You might think that when hiking among active volcanoes that the most dangerous thing would be volcanoes. You would be wrong. And so, we spent our final two days in Otavalo hiking the beautiful volcanoes that circle Otavalo in the area known as The Avenue of Volcanoes.
The Avenue of Volcanoes is a string of seven 17,000 foot mountain peaks in central Ecuador containing a few of the most active volcanos in the world. By comparison, the highest peak in the contiguous United States is Mount Whitney at 14,500 feet, which we climbed two years ago.
We caught a cab for the twenty kilometer drive up the mountain to the start of the trail that circles three high mountain lakes, each one of a different color. The long drive up was a winding remote stone road that lead to a drop off point with a simple covered structure.
The trail area was deserted and we passed very few people or structures on the drive up. We realized that it might be difficult to catch a ride back down the mountain when we finished the hike. The driver asked us for $12 for the drive. We tried to explain in broken Spanish that we would need a ride back down and asked if he could arrange that. I wasn’t sure that he understood what we wanted. So, we doubled the cab fare and asked the driver to return in four hours to pick us up. He said that he would do so, but after he left we began to wonder if he would actually return.
The trail was actually a fairly wide dirt road winding its way between the clear mountain lakes. The trail was lined with pink, red, purple, and yellow flowering plants and shrubs. The mountain grasses were tall and waved in the alpine breezes. The volcanic peaks towered above us.
A soon as we set out, we were joined on the hike by two dogs that seemed to be wild but accustomed to hikers. The dogs were cute but appeared to be hungry and seemed to know that they could receive scraps from hikers. We enjoyed the company but were worried because we did not bring any food along on this afternoon hike.
The weather was beautiful and the sun was shining. The temperature was perfect for hiking, not too hot, not too cool. After about an hour we had climbed higher up the mountain and reached the fork for the second lake. After another thirty minutes we could see the second lake. We met a German couple on their way back from the lake. We chatted and they gave us a few tips. We gave them an extra map that we had. They seemed nice and we made plans to meet later in town for dinner to plan another hike.
As we approached the lake we noticed the clouds moving down the mountain toward us. About half of the lake was obscured by the fog and it was quickly approaching us. Soon, we were in the fog as well and the lake and mountain views were quickly obscured. The temperatures began to drop but we continued on. While the views were gone, we could still enjoy the hike.
After walking further, a light rain began to fall. We were prepared and put on our rain gear. A light rain would not be a problem. A little preparation goes a long way in the mountains.
Soon, the rain came harder. It did not appear to be letting up. The dirt road was quickly filling with large puddles and the dirt became mud, slippery and thick. Our sure footing was suddenly unstable. We decided that maybe it was time to turn back and seek the safety of the shelter at the head of the trail. But, that was more than an hour away. However, with our rain gear that was not a major problem.
Then, out of nowhere, a bolt of lightning hit the trail just off to our side. The thunder was deafening. We were suddenly in the middle of a thunder storm high on a mountain and there was no shelter in sight. Our only option was to continue back down the mountain.
We were slipping and sliding in the thick mud as we made the hour hike back down the trail. Lightning continued to strike all around. The thunder told us that the storm was not letting up. The temperature was dropping. Our hands and skin exposed to the elements were going numb from the cold.
After about forty minutes of making our way down the mountain in the thunder storm, we heard a jeep approaching on the road. It was the only vehicle we had seen or heard all day. Whoever it was could offer us a ride to the shelter where we could dry off and warm up a bit. As the vehicle made its way toward us, we noticed that it was the German couple that we had met earlier. They did not slow down as they approached. They did not stop and ask if we were okay. They drove by us. They didn’t even wave as they passed. We couldn’t believe that someone would leave others exposed on a mountain in a thunderstorm. If we made it back to civilization we would not be having dinner with the Germans.
After another twenty minutes we could see the shelter at the bottom of the trail. We made it there and began to dry off. However, it was not going to be possible to warm up. When we stopped walking we began to get cold. But, the rain was finally letting up. We checked the time and our cab driver was not scheduled to return for another hour and a half, if he was coming at all. There was no one else around and it was obvious that no one else would be coming up the mountain this late in the day.
We decided to start walking down the road. The walk would warm us up and if the driver returned, we would meet him on his way to pick us up. If he didn’t return we would have to walk anyway even though it would take four or five hours and it would be well after dark when we would arrive in town.
After about an hour of walking I began to think that the cab driver had taken our money and was not going to return. If he were coming we should have met him around this time. Just then we heard a car coming up the road. It was a yellow cab. And, it was our driver. We quickly got in the cab for the drive back to town. We were damp, tired, and hungry, and glad that the hike was over.