Steve & Judy Pardoe's 1997/98 Ecuador Trip Report Page

Revised for the Web on 31. October 2000

This is a plain vanilla text report originally written in 1998 to provide feedback to High Places, the company with whom we went to Ecuador over Christmas 1997/98.

Please don't take the enclosed comments too seriously, or out of context. You can read a report of the highlight of the trip, our ascent of Cotopaxi, here.

Indigenous people of the Páramo, near Chimborazo, Ecuador

Treks and Volcanoes, Ecuador 1997/98 Trip Report

Steve & Judy Pardoe with High Places/Natura Trekking

This is a report of our personal experiences on the recent trip to Ecuador. It has been extracted from our journal, and follows our itinerary day by day. NB: accents have been omitted from place names (such as Banos) for compatibility across document processors.

Our overall impression was very favourable, and we would heartily recommend High Places and Natura Trekking to other travellers. Not quite everything went perfectly from our point of view, but where this is evident in the notes which follow, the observations are offered as constructive criticism, rather than complaint.

We have noticed that as time has passed (it's now seven weeks since we returned), the less attractive features of the trip seem much less important than they did at first, and this is partly why we have delayed finishing this until now.

Points I'd particularly draw attention to are marked [***]; the rest is really for background information.

Day 1 Monday 22/12/97 Manchester - Amsterdam

*** The flight from Manchester had been brought forward, and although the covering letter advised us to check, it would have been nice if this had been explicit. Fortunately, we checked the tickets in good time, and were able to make new travel arrangements to the airport.

The Air UK and KLM flights were on time, and as comfortable as can be expected. We found the 20kg baggage allowance a problem (our separate bag of Alpine equipment for Cotopaxi weighed 14kg alone) and I'd be interested to know what would have happened if we had each been, say, 5kg over. We agonised over what kit to leave behind (even our guide books at 500g each), and it may have been unnecessary.

Day 2 Tuesday 23/12/97 Amsterdam - Curacao - Guayaquil - Quito

The long haul from Amsterdam to Quito was pretty dreadful, but the brief stop at Curacao came as some relief.

*** Our welcome at Quito after the long flight was excellent, though a prominent 'High Places' placard or something might have helped. Fortunately, Yossi and Oswaldo were on hand to round up the lost sheep. One is really dozy at that point, and it's very easy to leave a bag or something behind: I left my windproof fleece in an overhead locker, and it was only seeing another client wearing a similar one that reminded me. Luckily, I was allowed to walk back to the plane (accompanied by a very courteous official) to retrieve it. This isn't a criticism of HP, just an observation about overnight long-hauls!

There were two groups of HP clients on the same flight, the other being on the 'Peaks of Ecuador' trip that we had changed from. It was quite interesting to see the reciprocal sizing-up of each party, and to us at least some of the others looked 'well hard'.

Transfer to the hotel was rapid, and we had a quick wash and bit of a rest before the briefing meeting, followed by an equipment check so that rental of Alpine equipment could be organized for those who hadn't brought their own. It turned out that the itinerary had changed, but not in the way that Natura Trekking thought : they gave us a neatly presented re-statement of the first scheduled trek (Altar), when in fact it was the second trek (Ingapirca) which had been changed to one on Chimborazo.

In the afternoon we had a trip into Quito, to change some dollars for (quite a lot of) sucres, and see the old town.

*** Maria Ines was a charming and informative guide, and I think we all enjoyed this excursion, despite our tiredness. I rather wish now that I had taken a proper camera with me, but Maria and Yossi's warnings about street theft meant that we only took a compact. We saw quite a lot of beggars, but never felt threatened. Being in a party undoubtedly helps, and the situation could have been very different solo, or after dark.

Day 3 Wednesday 24/12/97 Quito - Altar

Boarding the bus with all our trek baggage (which would become so familiar a process) seemed to take a while, and there was some confusion about leaving a 'hotel' bag.

