The day I left Quito was the big experiment day: will the van be OK driving over 4000m, will I be OK sleeping at 3900m and does my new weather plan of doing everything before 2 in the afternoon work? The highest I have been so far with the van was 3500m. There’s loads of things that can cause problems driving up mountains at these altitudes: thin air, overheating engines, engine not starting again after it stopped and many more. But the drive up to 4008m was actually quite doable. The fact that I was driving in the clouds probably helped with the overheating. After this mountain pass the road went down again through valleys of Ecuadorian farmland. The local women wore traditional dresses and hats while they are watching after the sheep that are grazing everywhere. The clouds also disappeared after the pass giving stunning views of the mountains, rivers and lakes. I plan to hike around the Quilotoa crater lake tomorrow (because crater lakes are awesome!) and I’ll camp at the viewpoint at 3900m. The last bit of the road was steep and unpaved but beautiful. The highest I’ve slept so far was also at some 3800 when I did the overnight hike on the Acotenango volcano in Guatemala. There I did notice the altitude in having a harder time breathing while hiking but no altitude sickness with headaches. That was different here in Quilotoa. Almost right away I got a pretty decent headache. So I didn’t do too much anymore that day. I walked up to the viewpoint to watch the Quilotoa lake. It’s an awesome sight and the water color changes from bright green to dark blue almost purple when the sun hides behind a cloud. Of course it starts raining at 2 so I hide back in my van.
The next morning the headache is gone! Perfect. To enjoy most of the good weather I head out at 8 to start hiking the loop around the crater. It’s only 10 kilometers but the guide book says it will take 5-6 hours. I was more counting on maximum 3. But after the first 10 minutes of walking I already notice I need to take a break every minute to catch my breath. To be fair I picked the steepest uphill bit right at the start. The trail has beautiful views over the lake and the surrounding valley and follows the choppy peaks of the rim. I almost get bitten by a slightly overprotective sheep guard dog but luckily the chain he is attached to is a few centimeters to short (I had also already picked up a big rock, just in case). In the end the loop did almost take me 4 hours but because it is still early and the sun is shining now is a good time to leave the mountain because: 1, the van will start better if it is warm; 2, no more headaches; 3, there is rain coming which will not be good for the dirt roads. I drive all the way to Banos which takes me quite a bit longer than expected. I had also forgotten that it is Good Friday which means Banos is packed. My campsite in a hostel parking lot is completely full. The same is true for the side of the road camps in the city park. Next option is at a German restaurant just outside of town that lets you camp for free if you have dinner there. The road up is steep (up to 27%) and narrow but properly paved. The restaurant itself is some kind of funky fantasy building designed by the owners. Multiple floors of wooden structures with high ceilings and many weird shaped windows looking onto the river and the waterfall.
From Banos I drive a very short distance along the so called highway of waterfalls. A nice road in a canyon next to a river with waterfalls coming down everywhere. I camp at a very relaxed actual campsite. Where I can hang around my van for a bit. Next to me is a rarity: an actual RV (not just a converted van) from South America. They are very friendly people from Ecuador and are not on a big trip, just away for the weekend. They also say that they do not know any other locals doing trips like this but they like it. We have some beers and dinner together. Since this is such a nice camp spot and everything is overly crowded for Easter I decided to hang out here for another day. In other news: my last cooking gas bottle is now empty. I have only seen cooking gas twice since leaving Mexico: in Guatemala and in Panama. Supposedly I can buy something again in Peru. Until that time it will be cold meals and using hostel kitchens.
The next day I drive back in the direction of Banos. On the waterfall highway I stop for a quick hike to the devil’s waterfall which comes down with immense power into the narrow canyon. Great views and you can get close enough to get soaking wet. I wanted to visit some spots in the mountains around Banos but the clouds are hanging low today so I head on. The roads through the mountains are still very good and I stop at a pretty reflecting laguna for some nice pictures. That night I sleep in Alausi which is a little town glued against the steep cliffs. The farm/hostel is pretty nice.
My original plan was to head on today but the weather is nice and the sun on the mountains is so pretty this morning that I have to go for a hike. Near Alausi is a world famous bit of railroad track that is called the Nariz del Diablo (Devil’s Nose). The track has to come up the steep valley and is one of the steepest railroad tracks in the world. The rain actually goes over multiple switchbacks where it first drivers forwards, than backwards, etc. A really cool feat of engineering in a beautiful landscape. Normally you either look at this from the expensive touristy train that still drives the tracks or from a viewpoint next to the road high up on the other side of the valley. But I had found a GPS track for a hike that would go there and back. The first part of the hike went along the canyon wall with great views. I ended up in a local village with friendly people, loads of cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, dogs and cats on the road. From there the trail led me to the end of one of the switchbacks. The trail and my GPS instructions became a bit unclear at this point but at some point I walked into a closed down part of a train station where I was behind the wrong side of the fence. There was actually a train at the station so it was pretty busy with loads of grumpy tourists sitting through their compulsory one hour waiting time (there is no town here). The trail description had spoken about a maintenance trail along the tracks but that was nowhere to be seen. So walking along the tracks it is. Luckily the train only goes four times a day so it should be OK. I managed to sneak away from the station over the tracks without anyone yelling at me. I followed the tracks for some more time looking back down into the valley to make sure the train wasn’t coming yet (especially before crossing bridges or narrow parts). After a while I heard the horn indicating the train had left the station. Luckily it was a very loud train so I could easily get off the tracks before it passed me. When I get back to camp it starts raining again.
Today I will visit my first Inca ruins. All the way in Ecuador, thousands of kilometers away from Machu Picchu. Now I realize what a huge empire it was. But first: did I mention yet how cheap diesel is in this country? I filled up my van this morning: 15 euros for 60 liters. That’s nice. The Inca ruins are located in Ingapirca. The site is not very big but not too busy either. Sadly enough you can only visit the site with a guide so I can’t wander off too much to take nice pictures. Ingapirca was originally build by the Canari people and only later conquered and extended by the Incas. The Incas had only been here for 50 years before the Spanish showed up and ruined everything. The cool thing about Ingapirca is that you can clearly see the two different construction styles. The Canari built with river rocks and mortar while the Inca buildings where build with perfectly shaped vulcanic rocks and did not need to use any mortar at all. After the visit to the ruins and the free ad-on walk along rocks-that-look-like-things-if-you-have-enough-imagination it started pouring terrible rains again. Time to hop into the van and head to Cuenca. Cuenca is a beautiful colonial city and is, according to the locals, prettier and has a better climate than Quito. There’s only one place to camp in town and it’s on a grassy field with a thousand dogs, even more chickens and a very well hidden toilet. But it’s afternoon, so it’s raining, so I’m in my van, so who cares.
Cuenca is indeed a very pretty colonial town. It’s also very clean and feels extremely safe (not that I felt unsafe in Quito). So all day I walk around, look at a church, sit in a park to eat/read/drink, visit a museum, sit in a park, repeat. Perfect! And this weather plan works pretty well and I make it back to camp just when it starts raining again. Even though this plan works, I’m kind of done with all the rain. And driving the mountains with my van is getting pretty tiring too. So tomorrow I’ll head to the coast!