on the shoulder of the road across the valley, we watched a procession of ornate costumes parade around the bullfighting arena. An old man hobbling on a cane hurried past us, headed towards the town. He gestured, and shouted, “The fiesta is this way!”
We nodded and thanked him, and then headed the opposite direction.
It gradually dawned on us that by spontaneously heading to the bullfight, we’d accidentally found the right road to the Lago Quilatoa. It wound along the edge of a picturesque canyon, then began gaining altitude relentlessly, finally bringing us to the town of Quilatoa. The lake fills a crater in the remnant is an extinct volcano. The local people say there is no bottom. We checked into a hostel that was extremely near to the edge of the volcano, dropped our bags, and headed across the street to see if we could make our way down to the lake.
The view from the edge was made more dramatic by a relentless wind that threatened to push us off. As we started down a path, headed to the distant lake, a security guard pointed us towards a different trail. The new, well paved one was closed for repair, but he said we were welcome to head down the dirt path that the mules took. After a few paces, sinking to our ankles in soft earth, we aborted the mission yet again. As a group we wouldn’t stand for any less than desirable conditions. Boots already brimming with fine dust, we climbed to the rim for a short hike partway around.
The hostel we’d found had been recommended in our guidebook. It may have been the best of the available hostels which would have been a shame for the whole town. As the sun went down behind the mountains, the temperature dropped. A small wood burning stove in the center of the room refused to burn and all of the gringos around the dining tables shivered and wrapped themselves in blankets. The employees were in their late and early teens and were thoroughly amused by the shivering tourists. The girls wore wool skirts and knee-high socks as well as the ubiquitous brown fedora, adorned with a peacock feather. They seemed a long way from being cold. Magda caught one of the girls taking a picture of us with her cell phone.
At that point I could have used a little more fraternization and a little less patronization.
The girls had told us there was always hot water, but they must have meant only when there was any water at all. We woke in the morning chilled to the bone despite piles of wool blankets. When we realized there was no water we staggered out to the dining room where a non-fire sat motionless in the stove. We checked out without a shower or any measurable core temperature. Another teenage employee asked if we’d paid. We told her we had – because we had – but we wish we hadn’t.
Soon enough we were back on the road, driving across a construction zone that rendered the highway soft and dusty like the mule path from the day before. The Blue Chevy, now a golden brown, had no trouble going downhill, but I was dreading the return trip. At the end of the construction zone was a pile of earth sprinkled with stones the size of frozen turkeys. A giant bulldozer swung a metal claw dangerously near. Troy went to ask a group of amused construction workers if we could move the rocks, and they said of course! Then they watched, grinning as I heaved rocks off of the pile of dirt. One of them yelled that he’d be happy to pull us out if we got stuck. We waved to express our gratitude.
Back on gravel we started to wonder where the town we were looking for was. It seemed we’d gone a long way. I saw a little family walking along the road, and pulled over to ask how long it was. As we pulled up they stuck a hand out, so by pulling over I tacitly invited them along for a ride. After a few minutes of shuffling and cramming, the Chevy Spark, designed for no more than one small clown and his circus dog, was crammed with three gringos, a mother, her mother and a baby boy.
The young mother assured us that the town wasn’t far. I peppered them with more questions in my tortured Spanish. Troy translated. The grandmother didn’t understand any of us and seemed to speak only Quechua. Her daughter gave one word answers and seemed to be regretting getting in. We let them off at the hospital, just before we arrived in Chugchilan.
At Mama Hilda’s Hostel, we were greeted by the proprietress herself, Mama Hilda. She was a bundle of energy and evoked a tough kindness that made me wonder if she was part of an organization for Jewish Mothers. Her granddaughter gave us a tour of the main house, several cottages with cozy quarters, and a big green lawn where we could park the Chevy.
Above an alcove in the main house was a portrait of Mama Hilda, one eyebrow raised as if we hadn’t cleaned our plates. A neatly scripted caption read,
“God can’t be everywhere all the time. That’s why He made mothers.”
Her Granddaughter was already a mother herself, which didn’t stop her from starting up a sassy flirtation with Troy, telling him she was going sell our clothes while we were away. How much for, he asked, a twinkle in his eye. Four dollars, maybe three, she dead-panned in return.
Mama Hilda’s compound was crawling with flowing vines. Shady fruit trees filled the yard. Magda and I chose a little room with windows on two sides and a wood-burning stove. Troy took the room above so we could communicate easily. It also helped to know who was making the racket upstairs. Later we learned he shared his room with a hospitable hive of bees by way of a series of loud stomping noises.
Beneath the village, the Taochi River cuts a deep gash down the bottom of the Taochi Valley. We started a hike at mid morning that would take us along the valleys edge, to what Mama Hilda described as an ‘Italian Furniture maker’ and then down into the canyon.
