Spanish (LQB100): Week 14 Language Immersion in Ecuador, Part II

During the first week I was in Ecuador, I also had the opportunity to visit one of Quito’s most famous basilicas, explore a variety of local foods and markets, party on a fiesta bus (chiva), and hike a volcano. The latter was one of the most physically grueling activities I’ve ever done, not only because I ascended to an altitude of over 15,500 feet (4,800 meters) without being in great shape, but also because of the thin air.

[This is the second blog post in a series of four on my Spanish immersion experience in Ecuador. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]

La Chiva

A chiva (goat) is a party bus common in Ecuador, Colombia, and Panamá. They are festooned with decorations and bright colors, and although they technically started off as a method of rural highlands transport for passengers and animals, they have evolved into a moving fiesta complete with flashing lights and a DJ or live band. They are apparently especially common in Quito during December due to patriotic holidays.

One of the ladies at the academy who put together the social program, M, asked us early the first week if we were coming to party on the chiva. We were like YES, and also, what’s a chiva? We didn’t know exactly what it was at first, but our questions were answered when it rolled up.

📸: H… ¡La Chiva de Mi Pueblo!

We had a great couple of hours riding around on this thing, drinking, blowing whistles, and listening to songs like “Que Calor” and “Lento Pa Arriba, Lento Pa Bajo” at an obnoxious volume. We also stopped halfway through and had a dance-off across the street from La Basílica del Voto Nacional where we had just visited earlier in the day. I took some great videos, but as the policy of this blog is not to post identifiable pictures of other diplomats, they will have to stay in the archives (wink).

I don’t dance on moving buses or much in general these days, LOL, but I had an awesome time checking out the sites, blowing my whistle at passing pedestrians and drivers and getting them to dance or engage with us, and just generally having fun and keeping the party going. There were some grumpy drivers coming home from a long day at work who followed, peeved at the chiva’s slow speeds, but I managed to get a smile out of a few of them.

We even got a video of a car following us and the mother making her baby dance to the beat of the chiva. If you ever have the chance to party in a chiva, believe me, you don’t have to be 20 to have fun! It was a highlight just because it was something so local for us to do.


Local food and shopping

Once all the presents I brought back from Ecuador have been received and opened, I will post some pictures of my market scores. But suffice it to say that – probably because of the holiday season, and being part of a group that enjoyed looking through the markets – I probably spent more time on this trip shopping than any other foreign trip in years. And it was worth it!

People who know me well know that I’m not much for souvenirs or knick-knacks, and I don’t even buy a lot of gifts. However, in more recent years, I started having regrets about things I loved and should have bought. Hello, matryoshka nesting dolls I bought in Russia for my niece but not myself! I also brought back nothing from India but a cheap dress and sandals (horrors) and after living in Central Asia for two years, I still own zero carpets. What can I say? I guess I’m super picky about what I want in my house!

So, V and I have tried more recently to bring back an item or two from most trips to make our home a place of memories from fun trips, usually a piece of art or small item. And thus, there are some wooden horses and ceramic birds that came home with me, as well as a painted toucan and a pillowcase covered with brightly-colored, hand-sewn parrots.

From upscale boutiques to street markets, we searched high and low for our respective treasures


At least we didn’t miss an opportunity to try authentic Ecuadorian food! Traditional Ecuadorian food varies across its different agricultural regions, but tends to be beef, pork, chicken, or even cuy (roast guinea pig) along with high-carb options like rice or potatoes. There also seemed to be a lot of delicious seafood.

Since classes ended at 13:00, we often had an hour before the next activity in which to take advantage of the almuerzo ejecutivo (executive lunch) various restaurants would offer to busy downtown workers. Usually a prix fixe, the meal would consist of a soup or ceviche, a meat, rice, vegetable or fruit, and a dessert. I adored the sides of hot sauce or onions to give the food a little extra kick.

Lunch for USD $2.75!

The craft beer scene was pretty good too!

Apparently it is an Ecuadorian custom to put popcorn into your ceviche!

Carne con arroz, ensalada y plátanos

I already miss chulpi, Ecuadorian toasted corn

Hot sauce and onions, yes please!

Fuel for more exploration

Canelazo, traditional hot drink with cinnamon, panela, and cane sugar alcohol

I am glad I had a chance to try so many foods in Ecuador, and I actually really liked the simple but flavorful palate there.

Chicken tacos in a cervecería that looked like the inside of a cathedral

Not gonna lie though, I did eat some room service and also ordered at the poke bowl place between my hotel and the academy!

