Guaytacama is a sleepy area (I can’t even confirm that it’s an actual town), situated about 30 kilometers south of the main road that leads into Cotopaxi National Park. As the bird flies, it’s about another 30 kilometers from Guaytacama to Insinliví, the traditional starting point for a trekking route known as the Quilotoa Loop (which isn’t a loop at all). Before leaving home, I’d read about and seen photos of the Quilotoa Loop whilst planning my first couple of weeks in Ecuador and deemed it a must-do.
I’d chosen to spend the night in Guaytacama because, on a map, it appeared to be a logical spot to layover before catching a bus into Insinliví after having spent a day bus hopping and hiking volcanoes. Of course, everything I’d read recommended traveling a bit farther south, to Latacunga, to spend the night and store superfluous gear before catching a bus to Insinliví to begin hiking the Loop. But, oh no: I knew how to read a map, dammit, and Guaytacama was clearly closer to Insinliví than Latacunga. So, thinking myself clever, to Guaytacama I went.
The bus I’d flagged down from the side of the highway after leaving Cotopaxi dropped me, naturally, on the side of the highway, and I made the two- or three-kilometer walk to Guaytacama. Despite a complete lack of street signs or numbers (a phenomenon I was soon to learn was no phenomenon at all in South America), I managed to find my Airbnb with relative ease, as the directions the owner provided me indicated it would be situated one street behind the town square and the main church, which were hard to miss.
I knocked on the heavy metal security door a few times, but no one answered. Having exchanged messages with my host a few times before leaving Quito, I knew he and his dad weren’t expecting me until 4:00 or 5:00 PM, and it was barely 2:30. (Apparently, I overcompensated for time, thinking my victorious ascent of Cotopaxi, i.e., hiking from the parking lot to the refugio, would take longer than it did.)
I back-tracked to a bodega I’d passed, scared the hell out of a young lady behind the counter (apparently she had not seen a six-foot ginger in quite some time – or ever), bought a bottle of water and a snack pack of Oreos, and then returned to the Airbnb. I found a spot across the street underneath a cinder block wall (in the shade, of course), un-hefted my gear, and waited for someone to show up. I snacked on the Oreos and took long draws of body-temperature water from my Camelback.
About 30 minutes later, a man rounded the corner and approached me. I can only presume he thought I was either his Airbnb guest for the evening or the most lost gringo he’d ever seen. (Either would have been plausible.) He introduced himself as Pedro, and told me to follow him up the stairs on the side of the house, to the third floor, to an apartment that would serve as my accommodation for the night.
Now, this being South America, and my having paid a whopping $15.00 for my room for the night, I was not expecting much. But, having found the outside of the home to be as-represented in the Airbnb photos, I generally expected the inside to match as well.
I followed Pedro inside and I walked into what, I could only presume, was the washing station, kitchen, and lounging area for the local auto mechanics (there were several), grazing cattle I’d passed while walking into town (there were many), and the local coal miners (there is no coal mining in that region, that I’m aware of, but they must have shipped them into that particular Airbnb to bathe and in order to ensure the habitation was sufficiently filthy).
The place was putrid, by any standards. Flies buzzed all over the food that was rotting on the kitchen counter; trash of all kinds -- “Is that a diaper?? If so, where the hell is the baby!?” I thought to myself -- overflowed from a trashcan; and filth generally abounded.
I stopped, turned around, sprinted back to the autopista and caught a bus to Latacunga… in my mind.
Not wanting to seem like the rude, spoiled American that I am, I grimaced, but said nothing. Pedro led me to the back of the apartment to my room and the bathroom, which, thankfully, both appeared relatively clean and free of decay.
“Screw it,” I thought. “It’s just one night… Plus, I got that tetanus shot before I left home and I’m carrying enough doxycycline to kill the plague.”
I asked Pedro if there were other people staying in the house that evening. He indicated that there were, but they were staying in the unit below, on the second floor. I contemplated this and thought, perhaps, the rooms on the second floor were fully occupied for the night, and this was why I was on the third floor, in the landfill. (I realized later, however, that there absolutely was not anyone on the second floor. Hell, aside from Pedro and me, I don’t think there was another person on the entire block.)
Despite the decay, I found the internet worked like a champ. So, I pulled up the Airbnb posting for the property and looked at the pictures. I realized the floor plan of the (very clean) apartment pictured was identical to the one I was in and realized it was likely the unit below, on the second floor. I’d been had – the victim of a bait and switch.
