The Quilotoa Vortex

Day 130 – 10 Jul, 2015

After spending no less than 4 months in South America, I am feeling seasoned and secure in my knowledge of “how things work.”  Like, I know that there will be a siesta every afternoon, just like I know that I need to keep my head on a swivel and my hand on my pocketbook in a crowd.  I know that you have to bring your own soap into the bathroom and that you never put toilet paper down the pipes, only in the foul plastic bin that sits nearby.  I know that the concept of time is abstract, not absolute.  And I know that you never get in the car with strangers…..unless….you’re otherwise screwed.

I’m sure you’re as sick of reading about buses as I am sick of writing about them so fortunately, this story begins with me getting off a bus near the town of Latacunga in central Ecuador.  I say “near” because, unbeknownst to me, I was riding on a bus that was never actually planning to stop in Latacunga.  Even though I bought a ticket that clearly said “Latacunga,” the closest this bus was going was the highway that passed outside of town.  As the driver pulled away and left me standing seemingly in the middle of nowhere, I started to panic.  Latacunga proper was not even in sight.  If I was going to have to walk, I didn’t even know which direction to start walking.  Mad at myself for making an amateur mistake of not confirming the bus would indeed go to the BUS station, I felt a lump in my throat and warm tears burn my eyes.  No taxis in sight, I resolved to at least walk to the next highway exit and reassess the situation.

No sooner had I started walking than a battered blue hatchback pulled up next to me, offering to give me a ride for a small fee.  Perhaps this is business as usual for the locals, as I had witnessed several other stranded passengers get in various random vehicles, but for me, this was something you absolutely do not do.  I refused and continued trudging up the highway with luggage in tow, while the man trailed behind with his “taxi service” sales pitch through the open window.  He called “taxi? taxi?” in a questioning tone and I answered back “no es un taxi!”  This continued for several beats, but my answer became more pleading as if I wished he would suddenly metamorphis into an actual taxi driver.  I was starting to realize how limited my options had become when I reached the exit and it was deserted.

Looking both ways on the highway and in every other direction for any sign of town and then turning my gaze on the likely predator of a driver, we both knew I didn’t have much of a choice.  I know that, on occasion, this is how locals make a few extra bucks and how would this be any different or more dangerous than hitchhiking?  The next minute I’m sitting in the cramped backseat with 2 backpacks and a shoulder bag in my lap.  Just in case I need to launch out of the car at a moment’s notice, I wanted to make sure my luggage couldn’t be held hostage in the trunk.  The driver said he knew the address I was looking for (they always say they know but rarely do), we agreed on a $2 fare and accelerated toward Latacunga.  I was relieved when we actually arrived in Latacunga but no sooner had that happened, and my trusty driver begins asking people for directions to my hostel.

It is quite possible something was lost in translation, yet I distinctly heard the driver ask for directions to the bank even though I assured him I did indeed have the agreed upon $2 fare and had no need to visit the bank.  Hearing this for the second time, dread filled my every nerve and I leapt out of that moving vehicle as fast as is possible when you have 3 pieces of luggage and it gets stuck in the door on the way out.  The driver made virtually no effort to stop me from my awkward leap.  He even came to a stop and helped me dislodge my rogue luggage.  Because of this, I give pause to think it’s possible I misinterpreted the whole situation – either that, or this guy was really bad at robbing me.  Nevertheless, I was glad to be in the town and back on solid ground, more or less in charge of my own destiny.

A more charitable official taxi driver agreed to drive me the rest of the way for $1.50 which turned into 30 minutes of driving in circles due to a bad address and incomplete phone number (thanks booking.com), but even when the new driver had to leave me at a different hotel because we had given up on the original place, he refused to take more money for his trouble.  Five minutes after leaving me at the new place, he returned – he had found the correct hotel and wanted to know if I wanted to go.  I left with him, to fulfill my original reservation, and with a renewed sense in the goodness of (some) strangers.

At the inn, my frustrations weren’t over, but neither was the kindness bestowed on me by Ecuadorians.  For still unknown reasons, I had a really difficult time communicating with anyone in Latacunga (see My Quest) so when I really needed helpful instructions to visit Laguna Quilotoa (the only reason I was in this forlorn town) I couldn’t even get my hands on a map or a tour guide.  Long after we all should have given up, the innkeeper was calling reinforcements – a string of friends and family, recruited with the sole purpose of my safe passage to the sought after crater lagoon.

The winner was Marilyn Charlotte, the 20-year-old daughter of the innkeeper.  When this troop of Latacungans couldn’t explain the instructions on how to reach Laguna Quilotoa by public transportation, let alone agree on the best route, Marilyn Charlotte insisted on taking me herself.  An aspiring flight attendant, Mari was rejected a student visa in Canada because she didn’t have enough money in her bank account so she’s currently helping her parents manage their multiple businesses and escorting hopeless travelers like me while she studies English for her airline exam so she can see the world.   She has wanderlust too!

Not to be minimized in this post, Laguna Quilotoa is a jaw-dropping beauty.  A former volcano that now encompasses a turquoise lagoon, it appears to be painted for the sole purpose of photography.  It  takes about one hour to slide down the path to the crater floor.  The return trip takes about 3 times as long.  It’s also possible to walk around the entire rim of the crater or to do a 3-4 day trek from town to town with the lagoon as the grand finale.   Because I had a chaperone, Mari and I did the short version to the crater floor and back.  As you might imagine,  it was incredibly steep and challenging to traverse a volcano in an afternoon.  The air was brisk and blustery, to say the least, and I was grateful for the company and the literal hand-holding Mari provided along the way.  

   
    
    
 

Much has been said about the kindness of strangers, especially when you are floundering while traveling alone.  The people I encountered in Latacunga, from Mari to the taxi driver that delivered me to the right hotel to the innkeeper who walked me to the ATM because he said it was unsafe to go alone, all of these people showed me incredible kindness in big ways and small.  The light shines just a little brighter on humanity today.

**As a side note, since my visit to Latacunga in early July 2015, the town had to be temporarily evacuated when Volcan Cotopaxi erupted in Mid-August 2015.  My thoughts and best wishes go out to Mari and her family.

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