Summer Flashback: Apologies, and That Time I Couldn’t Breathe For an Hour

So, yes, I realize it’s been rather a while since I dropped by this corner of the internet to say hello. I’m just going to be honest and admit that about 30% of it is me being lazy; the other 70% is some combination of busy/holiday weekends, the madness of ending the school year, an inability to edit photos in a timely fashion and, most of all, the fact that I’ve been busting my posterior body parts trying to find something resembling a job for next year. Cover letters are hard, y’all.

But let’s put that all aside, shall we? In my continuing series of Making My Friends Sad By Reminding Them (Usually Through Photography) of Events That Happened Five Months Ago, I present: the tale of the infamous Cotopaxi volcano!

Those of you that know me in real life, or at least through the facelibro, may have heard some mention of this volcano. It is apparently the world’s most photographed volcano, due to its photogenic conical shape, so I couldn’t resist. Plus, it’s a volcano! We don’t have any of those at home! Cotopaxi was on the top of my list of things that needed to be done, and luckily I have awesome friends that also enjoy torturing themselves by walking up hills at very high altitudes. So after we spent a few days frolicking around the cloud forest in Mindo (photos, I know, I promise. Someday), we headed back to Quito and then suited up in our new alpaca gear for a day of conquering the mountain. Or something like that.

What they don’t tell us sea-level-dwelling folks (yes, I know Bogotá is high up, but I was born by the ocean, dammit) is that hiking at altitude is hard as hell. Maybe they tell us and we just don’t listen. Either way, our journey began when we hopped off the bus at a random bend of Ecuadorean highway, across four lanes from a wooden sign marking the entrance to the national park. We dashed across the highway, seasoned from months of dodging Bogotá traffic, and ambled up to a building where a few guys were sitting by pickup trucks in various states of functionality. These, it appeared, were the guides. One dude took it upon himself to be our guide for the day — I am a terrible person and can’t recall his name, but I do remember that he was excellent at maintaining a comfortable interior temperature in the truck and even better at driving with one arm (I didn’t ask what happened to the other one. I assume wild mountain beasts).

Getting to the entrance of the park, it turns out, is the easy part. Once you have your guide and corresponding vehicle, said guide then drives you along the extremely bumpy 19-kilometer or so path to the mountain itself. Along the way, we rolled through undoubtedly icy-cold streams, wound up and down hills, passed through clouds and over vast fields of short high-altitude plants, and learned various facts about the geological makeup of the place (summary: LAVA. Also, layers). We made a pit stop at a small hut on the way to sip some interior-warming coca tea and avoid the guy trying to sell us hats. He obviously couldn’t see the alpacas perched on our heads. And then, onwards! Mountain-bound!

Ecuador is at least 87% volcano

This is where we’re going…

At the foot of the volcano was where things got exciting. Crossing a plain edged by craggy mountains and a chilly lake, we spotted movement on both sides of the car. Then, suddenly, we were surrounded by tall, shaggy beasts: wild volcano horses! I don’t think I’d ever seen horses in the wild before then, and they were seriously beautiful creatures — their coats looked thick enough to use as sleeping blankets. There was even a baby horse, wobbling along between its parents. I think we made our poor guide stop the car like five times so we could document the horses, but it was worth it. And yes, I spent the next hour with the song stuck in my head. Also worth it.

By the time we’d recovered from all of the horse excitement, we were winding our way up the side of the volcano itself, to the parking lot conveniently located at about 4,400m (just multiply it my 3, fellow Americans). For the record, we’re at around 2,800m here in Bogs, so this is a significant step up even for us. And you feel that step the moment you take one, I promise.

Upon disembarking from our transport, our guide pointed up the side of the mountain at a yellow building seemingly an arm’s length away. That was the refugio, he told us — as far up as it was recommended we walk without a permit (or at least some better jackets and snow boots). The walk should be about an hour, he said, and he’d be waiting for us when we got back. The sun had just broken out of the clouds, I could see the actual, real-life snow on the peak of the volcano and the path was lying right ahead of us. I was ready.

You know how on mountains, landmarks look tantalizingly close but are actually brutally far away? Now, imagine that effect, but you can only take 10 steps before you have to stop and catch your breath — that was Cotopaxi. I’ve never had such a hard time breathing in my life — it honestly felt like I was hyperventilating all the way up the chalky, ashy slope. My legs hurt, my lungs burned, I kept yawning to try to open my air passages, my feet kept sliding on the ash (remember, we’re walking on old lava here), I was definitely getting sunburned, and the cheerful groups of intense mountain climbers with their intense ice boots descending as we were going up just made me feel more self-conscious. The 400-meter ascent (from 4,400 to about 4,800) took an hour and pretty much all of the self-control I had in my body. It was also — and still is — one of my favorite things I’ve done all year.

The feeling of standing at the refugio sign, staring down the slope of fine ash particles to the tiny cars in the parking lot and the plain stretching out from the bottom of the mountain, stretching my legs and catching my breath for the first time in an hour, was like a slow endorphin rush. I climbed that, my body was telling itself. I don’t know what my goddamn idiotic brain was thinking, but I climbed that. I felt pretty badass. And the hot chocolate and soup in the refugio didn’t hurt either.

But the second best part? The way down. The ascent may have taken us over an hour, but the descent took about ten minutes, tops. Because ash, on a slope, does a really good impression of a slide. We basically skied down the side of the volcano, each step sliding five feet in the soft terrain. It felt like sliding down a sand dune. Except cold. And really high up. In Ecuador.