*** We had expected that clean town clothes would follow us separately and appear at each hotel stop, but in the end it turned out that the bag we had carefully segregated came with us to Altar, even on horseback all the way to the campsite. Fortunately, on a last-minute impulse, I had wrapped most of the contents in an additional plastic bag, but it was a shock to find it came with us on trek (not to mention the inconvenience of a third large, wet and muddy bag in the tent).

The road beyond Penipe was almost washed out in places, and Edwin the bus driver did a fantastic job in getting us to Candelaria.

*** The last few hundred metres were beyond even him, and we were shocked to find we had to carry all our bags up the hill to the hacienda at 3,000m. It really wasn't far, but it seemed a lot of effort after sitting on the bus for so long (especially as we had an extra one...).

Day 4 Thursday 25/12/97 (Christmas Day) Altar

We had a good supper and night at the Hacienda, and a pleasant breakfast on Christmas morning. Maria Ines had thoughtfully wrapped little ceramic 'Papaya' buses in tissue paper and friendship bands as presents for all of us, the only 'official' recognition of the Festival.

*** Judy and I had speculated that the lack of recognition of Christmas might have been deliberate and tactful, as some of the party might have been coming away specifically to avoid it, but few shared this view, and most seemed disappointed that there had been no special meal.

Finally packed, we set off up the trail through the Collanes valley to El Altar. Although the itinerary referred to its being "muddy in wet weather", I don't think anyone was prepared for the depth, consistency and malevolence of this extraordinary material. Sharing the trail with the horses means that the mud gets churned to a depth of a foot or more, and this can be dangerous as well as downright unpleasant. For much of the route, we were hopping up onto the exposed outer bank of the path on the steep valley side, and down again into the mud, which as often as not resembled a trench from the Somme. Our walking poles were a great help in keeping balance and providing extra purchase, but I imagine we ended up climbing twice as far as the nominal distance.

*** I gathered afterwards that our party had been assessed as a "slow group" as a result, which seems a bit harsh, as we were completely unacclimatized, and (in our case at least) still jet-lagged from the journey. On the later treks I believe we were going at least as quickly as expected.

We reached the campsite at 3,800m by tea time, and were glad to find most of the tents already up, one of only two occasions on which our personal tents were erected for us.

*** I didn't mind, as I hadn't known whether to expect this, but some clients who had previously been to the Himalaya and elsewhere with other companies were initially surprised at having to do this.

The evening meal was always of three courses, and almost always excellent, considering the limited resources available to the cooks. Clean water was at a premium, and everything had to be heated on four gas rings. There would be a vast cauldron of soup, always delicious and far more than we could manage; a main course, generally of meat or fish, with rice, pasta or instant mashed potato, and occasionally some vegetables; and a sweet of stewed fruit or milky pudding.

*** The food was tasty and nourishing, and extremely welcome after a hard day. I think our favourite soup was based on quinua, a high-altitude grain from the region, which made a salty and very satisfying broth. The most ambitious main-course was undoubtedly fresh trout, which we had twice and was absolutely superb.

We found sleeping difficult at first, unfamiliar with the altitude, and needing to get up for "bio breaks" in the night. We were heeding the leaders' advice about drinking plenty of tea (if you are not having to get up in the night, you are not drinking enough!), but this has its downside.

*** A "candy-striped" toilet tent had been erected over a hole in the ground, but this quickly became a miserably wet and filthy affair in the waterlogged soil, and many took advantage of the dark to avoid it.

Day 5: Friday 26/12/97 El Altar

It was disappointing not to see the hanging glaciers and snowy peaks more clearly, but we were rewarded by seeing some condors, who flew by from time to time, once even below us. Some of the party continued to a ridge at about 4,500m, but most of us were content to amble back to the valley floor, watching the wildlife and wishing the sky would clear.

