After a week in 9,350-foot high Quito I was no longer huffing and puffing as I trekked up and down the city’s ubiquitous hills, so I was totally unconcerned about altitude as I headed for the central highlands of Ecuador, home to spectacular volcanoes and some of the best hiking in the country. The dust-caked brakes of my rickety bus squealed to a halt in the center of Chugchilan, where indigenous Quichua had gathered in droves to celebrate Dia de Difuntos (Day of the Deceased). Anxious to photograph the event, I double-timed up the hill to Hostal Cloud Forest, dumped my luggage and headed back out, surprised that I was breathing heavily after such a short distance.
Though I had observed Quichua women in their distinctive bowler hats in Quito, this was my first opportunity to mingle with the indigenous population. My initial excitement quickly faded when my repeated requests to take photos were rebuffed with shakes of the head and turned backs. Crowds parted like the Red Sea as I walked down the main street and my smile was met with suspicious looks. Stone-faced vendors sold me snacks without so much as a thank you.
As the late afternoon light faded to twilight and temperatures dropped to bone-chilling levels, I finally convinced two beautiful young Quichua girls in the main plaza to pose for a photo before fleeing back to the warmth of the hostel’s wood-burning stove. When my shivering subsided I nosed around the facilities. The dining room was furnished with rough wooden tables and benches and a cavernous below-ground common area room held only a lone computer and three plastic lawn chairs. With no comfortable place to relax I retreated to my unheated room after a tasteless dinner, hoping to catch upon email, only to discover that the Internet was not working. I tried to write but my frigid fingers fumbled on the keyboard and when my throat grew raw from the cold I stood under a scalding hot shower and jumped under a mound of woolen blankets, hoping to ward off the sinus infection that threatened.
Early the next morning I threw open the curtains to brilliant sunshine that rapidly warmed up my room. Anxious to investigate the area, I teamed up with two backpackers from France and Australia for a trek to a cheese factory located in a tiny village, high in the surrounding mountains. The hostel owner drew a crude map on a scrap of paper and assured us the round-trip hike would take about four hours, so we headed out early in order to avoid the fog that rolls in every afternoon.
Just past the church we turned right on a dirt road that climbed steeply and within minutes I was gasping. On the pretense of oohing and aahing over a baby sheep staked to a patch of grassy hillside, I stopped to regain my breath. “How high do you thing we are?” I asked Jerome. He whipped out his altimeter. “We are almost at ze 11,000 feetz,” he declared in his delightful French accent. My brow wrinkled; this was the highest I had been so far in Ecuador. Still, I hadn’t felt any major effects in Quito so I pressed on, grateful that my two young companions were happy to let me rest every so often. Continue reading