Quito, Ecuador is a city caressed by clouds. You don’t look up to see the clouds, you look straight ahead at eye level. The cottonball formations float over a patchwork quilt of farmland, knitting the rolling hills together in between the Andes.
The Ecuadorian capital is long and narrow – 27 miles in length from north to south and 3 miles in width from east to west. It is the second-highest capital city in the world. At 9,000 feet above sea level, it is second only to La Paz, Bolivia which is 3,500 feet higher. You feel the altitude every time you climb a staircase, huff up a moderately inclined hill, or sit up in bed.
Quito prides itself in being the first UNESCO Heritage Site in the world. The city’s Spanish colonial influence is witnessed in its architecture. Discovered by the Spaniards in 1532, the city’s historic center has been considerately preserved.
Exploring the neighborhoods by taxi leave you gasping for breath, as much from the architectural beauty and altitude, as from the exhaust fumes. There don’t appear to be any vehicle smog standards in Ecuador, which make you dread idling at an intersection waiting for the light to turn green. But overall, the strong air currents push the city air west into the ocean, mitigating a larger pollution problem.
Ecuador is a volcano minefield with 50 volcanoes, 15 surrounding Quito alone, 3 of which are active. One would be remiss not to visit one while exploring the country. Having hiked an active volcano in Galápagos, Michael and I decided on a day trip to the Quilotoa Crater Lake, two and a half hours outside of Quito. Formed 800 years ago after the volcano catastrophically erupted and collapsed in on itself, a two mile wide crater now houses a sulphuric lake the rim of which is 12,841 feet above sea level.
Quilotoa is located in the Cotopaxi province. The indigenous women there wear bowler hats and shawls, much like the women in Peru. Feathers are a status symbol and if woman has them in her hat, she is rich. If a woman has her shawl knotted in the front, she is married. If her shawl is knotted on either shoulder, she’s single. I desperately wanted to spot this marital distinction, but every human we passed was burritoed in multiple layers of shawls, coats, sweaters and blankets, and I couldn’t discern gender, let alone marital status.
As we twisted around the mountain on our ascent to the rim of the crater where we would hike down to the lake, roasted guinea pigs (cuy as they’re known here) revolved on spits at the side of the road, showing off their glistening skin to entice a local traveler to pull over and purchase one. I doubt many foreign travelers would be enticed by a carcass that resembled something between an impaled Mickey Mouse and a shrunken pitbull. Splayed out on the skewer, with its mouth open, the cuy looked furious, its burnt eyes censuring you for this injustice.
Because of its proximity to the equator, Quito’s climate is temperate year round, the vegetation is lush and verdant, and the ground is fertile at high altitudes. In addition to the cuy, mangoes are hawked along the route to Quilotoa, a relative steal at $5 for a dozen. Long-stemmed roses are a relative robbery. Two dollars will get you a dozen fat roses, heads hanging heavy with petals, stems longer than you’ve ever seen. 80% of these roses are exported to Russia. I was surprised to discover that flowers are the third largest export for Ecuador, after petroleum and bananas.
There are a mind-blowing 3,000 varieties of potatoes grown at mind-boggling altitudes, from 9,000 ft to 12,000 ft above sea level. As an Eastern European, I grew up on potatoes in all forms and all dishes. Potato juice runs in my blood and I was happy to be in a country that showed this bulbous vegetable the respect it deserves, showcasing it in everything from street food to traditional Ecuadorian dishes.
The lowbrow dish I made sure to sample was the Salchipapa. Salchipapa is street food. It’s French fries mixed with slices of beef sausage mixed with ketchup and/or mayo. The name alone had me intrigued, making the dish sound playful and irreverent. My ears misheard it the first time it was pronounced to me so that when I went to order it at a small burger shop in Quito, the waiter wasn’t quite sure that to make of my request.
“Para me, Salty Papas.”
Michael had to quickly interject with the correct order.
“It’s Salchipapas, Kasey. ‘Salchicha’ is sausage in Spanish. So that’s why it’s called Salchipapas. Sausage and ‘papas’, fries. Not Salty Papas.”