Day 6 Saturday 27/12/97 Altar - Banos

The following morning, as we struck camp and headed off down the muddy trail to the Hacienda, we did catch momentary glimpses of Obispo, at 5319m the highest and most difficult of El Altar's many peaks. Either the trail had dried a little, or our familiarity made for more efficient transit, but we were down at the hacienda for lunch and spent a happy hour in blazing sunshine eating our sandwiches, washing boots and drying gear, before loading ourselves onto the bus for the ride to Banos.

*** The Hotel Sangay is right opposite the public thermal baths, themselves at the foot of an enormous waterfall. This is handy if you want a dip, but the noise from the baths goes on late and starts again before dawn, so if your room is at the front (as ours was) you don't get much sleep.

*** Judy had been suffering from sinusitis before leaving the UK, and it flared up again on the Altar trek, giving agonising headaches at the unaccustomed altitude. Maria Ines arranged for a local doctor to call on her at the hotel, and he prescribed antibiotics and pain killers which soon did the trick. Yossi Brain went out of his way to make sure that the doctor (who was kindly, but appeared to speak no English) fully understood the symptoms, and later took us to a pharmacy to get the drugs, ensured that they matched the scrip, translated the dosage instructions for us, and so on. He and Maria could not have been more considerate, and we felt extremely grateful, as their prompt action saved the holiday for us.

*** A real pat on the back for Maria Ines and Yossi Brain here!

Day 7 Sunday 28/12/97 Banos

A day at leisure in Banos: four of us took a taxi to see the Ines Maria falls, a mile or two above the town, then walked back into Banos to see the sights and take some photos.

Day 8 Monday 29/12/97 Banos - Chimborazo trek

We got up early and visited the thermal baths opposite our hotel, as the water is fresh on Mondays, and it seemed a good idea to relax before the long bus ride. Oswaldo had explained the revised itinerary in Banos, so we knew that it was to be a tough trek.

The bus dropped us with all our gear, and we set the tents up, at around 4,100m with a view of Chimborazo just over the ridge to the south for those who could be bothered to walk up.

We had been shadowed by a group of young Indigenas, who got closer and closer as the evening went on, and after a while plucked up courage to approach us. Our leader on this trek was Marco, and he seemed at ease with the children, perhaps understanding some of their pre-colonial Quichua language. We bought a little brightly-coloured woven bag, possibly called a shigra ("sack") which had apparently taken 15 days to make. The youngsters had flat faces, reminiscent of the Mongolians, and dreadfully weather-beaten skin from the constant exposure and high-altitude radiation; it looked as though their lives were pretty harsh.

*** We found this brief encounter with the native people, for once in their own habitat, absolutely fascinating, if it's not too condescending to say so. For us, it was one of the highlights of the whole trip.

Day 9 Tuesday 30/12/97 Chimborazo trek

It was bright and clear next morning, and after the miraculous effects of "bed tea" (which almost always arrived after we were up and dressed, but never mind) we set off up a ridge towards Chimborazo.

*** Although a bowl of hot water was often provided for each client's ablutions in the morning, we felt that this would have been even more welcome around tea time, after the day's trek. I realise that the crew would be very busy then, so it's just a suggestion.

The route took us up to the glacier, and probably unnecessarily, but for interest, across its tongue. Without our crampons or axes, progress was a bit tricky in places, but we all made it without incident. A fall would have meant a painful slide of a hundred feet at most, but was still best avoided. Mario had thoughtfully suggested we wear our gloves, just in case.

Day 10 Wednesday 31/12/97 Chimborazo trek

It had rained all night, and we had to pack the tents away soaking wet, but it cleared up after breakfast and the rest of the day was reasonably dry. The route meandered round and over a series of radial ridges of Chimborazo, as we swung south west towards our highest campsite. It was a very long day, made harder by the loose and sandy soil and the constant ups and downs. A picnic lunch coincided with a clear, sunny interval, and we got some stunning views away to the north.

