I'm doing what I seem to be spending the majority of my time in Ecuador doing - sitting on a bus. This particular bus is heading west, away from the large cities of Quito and Latacunga, and into the countryside. Ecuadorian countryside, on the east side of the Andes anyways, consists mainly of mountainsides covered with farms. The mountains are divided into green and brown and yellow strips. They look like a faded patchwork quilt. To offset the dull colours of the earth, the peasants that work the land where brightly coloured clothing. Occasionally you can see a blob of bright yellow or red or blue, moving slowly up or down these almost vertical plots of land.
This particular bus is filled mostly with traditional indigenous women. They wear brown rimmed hats, alpaca sweaters, brightly coloured shawls, skirts, and knee high socks. They have dark brown skin, dark hair worn in long ponytails wrapped in colourful embroidered cloth, thick fingers and kind faces. Many smile to reveal gold teeth. I'm sitting next to one such woman who keeps smiling and nodding, and I don't know if she's greeting me or rocking out to the music. For this bus, like all buses, is playing Billy Jean is Not My Lover, Thriller, and many other Michael Jackson songs. Over. And over. And over again.
About an hour into this ride my seatmate's cell phone rings, and she chats merrily into it for a few minutes. I wonder how a person that lives in a shack on the side of the road, riding rickety buses that feel at least as old as I am, can afford a cell phone, but even if I had the Spanish words to form such a question I'm sure it would have been rude to ask.
We get off at Laguna Quilotoa, a lake formed in the basin of a crater. It's at 3800 metres elevation, and takes about five hours to hike around. There is a tiny town formed at the side of the lake that exists only to support the tourism from foreigners like me who think it's quaint to come all this way just to see a lake. There are maybe four or five places you can rent a room, several artisan shops, a bar and restaurant, and a handful of houses. Pickup trucks drive up and down the main (and only) road, yelling at you to see if you want a ride anywhere. The wind is making itself known, blowing constantly and with the occasional gust that tries to knock us over.
We get a room at Cabanas Quilotoa. $12 a night each for three of us in a room with a double bed downstairs by the iron stove, and a narrow staircase to the loft that has two more beds. The price also includes dinner and breakfast. Dinner is served in a large lounge to us and about 30 other tourists. Half of those are a large tour group from France. We sit at long tables and pass around soup, chicken, boiled potatoes, rice, broccoli, and fried banana patties. Desert is a baked tree tomato. After dinner a group of indigenous musicians come in and entertained us, selling CDs for $3. The French get up to dance while the rest of us watch.
Back in our room they have built a fire for us in the stove, but haven't lit it. Angie investigates and finds a little tin of gas and part of a plastic pop bottle among the wood. Maybe this is a special contraption, but we aren't comfortable burning plastic so outside it goes. It takes a long time for the fire to get going, and at this elevation it is much needed. It is cold. Very, very cold. I'm bundled in long johns, sweatpants, several tops and sweaters, two pairs of socks, my jacket and a toque. Things I've been carrying around in the hot sierra for weeks now finally are put to good use.
The next day we head out to hike this crater. It's still cold; I have my long johns on under my clothes. The wind hasn't let up at all. The first part of the hike is fairly protected, but about twenty minutes in we hit an unprotected stretch where the wind was just waiting for a dumb tourist to blow into the lake. And from there we can see the trail leading up to some very exposed cliffs. We do what some may call "chickening out", and headed back to town.
Back at the hotel, a kindly lady hires a truck to take us back to Zumbhua. The truck is driven by a boy no older than 10. The three of us get into the open bed with our bags, and lean against the rickety wooden siding. The twenty minute ride is uneventful; our driver is very good for a child. From Zumbhua we will catch a bus to Quedevo, and from there to Guayaquil, our starting point for the Galapagos.