The Hamilton Outing Club spent three weeks of winter break making their sixth trip to the mountains of Ecuador. Ecuador has more ecosystems than any other country in the world, and the nine members of the group visited many of them, from the Amazon rainforest all the way up to glaciated, volcanic peaks. Dani Forshay ’11 was among the students on the trip, and over the course of four entries will share her impressions and memories.
Despite delays resulting from the untimely arrival of a debilitating east coast snowstorm, the morning of Dec. 30 found all nine members of our group assembled in the sunny breakfast room of the Posada del Maple hostel in Quito, Ecuador.
The Ecuador trip, run through the Outdoor Leadership Center, is a biannual excursion that takes students on a three-week journey through various ecosystems from the Andes to the Amazonian basin. The trip focuses mainly on hiking and mountaineering, but there is also plenty of time to explore cities and villages, learn about wildlife, practice Spanish skills, and sample the local cuisine. This year’s group, led by Assistant Director of Outdoor Leadership Sarah Jillings, included seniors Cassidy Jay and Dani Forshay, juniors Kristin Forgrave and Caitlyn Gollan, and sophomores Jane Barnard, Jake Lucas, Conner Polet and Peter Laciano. For the majority of the trip, we were accompanied by our wonderful Ecuadorian guide, Edgar, a mountain man, electrician and lover of fruity drinks.
Quito hugs the slopes of Rucu Pichincha, a 15,413-foot volcano, which is also the site of the final battle for the liberation of Ecuador from Spain. A gondola carries hikers part of the way over steep terrain blanketed in farmland and dotted with shepherds, and deposits them at a small lodge from which a path departs over a grassy ridgeline. In the distance, the rocky jut of Rucu Pichincha is visible. Supplied with plantain chips, Oreos and pizza crackers, we began our first hike of the trip.
The ascent afforded a magnificent view of Quito, a long white sprawl nestled between mountains, whenever the thick layer of clouds pulled back. Hummingbirds dove amongst the wildflowers, occasionally returning to their nests in rocky overhangs. The last section of the climb was a bit of a scramble over jagged rocks and boulders, and then came a trudge up a sandy slope before we reached the cloud-swaddled summit. In celebration of the conquest, we did pushups.
This marked the beginning of our altitude training in preparation for our later ascents of Cotopaxi and Cayambe, respectively the second and third highest peaks in Ecuador. Moving from sea level to 15,000 feet in under 24 hours was an interesting trial, especially for many of us who had never been anywhere near such heights in our lives. While the hike up had not been especially painful, altitude-related headaches assaulted many of the group on the way down, and we were glad to return to the hostel for naps.
Later, we had one last dessert at our favorite café, Coffee & Toffee, before packing up the next morning and heading for Otavalo. On the way, we turned off the highway and jounced down a long cobblestone road to reach Fuya Fuya, a roughly 14,000-foot mountain situated beside a beautiful lake. After Rucu Pichincha, we were a bit more adjusted to the altitude, and the hike up Fuya Fuya’s steep, grassy slopes seemed relatively easy.
Having done our pushups, we returned to the car and drove to Otavalo to check in to our hostel and check out what is reputedly the largest handicraft market in South America. This was a great opportunity to work on our Spanish by attempting to haggle with the vendors.
Later, sporting our new alpaca sweaters like true turistas, we had a nice New Year’s Eve dinner where we tried canelazo, an Andean hot alcoholic beverage flavored with cinnamon. After that, we wandered through the streets to watch the Ecuadorian New Year’s Eve festivities. This involved pretty much every young man in Otavalo dressing up in women’s clothing and masks to dance in the streets. Any cars hoping to pass were forced to pay 50 cents and endure a few minutes of young men cavorting around their vehicle (or inside it, if it was a truck).
Around midnight, this crowd disappeared to the bars while other groups built up bonfires in the streets to burn dummies. These dummies, which are sold around town for days before the celebration, wear masks depicting politicians, celebrities, or even cartoon characters, and are burnt to represent purification in anticipation of the new year. Even our guide, Edgar, had created a dummy in the semblance of a mountain guide and burned it in front of our hostel.
After midnight, we tore ourselves away from these intriguing revels and went to bed, knowing we would need our sleep for the trek on which we were embarking the following day. After a typical breakfast of scrambled eggs, bread and jam, fresh fruit with yogurt, the best fruit juice in existence, and, of course, café con leche or hot chocolate, we met Ivan, who would be our guide for the next five days. Ivan is an ecotourism entrepreneur who seemed to know everyone and be involved in everything. He was full of facts and would frequently stop us over the course of the five days we spent with him to teach us about everything from toucans to flowers that indigenous people used as soap.