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Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Hiking to the Cheese Factory and on the Paramo

This was our morning view from the Black Sheep Inn...

If you don't click on the pictures, you won't come anywhere near to understanding how much depth there is in the pictures. It's almost too much to take in, since the air is so clean and clear. It's an unreal view in person. We're on the inside flank of the western range of the Andes, looking to the east to the other side of the valley. In the center, out of view, is a river that flows through, hundreds of feet below the original valley floor. It's amazing.

After a hearty breakfast, we headed off on our hike. We had a map and we had a plan.

This pig was hanging out at the intersection where we had to make a left. We (I) were busy with the pig and we didn't make the turn...so after a while we passed by some men who were friendly. They asked where we were going, just being polite and making conversation...and when they learned we were heading to the cheese factory, they sent us back down the road. We made a right at the pig and went uphill. Way uphill. It was some of the most breathtaking hiking we'd done yet. Breathtakingly beautiful and breathtaking. We were chuffing up the hill. Whew!

Just walking along the road, we'd stop every now and then to marvel at the views. The pictures can't do it justice. We kept pinching ourselves to make sure it was real.

Where we were staying was still at a very high altitude, so walking was plenty of activity. You have to pace yourself and not get too carried away. It's the strangest feeling to feel fine otherwise, but to be very short of breath. It feels like there's something wrong, since you ARE breathing in and out...but it doesn't FEEL like everything is working. It's very different from exercising so strenuously that you ARE out of breath. You feel like your body has betrayed you somehow!

Here is a good picture, not just of Susan, Chris, and Sharon, but also of the valley behind them. I had to get up on the hill a bit to be able to see down below the road.

At this stage in the hike we were all pretty warm, as you can see by the clothes. You have to dress in layers, since the temperature changes not only according to the time of day, but also how high up you are as you hike. On this one hike we went from sweating profusely to wishing we had warmer clothes when we were at the top.

These are such great pictures that I had to include them. Chris and Sharon have been so much fun to visit and to be our travel companions, too. We were both thrilled to be able to come with them on this trip, since they are just beginning to explore Ecuador. They both work in Quito, but have full work schedules and haven't had the luxury of being able to just pick up and go wandering.

They both enjoy being outside and hiking so much that it made us more excited about this trip, too. It's also such a treat to be with a couple that are so happy with each other, where they are in life, and where they are living. Ecuador has been such an amazing place to visit and explore, and they both chose to come here and are so excited to call this country their home.

Chris and Sharon planned our trip to the Black Sheep Inn and our hikes that we took...and although we were a bit hesitant (OK, I was: it's a vegetarian inn) it turned out to be a highlight of our trip. The people we met while we were staying there were icing on the cake, too! (You know who you are!)

OK, enough of that. Back to the story!

Our first destination was the Cheese Factory. These flowers on the right were growing in a tree alongside the road. They don't have anything to do with the story, but they were pretty.

As we understand, Peace Corps volunteers set up a number of European style cheese factories back in the 1970's, as a way of turning locally produced milk into a saleable product outside of their area. They make four types of cheese here, and we bought a wheel of an Emmenthal-type cheese to take back to Quito.

We took one of the round wheels, wrapped it up and stuffed it into the backpack. Off we went, higher up onto the mountain ridge trail...

The thick fog made it difficult to sense what direction you were traveling in at times, but we just kept following the road. Our directions and map were a little unclear...but we weren't really worried about being LOST, as we couldn't go any higher up, and we knew which way was down. There were a few places where, if you were to do a little roll down the hill, well, you'd just go for about a mile before you stopped. That was a little eerie.

Even though we were covered in clouds, the sun was still shining very brightly, so sometimes there was a very odd glow on everything. It was bright, but diffused light, which made everything feel like it was part of a dream.

There aren't any giant trees or fierce animals lurking around up there, just a lot of small details. Click on all three of the pictures above and take a look at the small things.

At the top of the ridge, we were walking along the path while the clouds were sweeping over into the valley, or at least trying to sweep into the valley. Sometimes we'd be walking along in clear skies, and then we'd be back in the clouds, back and forth.

The sounds were muted in the fog, so we could hear the animals before we saw them, sometimes. It was a little strange to be walking around and then suddenly have a big cow appear out of nowhere. The sheep largely ignored us unless we got too close.

