It all started out innocently enough.
We had rented a car in Quito and were determined to actually spend some time out of the city. Bags were packed in such a manner that we could comfortably say, “Maybe we’ll be back tonight, maybe not.” It felt good to be heading out with a measure of uncertainty. Until now all of our day trips had been easily accomplished by sleeping in, doing a bit of exploring, and returning to the apartment in downtown Quito with enough time for dinner, drinks, and a rather casual completion of the day when we would pretend to stir up deep and meaningful conversations on the patio. (Maybe we discussed the cure to cancer and an end to poverty. Who knows…)
But, this day was going to be different.
The goal was to hit up Cotopaxi first and see if the peak was visible. We already knew that actually climbing the volcano was not an option, but I had to at least get as close as possible. (Here’s my post on that experience.) It was a somewhat cloudy day but we were rewarded with ALMOST seeing the snow covered summit.
From there we continued on to the Quilotoa crater with its stunning blue-green lake. It was on this leg of the trip that Ecuador finally began to feel like a foreign country. As soon as we got off of the Pan-American Highway the landscape, the climate, and the people took on an entirely new shape. The hills seemed too big to be called “hills”, but were also too green and rolling to feel like mountains. The altitude began to blur the lines between what were clouds and what was fog. We stopped in the town of Zumbahua for lunch and immediately found ourselves in Quechua, rather than Ecuadorian, culture. Everyone was bundled up despite the fact that it was a fairly nice day and nearly all the women sported bowler hats typical to the region.
The remaining drive to Quilotoa was not long, but it was clear that the sunshine was not going to last, and all we wanted was a decent view of Lago Quilotoa.
At this point is would be good to mention that the town of Quilotoa serves only a few specific purposes…
- Take your money. There is a small fee to get into the city and most restrooms are not free.
- Verify that you have paid to enter the city. Be sure to keep your receipt on you.
Once you’ve paid your dues, you are free to explore the crater. We only planned on spending a short time there, and did not intend to make the long walk down to the water. Based on other articles we’ve read, it only takes about thirty minutes to actually get to the bottom. However, the walk up is easily three times as long. We had spent the previous day hiking Rucu Pichincha and were not inclined to hike very far, uphill, at any altitude.
Don’t take this lack of enthusiasm as an indicator of Quilotoa’s splendor. Even on a cloudy day the combination of volcano, crater, and lake made for one of the most impressive vistas on the trip. I’d highly recommend that anyone spending time in the greater Quito area should make the trek.
So… What’s the deal with “Sometimes the Worst Days are the Best”?
Let me tell you a story.
We were slowly hiking back up the little bit of trail we had descended into the Quilotoa Crater. Our American bodies refused to acclimatize and there were frequent stops to catch our breath. (I’m tempted to simply say that it was the view that took our breath away, but no…)
There was a small, but incessant, voice coming up from behind us. A couple of tourists were approaching us from below and the girl was talking a mile-a-minute. None of this is particularly notable, but my hiking companion, Brian, wasn’t about to be passed up by a couple of strangers. “Let’s go,” he encouraged in an attempt to salvage some pride despite of our huffing and puffing.
We made it to the top shortly after, but not far ahead of our pursuers.
“Do you have a car?” came a now-familiar voice from behind us.
I think it was at this point that we may have continued walking for a few steps. Despite the fact that we were the only two groups of people in sight, it didn’t register that THEY might actually be talking to US.
“Oh, yeah,” one of us replied. “Need a ride?”
At this point it became obvious that we were about to have a young, Portuguese, couple join us for at least part of the ride. They had a room in the nearby town of Latacunga, and we were going to be driving very close to there on our way back to Quito. It would have been silly to decline, and our own conversations had run out of fuel long ago.
This isn’t where things fell apart. Our adventure doesn’t involve robbery or deception by hitchhikers. In fact, they were quite nice, and I’d encourage other travelers to do the exact same thing we did.
The girl’s name was Joanna (pronounced Jozanna with her accent.) and the guy’s name was Bruno (pronounced… well, Bruno.) They were part way through an ambitious trek across South America and had relied heavily on strangers for rides and hostels for boarding. It is possible that they wouldn’t have even made it to Quilotoa in the first place if it weren’t for a ride they had hitched on a tractor grader.
The additional company was nice. Swapping stories and finding similar points of interest made the next hour to Latacunga much more interesting than it would have been otherwise. English was not their first language, but the occasional confusion made the conversations all the more memorable. We discovered that they were only staying in Latacunga for the night before heading to Quito.
“Why not just ride with us, all the way to Quito?”
And it was set. We’d stop in Latacunga to pick up their bags and drive the two all the way to Quito.
But then it began to rain.
The rain was not a surprise. It had been cloudy, foggy, misting, and precipitation seemed inevitable. Besides, very few days passed in Ecuador when it did not rain.
But it did not take long for this rain to become more than we could handle. Brian had been driving in Ecuador for a few days with no trouble in the rain, but we all thought it was be best to stop at a gas station while the worst of it passed. By now the rain had become hail, and we were patiently waiting beneath an overhang while piles of icy marbles accumulated at our feet.