Later on it became very misty, and we finally reached the campsite, spectacularly situated on an almost flat area of small stones, at 4,800m and only a few hundred metres north of the Carrel refuge. Our tents were already erected for us, which particularly welcome. By nightfall, the fog was so thick we could hardly find our way from one tent to the next, but as the temperature dropped the mist went and the stars came out.

*** A bio break at about midnight was greeted, after a struggle with the frozen tent zipper, by the most brilliant starscape imaginable, as the utterly clear air and great altitude made for perfect viewing. This was literally heavenly, and a quite unforgettable way to see the New Year in.

Day 11 Thursday 1/1/98

Dawn was clear, and the brilliant low-raking sun put everyone in a good mood for the day. We took the opportunity to air some gear while we had breakfast, then set off rather suddenly towards the Carrel rifugio, the lower of the two climbers' huts on Chimborazo.

*** This was one of a number of occasions on which I felt that a little more information about the schedule would have been helpful. There was too much "hurry up and wait": one minute we'd be hanging around, waiting for instructions, and the next we'd have to rush to pack our bags; or, for example, strike the tents after previously being told we could leave them until after breakfast.

Marco set what seemed an unnecessarily rapid pace down to the valley, when several of us would much have preferred to walk up to the higher, Whymper refuge at 5,000m and see a bit of the mountain, since the rest of the day was to be spent in the bus and in Banos, which we'd already done, in spades. However, the walk down to the valley was very pleasant, in bright, windy weather, and we arrived at the road-head more or less as the bus did.

Day 12 Friday 2/1/98 Banos - Otavalo

A long day on the bus... by-passing Quito, we crossed the Equator and arrived at the Hotel Indio Inn, one of three so named, in Otavalo. This was a modern and rather stylish hotel, and there was a chance to organise some laundry (and did we need it!). We met Maria Ines and Oswaldo again, and their delightful daughter Paola. We dined together at a smart but noisy restaurant, Yossi again fighting our corner when the bill had a number of unexplained items...

Day 13 Saturday 3/1/98 Otavalo's Markets

We were up early, and Maria took us to the cattle market before breakfast, explaining the local customs on the way. The scene of animals, people, and especially children going about their business was most photogenic, and we were inevitably suckered into buying some small items as the price of portraits.

Moving back into the town to see the indoor produce market, things took a style holiday. The place was thick with traders and porters of all descriptions, and the obvious poverty and filth were countered by fantastic displays of fruit and vegetables, spices and herbs, and every kind of meat (in fact, mostly the kinds we'd prefer not to have seen).

Later, we visited the outdoor textile market held in the town square. There were intensely colourful displays of tapestries, woven bags, and clothing of all sizes and shapes. Although many of the colour schemes and patterns were clearly aimed at a tourist's eye, we managed to find what we fondly imagined were reasonably authentic designs, which made attractive and very reasonable souvenirs. We found the traders extremely friendly, and they seemed to take our (doubtless pathetic) attempt at haggling in good spirit.

*** I had been thinking of the day in Otavalo as a distraction from the serious business of acclimatisation and fitness training, but in fact it was well worth the diversion.

Yossi had organised an afternoon excursion to Cotacachi(?), where there is a spectacular crater lake. The bus ride seemed to take forever, grinding up the hills above Otavalo, but the lake was remarkable, and six of us had a pleasant, if windy, stroll about a third of the way around the precipitous rim to find a sheltered picnic spot.

Day 14 Sunday 4/1/98 Otavalo - Antisana

Another early start for the bus ride to Antisana. We again by-passed Quito, but the route was thoughtfully extended to take us to a landmark on the Equator which we had seen from the bus on Friday. We all piled out to photograph each other astride the magic line.

