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Hovering around Northern Ecuador: Otavalo, Cotopaxi, Quito & Canoa

It was mid March before we ventured beyond a three hour radius of Quito. We hovered around the capital city waiting for a couple of small parts to be FedEx’d to the Toyota Dealership there. We killed time hiking in the mountains a few hours north, just above Otovalo, and then ventured down to Cotopaxi National Park. We’ve been to Ecuador before and we covered all the highlights then. The Galapagos, Amazon jungle, Otavalo market, and Quito. Now we are here after 15 months on the road, and we feel less like we need to “do” Ecuador than to just "live" it.

Green patchwork farms dot the steep hillsides of the mountains outside Otavalo.

Camping at La Luna hostal outside of Otavalo. We hiked the surrounding mountains and hung out in the cozy lodge where a fire was lit every evening for dinner. Lucy was one of 5 resident dogs.

We took one day to hike to the requisite local waterfall at Cascada do Taxopamba.

We hung out here to hike the serene Laguna Mojanda. The high altitude grasslands and shrublands of Mojanda, which lie above the cloud forests, are collectively known as páramo.

It was seriously steep and well over 12,000 ft. altitude...but beautiful.

The mist rolled in and out the whole day, making the lake invisible and then not.

With still more time to kill before we wanted to head into Quito, we drove a few hours south of the city and up into Cotopaxi National Park for a few days. I'm so glad we did because it was stunning. A majestic volcano with a perfect snow covered glacier dominates the sloping gold and green páramo. The park has herds of wild horses and llamas, and we felt like we were at the top of the world.

Unfortunately, most of the park was off limits. Volcano Cotopaxi erupted last August, and apparently the risk it would blow again was high. Normally this park is busy with mountain climbers attempting to summit the soaring 19,347-foot peak. There were no climbers while we were there, and the park was eerily quiet. We had planned to camp but we were told at the entrance it was prohibido, so we checked into the only lodge in the park, called the Tambopaxi Lodge. The lodge is a sustainable tourism project, actively engaged in watershed protection, wildlife conservation and local empowerment so we were happy to support it. With operations essentially shut down, we were the only ones staying at there and practically the only ones in the national park. Sleeping was tough at 12,500 feet, but the beauty and stillness of this place was awe-inspiring.

We look like a tiny speck next to the big white rumbling cone...

Tambopaxi Lodge

There were evacuation signs everywhere and at check in we each got an evacuation bag. Kind of glad we didn't need it.

The beakfast view was ever changing...

I absolutely loved all the wild horses. Several times we saw herds of them take off running across the horizon.

We couldn't even drive close to the base of the mountain. No hiking to the glacier from basecamp like we planned. Bummer!

We were able to do some beautiful hikes into the páramo here. The ground was a carpet of soft grass with hundreds of small streams cutting through the hillsides.

The other volcanoe in the park, Volcan Ruminahui, is in the background


When we finally ventured into Quito we didn’t do one touristy thing. We didn’t see any interesting sights or museums. We didn’t go to a great dinner and take a picturesque selfie on a quaint rooftop overlooking the city. Nope, none of that. We stayed in a generic overpriced hotel because it had safe easy parking. We got the truck serviced, I went to the dermatologist, and we went to the mall. Exciting stuff. We did normal every day things…although always more difficult than at home. Everything takes longer and the language barrier is frustrating. Then the parts got stuck in customs and we couldn’t get our hands on them. Oh, and we got sick with nasty colds.

Lojo got a full check up - new brakes (and brake fluid!), full service and new bushings for the shocks. And by some miracle we manage to find an english speaking service manager each time we get it serviced. Our guy in Quito, Jaime, told us Tundra's go for over $80K in wonder we get serious gawks in this country!

