We woke feeling somewhat desiccated and breathless. Pablo told us he never sleeps with a lit fire in the room at this altitude (about 11,000 feet) as it tends to use too much oxygen. Feeling thick headed and slightly dizzy, we learned our lesson. A thin light was streaming through the slatted shutters and everything smelt of woodsmoke.
Breakfast was a magnificent affair in a bright room painted with scenes from the rainforest. Our hovering waiters had set the table with Ecuadorian cheeses, a bowl of cubed fruit, a jug of yoghurt, brown sugar, a smaller jug of syrupy coffee and some hot water and milk to go with it. They brought us foamy green glasses of Naranjita, a sour fruit rather like a cross between passion fruit and an orange. Pablo had one brought out for us on a plate and it was mouth wateringly bitter on its own. Then there were eggs of course, with rich orange yolks, and bread with freshly churned butter the consistency of cottage cheese. It was a noisy feast with many “I couldn’t – well go on then”s.
So, on to the Cotopaxi National Park a few miles drive along a dirt track, and over a wooden bridge with no sides, barely wider than our cars. The great snow-capped volcano was still obscured by cloud and in the car park at the entrance we were joined by two multicoloured buses with grimy children grinning through the open windows. After a brief verbal tussel with the gatekeeper who thought we should have a guide (Pablo knows the place inside out) we drove up and up along washboard roads, climbing to about twelve thousand feet. onto a wide plain – a filled-in caldera – studded with rocks of all sizes which Cotopaxi had spat out over the years. I imagined them landing red hot and crackling with heat, the sky full of ash. The track picked its way between them and sometimes over them, great hunks of basalt threatening to rip out the differential. The wheel ruts had worn into small gorges in places and we jolted and bounced along under clouds which glowered at us, spat rain and ocasionally threw down cold handfuls of hail. A herd of wild horses galloped past wet and shiny, one or two stopping to roll in the the damp tundra. We rocked on across lava beds covered in a layer of fine ash, the great volcano itself still hidden and mysterious, only its lower slopes visible.
At the point where the road crossed a river and climbed a sheer black mud wall we stopped and walked, following the river upstream to its source; a magical clear spring with water jetting up from the ground as if escaping from something terrifying deep below. We spread out. Michael, his boys and ours climbing a perfect cone-shaped volcanic vent covered in vegetation and very steep. I went for one on the other side of the spring. Philippa and Pablo walked towards the plain and soon we were all the tiniest little specs of colour, virtually invisible in this gigantic landscape. The rain fell in a fine mist and after jumping back across the stream with much hilarity and only two wet feet (Tom’s) we made for the vehicles. Unbelievably in this remote and forbidding landscape there is rather a nice little restaurant; salmon pink and thatched, with a view across to the invisible volcano. There was lots on the menu but they made it clear that there was really only the menu of the day in fact so we had that: quinoa soup with hot sauce, chicken, rice and vegetables and some kind of sweet and foamy mousse for pudding. Then, the clouds lifted and lifted some more and we could see the vast bulk of Cotopaxi. The snow on its slopes was ridged and tumbled, revealing ancient glaciers. We snapped away and that was all folks, the clouds rolled back into place. Tom wondered what would happen if it chose this moment to blow its top. “Would we be OK?” Well, probably not in fact…
We drove up the road which climbs Cotopaxi’s lower slopes inthe hope that the clouds would clear again, but at just under 14,000 feet with light heads and blowing mist all around us we turned around and headed back for the Hacienda.
There we pleaded for a truly light supper and Mignon arranged for a dark green vegetable soup, plates of cheese and ham and baskets of warm bread. The kids had theirs at one end of the room, chatting happily about Nintendo strategies, while the adults sank into sofas at the other end with glasses of wine and a delve into some of the history books Mignon has collected which refer to visits to the Inca Palace we have all enjoyed staying in for the past couple of days. Its a remarkable place.