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A World Sampling in a Volcano’s Shadow

A stay at the base of Cotopaxi National Park outside of Quito, Ecuador

Our Uber taxi driver tried to avoid the larger chasms and boulders in the road as we climbed ever upwards in first gear.  It was not going to happen.  This was the shorter of two routes from Quito, the capital of Ecuador, to Cotopaxi, a volcano high in the Andes.  The other road was supposed to be better, but marginally so, and the drive longer.  We didn’t think the small car we were in would make it to the lodge.

We bounced and swayed our way to the top, sometimes almost stopping as the car struggled to move upward over giant rocks and washed out roadbeds.  Our destination, Chilcabamba Lodge, sits just below the summit of Cotopaxi, an active volcano which, at 19,347 feet in elevation, dominates the views.  We wondered how the driver would make it back to Quito as we walked from the parking lot to the cluster of buildings that contained the lodge.  The main building housed the restaurant, reception and a guest lounge. Though we were early, our room in a nearby building was ready and Rebecca, the hotel manager, handed us the key, and we settled in after a light snack in the restaurant.    

At 3 PM, the staff started a fire in the stove that provided all the heat for our room.  I would throw a couple of logs into the stove 3-4 times each night as the fire dwindled and the room turned chilly.  We quickly warmed, snuggling until the cold left the room.  From our terrace and the large window above the bed, we could take in the spectacular views of the 5 volcanos that encircled the valley.

In the small dining room and lounge, we saw Cotopaxi coming in and out of view as we began to meet our fellow guests.  There was a family from Ohio who left after the first day, and two young people who said they were from Moscow.  At least she did.  He didn’t talk much and, while her English was very good, neither spoke again after the first day.  There was a couple from Gdansk, Poland with whom we talked about their city and country.  Then, there was Anna, a woman from Hamburg, Germany who had been traveling alone up the Amazon.  We went on to have a dinner with her and the next day shared a car and guide to the Cotopaxi National Park and the volcano. 

People came and went in this small 10-11 room lodge high in the Andes.  A large window in the dining room framed Cotopaxi perfectly in the distance.  Sometimes shrouded in clouds, the volcano began to smoke on the second or third day of our stay reminding us of nature’s power.  Cotopaxi had sprung to life, its smoke at first indistinguishable from the dark, low clouds that often enveloped it and the surrounding volcanic peaks.  As the weather improved, however, it became apparent that it was alive and active.

Sue’s cell was playing ABBA’s “Take it Easy” as we began a trip to Machachi on a Monday morning.  We had expected to find a farmers’ market, but it had been replaced by a small shopping mall.  I guess the vendors were happy to get out of the cold and rain, but some of the charm of this farm community left when the mall was built.  Walking the streets of the town we encountered a procession that was either a funeral or a wedding.  We were not sure which.  We watched as the twenty or so marching musicians and choreographed dancers in traditional costumes passed us.  Then the dancers were followed by a float carrying a couple who were chained to each side of an arbor of flowers, both wore red and black, firefighter’s uniforms as another uniformed fireman with an axe stood at the side of the float. They were heading towards the church a few blocks away.

It was time for lunch and we headed for a restaurant we had walked by earlier, a small Chinese place that like every other business in town had a TV tuned to the World Cup match between Ecuador and Quatar.  The entire staff of four cheered on the Ecuadorian team playing a game in Quatar, being watched in a Chinese storefront restaurant, in a small farming community in the Andes Mountains.  We were getting cultural whiplash.

Ecuador won 2-0 and our waitress, now free from her cheerleading duties, asked where we were from.  When we said “USA”, we got a thumbs up from her and broad smiles from everyone else when we got up to continue our walk through town.  I guess they were happy that the advanced guard of tourists, the two of us, had finally arrived after Covid.  Maybe they just liked Americans.  I don’t know.

I gave Sue her 72nd birthday present, two pairs of socks and a Chinese meal in Machachi, Ecuador. We hailed a taxi on the town square and headed back up to the lodge. 

We had dinner that night with our German friend Anna, learning that she is a corporate attorney and has a fourteen year old daughter.  Like us, she likes to travel to the edge of the map, and then keep going.  Amongst the backdrop of the Andes, it was great to meet follow travelers and talk about adventures past, present and future.

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