We walked along the gravel road we’d been driving on, past fields of corn planted on steep slopes. Well past the heart of the Inca Empire now, gone was the complex terracing of the Altiplano. We passed small shops and houses with concrete walls. Every time a car went past a cloud of dust blotted out the sun and we covered our faces in order to breathe.
The view of the valley, it’s tributaries, the lush hills and the peaks of volcanos beyond was magnificent. When it wasn’t full of dust, the air was crisp and clean and smelled of pre-industrial farmland. Occasionally a fierce little dog flew out snarling from behind a hedge, so we kept our fists full of rocks.
When we reached the Italian furniture company, it was quiet. A woman sat tending some bushes by the driveway and encouraged us to go knock on the door. They’re there, she assured us. As we passed several workshops and approached a smattering of houses, three giant St. Bernard’s roared out, their barks like the thundering of drums. Maybe this was “them”. The two biggest dogs stopped barking as we approached and started wagging their tails. The third one, a beautiful black, wagged as well, but kept up the alarm while receiving his share of pats. We gave them all voices, and soon a lively and hilarious imaginary conversation was underway. But nobody ever came out of the house.
When we left, the dogs followed us, trotting happily out of the front gate. We tried to make them stay, but when we stopped, they stopped, and stood smiling (the black one was still barking) drooling, and waiting for instructions. We instructed them to stay but they ignored us and followed us down a dirt road towards the valley.
The farther we hiked the more dogs we left behind. Finally only the largest St. Bernard trotted alongside, drunk with adventure. More ferocious mongrels ran at us from under fences, but seeing our big friend, they stopped in their tracks. He paid them no mind. He was a very large dog and was having a very exciting day.
As the day got hotter and we got further away from the furniture factory, I started worrying the big dog would overheat or get lost. We all sat for a while, looking out at the view, hoping our giant companion would get bored and go home. He seemed content to stay with us and rest up for the journey ahead. I was trying to ignore him even though he was extremely huggable, so it didn’t work for me to run back up the road and call for him. He’d decided he liked Troy and Magda better. Plus Troy impersonated his voice the best.
Before we moved on, Troy walked him back a few hundred yards, turning around when he’d gained some momentum towards home. The big St. Bernard headed slowly up the hill, panting. He turned his head before rounding a curve to make sure we hadn’t changed out minds, and then disappeared.
Five hours later, having reached the river, passed through little villages and scrambled up an impossibly steep muddy path, we returned to Mama Hilda’s where hot showers, dinner and a crackling fire waited.
In the morning we hired horses. Everywhere else it was Saturday morning, and Troy had his flight home on Saturday night. It was hard to fathom that we’d be in Quito that evening while we were on horseback, galloping across a high mountain ridge. We’d ridden to a cloud forest, usually shrouded in mist but today as dry and clear as summer. It’s odd that clouds are always where you don’t want them and never where you do.
Our guide, Primo, described the forest as it once had been, covering the entire mountain and infested with pumas. Ten years before he said, it would have been too dangerous to ride here. Now it had been widdled away, the pumas exterminated. At one time, Andean cultures were as obsessed with pumas as Eurasian culture were obsessed with lions*. But like happened in Eurasia, the mythical cats on the Andes have been deemed a nuisance, and are gradually becoming lost.
We rode back to town, my horse “Mora” (blackberry) complained and wrestled against her reigns. She was possibly upset because I was as large as she was. Troy had asked Primo to give me a saddle made for a ‘half-giant’. Primo looked me up and down and muttered something to the effect of, ‘more like a full-giant.’ Luckily I’ve had some experience with testy ponies, and managed to keep her from stampeding toward every grassy field she saw. In return, as we trotted back into town, she tried to wipe me off against the side of a produce truck.
We said our goodbyes at Mama Hilda’s and received hugs and kisses and encouragement to send more Gringos her way. The last years had been rough on tourism, and she was wondering where we’d all gone. I hope we’ll all return.
The drive back to Quito was over more rough road, at one time impassable in a car like ours. The whole country seems to be under construction though, the farthest reaches becoming more and more accessible. We reached the Pan Americana and came back the way we came, passing Cotopaxi, still covered in clouds, and Machachi, still brimming with weirdos.
Somewhere we took a wrong turn and wound up in a particularly shady suburb of Quito. Suddenly back in the nasty urban surroundings we appreciated our few days in the country that much more.
In the evening we said goodbyes to Troy at the new, modern airport outside of town. It was sad on many levels, like the ending of a well written chapter. Troy was an emissary from reality who’d been assimilated into our unreal life on the road. As he walked into the airport, the thread he’d brought and we’d taken hold of snapped, and we were once again on our own.
* Lions can be found depicted with reverence in most cultures in Eurasia, from Rome to Beijing. Odd since today there are few wild lions outside of Subsaharan Africa. The solution to this riddle is that there were once lions everywhere, we just killed them all. Today in many African cultures, the lion is both revered and being hunted to the edge of extinction.