But it was too late to unlearn Salty Papas. The term burrowed itself into my cerebral cortex and didn’t budge. The next time I passed a photo of sliced sausages and fries advertised on the side of a restaurant, my brain giddily greeted the image by sending the words “Salty” and “Papas” to my mouth. I will forever be ordering Salty Papas from now on.
Continuing on with my tour de potato, when we were at Quilotoa, I made sure to try the Locro de Papa, a classic Ecuadorian potato soup.
Made with mashed potatoes, onions, garlic, milk, and cheese, and garnished with slivers of avocado, it’s the perfect antidote to a chilly day. And it was the perfect balm to soothe my rattled nerves after riding a terroristic donkey up the side of the volcanic crater on the return journey from the hike down to the lake.
I used to ride horses, train horses, and show horses when I was a teenager so one would think that I could handle a straightforward donkey ride fifteen years later. I thought I would have retained some muscle memory from the four years of competitive riding. Or at least be comfortable around a member of the horse family. But approaching the stable of burros waiting to transport tired and out-of-breath tourists 1,000 feet from the Quilotoa crater lake up to its rim, I got butterflies. And not the good kind that signal looking forward to something, but the bad kind that signal an impending disaster.
I started riding when my family was living in Champaign, Illinois, when I was thirteen years old, and rode until I was seventeen and my family moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The type of riding I did was saddle seat riding on American Saddlebred horses.
Saddle seat riding is designed to show off the horse’s five gaits – the walk, trot, canter, slow gait and rack. The slow gait and rack are faster than a trot but slower that a canter and are distinguished by the sequence of the horse’s footfalls and their rhythm. Each gait is nuanced and I can’t remember exactly how each differs. I’m also too lazy to research it in depth to explain it to you so just imagine a horse doing the Shuffle around the perimeter of an arena and you get the gist.
In addition to the gaits, the physical characteristics of the horses are critical in saddle seat riding. The horses have high, upright necks with tucked-in heads and are trained to high-step – to lift their front legs high in the air, bent at a ninety degree angle at the knee. Basically a horse doing High Knees.
Show horses that I helped train would be equipped with horsey resistance bands strapped to their front hooves to train them to lift their feet even higher, in as exaggerated a fashion as possible. No wonder performing Saddlebreds are so svelte – it’s Equine CrossFit every day at the stables for them.
Riders also experience their share of cross-training when riding saddle seat. The goal of the rider is to exhibit as little movement as possible in the saddle. You sit up straight, arms extended at ninety-degree angles, holding the reigns tautly in front of you. Your feet are in the stirrups, heels pointing down, toes straight ahead, not reclining out to the sides. There is no relaxing with saddle seat riding. It’s about precision and control. When the horse trots, you post (stand up in time with the gait), in such a way as to discreetly lift your derrière from the saddle without moving any other part of your body. Not your legs, not your feet. Everything must remain static. You grip the horse with your knees and leverage your core for stability to post. When the horse canters, slow-gaits, or racks, you must look one with the horse – no jerky movements. You move your hips in such a way as to appear to never bounce in the saddle. The core, glute, hamstring, and inner thigh workout that saddle seat riding gives you is incredible.
So when I came face to face with my burro, I expected to feel some sort of nostalgia, to have my muscles remember the sensation of being in the saddle, to feel the ease and comfort I used to have with my feet in the stirrups. Instead, I felt trepidation. I completely forgot how to climb up into the saddle and ended up needing two tries to hoist myself over the burro. The saddle almost tipped over with my clumsy attempts and the local managing the mules had to secure me upright until I regained my equilibrium. Once in the saddle, I was petrified, even though my feet were basically grazing the dusty crater floor being only two feet from the ground.
Michael was behind me on his burro, shooting a video of my misadventures and kept asking me to turn around and smile for the camera. Like a baby learning to walk for the first time, I had little balance and kept tipping over to one side or the other whenever I tried to twist in the saddle to smile for the camera behind me.