While we waited, Joanna and Bruno attempted to contact their residence to make sure they would be able to pick up their bags. I don’t think any of us knew exactly what the plan was, but it was decided that we should hit the road again and make our way to their hostel.
Down the road and downhill towards the city center the hail and rain slurry continued to fall. Traffic was becoming unpredictable or not moving at all. The slow pace was comforting enough to keep moving ahead. At least until we crossed paths with a bridge that had already caused several motorists to hesitate.
Over the road was an undetermined depth of water. Not being familiar with the city we had to wonder, “How deep is it?”, “Where is the curb?”, “Is there a median?”, “Potholes?”, etc.
Many cars and trucks were making the pass, but each one seemed closer and closer to getting stranded. Not making things any better was the fact that we were driving a Chevy Spark. No ground clearance and very little power.
We decided to pull over, turn the car off, and wait.
It was shortly after this that we discovered the Chevy Spark also had a very bad battery…
“It’s not even clicking. Doesn’t it usually click even when the battery is dead?”
“Maybe it’s something else. How could the battery be dead?”
“Something must have gotten wet.”
“How do you say “battery” in Spanish? la batería doesn’t sound right. Too easy. Se murió la batería de mi auto…?”
“Better yet, how do you ask for a jump?”
Clearly our language skills were being tested. We all agreed on what sounded right, but the situation seemed to magnify any misgivings we had about our Spanish skills. It was decided that Joanna should ask some of the taxi drivers for help. It is widely known that female hitchhikers have much better luck, and we were hoping this would also be true of automotive assistance.
Eventually she found out that there was a mechanic in a white building on the OTHER side of the bridge. This was only somewhat helpful since we’d still have to get across the cresting river in front of us. After quite a bit of discussion between Joanna and Bruno, they decided to simply do their best to make it back to their hostel on foot.
Of course they didn’t make that clear to us…
Me: “Did they just leave?”
Brian: “I think they just left.”
Me: “Do you think they’re coming back?”
Brian: “I don’t know. What should we do?”
Since it wasn’t clear whether or not our two passengers would be returning it was time to start fabricating a Plan B. There had been a group of Ecuadorians across the street that seemed to be motioning to us. Maybe THEY could help.
It was at this point I found myself the victim of some wonderfully flawed logic provide by Brian,
Why don’t you go across the street? Your boots are waterproof.
Of course waterproof boots mean nothing when the water is splashing up to your knees…
Foolishly, I went.
The men across the street had nothing particularly useful to say, but directed me to a different shop on our side of the bridge. It was clearly an automotive store, but the old woman behind the counter stated that they had no batteries there. “Go to the white building across the bridge” she said. At least we were constantly being guided to the same place, even if we couldn’t get there.
By now I was thoroughly soaked, and headed back across the river of a street.
“Is that them?” Brian asked, gesturing down the road.
I looked towards the flooded bridge and, sure enough, Joanna and Bruno were walking our way from the opposite side of the river.
Since their mysterious departure they had hopped into a cab and made their way to the white building on the other side of the river. As a means of thanking us for the ride they seemed to feel obligated to get us out of the situation we were in.
“He’s coming with a battery,” they explained.
There was a little confusion over WHO had a battery and WHERE they were, but soon enough a young man was leaping out of the back of a pickup truck and inspecting our dead vehicle.
And, just like that, we were up and running. Enough time had passed for the water level to subside, and it wasn’t long before we arrived at the hostel.
Joanna and Bruno ducked inside to grab their belongings before we took them the rest of the way to Quito and a moment or two later they reappeared.
“It’s locked. No one is here to let us get our bags.”
It seemed like quite an exhausting blow to them, but they insisted we go on without them. There was no telling how long the wait would be and by now all we wanted to do was return to our apartment in Quito.
The ride back to Quito continued to be rainy. Visibility was lousy and the windshield wipers on the Spark had a hard time keeping up. Eventually we made it into Quito only to find out that the tunnel to our side of town intermittently closes and would not be reopening for at least half an hour. Technically we were only about seven minutes from our destination, so we attempted an alternate route and spent the next half hour in standstill traffic.
Finally, we made it home. Exhausted, but still feeling some residual adrenaline.
Yes, I know this isn’t THAT big of an adventure. Things turned out fine and we were never really in any danger. But it is so uncommon to feel that things are out of your control and to not know what might happen next. We were dependant on strangers, and ultimately it was these strangers that led us to other strangers that helped us out of a difficult situation.
Later that evening we both agreed that the day made for an exceptionally memorable story. The views of Cotopaxi and Quilotoa were great, but they had no narrative to go along with them. Often times travelling is nothing more than moving from postcard to postcard. As much as you’d like to think that your view is unique, there have been thousands of other people taking the same snapshot. This is even more evident now with apps like Instagram that allow you to check on a particular location and see just how unoriginal your experience actually is. I could have been angry when the car wouldn’t start. I think that most people would have been. Instead, it became an adventure. A small one, but one I’m glad to have taken part in.