I’ve never made my lungs work so hard in my life, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Villa de Leyva: Maybe My Favorite Place in Colombia

Earlier this week, I realized that in all the excitement about zipping around Boyacá and waxing eloquent (and photographic) about all the delicious pastries I consumed in Villa de Leyva, I never actually spent any time talking about the place itself. My bad.

So! Let’s talk a bit about Villa de Leyva, because it may very well be my favorite place so far in Colombia — at the least, it’s a hell of a strong front-runner. Villa is a small-ish town in Boyacá, which those of you paying attention will recall is the department just to the northeast of Cundinamarca, the department in which one can find Bogotá (and me!). As I’ve mentioned before, Boyacá is generally known as one of the more traditional departments, filled with lots of small towns that specialize in something like ceramics or bricks or cheese, and people in hats and ruanas (wool ponchos) to keep off the mountain chill. Boyacá is what comes to mind when people say the word tranquilo — it’s all small plazas and colonial churches and women selling obleas from a small wooden table by the side of the road.

Well, the whole place sure looks small from up here.

As the best-known (at least to non-religious tourists) village of Boyacá, Villa de Leyva is a little bit of a special case. Nestled up against a range of green mountains and straddling the edge of the mountain-desert divide in a valley that once was a vast prehistoric lake, Villa de Leyva couldn’t be more photogenic if it tried. Everywhere you look are pine trees or cacti or beautiful flowering plants, often all within about 100 yards of each other. It’s impossible to cross two streets without someone approaching to offer horseback rides or a hike. The place is filled with opportunities for other low-key outdoorsy activities like hiking, biking or swimming in the occasional waterfall. The desert sky is clearer and bluer than it is in Bogotá, which makes the town the ideal setting for their annual Festival de las Cometas (Kite Festival), a hugely and internationally popular event taking place this weekend. The only way to improve upon the scenery in Villa de Leyva would be to fill it with hundreds of intricate, beautiful kites.

But it’s not just about the natural beauty of the place, although that’s pretty overwhelming. The town itself, as with most Colombian towns, is fairly small: a central plaza, a few calles going this way, a few carreras going that way. But that plaza, Plaza Mayor, is something to write home about — a sprawling cobblestone expanse lined with hotels, restaurants and one 300-year-old church, it’s the biggest central plaza in Colombia and one of the largest in all of Latin America. Needless to say, most of the activity of the town centers around this plaza, from the excellent restaurants on various corners to the radiating streets where wandering tourists can buy everything from alpaca scarves to candy to leather bags that look like they just came off the cow. There’s often a stage set up for events in the center of the plaza, and there’s almost always something going on: when we were there, we witnessed a visiting Venezuelan symphonic orchestra, a poncho fashion show featuring elementary-school girls, a performance of Pacific Coast dance and a concert. As befits its position as the heart and soul of the town, the plaza fills up at night with a combination of locals and tourists, who sprawl across the steps of the church to eat ice cream, share a few beers or just watch their children race around throwing glowsticks at each other. People-watching doesn’t get any better.

The biggest one in Colombia, and it’s such a nice-looking one, too!

I’m no architect, but even I could appreciate the loveliness of the buildings. Everything in the town looks like it was frozen 200 years ago — all white walls and green trim, with porches filled with hammocks and clustered flowers. Plus, all of the streets are cobblestone, which those of us from Boston know is hell on walking if you’re not careful (or stupid enough to wear heels. Remember, we are in Colombia), but also means that cars traveling through town have to crawl at about 10 mph to avoid causing any serious damage. This might be the Colombian town where you’re least likely to be killed by a car.

Fresh mora juice with an $8 mil set meal at a vegetarian restaurant? Yes please!

And don’t even get me started on the food. My friends and I usually subscribe to the “as many things from a cart as possible” school of dining, but we spoiled ourselves a bit in Villa de Leyva, and I couldn’t be happier that we did. Along our gastronomic path, we discovered (not one, but) two vegetarian restaurants, actual salads (few and far between here in Colombia), a place that served both pizza and sangria, the best almond croissants in South America, a bakery specifically for cookies, and some pretty good eggs. We barely made a dent in all of the town’s tasty offerings, though, so obviously a return trip is in order.

But wait, there’s more! Remember how I mentioned the former prehistoric-ness of the whole space? Well, we all know what prehistoric implies, don’t we? That’s right: Villa de Leyva was once home to my second-graders’ favorite animal: DINOSAURS. Sadly, there are not currently any more of the beasts ranging around (as far as we know….), but there is a pretty excellent tribute to their presence, in the form of the small, bright yellow Museo El Fosil, a short drive out of down. For the low, low price of about $4 mil, one can enter and gawk at the complete (or at least it looks that way) remains of a Kronosaurus — a large, toothed aquatic creature (yes, that’s our very own local Kronosaurus smiling at you from the Wikipedia entry). Obviously I could happily have stayed in the museum for a long time, attempting to commune with the beasts, but how could I stay away from all of the other gorgeous sights in Villa de Leyva?

Clearly, Wikipedia stole this photo from me.

Our three days there weren’t nearly enough time to enjoy everything the place has to offer — so it’s a good thing we’re already planning a return trip in November! In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with ogling these photographs until I’m back in the reality.