Our only highlight was a long, leisurely lunch with a friend from home. Omar Carrera is the son-in-law of our close friends, Kim and Andre in Marin County. He is from Quito and by some lovely coincidence; he was in Quito the same week we were there. His younger brother Rommel joined us, and we all shared stories well into the afternoon. Omar told us about meeting his wife Erin over a street dog, the nightclub they owned there, and his decision to move to the United States when the economy tanked in Ecuador. He also told us of the odyssey he and Erin went through shipping their Ecuadorian dog to San Francisco. Rommel told us how he had just saved & adopted a dog off the highway. It was a dog named Smudge, saved from a dumpster, that had brought Kim and I together so many years ago, and well…you can see why we are all kindred spirits.

John, Rommel, Omar and me at lunch in Quito. So great to spend time with you both!

From Quito, we made our way straight west, out to the ocean. Our Convoy friends, Jesse and Jessica, were hanging out in a little beach town called Canoa for a month so we set off to find them. We got to their cabana/hostal and found out we could park the rig safely, so we decided to hang out with them for a few days. We rented a cabana for the bathroom and A/C – very uh, rustic but doable. The beach was right out front so we had a few days of playing in the waves and Frisbee on the beach. There were lots of aging gringos hanging in the town’s bars, and the whole place felt a little like a dusty backwater Texas town transported to an Ecuadorian beach. Over the weekend the beach became a sea of locals, rolling in the brown sand surf with air so hot, thick and salty it was suffocating. At night (and many a morning) the regaton party music blasted off the beach from mostly empty bars. I wasn't loving it. I think I was in kind of a funk while in Canoa. I was super happy to be hanging out with the Jesses again, but I was definitely in a funk. Maybe I was just road weary but I had a couple bad days here, I'll admit it.

Canoa. Something about this place just didn't wow me...

We added on to our living condtions - semi-tolerable bathroom and some A/C during the day. Not my favorite campspot.

Sunsets were gorgeous...I'll give it that.

The only reason this photo is in here is because we had the best fish burger ever...the place however, left a little to be desired.

The Jesses

The evenings cooled off just enough to be tolerable and we ate almost every dinner with Jesse and Jessica at the Surf Shack, a local gringo joint on the side of the street that had plumbing (the beach side didn't...hmmmm). We joined in on Tuesday Night Trivia, and I think Jesse and Jessica thought they might get some kind of an advantage because of our age (they didn’t, we still lost).

Trivia night at the Surf Shack. Jesse's friend Terrance was at staying at our cabanas too.

At dinner one night, we talked with the Jesses about how unlikely it would have been back home for the four of us to travel and essentially, live together. Age, geography, demographics...but it all just doesn't matter on the road.

Now when we meet people, the subject of what we did in our former lives doesn't usually come up, and the speed with which we move into deeper, more thoughtful conversations is striking to me. Total strangers walk by and within the span of 15 minutes we are discussing our life goals and dreams, the state of our planet, the simplification of our lives. There are no zip codes or peer groups to separate the friendships. None of us has a home or job, and we are all on a common journey.

Our conversation that night with the Jesses reminded me of a young couple John and I met on a beach late one afternoon in Colombia. Their names were Susie and Dave, and they had just recently relocated to Idaho. They were studying and teaching the concept of Homesteading: living without electricity for a year and get this…harvesting road kill. At first blush that seemed like such a strange thing. (It reminded me of a plot in some Carl Hiaason novel). Then we talked about the sacrifice of the animal’s life for nothing and the healthy piece of meat left to waste. The meat wasn't loaded with antibiotics, steriods or tortured before it was killed. The longer we talked the more sense it made. We are all so disconnected from our food in the U.S., but not down here. Because of our time on the road, I really felt like I was open to learn something from them. That’s what this kind of travel can do - open up the world to people you wouldn’t otherwise share a meal with and suddenly find yourselves friends, or you see another person’s point of view, or more importantly, another person’s struggle. I'm sorry to get preachy here but considering the narrow-minded, hateful discourse (and violence?!?) coming out of the U.S. right now, it’s clear our country needs more travel...and empathy.

Walk a mile in someone else shoes - just one.

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