The Day of the Dead and Climbing a Volcano
Arriving in Quito on ‘The Day of the Dead’ Marcel and I saw the other, Catholic side to The Day of the Dead when we managed to wangle our way into the crypt which is underneath the Basilica. Normally only open on one day a year and only open to the relatives of the dead whose remains are interred in the little holes in the walls, we tried to look like the locals as we sidled past the guards on the door.
With mournful, respectful faces we spent a half hour or so wandering among the tunnels, where families were dusting out the cobwebs in the little alcoves and replacing the plastic flowers, photos and statues of this saint or that virgin and generally just giving it all a bit of a springclean. It was very different to the bright, colourful ceremony up in the hillside graveyard but I do like the tradition of everybody remembering their loved ones on the same day. Rather than individuals dealing with their personal loss on various anniversaries of birth, death or Christmas whilst life goes on around them, this day allows a collective understanding and empathy with others.
To further cement the collective remembrance, at this time of the year the shops and restaurants are all selling little images of people and a thick, gloopy purple, slightly unsettlingly warm drink. Known as guagua de pan (bread babies) and colada morada (the drink is made of corn and blackberries) these are devoured with relish everywhere.
I spent my last few days in Ecuador wandering around the city of Quito. I took one of the free walking tours, I met a Canadian lady who was visiting the city on her own and I climbed a volcano.
You will know that I am a sucker for a free (for tips) walking tour and there are several in Quito. I decided to go along with a relatively new tour and I wasn’t disappointed. There were only two of us on the tour and we got told load of information and history about the place, but this one was great because we finished up in the central marketplace and could buy lunch. Sat at plastic topped tables the various stallholders swooped on us as we took our seats and they touted for our business. Some fish from this stall, juice from that – we were fed like kings and for very little money.
Another day when I was out for lunch I met a lady from Canada who was visiting Quito. It always makes me smile when this happens because one of my main worries before I set off on my adventure, and that of most solo travellers is of how you will meet people when you are on your own. Well this lovely lady simply came over and asked to join me at my table and then the following day Sudha and I agreed to meet so that we could ride the cable car together.
In the end we didn’t take the cable car as there was incredibly low cloud over the entire city and we would not have seen a thing but we went off for a morning shopping in a large craft market and drank our gloopy colada morada. There is something special about the clouds above the Andes. I don’t know how sky can appear to be bigger and more expansive but here it does, and because in the mountains you are high up, the clouds sit lower over you. They can affect the mood of the towns shutting the air in and pressing grey and menacing as they inch and flow down the surrounding mountains or, when there are none, allowing your spirit to soar and fly up and away into the universe.
I digress and I still have to tell you about my last amazing day. Marcel and I decided to climb a volcano. We were joined by Rachael who was new in town and luckily today the clouds were way up high and so we took the cable car.
Quito, the capital city of Ecuador sits at an altitude of 2800 metres and it is the highest official capital city in the world. It has more than 1600 million inhabitants…and it literally sits around and up the sides of an active volcano! The Pichincha volcano last exploded in 1999, but these South Americans are a hardy lot and they have built a cable car up the side of it.
Unlike many other cable cars in Latin America, this one was built mainly for tourists and it whizzed us fast up the side of the volcano. Or at least it was fast once we had got onto the thing. We had to restrain Marcel who with his German scientific mind for all things could not believe the method by which we had to queue. In fact there seemed to be no method. Despite the steadily growing queue, if you wanted a whole cabin to yourself then you could have a whole cabin to yourself! In the end, Marcel cracked and escaping the clutches of Rachael and me he jumped the queue and strode into a cabin with a family who had hoped to have it to themselves.
The Teleferico as it is called whisked us up to 4,000 metres and some absolutely stunning views of the city. The ride costs twice as much for tourists as locals and is quite expensive by South American standards and in my opinion don’t bother unless you have a clear day. But we had a stunning wide-open sky kind of day and we were not here only for the ride. We were here to climb a volcano.
It started out just like a walk in the park. But an altitude affected, heart thumping, heavy-limb uphill sort of a walk in the park. A grassy ridge went up and up for more than an hour and very gradually the sharp craggy rocks of the summit came into focus. People use this volcano as a training ground for altitude and groups of runners – runners!!! – I could barely put one foot in front of the other at this altitude – groups of runners puffed past us. In the cafe there was an oxygen bar where, for a few dollars you could buy time at an oxygen point and sit with a mask on and revive yourself.
I am never entirely happy with heights and after more than an hour we were faced with the steep side of the sharp peak. Here I have to thank my two friends who encouraged me up – at times using hands and feet and climbing up the rocks. It was tough going but we passed people on their way down who told us that the effort was worth it. The clouds began to swirl down around us and I was a little afraid of getting lost because in some places there was no obvious path, but onwards and upwards we went.
And finally, after much scrabbling, we were there on top of the world. The clouds lifted and swirled and allowed us to see Quito, just a large splodge of dusty colour below and we sat and caught our collective breaths.
It was amazing to think that we were stood on the summit of an active volcano, 4000 metres up in the sky – but we also knew that getting down was not going to be a piece of cake either.
But there was a quick option to get down part of the way. Once past the spiky rocks which were very slowly negotiated, we bypassed the zigzag path and launched ourselves off down the scree slope. This was a sheer, almost smooth slope at a steeper angle than 45 degrees and was made of soft sand and gravel with the odd clump of grass or rock to add an element of danger.
And then you launch yourself using whatever method best works for you. Crouch down on your heels and scoot down the hill using your feet as a sled, or bounce down; leaning well back into the mountain side taking giant sized slithery steps and all the time being very careful not to catch your boot on a misplaced hillock which would cause you to face-plant the gravel.
We did obviously make it down from the volcano and we caught the cable car back down through the thick fog which reinforced the fact that I was right not to go up the day previously with Sudha because we couldn’t see a thing.
And then I was climbing into my bunk in the Minka Hostel for one last time before I would have to get a cab to the airport and my flights down to Brazil.
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