All the chulpi and camarones!


Basílica del Voto Nacional

Seeing this church in Quito is a must. Construction began on this Catholic cathedral in 1892, and went on for three decades, during which time the government collected donations from the faithful and imposed a salt tax to cover overages above the original 12,000 peso budget.

La Basílica del Voto Nacional

Still, the Basílica has never officially been completed, which our guide attributed to financial woes and the internet attributes to superstition.

I couldn’t have imagined how we would spend three hours at this church until I actually visited it. It is massive – actually the largest neo-Gothic church in all the Americas – and for only USD $2, well worth the effort.

La Virgen de El Panecillo visible in the distance

I climbed one of the two clock towers, the highest in Ecuador. The staircase was windy and so narrow at the top I could barely get through with my backpack on. The bigger issue was that I was having mild motion sickness, sciatica pain, and intermittent pins and needles in my left leg that made me feel a little off-balance. My brave and enterprising colleagues climbed the other one too, though, and shared some great photos with me.

One of my favorite parts was the stained glass “rose” window, below, in the west transept.

Earthquakes over the past 100+ years have broken the stained glass windows various times, and our guide showed us a workshop where artists paint shapes to replace any possible broken parts as authentically as possible.

Although the first Catholic Mass took place in the church in 1924, it wasn’t officially consecrated until 1988.

Another part I loved was the 24 small chapels off the central nave, all named for different regions of Ecuador. Maybe my favorite part was that instead of gargoyles, the architect used Ecuadorian native animals like armadillos, iguanas, tortoises, and condors.

No demonios here!

All things considered, it was a great tour and our guide A was terrific.


Parque Nacional Cotopaxi

Early on in the first week, we were interested in organizing a day hike up Cotopaxi, an active volcano with a rare glacier. Experts recommend letting yourself acclimate to higher altitudes for at least a few days before setting off on any strenuous activities, so Saturday (my 8th day in country, and my colleagues’ 7th) seemed like perfect timing.

Although Parque Nacional Cotopaxi is only about 30 miles or so due south of Quito, the bus tour stopped for multiple pickups besides the academy, for breakfast, and for snacks (good grief) so it took hours to actually arrive. I felt a little carsick but was able to fight it off pretty easily with Dramamine, water, cold air, and music on headphones.

The picture is a little blurry since the bus was in motion, but essentially the map shows that we will hike right up to the snow line

Cotopaxi reaches a height of 19,347 feet (5,897 meters) and is Ecuador’s second-highest summit. Our objective was to make it up to the refuge, or Refugio Jose Rivas, at an altitude of 15,593 feet (4,864 meters). Our guides C and G told us that Cotopaxi is the most dangerous volcano not only out of the 84 volcanoes in the area, but in all of Ecuador. I’ve read various documentation about the latest serious volcanic eruption at Cotopaxi, and it seems like the two most recent in were 1977 or 1978, and in 2015 (the latter a smaller eruption, but one that mixed with snow and made the dangerous rivers of lava slide to inhabited areas even more quickly than expected).

📸: J … showing the first in our group to arrive at the refuge, which sits just below the snowcap

For those who made it up in the first 45 or so minutes, they could follow a guide up to a rare glacial lake some 20 additional minutes away; however, due to time, not everyone would be able to go. The amount of time to spend in the park is limited, especially on a group tour and especially after the recent deadly volcano eruptions in New Zealand’s White Island all over the news. We actually went over an escape protocol in the unlikely event of a volcanic eruption.

I had no illusions about whether I would see the glacier. I had been getting winded just walking down the street in Quito unless I walked really slowly, and would have counted myself lucky just to make it to the refuge.

And I soon realized that looks were deceiving; even the “easier” zig-zag trail up was no joke, with its thick fog, loose dirt, and in areas, incredible steepness.

Left: Looking up Cotopaxi from the parking lot / Right: Looking back down at the parking lot from not even halfway up

My colleagues J and D set off quickly, while I hung back waiting for S and H to find a bathroom. Once we did set off, I noted the time on my watch. In retrospect, I probably should have just started moving right away; they, younger, and in better physical condition than I, quickly ascended without me and I was left in the dust.

📸: H … hard to explain how eerie it was up there

After convincing the guide to go on without me and assuring him I would return to the bus if need be, I did pass two Colombian ladies on the tour who struggled so much they opted to turn back after the first 30 minutes. I felt sorry for them because one lady seemed to be gasping for air, but I was pleased that I was no longer “last.” The only way I could hike this was to stay as cold as possible – I wore my thinnest REI gloves and kept my coat stashed in my pack to avoid as much sweating as possible.

