This morning I became, briefly, a chagra. That’s an Ecuadorian cowboy, a proud and historic occupation that’s celebrated by a statue of one on a rearing horse in nearby Machachi. I was togged up in thick sheepskin chaps and a striped poncho, plus helmet of course, and mounted on a small, sturdy bay mare to follow Rafael on his eager chestnut up into the surrounding hills.
Rafael spoke no English, and my Spanish has, I’m ashamed to say, remained at the sub-conversation level, so our interactions were mostly confined to gestures and the word ‘rapido’ which allowed me to comment that my horse was not fast, that the condors we saw swooping down to investigate a possible carcass and then rising up again on the brisk wind were indeed fast, and that my horse, as ever, became fast when we turned for home.
We had a wide view over the surrounding ten volcanoes, including glimpses through the clouds of Cotopaxi continuing to belch out great clouds of dark grey ash. Its slopes, which were yesterday still snowy-white, are now blackened as the wind has swirled and allowed the ash to fall on the northern side. The billowing eruption clouds seem bigger and faster than yesterday: the expectation is that at some point this will become a proper eruption with fire and lava. (There’s a reassuring letter in the hotel’s entrance from a vulcanologist stating that the hacienda is not in the path of known lava trails, though ash and pumice falls could be experienced.)
In the afternoon I was meant to try out the high ropes course that’s one of the activities on the programme at the hacienda (biking, hiking, bird-watching, camping…) but after getting all kitted out in harness and helmet, I stood at the bottom of the ladder leading up to the 6m high circuit of ropes and swings and thought, “Meh”.
The thing was, it was only me and the instructor Italo, who spoke no English, and it just didn’t look like fun at all. It’s not as though I had anything to prove – I’ve done this stuff before, at Outward Bound, at night – so I simply said No thanks and went back to my lovely sunny room to lie on my bed and read a book all afternoon, periodically checking on Cotopaxi. And tried not to think about the energetic Australian couple from breakfast who were all set to climb the Cayambe glacier tonight under a full moon.