The bus ground up towards and over the Andean watershed on the road to Papallacta, and stopped just on the Amazonian side. The horses were waiting for us at a roadside shack. After a sandwich lunch in the bus, we got our foul-weather gear on and headed off on our third and final trek towards Antisana and Cotopaxi, our Guide this time being Fabian. The going was soggy and the weather dreadful, and by the time we arrived at Laguna Volcan for the night's camp, we were all pretty soaked, either from bungled stream crossings or just the rain. The obvious pitch by the lake was occupied, but although there was apparently plenty of room, we trudged up the stream for a few hundred metres to a most inhospitable bank, and pitched there. It was impossible to find a level site, but as compensation, Freddy's brother cooked an excellent supper.

Day 15 Monday 5/1/98 Antisana Trek

It was a cold, wet and miserable start, and we left the camp before 8:30 to head straight up the valley side and through the most disgusting mud. It made Altar look like fun: the worst section was through cloud forest where the path was a mud bath, but there was no alternative, as the ground was impassable on either side. If I had been able to keep my balance, I would have liked a photograph of this. Fabian seemed keen to press on, and eventually we reached the day's high point at 4,200m and stopped for a picnic. After lunch the going was easier and the pace more tolerable, after a few of us had a quiet word... The evening's campsite was charming, situated in a little valley with stunning views of Antisana (5,704m) when the clouds eventually cleared. Some of us climbed up the hill behind the tents for a better view, and also saw Cotopaxi away to the south-west.

*** Dinner was again excellent, featuring a locro soup with eggs and pasta, fresh trout, and tree tomatoes. This put everyone in a much better mood than the previous evening, but the best moment was later on, when Antisana appeared bathed in moonlight, a beautiful sight and quite unforgettable.

Day 16 Tuesday 6/1/98 Antisana Trek

*** This was a great day's trekking, all we had hoped for. The ground was fair, the weather not bad, and we all seemed to be going well. Finally, altitude was no problem and the walking a real pleasure. We saw condors, and some rather hard looking horsemen, who were apparently disputing our rights of access over what is private land.

Lunch was taken in rare sunshine by a stream, then we entered a long, narrow valley heading towards Sincholagua. The last couple of miles were along an aqueduct and very easy walking in excellent weather. We were feeling quite smug about this as we got to the campsite, but sure enough, just as we got the tents up it started to rain, turning to thunder later. The horsemen paid us another visit, still disputing our rights, but this was resolved, Latin style, by the administration of money and drink. Another superb meal, of my favourite quinua soup, home-made hamburger, and fruit salad, rounded off an excellent day.

*** If only the treks could all have been like this!

Day 17 Wednesday 7/1/98 Antisana Trek

A leisurely start today, as we had made good progress on the previous two and hadn't far to go. The route rose steeply over a shoulder of Sincholagua, giving us close-up views of the rotten, spiky rock of this extinct volcano. Fabian told us that he could remember there being glaciers on it as little as 15 years ago, but now it is bare rock and scree. It had been clouding up all morning, and we were just having lunch when the storm broke, with drenching rain and hail. When the storm clouds cleared, Sincholagua was cloaked in fresh snow.

Our last campsite had some huts, apparently left from some water extraction site, and we were able to shelter awhile in relative comfort before putting the tents up.

*** Yossi took the party through the Cotopaxi routine, emphasising the danger and horror of it all. I suppose it's important to impress on the less experienced of us that high-altitude mountaineering has its risks, but I think a few were quite unsettled.

Day 18 Thursday 8/1/98 Cotopaxi approach

It was a beautiful morning, and everyone was optimistic, if apprehensive, about the prospects for Cotopaxi, which was clearly visible from a few yards above the camp. However, there was some doubt about transport, as there was a strike in Quito and the bus might not get to us.

*** After a while, a cheer went up as Oswaldo arrived in his Toyota, having made a long detour to avoid road blocks. He kitted us out with our harnesses and the extra equipment for those renting, and we had a happy time trying the unfamiliar gear for size.

