Ecuador was the last of the "Andean country trio" that I visited (the other two in the trio being Peru and Bolivia). Ecuador's only a small place, but it packs in an impressive diversity of tropical coastland, rugged mountains, and lush Amazonian rainforest. It's also had such a bumpy economic history, that several years ago the government abolished the national currency (the Sucre), and made the US dollar the only official legal tender in the country. There's a tonne of adventure to be had in Ecuador, as well as a rich culture and a tapestry of communities to be explored.
There have been some amazing times, and there have been some downright awful times. But all up — as with everywhere I've been on my trip — I have no regrets about visiting Ecuador. So, what can I say about Ecuador: it's a little place with a lot of variety. :P Despite its size, I've only seen a small part of Ecuador, and plenty of it is just begging to be visited on a future trip. The adventure, the partying, the scenery: all are really great in this country. And it's made a fabulous end to my time in the Central Andean region of South America, which is the only part of the continent that I've seen so far, and which in my opinion couldn't possibly be matched by the rest of the continent, for being the "authentic South American experience".
After three weeks in this country, this evening I left Ecuador, from Quito's Mariscal Sucre Intl Airport. I flew with TACA from Quito to Lima, and then connected straight on from Lima to Santiago, in Chile. All went well, and the flights were comfortable and uneventful. Unfortunately, after today's incident, I wasn't in the best of moods, and I didn't fly out with the happiest memories of Ecuador floating in my head. Paying the $40.80 departure tax at Quito Intl was an unwelcome surprise, as well (I thought all taxes were included in my ticket price?). Anyway, now I'm outta here.
I woke up this morning, in my dorm room at the Secret Garden in Quito, to find a very nasty surprise indeed. It seems that yesterday evening — when we were all upstairs on the terrace, having dinner and a few beers — someone came into Dorm F, and went through everyone's bags. They took everything that was unlocked, valuable, and lying around. Sadly, I was the worst hit: they emptied my money belt of its cash (about US$150); and even worse, they stole my new camera. Nooo — not again! Please g-d, why? This is about the worst way that my time in Ecuador could have possibly ended. It's going to leave me with a very bad taste of this country indeed. And as for Quito: well, I wasn't sure before, but now I'm quite certain — I simply am not too fond of this city.
You get all sorts of people on the buses, up here in Ecuador (as in Peru and Bolivia). They'll jump on, they'll do anything for a buck, and then they'll jump off a few minutes' ride down the highway. They'll sing in Quechua (please, could you not!). They'll sell you paperback books. They'll hawk the herbal remedy solution that could revitalise your sex life, boost your confidence, and increase your lifespan by 15 years. Usually, they're loud and painful, and you pay them just to shut up and to move on to terrorising the next bus. But today, on the bus back from Otavalo to Quito, the busker on the bus was quite professional. He had a guitar.
I woke up this morning, to find Otavalo completely transformed. Outside my hostel was a market. Down the street was more market. In fact, the entire town had been converted into one giant, sprawling, souvenir-riddled market! So the rumours were true: it is indeed a big deal, here in Otavalo on Saturday. And since this was my last full day in Ecuador, and in the Central Andes as a whole, it was time to embark on a serious splurge of souvenir and present shopping. I now have a very overstuffed bag, and a rather lean pocket.
There's only one thing you want to do, the day after a stint of mountain-climbing: nothing. And nothing is exactly what I did today. After I got back from the Cotopaxi climb yesterday, I didn't hang around in Quito very long: headed straight to the bus terminal, and hopped on a bus north to Otavalo. And today, I discovered that Otavalo is the perfect place to spend a Friday resting, blogging, reading, and eating some cheap local food. R&R in Otavalo: just what I needed.
And if you've looked at any of my photos from the last 4 months or so, you'll understand why this is such big news. That's right, people: I'm not kidding, I'm not pulling your leg; I've actually done it. For the first time since leaving Oz (about 6 months), I've finally had a haircut. And for the first time since coming down to South America (about 5 months), I've also had a shave! My reasons for not doing this for so long were many, as were my reasons for deciding to end the experiment today. Anyway, I did it this afternoon, here in Otavalo. And I'm now shorn as a sheep, smooth as a baby's behind, and cold as a Jamaican in Siberia. And the hair is gone.
At 1am this morning, Tony and myself — led by our trusty guide César — began our climb up Volcán Cotopaxi. Very quick "breakfast" (well, you gotta call a 12:30am wake-up meal something), and then we were on our way. We did our very best: but sadly, fate did not intend for us to reach the summit today. Close — oh, so tantalisingly close! — but no cigar. Ah well — as we say on Earth: c'est la vie.
César doesn't say much when he's up on the mountain — he's too busy stopping you from falling off the edge — but when he's back in civilisation, he's a real friendly guy. Like all climbing guides, he's incredibly fit, and ready for pretty much any emergency: as guides go, he's up there in the elite. César took Tony and myself up Cotopaxi this week, and we all agree that weather permitting, he would have gotten us to the top as well.
Call me crazy, but I'm doing it again! That's right: almost killing myself climbing Huayna Potosí, two months ago in Bolivia, just wasn't enough. I've got my crampons and my ice-axe at the ready, and I'm off in search of snow-capped peaks once more. This morning, Tony and I set off on our expedition to climb to the top of Volcán Cotopaxi, whose peak is 5,897m asl. A little lower this time (about 200m less than HP), and apparently a little easier too — but still one heck of a challenge.