Rather than letting my frustration get the better of me, I took a deep breath, ignoring the stench of motor oil and rotting vegetables, and harkened back to the sage advice of that great and wise philosopher, Kendrick Lamar: “Sit down. Be humble.” So that's what I did.
After some deep breathing, I took a shower; ate dinner at the only open restaurant in town – a pizza joint, which was surprisingly delicious; walked back to the landfill; and went to bed.
Despite being absolutely exhausted from waking up at 5AM, fighting crowds, sitting on buses, and gasping up the side of a volcano, I spent the next few hours sleepless. Occasionally, I gazed out the window at the cattle grazing and chewing cud in the moonlight. But, mostly, I lay listening to Guaytacama’s many stray dogs barking to one another across the town:
“Hey, did you see the gringo walk into town?” barked one (in Spanish, of course) to the others.
“Yep, sure did. His backpack looked like it weighed more then he did - hahaha!” barked another.
“I saw him walk into Pedro’s place. I bet he’s loving the landfill right about now – LOLZ!” barked the one below me on the street.
“Hey, speaking of which, we should go over there, hit up the third floor and see what kind of goodies there are to munch on in the living room.”
“Oh, word? Cool, see y’all there…”
And on and on they went.
The next morning, I awoke in my sleeping bag – yeah, the bed sheets looked clean, but I wasn’t taking any chances – eager to get on the road to Insinliví. I asked Pedro where to catch the bus, and, with an “Oh, you silly gringo” smile, he informed me there is no bus from Guaytacama to Insinliví, and that I’d have to go Saquisilí to catch a bus (thus, perhaps, another of several reasons everyone uses Latacunga as a springboard for Insinliví instead of Guaytacama).
Pedro walked me to the end of the street, where we waited for a bus that would take me to Saquisilí. After about ten minutes, seeing no buses, Pedro flagged down a taxi that happened by. Me being me, I declined, wanting to save a few bucks and having absolutely no idea how far away Saquisilí was. The taxi driver looked at me, annoyed, and drove off.
I told Pedro I’d wait for a bus and he need not wait for me.
“Pues, un camino.” Pedro said.
Seeing a truck approaching, but not understanding what he meant, I smiled politely.
“Sí,” I said (thinking “Yeah dude, sure, I see the truck, too”).
Nodding in agreement, Pedro flagged down the driver. The two exchanged pleasantries and Pedro explained that I needed a ride to Saquisilí to catch the bus.
Realizing Pedro was getting me a ride in the back of the covered, flatbed truck, I thought to myself, “Well, at least I won’t die on I-35.”
Pedro and I exchanged a quick adios, and I crawled into the back of the truck.
About 20 minutes later, we arrived in Saquisilí. I heaved my gear back onto my back; handed the driver a quarter (because I’m a big tipper); and began weaving my way through the small, curiously busy town, looking for the bus headed northwest to Insinliví.
Several blocks later, after wandering though a maze of markets, traffic, and humanity, I found a line of buses parked. Apparently I was wearing a massive sign on my forehead that read “GRINGO GOING TO INSINLIVI LIKE EVERY OTHER GRINGO WHO SCREWS UP AND GOES TO GUAYTACAMA INSTEAD OF LATACUNGA LIKE EVERYONE TOLD HIM,” because a man standing next to one of the busses yelled to me from two football fields away, “HEY, GRINGO!!! INSINLIVI!?!?!?!?!”
I walked over, said “Sí” (in my best Spanish, as always), and asked how long until the bus departed.
“A las doce,” he said.
I looked at my watch. It was a las diez. I sighed and asked if there was a bus leaving any sooner.
“No,” the man said.
Resigned to sit and twiddle my thumbs for two hours, I paid the man -- who I assumed was the bus driver, but just as well could have been a random man standing next to the bus looking for lost gringos -- the two-dollar fare and climbed aboard. The air was mercifully cool, and a pleasant breeze flowed through the bus's open doors and windows. Occasionally, a lone man, woman, or child of various age would climb aboard the bus, selling fresh fruit, baked goods, jugos, watches, headphones, or whatever else you might need while waiting two hours for your bus to leave. I bought a few apples and some plums and found them to be divinely fresh and delicious. I queued up a few podcasts that I’d downloaded back in Quito, ate fruit, and soon drifted off into a comfortable nap.
The day happened to be a Thursday, which is market day in Saquisilí, when people from the surrounding mountain areas descend to buy, sell, and trade goods and foods of all kinds, thus the chaos I’d encountered in an otherwise would-be small, quiet town. Occasionally, I would stir from my slumber, to see the bus slowly filling with people. They carried dozens of eggs, crated and stacked on their heads; big, heavy bags of rice; fruit; diapers; babies strapped to their backs; mattresses (which, thankfully, got stacked on the roof of the bus); and much, much more.