This was a cruise control burro adventure. No navigation or signaling was required of me. The burro had only one way to go up the crater, was more sure-footed than me, and had climbed this path hundreds if not thousands of times. And yet my thirty minutes on that damn donkey was fraught with issues.
My burro did not want to walk up the crater. He was tired and cranky and as soon as I climbed on him, his ears retreated back and never moved forward again for the duration of the journey. Ears back on an equine is the equivalent of resting bitch face on a human. It signals displeasure.
My donkey did not want me on his back and had no intention of making the journey up the crater a pleasant experience for me. He vacillated between not moving and charging unsuspecting pedestrians. He would take three steps and stop dead in his tracks. No amount of clucking, whistling, or cajoling from me encouraged him forward. I tried to gently tap him on his sides with my heels. Nothing. I then urgently and more forcefully tapped him with my heels. Still nothing. A small indigenous girl who was tasked with trailing our caravan up the side of the crater had to hurry forward since I was the head of this forsaken mule caravan and throw dust and pebbles at my burro’s hind quarters, clap her hands and shout to make him take another two steps forward. She’d slap his rump and he’d take four more steps forward. And then the whole production would start again. Me cajoling then squeezing, her throwing sand then slapping.
This continued until my burro spotted pedestrians coming down the crater path. Then he would perk up and charge the unsuspecting tourists with alacrity. The first victims were a handful of Spanish-speaking male tourists making their way towards us on the right-side of the path. We were caressing the left side, my burro periodically and purposefully banging my left leg into the sides of the rocks. I didn’t think anything of us passing the group until my terroristic burro made headway straight towards them, increasing his gait diagonally across the path. I sat abreast this malcontented sadist, dumbfounded, as he attempted to railroad them off the path. The young men were also stupefied. Who could imagine a diabolical Donkey charging towards them with ill-intent? In the last moments before impact, as fear and understanding registered on their faces, the men jumped out of the way, cursing me, as my burro made his way forward. For that split second, his ears were happily pointed forward. I did not have the opportunity to apologize since my burro went trotting ahead, propelled forward on the fumes of his victory.
Our next victims were a young couple, a man and a woman helping each other climb down the slippery path. They did not glance up at the sound of my burro’s hooves quickening in approach. Donkeys traversed this route every few minutes and melted into the background. Unfortunately, not my donkey. I saw him zero in on his target and pick up speed. As he charged this set of pedestrians, I started frantically yelling “¡Permisso! ¡Permisso!” The woman gasped in terror as her partner scaled the embankment to avoid a collision.
As we turned the corner, my burro spotted a family with a baby that the father had strapped into a sling on his chest. It’s as if the baby signaled double the points, and my burro picked up speed. At least this time the alarmed family had enough time to register a frantic gringa atop a wild-eyed donkey waving her arms and screaming “¡Permisso! ¡Permisso!” as her wayward burro charged towards them.
My donkey continued to zigzag on the path like a pinball released in a pinball machine, from victim to victim, until we passes an older indigenous woman who grabbed him by the tail and stopped his masochistic fun. She escorted us to the top of the crater and the end of the trail, never letting go of his tail, and periodically muttering “¡Mula!” whenever he dilly-dallied. Emboldened by her authority, I also started prompting my donkey with calls of “¡Mula!” The indigenous people spoke a local language called Quechuan. I was pleased with myself for learning a Quechuan word, one I thought meant “go!”
At the top of the Quilotoa crater, I disembarked my demonic donkey and waited for Michael to catch up on his obedient one so I could tell him about the new word I learned. When I told him, he looked confused, then with a pitying look, told me gently, “Kasey, ‘mula’ is not Quechuan for ‘go’. It’s Spanish for mule.”
“It’s another word for burro?”
“No. Burro is a donkey. Mula is a mule. You do know they’re not the same, right? Mules are the result of a male donkey and a female horse breeding. They’re stronger than horses and bigger than donkeys.”
And clearly demonic.