While I was paying attention to the sheep, the shepherd showed up:

If it weren't for the wind, you could hear the sheep munching on the grass. That's actually why I took the video, because they were SO LOUD!

Our hike back took us down to the main road to the north of where we were staying, so we got to see a little more of the countryside.

Here is a picture of a very handsome chicken. He's got a little extra feathers there on his head and legs.

This little girl is standing in front of her family's home, which looks like most others in this area. The family can be seen behind her in the background, working in their fields. The families we saw had crops of potatos, beans of different types, and sometimes corn.

The wages are very low and most homes grow food for themselves along with some chickens, goats or maybe sheep. We saw cows grazing, but I can't remember seeing a single home with a cow.

We did see llamas, though. Not too many, though.

After we got back to Black Sheep, we were just sitting around relaxing a bit...and then we hear a little commotion. A troupe of girls came up to the Inn to perform some traditional dances.

As you can see from the pictures, they were in the traditional clothing and they performed at least four dances for everyone, accompanied by music from a portable CD player.

The girls did a fantastic job and were just beautiful, all decked out in their finery. They looked like little ladies. They worked the crowd very well, too. They kept bringing more and more people in to the circle with them, getting them started and then going back for more.

Once everyone was in who was going in, they finished the next song and then went around to collect donations. Very smart.

Hiking to the Quilatoa Crater Lake

One of the attractions of staying at the Black Sheep Inn was it's proximity to the Quilotoa Crater Lake. It's not right next to it, but it's close. On the right is a link to the satellite view, so click on it and take a look! The lake itself is easily seen, and you can also see some of the inhabited areas to the right...and you don't see many signs of life around the crater from this view. It's mostly cultivated fields and just a couple of settlements, all linked by a single road that takes about a five to eight hour drive to complete the loop.

In the morning, the four of us and about eight others packed ourselves into a cattle/produce/farm truck bed and got bounced and jostled for about an hour and a half up to the mountain. It's hard to tell Quilotoa from the other mountains and ridges from a distance, and walking up to the rim and looking down is quite dramatic.

The picture above is three different pictures, stitched together. Click on it to see the bigger view!

The hike down is pretty easy, of course, although it's a bit slippery at times when you hit patches of sand. It took longer than we thought to get down to the lake, but on the way down we got to talk with other people that were doing the same thing. It was quite enjoyable to see so many Ecuadoreans hiking down, enjoying a holiday just like us. Some people were from a town just a few miles away.

The amazing green color of the water turned out to be a layer of algae on the bottom of the lake. The water itself was very clear! I took a little bottle of water as a sample, to take back to Chris' classroom.

Herbie and Gail, a couple that were also staying at the Black Sheep Inn, shared lunch with us just up from the shore. The wind was quite strong at the top, on the descent and at the bottom, so we sort of huddled against a ledge to eat. Since the hike back to the Black Sheep Inn is about five hours long, you have to pretty much choose to hike straight back after the truck dropped you off, or hike to the bottom of the crater and then hike back up and then catch the one bus per day that goes past the Black Sheep Inn. Chris and Sharon hiked back, and we went to the bottom.

After having a brief lunch, Gail headed back up the trail first. She was the only one with a watch, and she was keen on catching that bus! After eyeing the mules, I procured one for Susan and Gail (as a surprise). Herbie volunteered to ride Gail's mule up to her, so off we went.

In the rightmost picture, you can see Susan and Herbie on the mules, just coming up out of the riverbed and onto the trail that leads up, out of the crater. I tried my best to stay ahead of the mules, trying to reach Gail first, to be able to see her surprise when Susan and Herbie arrived by mules.

I huffed my way up and when I reached Gail, she was already on a mule of her own. "$5? Are you kidding?!" she said. I slowly fell behind, the mules being a little more used to climbing 1200 feet without stopping.

When we were about three quarters of the way to the top I came to a beautiful overlook and had a nice little rest on a rock, surveying the lake below. The mules, along with the little girls that tended them, continued on. I was panting just like the mules, but the little girls were laughing and goading the mules on. Other kids were running up and down the path, playing hide and seek.

Climbing back up at mule speed, we reached the top in just fifteen minutes more than the time it took for the descent. I was spent! We had a little coffee at a small restaurant, and I had a tasty bowl of soup. MMMmmm.