I came to as 12 o’clock finally rolled around, and the bus pulled out of town. Saquisilí’s cobblestone roads soon ended, and the bus began what would become a seemingly endless plod along rough dirt roads, through microscopic pueblos, ever ascending into the mountains.
Along the way, the bus stopped occasionally to drop passengers here and there.
I watched, feeling guilty as the passengers disembarked with their cumbersome loads of food, sundries, and offspring, and then trudged off to their obviously-not-easy-breezy lives. Here I was on a joy ride, drinking cool, clean, disease-free water that I’d cleaned through my Sawyer water filter into my Camelback, both conveniently housed in my Osprey backpack, snacking on novelty fruits, while these people were riding the bus –- some of them for hours on end -– to pick up life’s essentials.
Every pueblo we passed through bore mostly the same trademarks. Litter and other forms of waste were everywhere. The smallest of small children –- often shoeless and shirtless, but always badly in need of a bath –- congregated along the road, as did the elderly. Dozens of emaciated stray dogs followed the children around, chased the bus, or lounged and stared indifferently.
Occasionally, a person or two would disembarked where there was absolutely no sign of other human life, let alone a pueblo. They just got off the bus and started walking. Given the ever-increasing altitude and vertical cliffs on one side of the road or the other, I wondered where in the hell they could possibly be going.
At one stop, a small family disembarked and began unloading supplies from the bus's roof and lower storage compartments. An old man among the family was dressed in a fedora, button-down shirt, blazer and slacks. Each article of clothing bore the scars of dozens of patches, tears, and stains. Yet, the effort he (or someone) went to in order to be well-dressed for a day at the market was unmistakable.
He followed the family from the back of the bus, pausing after every step to rest on his cane. He stopped in front of me, at the top of the steps leading out of the door, staring down and outward at the ground. As he stood there, he began to drool long streams of saliva. The wind blew the saliva in thick wisps across the floor, onto his stubbled face and blazer. He continued standing there, motionless. A moment later, a stench hit my nose. The old man had soiled himself. He was oblivious to it all.
Suddenly, he began to stretch a leg forward, as if to walk down the steep steps on his own. A woman outside the bus yelled, “¡Tio, no!” and sprang into the bus to stop him before anyone realized what was going on. The woman and a couple of people helped the old man out of the bus; the driver swung the doors shut as if irritated by the old man’s lethargy; and off we went again.
I sat thinking about the old man. The more I thought, the more my heart began to hurt. While always fully cognizant of how good my life has been, for the first time I could remember, I was embarrassed that I’d ever considered my “problems” to be problems. Life is, obviously, hard for people who inhabit the mountain pueblos of Ecuador. If they suffer from depression, anxiety, or existential crises, those are likely the least of their problems.
I felt sick. Not the typical motion sickness that I’ve grown so accustomed to over the years, but sick at myself. Sick about me being me. I felt a sudden urge to dump out all of the over-priced, name brand, bullshit camping and outdoor gear I’d brought with me, jump off the bus, and find a cave to crawl into.
As I sat there, basking in a guilt of white privilege, the bus approached another pueblo. This one was bigger than most of the others we’d passed and there was… something, going on. I could hear loud speakers blaring music – a type I didn’t recognize as the omnipresent salsa, merengue, bachata, nor Kendrick.
As the bus rolled to a stop, I counted about a hundred people congregated in a large, open space, eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and celebrating. (What they were celebrating, I haven’t a clue and likely never will. From what I have been able to ascertain, in Ecuador and Peru alike, there is a holiday and/or reason to party at least every other day, including funerals.)
Children played soccer (or fútbol for the initiated) in one area; grown-ups played volleyball in another; a man juggled what looked to be a mixture of balls, car parts, and small appliances; people danced everywhere, yet no place in particular; and, everyone, ages 10 to 90, was, as far as I could tell, drunk out of their minds.
Distracted by the chaos unfolding out the window to my right, I was surprised to glance forward and see a masked murderer sitting in the middle of the road. Seeing as the wall of a cliff bordered the road on the left side, and several cars bordered the other side, there would be no going around the murderer. Clearly, the driver would have to run him over.
So, naturally, the driver stayed stopped and opened the doors to let passengers off and let the murderer on so he could kill everyone aboard.
