Into the Southern Hemisphere
|Written by Jared on August 20, 2012|
Start: July 29, 2012, Las Lajas, Colombia
The past week we wrapped up our time in beautiful Colombia and headed south to the mountains of Ecuador. In the process we visited a very unique church, crossed our first South American border, went fishing at 12,000 feet and camped below one spectacular volcano.
It's tough to leave Colombia, a country that quickly found its way to the top of our list of places to return to. But we're excited about Ecuador. From the Andes to the Amazon, it looks to be a very diverse country with plenty of great campsites and wilderness to enjoy. Bring it on!
Our last stop in Colombia was Santuario de Las Lajas, a unique-looking gothic church situated over a river valley. The church was built between 1919 and 1949 on a site where a mother and daughter found an image of the Virgin Mary in the cliff face in 1754. The church is built into the hillside around the image, which is still visible today.
The walls of the walkways around the church are covered with plaques put in place by visitors from around the world thanking the Virigin Mary for listening to and answering their prayers. Most of the plaques are dated, the oldest we found was from the 1930s, making it older than the church.
Before leaving Las Lajas we took the opportunity to pose for a picture. It's a llama, afterall, and you can ride it! Freaking tourists.
From Las Lajas it's a quick fifteen minute drive to the Ecuador border, our first crossing in this continent. By all reports border crossings are supposed to get quicker and easier the farther south you go, but that wasn't the case for us. After spending two hours in the Ecuadorian immigration line, we survived our tenth and longest border crossing of this trip. It certainly was straightforward, just very, very slow.
We made it across the border and to our campsite in Otavalo in time to witness a spectacular sunset over the mountains. We're at nearly 10,000 feet, and it's cold! Colder than it's been on this trip since we left Utah nine months ago.
Otavalo is famous for its craft market held in city's Plaza de los Panchos. It is at its peak on Saturday, when the market spills into city and stretches for blocks in every direction. It just so happens we're in town on Saturday, so we stop by to pick up some souvenirs.
The market consists largely of locally crafted woven textiles made from alpaca, wool, and various other hairy critters that are best left unmentioned. Stand after stand of blankets, ponchos, pantalones, shawls and sweaters in every color combination imaginable.
Also, goofy hats! Kobus sports a woven Elmo, complete with fluffy ear flaps and googly eyes.
Jessica looks a bit less amused with the hat we chose for her to pose in. Can't say I blame her, it does sort of look like a sheep died on her head.
The market is full of incredibly colorful alpaca blankets. We picked up a couple as gifts, along with a few dozen other handicrafts to send back home. All told we spent five hours shopping in the market, which has to be a record of some sort.
The next day we take an afternoon trip up to Lake Mojando to try our luck at trout fishing in the Andes. We're a bit over 12,000 feet and the wind is blowing. It's positively frigid and the fish aren't biting. After an hour or two of soaking up the scenery we call it a day and head back down the mountain.
On the way back down we stop for a view at the aptly named Mirador Buena Vista. On the right is Volcan Ibambura, considered the sacred protector of the region, towering over the town of Otavalo at more than 15,000 feet.
At night we've been trying out our new kitchen addition - a dutch oven. Beef rib stew, chicken stew, BBQ ribs, and tonight's dinner, Kobus' speciallty: spaghetti and gigantic meatballs with homemade pasta sauce.
We've also been having a proper campfire at night. This is a first since El Salvador, and only the third place we've made a campfire after crossing into Mexico. All that's missing are the graham crackers and marshmallows.
This is the view from the lookout at Rose Cottage, our first stop in Ecuador. We opted to stay here an extra two days instead of moving on to the capitol of Quito. This place is very relaxing, the surrounding countryside is beautiful. It wasn't hard for us to trade a hectic city for this peaceful countryside.
From Otavalo we head south, around the capitol city of Quito, towards a national park that is home to one of the highest active volcanoes on earth. But first, an important landmark for our trip, the equator. Bring on the Southern Hemisphere!
It reminded me of visiting Four Corners in the US as a kid. Look, I'm in two hemispheres (or four states) at the same time! Quick, take a picture so we can go to the gift shop. Obviously the significance is a bit greater for us on this trip. Afterall, we drove 16,000 miles to get here. But I guess you could say the same thing about the next gas station we stop at.
Speaking of which, check this sign out! Yes, those prices are in US dollars, and yes, you buy gas by the gallon in Ecuador. $1.03 for diesel and $1.46 for regular. It cost us $27 to fill up on high octane. Say WHAT?!
After crossing the equator, and marveling at how cheap gas is, we arrive at Cotopaxi National Park. Home to a gigantic (and still active) volcano that tops out at an elevation of 19,347 feet.
At over 12,000 feet, our campsite in the shadow of Mt. Cotopaxi is even colder than our mountain retreat in Otavalo. Jessica sports her newly-purchased alpaca hoodie (made from alpaca with alpacas on it) and the first glass of proper hot cocoa (with marshmallows!) we've had in quite some time. If only it didn't take 20 minutes to boil a pot of water at this elevation.
The scenery is absolutely stunning. This is a campsite like no other we've experienced. Wild horses run below the volcano through tundra grass strewn with boulders, an obvious sign that Cotopaxi has not yet gone to sleep.
After what may have been one of the coldest nights we've had on this trip, we set out for a walk around a small glacial lake named Laguna Limpiopungo. It's a short mile and a half walk around the lake, but since we stop to admire the surreal scenery every dozen steps it takes us two or three hours to circle back to the car.
As we learned on our hike up Kilimanjaro, hiking at high altitudes is hard work and the sun is brutal. With thin atmosphere and biting wind the elements quickly take a toll on exposed skin. I still haven't fully regained feeling in my nose.
This hike gave us a chance to dust off our Costa Rican birding vests. The lake is home to a very unique assortment of water fowl, as well as a few big raptors. We spotted this hawk (eagle, buzzard, high-elevation falconoid?) chowing down on a snack.
This is the view of Cotopaxi, complete with little cloud hat, that we enjoyed for the first part of the hike around the lake. Between the bird life and this view it was tough to stay focused on keeping one foot in front of the other.
On a busy weekend 100 people make the ascent to Cotopaxi's crater. Hiking on that glacier does not look like a lot of fun to us. Back to the lodge for a cup of coffee and a roaring fireplace!
During the drive back we spot a herd of wild horses scrounging in the tundra. They're a bit scruffy, but then again so are we after only a couple days in this climate. Time to head to lower elevations.
Up next: We spend few more days in the Ecuadorian highlands and then head down the eastern slope of the Andes to check out the beginnings of the Amazon Basin.