Yes, it is snowing lightly and I am wearing a straight up tee shirt with a vest. To the alarm of other hikers I had my puffed coat stuffed in my pack, but my Aboriginal necklace signifying the power of women kept me going

The struggle to ascend was one of epic proportions. The air was so thin, we must have all been breathing at 50% less capacity than even in Quito. I could only walk between 10 and 50 steps at a time without stopping to rest. Every time I started to hyperventilate I would make myself very calm and still to avoid panic. My heart rate regularly went above 160 beats per minute, but I stayed cool, hanging out on the side of this volcano as long as I needed to recover.

📸: S

I continually made assessments about the safety and feasibility of making it to the refuge. I had this moment where the impossibility of what I was doing almost overwhelmed me.

I caught up with S and one guide, G, and expressed that I might turn back. S said it seemed impossible but we both noted that after resting 30-45 seconds, we felt amazingly OK and ready to continue. So at about the halfway point, I figured it would take a long time but I might as well carry on. I tried to take some pictures looking up, but none of them really captured the shock of the steep trail and what an endeavor it was.

S appeared through the thick fog a few times, checking if I was still coming and wanting the reassurance of not being alone. Again, it was a creepy, isolating feeling being alone out there.

Amazed at that which clings to life here

For most of the hike, I was completely alone. I didn’t mind so much, because then no one had to put up with my constant stopping, struggling to get my breathing back under control, and trying to assess whether I was in danger or just uncomfortable. I couldn’t have kept up a conversation anyway.

The fog rolled across the mountain in waves, sometimes allowing me a glimpse of the brutal remainder to go. I would rest, and then be surprised by another burst of energy to continue. It was almost as if every stop was a platform I could rest upon, and then leave behind relatively easily, albeit slowly.

Every great once in a while, someone would appear coming down the mountain. “You’re more than halfway!” they would say. “You got this!” I kept on, and kept on, and then our younger guide G appeared in the fog above. He shouted to me in Spanish that the refuge was just ahead. I gave him a thumbs-up and then proceeded to have to stop and rest three times on a short path.

Finally though, I saw the blessed sight of the refuge and got props from my colleagues who thought I’d turned around. Checking my watch, I saw that it had taken me exactly 1 hour, 16 minutes to arrive. Better late than never!

Inside the lodge, I was proud to sign the American and Californian flags, before finally catching a chill and swapping my vest for my jacket

📸: S … H, S and me, RPCVs Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Macedonia – who’s afraid of a little winter?!

At the top!

The highest altitude I’ve ever reached: 15,953 feet

H and S, determined to at least get a side-view of the glacier, set off on a lateral trail. I told G I was going to head back down. The group that had hiked to the glacier was expected back any minute, and I actually had started to worry that I could be among the slowest down and figured I should get moving. He suggested that I take the long, almost vertical trail to save time getting back down, but one look at the people shrieking and falling every 15 yards got a hard no from me.

I set off back down the zig-zag trail the way I had come. On the way down, I shouted, “Si, se puede!” through the wind to people on the way up who either laughed or asked how much was left to go. I have watched lots of movies and read lots of books about mountain climbing, particularly Everest. I even climbed up the Half Dome trail at Yosemite when I was only 10. But hiking and climbing at altitude was just something I didn’t understand until Cotopaxi.

I’m going to share a video narration here, from once I got about one-half of the way back down. Posting a video is something kind of new for me. It’s kind of cheesy and not me at my best, but it doesn’t matter. I made it more for my family, and I even forgot to pronounce the “x” in Cotopaxi because my mouth was frozen, but it is really the best way to convey what it was like up there.

Funnily enough, I fell onto all fours about five seconds after I had finished the video and returned my phone to my pocket! I was OK though, and a few minutes later I was rewarded by a large condor circling and landing several feet away from me! He spooked when I tried to reach into my pocket, and hopped up the track behind a rock and out of sight. I thought about reascending a dozen or so yards to try and get a photo, but ultimately I decided to just let him be.

Cotopaxi – where we made it up to the snow line


And essentially, that hike ended my first half of my Spanish immersion program in Ecuador!

During my next two posts on week 15, I’ll talk about our hikes and ziplining in the Mindo rainforest, visiting La Virgen de El Panecillo, taking the teleférico up the Pichincha Volcano to the Cruz Loma Lookout, more food and celebrations for our graduation, and a final road trip out of town to the thermal baths at Papallacta.

Returning to Quito after the toughest climb of my life

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