We walked down to the place where we were to catch the bus and waited. The wind was stiff and we took refuge behind a house where two boys were playing. We started talking to them, and Gail gave them little tablets and pencils she had brought with her.

They all took turns writing their names and demonstrating their math skills. Another friend came along and he shared some stories, too. They were rightfully quite proud of themselves!

When the bus finally came, it was absolutely packed. We pushed ourselves to the rear of the bus, which at least didn't have people standing in the aisles...it was packed with sacks of potatoes and rice. Herbie just plopped himself down on some sacks and Susan snagged a seat when it was vacated.

We bounced along on the way back, watching the bus slowly empty and we eventually all had seats at the end. The ride was quite bumpy and the roads were quite curvy...and eventually a little girl lost her lunch. Wow, that didn't help much...although eventually we could open some windows.

We got back to Black Sheep and had a chance to sit down and have a little rest...and a little drink. Sharon and Chris actually made it back before us, since the bus was a little late in arriving.

We swapped our stories and each was glad we did what we did: they had a long walk along the crater edge for a while and then down into the valley and then back up...and we went down into the crater to the lake and back up...to the bus!

As the sun went down the light was like a glow, so we settled down on a picnic table with a view of the valley. We had some drinks and played some cards until dinner.

Black Sheep Inn was a delightful place to stay, and breakfast and dinner were included. This night was a favorite dinner: swiss chard soup (I had three bowls!) and shepherd's pie. MMMmmm.

After dinner we retired to one of our rooms and played some more cards. Susan and I had been on 'vacation' for a while now, but this was the 'vacation' for Sharon and Chris! We laughed and laughed, playing and carrying on for quite a while. We didn't realize how late it was when we finally finished...and then had to apologize to Herbie and Gail the next morning...since they were in the cabin next to us!

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Susan decided to get up and have a little water. In the dark, which bottle did she decide to sample?! You got it, the 'sample' from the lake. Luckily she tasted the difference, but then spewed it all over the floor. Was it the algae chunk that gave it away? She wouldn't tell... She got the other bottle after that, and all was well.

We'll post about our other day's hike later....see you!

Monday, January 1, 2007

Bus ride to the Black Sheep Inn

Our trip to the Black Sheep Inn started far earlier in the morning than we'd all have liked, primarily since we'd been up far too late the night before... Sharon was teaching us all how to play bridge. I think we were up until around 2 am or so... This picture on the left is from the day before, before we started playing cards. We've all been enjoying having some time off and getting to just goof around for a while. And drink mimosas, too.

We left at about 7:15am, without making any breakfast, so I took my papaya with me. It was ripe and ready to eat right then, and would never have made it on the counter until we got back. With such a large and tasty papaya, what else could I do but bring it along for the ride?!

They all laughed at me for bringing it. Susan was roughhousing with it and put a finger into it. I had to remind her that papayas are not toys; they are tasty breakfasts.

This is the funky bus we rode to Latacunga. We were all so tired we slept most of the way, so there's not any interesting pictures to show you. When we got to Latacunga we had to change buses, and I went and rustled up a plastic spoon. It took a while to skin the papaya with a spoon, but I was successful.

The next bus we took was a lot less comfortable than the first. The roads were cobblestone for a good portion, dirt for a good bit and the rest were bumpy for other reasons. Even still, we still caught up on a little sleep along the way:

The bus from Latacunga was less fancy than the first one, since it travels along a loop around the Quilatoa mountain/volcano/crater, which is in a very rural area. Buses aren't nearly as frequent as in other places, and the people that use them carry all sorts of things with them. In one small town we visited, there was a small crowd out, waiting for the bus. Everyone was milling around, checking on their packages that were stored on top of the bus...and one delivery was a new whiteboard, probably for the school.

This is the sort of countryside that we traveled through on the way...it was just beautiful. The corridor between the Andes is just incredibly beautiful, with steep roads and plunging valleys. The bus rides are pretty exciting sometimes, too, what with the sliding in the mud and giant potholes and all.

We knew that we were in shared rooms for the first night (it's a pretty popular place) but what we didn't expect is that the four of us would be sharing the 10x12' room with two other people, too! After dinner we were so tired we really couldn't be worried and packed into our little beds.

We needed to get a good nights' sleep, since we had some big hiking plans for the next day...

...which we'll post later!