*** Yossi gave us all a brief but very valuable refresher course in rope management and basic Alpine skills, which was an excellent initiative, even (or perhaps especially) for those of us who thought we already knew it all. Eventually, the bus arrived, to more cheers, and we piled aboard for the bumpy ride to Cotopaxi.

Bumpy it certainly was, and after a while a dreadful crash from below suggested that there had been some terminal mechanical problem. Soon afterwards we had to get off and walk; fortunately, we were now within sight of the rifugio, but unfortunately it had started to snow. We started trudging up the cinder slope, but then there was a change of heart, and we all got back on the bus again a few switchbacks later.

Although we had booked sleeping accommodation, the refuge was packed out with American parties who had been unable to climb for the last couple of days because of bad weather, and were not about to vacate the bunks. We ended up sleeping on the mess-room floor, not ideal preparation for the ascent.

Day 19 Friday 9/1/98 Cotopaxi

The ascent is described and illustrated on our web site at :

*** Oswaldo had generously provided a total of six professional guides for his twelve clients on Cotopaxi, so that we were only in ropes of three, maximising everyone's chances of getting to the top. Yossi Brain had been drawn as our personal guide, as Judy and I were apparently considered borderline for the ascent, with our combined ages of 102. He was ideal for us, setting a realistic pace and 'looking out' for us as far as bedding, clothing and equipment were concerned, both before and during the climb. It was a great reassurance to have such a thoughtful and competent guide, and this made a huge difference to our enjoyment of what turned out to be a fantastic morning. In spite of loitering for a total of about an hour in traffic queues, most notably at a bridged crevasse, we reached the summit just after 7 am, comfortably within the guidebook time, in perfect conditions. Yossi gave us almost an hour on the rim, looking into the crater and photographing the scenery, and were safely back in the refuge by 10.

It was quite a long bus-ride back to Quito, but it passed quickly as many of us dozed. By now pretty filthy after four days' trekking and the climb, we must have been an unappetizing sight (and smell) for the staff of Hotel Quito, but they gave no such indication and we repaired to our rooms for a good wash. That was, until we found that there was no hot water... this soon appeared, after some agitation from Mr Brain.

The last evening meal together was had at a Cuban restaurant, courtesy of High Places, and again we were together with the 'Peaks' party. It turned out that they had got up Cotopaxi, but had seen nothing as the summit was clouded and very cold. Chimborazo, however, had been denied them owing to the weather, so we were doubly glad that we had opted for the 'Treks' trip, and at least had such a brilliant time on our one volcano.

Day 20 Saturday 10/1/98

Our last few hours in Quito: breakfast in the hotel, and a last chance to check our bags before the short bus ride to the airport. Oswaldo and Yossi were there to guide us through baggage check-in and emigration, and say fond farewells, then we were on our own again for the long flight home.

*** It had indeed, in the words of the High Places brochure, "been a good trip". Much of the misery of mud, rain and lack of sleep has now faded, and the memories we retain are of the kindness and generosity of our Guides, the friendliness of the Ecuadorians, the generally excellent logistics, and above all the fantastic sense of achievement we got from climbing Cotopaxi.

I'd also like to record how much we enjoyed the company of the other clients, particularly as everyone pulled together to make the best of things when the weather was bad and the outlook worse. Their cooperation and good humour made a great contribution.

Taken as a whole, the trip was just brilliant, and I would unhesitatingly recommend High Places and Natura Trekking to anyone planning to go.

Steve & Judy Pardoe/March 1998

You can read a report of the highlight of the trip, our ascent of Cotopaxi, here.

Sad news:

Yossi Brain, our charming and professional guide in Ecuador and on Cotopaxi, died on 25. September 1999 in an avalanche while climbing in Bolivia. Our sympathy goes to his family in England. There are some additional photos of Yossi in Ecuador, and from his Memorial Celebration in Walsall on Saturday 13. November 1999 here.

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