At the little museum beyond the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park, Pedro gives us a brief tour, speaking in Spanish, which I mostly can't follow, and skipping the tattered, stuffed condor with its outstretched wings. The enormous bird saddens me — dispossessed of its life in every sense. I've seen animals mounted so expertly their eyes seem to retain the memory of life, and although taxidermy raises difficult philosophical questions, at least the care and expertise with which those animals were mounted suggests a respect for the animals, an attempt to retain the life taken from them. I don't know the history of this condor, but can't help feeling it represents (unintentionally, I trust) not the wonder and magnificence of the largest flying bird in the world, but the power of humans over animals; too often, the only reason we do things to animals is because we can. I glance at the dusty bird, its disintegrating primary feathers, its dull dark head and lifeless eyes, and turn away.
Outside, however, I feel more optimistic, particularly after I've tried a cup of coca tea from the little stall. Coca tea's supposed to help one cope with the effects of altitude, but I'm trying it because, ... well, because it's tea; it looks like real tea, with lots of big leaves steeping in the cup. I love it; I'd happily drink more. The flavour differs from the teas I love (and miss here), but at least it has a flavour, unlike the steely tea bags to which I've resorted.
We drive up towards the cloud, along a badly corrugated and pot-holed dirt road. Wild horses graze unperturbed as we pass by; a few fine spots of rains appear on the windscreen, then sleet, then we're bouncing our way up through snow. At the car park (about 4500 m) we change into whatever warm, wind-and-rain-proof gear we have and begin the 300 metre steep trudge up volcanic scoria to the refugio. I'm breathing hard because of the altitude but feel good. I settle into a steady pace and maintain it all the way, loving the feeling of working hard in a wild, cold environment — the kind of environment that reminds me of familiar places in Aotearoa.
Pedro arrives at the refugio and congratulates Mike and me, telling us we're very strong.
"Next time we will go to the top", he says.
But there won't be a next time, not for Mike, who flies home in a week's time, and not for me. An expensive guided climb — a non-technical slog, in fact — as part of a long line of people all intent on the summit holds no interest for me. Even on this day of bad weather, the refugio's crowded and people still trudge up from the car park. This is not a place for me; I don't resent the crowd or deny them their enjoyment — I'm glad to see so many people enjoying the place — but I don't feel at home here the way I would if the hut were much smaller (this sleeps 70 people), with just a handful of people present.
Back at the car park I'm appalled at the number of cars, and they're still arriving. The place reminds me of a skifield car park in New Zealand. The weather closes in, so we drive lower, unload the bikes and try to get them to work. This proves difficult. Mike's has a bald back tyre, so he can't brake effectively and eventually has to stop partway down to change bikes; my gears barely work and when I remount the bike further down the mountain the chain slips off the sprocket and I'm dumped onto the ground, knees first but fortunately into soft volcanic dust; Sean's seat keeps slipping down and his gears eventually fail completely.Nevertheless, I enjoy the fun and the exercise despite the discomfort, although the appeal begins to wear thin while biking on the flat in the rain along a rough, corrugated road.
But by the time we reach the restaurant I'm still mostly dry thanks to the foresight of having packed leggings as well as parka. I've seen a few new birds, too — Stout-billed Cinclodes nesting in a roadside bank; a large raptor circling a long way off and far below; Andean lapwings on the flats.We recover in the restaurant over chips and guacamole, brown bread, slices of banana and apple, a delicious bean soup, and cinnamon tea, then begin the long drive back to Quito. We all sleep well, but Sean sets the record: 14 hours. Even I sleep well, and I need it — the next day I have an overnight bus journey to the Amazon.
1. The summit of Cotopaxi.
2. The car park when we arrived.
3. Mike rests on the parapet at the refugio as the cloud begins to lift (briefly).
4. (L to R): Phil, Serena and Sean wait partway down the road while Mike gets a replacement bike.