I gaped in horror as the murderer drunkenly crawled to his feet, nearly fell over, caught himself using the mostly-empty bottle of liquor he held in his hand, stumbled head-on into a parked car, and then finally righted himself. He staggered toward the bus driver’s opened window and thrust the bottle inside. The murderer slurred at the driver in a bizarrely terrifying, high-pitched squeal, demanding that the driver take a drink and pay a toll to pass through town.
The driver and his assistant looked at each other, smiled, and laughed, as did most of the other people on the bus. The driver shook his head no, and tried to dissuade the murderer; but the murderer persisted. Finally, the driver relented, took a minuscule swig from the bottle, passed it to his assistant, handed it back to the murderer, and handed him a few coins. The murderer staggered off, finally. Crisis averted.
With that close call past, it was time to move on… Or so I thought.
Before the driver could close the passenger door, an armed soldier climbed aboard, his rifle sloppily slung across his shoulder. Like the masked murderer, the soldier carried a bottle of booze.
Also like the masked murderer, the soldier demanded that the driver take a drink; but, unlike the murderer, the soldier had a shot glass and filled it to the brim before thrusting it at the driver.
As everyone (except terrified me) laughed at this production, I noticed the soldier’s rifle was made of wood and heavily rusted steel; his uniform, stained by years of hard-soldiering, no doubt, looked like a costume from the Three Amigos (or perhaps the yet-to-be-written Three Amigos Go to Ecuador). If the soldier was ever on active duty, it had been no less than 100 years prior.
The driver made little effort to dissuade the soldier and took the drink. But, this was no pretend swig as before with the murderer. The driver emptied the shot glass in an easy gulp, and then did so again when the soldier demanded he take another.
“Great,” I thought. “I’m in the middle of Mad Max: Fury Mountain Road Meets Three Amigos at 3,000 meters above sea-level on the side of a cliff, and my driver is shit-housed. Awesome. Super. Wonderful!”
The soldier finally disembarked and, at last, we passed through the pueblo.
We continued on, higher, higher into the mountains, often surrounded by clouds. The higher we climbed, the more terrifying the road became. At any given point, we were surrounded on one side by the wall of the mountain, and on the other by nauseatingly steep cliffs. The dirt road was plagued with potholes and deep rivets, and, several times, the driver had to make two-, three-, and 14-point turns to navigate the bus around switchbacks in the road.
There were no guardrails. If one wheel went off the side, the entire bus would slide off and roll down, with all of us in it, into the cloudy oblivion below. There would be no survivors.
Eventually, the bus began descending. Slowly, the road wound down, out of the clouds, into shockingly green, verdant, yet ever-steep fields of agriculture. Despite a century or two of obvious deforestation and over-farming, I found myself gazing with wonder and admiration at the crops growing on the mountainsides. Occasionally, I saw a man or a woman tending to their crops, walking up and down the seemingly vertical fields, as if out for a morning stroll.
Finally, the bus pulled into Insinliví and I disembarked with a handful of other people. One of those people was an alarmingly large man who shared my pasty, pale skin tone. He wore military-style cammies, and carried an externally-framed backpack that reminded me of the ALICE packs we carried around in Marine Corps bootcamp and MCT. I began walking down the only main thoroughfare in the pueblo, and could hear nothing but the large man’s footsteps closely behind mind.
“Well, this is it. I’m either going to be pummeled to death by this psycho, or he’s going to the same hostel as I am,” I thought.
I paused and swung around.
“Hi. You going to Llullu Llama, too?”
The giant stared at me blank-faced.
I tried again in Spanish.
“Vas a Llullu Llama?”
“Ummm… El hostál... de Llullu…?”
Finally, a huge smile creeping across his face, he said “Ja! Ja! Die Herberge Llullu! Ja!”
Apparently the giant had no intention of grinding me up to make his dinner – he was just a German who spoke neither English nor Spanish.
We shook hands, exchanged names, and continued our short walk through the town. We soon found the refuge of Llullu Llama, and ducked in, away from the light mist that had begun to fall.
After checking in, I dropped my pack at my bed in the 10-person, attic-style sleeping quarters (don’t get me started); showered; made myself a cup of coffee, and carried it out back to find one of the most magnificent views of my lifetime. The back door of Llullu opened to a long, deep valley of dark green forest and cropland, the likes of which I had never, nor since, seen in my life. Perhaps best of all, there, on a retaining wall bordering the patio area, laid Balu, the hostel’s proprietor and resident St. Bernard. Balu turned his massive head toward me and we introduced ourselves.
We talked for a few minutes about nothing in particular, until we could each tell the other was content to sit and do nothing, quietly. The rainy mist had stopped, and the sky began to clear. I sat down to take in the view, enjoy my coffee, and smile.
From Bariloche, with Love,