Crunching across the thick morning frost at 5am, staring intently at The Southern Cross beside the glowing Volcán Cotopaxi, I realize this is one of the most friendly, beautiful, peaceful and genuine places I’ve been lucky enough to spend time.
All fifty hectares of this amazing wilderness could be mine for just $8,000 USD.
A few weeks ago Omar, one of the local guys working here, invited me on his annual family camping trip and needless to say I was jumping out of my skin to go. At first we thought I would ride along in his Land Crusier, but when I suggested bringing the Jeep along he couldn’t hide his enthusiasm. Ecuadorians seem to love my little Jeep, and are constantly asking for rides or trying to buy it (for considerably more than I paid for it, too). Pretty soon everyone, including more kids than I can count, are loaded up and we move off for the first leg of our journey into the National Park.
I’ve been gazing at Cotopaxi Volcano day and night for three months now, and even that doesn’t prepare me for just how mighty it really is up-close. For an hour or so we drive across, around and in-between enormous lava flows and house-sized volcanic red boulders, making me feel like the little Martian rover navigating alien rocks on a ridiculous scale.
I’m told that dinner for the night is fresh trout. So fresh are these trout, in fact, they are still happily swimming in the river avoiding our baited hooks. After about 3 minutes of impatient watching Omar says “I have a better system for fishing”. When electrical leads materialize, my suspicions of delinquency are confirmed and I can’t help but join in the laughter. Huge amounts of steel-wool are wrapped around the end of two sticks, wires are twisted around each ball of steel and the whole lot is plugged into an inverter connected to the battery of Omar’s truck. Pretty quickly I find myself “bag man” – standing in the knee-deep river, just down-stream of Omar who has both sticks in the water, eagerly hunting out fish in the reeds. The second the current is switched-on, small trout float to the surface, momentarily stunned. The fast-flowing river makes them pretty tough to catch and the ladies on shore constantly scream “Dan!”, “Dan!”, especially when I miss one. Apparently I ask too many questions about how strong the current is, so Omar happily demonstrates by bringing the sticks within a meter of my submerged hands. Snatching my hands out of the water causes everyone to burst out laughing once again. I happily confirm my long-believed notion that rubber gumboots make excellent insulators.
For a reason I never quite discover the whole exercise is conducted as fast as we can possibly run upstream catching fish, run back to move the truck, yell back and forward about something or other and repeat. I think it’s just more fun this way.
About an hour later we have a collection of trout large enough to satisfy the ladies, and Omar beams when I mention this is illegal in my country, “Here too”.
As we climb higher the road deteriorates until we are guessing our way across green highland fields, pocketed with mud and swamp-like areas. Inevitably Omar’s overloaded Land Cruiser gets stuck up to the axles, only 100 meters from our destination. One of the other trucks is hooked-up, and a lot of wheel spinning and engine revving only results in the Cruiser sinking lower in the muck. An earlier mud patch / river crossing showed the Jeep to be a tough contender, so everyone suggests I give it a go. At just over idle in low-range 4×4, with an absolute minimum of fuss the Jeep easily hauls out the Cruiser, much to the delight of everyone present who gather around and start referring to the Jeep as “El Tractor”.
I look up pride in the dictionary.
Our destination for the night is a farmhouse built entirely from mud bricks by Omar’s uncle 55 years ago. It’s perched 50 meters up the foothills of Volcán Kilindaña, providing amazing views over the alpine meadow below, of which Omar’s uncle runs cattle on his 50 hectares. Within five minutes of our arrival we tuck into a lunch of rice, potatoes and chicken, quickly followed by trout soup with rice and potatoes.
The afternoon’s activities involve more legally dubious activities, the details of which I’ve sworn to secrecy. I will say it was a lot of fun
In the evening I’m amazed to see the gender lines drawn so quickly and clearly. The ladies huddle inside to cook dinner on an open fire with little more than an iron pot and wooden spoon. The fire, lit in the middle of the room on the mud floor, has no chimney or ventilation of any kind, choking the entire room with smoke and causing my eyes to burn furiously and tears to streak down my face. Amazingly, the ladies are laughing and smiling as they stand in a circle and lean right over to stir dinner.
The men stand outside drinking beer and aguadente, and extremely strong, crude liquor made from sugar cane, following the world-wide tradition of fermenting anything and everything possible. There is much joke-telling, talk of ladies and finally even a guitar is produced for some drunken sing-alongs. Long after dark, when the cold finally overtakes our festive mood, we move inside and perch in dark corners to eat our dinner of friend trout, rice and potatoes.
I have no idea what time it is when I worm deep into my sleeping bag and slowly drift off to sleep listening to the sound of complete silence.