Day 1. May 15th 2013
Newly minted Mount Sinai Doctors, Dr. Dylan Roden and I spend the first four hours of day one moving apartments, and only just manage to finish in time to grab a 4 a.m. cab from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to JFK. Dylan crushes two McGriddles while I crush two sausage and egg McMuffins, which set us up well for the flight to San Jose, Costa Rica.
Dylan Roden MD (left), Tom Flaherty MD (right, author)
Our plane, and sunrise, just before boarding.
To our delight, after charming the pants off the lady at the check in desk, we have been given an exit row, which, on this plane, has leg room enough for at least two fully grown humans. Dylan is asleep within about 12 seconds of sitting down, and I fall asleep shortly after. After a fairly painless flight, we touch down, and manage to find a good deal at the airport on a three day 4x4 rental. Neither of us have done any planning whatsoever on this trip, but from friends in the US and a connection in Costa Rica, we know roughly where the good surf and party spots are. The first such spot is a town named Jaco, located in the south west, on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Dylan refuses to believe that I know how to drive because I am from England, and takes the wheel for the hour and a half journey to Jaco, while I am relegated to navigator, using a hand drawn map by the guy we rented the 4x4 from, and a fairly second-rate map of the entire country. We arrive around midday and walk along the main strip in search of some food. It seems fairly quiet, although there are an abundance of restaurants, surf shops, bars, and hostels. We crack into some local beer, Imperiales, and some excellent fish tacos at the least deserted restaurant, followed by more Imperiales at a bar nearby. We glean some information from the extremely attractive, but slightly passed her prime, bar maid about where to stay in the area, and end up settling on a hostel named Papas y Burgues (Fries and Burgers). Feeling rather accomplished and (potentially) wealthy, following our recent med school graduation, we opt for a private room instead of the dorm room with multiple bunk beds. We don’t, however, go all out and pay for a room with two beds, much to Dylan’s delight. We decide to hit the beach, about 50 yards from our hostel. It is not particularly pretty. Due to Costa Rica’s many volcanoes, the beaches tend to be a dark grey/black color. It is also quite stoney. Nevertheless, we decide to hit the water and body surf in the rather large waves. At one point I am hit in the leg by what I thought at the time was a shark, but must have been, according to Dylan, a minnow. I’ll probably go with Dylan, a Long Island native and self proclaimed fisherman, on this one. On our way out of the water, we meet three Israeli girls, one of whom is very easy on the eye. Numbers are exchanged, and we plan to meet up that night. We spend the rest of the afternoon drinking more Imperiales as well as some seriously girlie cocktails which I am too embarrassed to describe. On our way back to the hostel a man approaches us on a green bike. He offers us marajuana, cocaine and prostitutes. Dylan and I politely decline, but the man, named Juan, said that we could find him around the town on his green bike.
The sun is beginning to set, and we are getting hungry, so on the recommendation of my Costa Rican friend, we go to a place called Taco Shop, for some more fish tacos. We are informed on arrival that we cannot purchase beers there, so we go to the local supermarket, buy some excellent Nicaraguan beers named Tanos, and walk back to Taco Shop, being offered a couple more prostitutes on the way. Dylan and I agreed that this was one of the more seedy places we have ever been to. Back at Taco Shop, I sent a WhatsApp to easy on the eye Israeli girl, with no response, but we meet a fantastic Texan couple, Jake and Katie, also on vacation. I offer them some Tanos; Jake accepts, Katie sticks to her wine. Jake works in film, having lived in LA and NYC for many years, now residing in Oxford Mississippi. Katie is a paralegal. There is quite a comic interaction, during which Jake, enthused by other male beer drinkers, tries to sit opposite us (to our delight). However, Katie, I believe wanting more of a romantic one on one night with Jake, kept gently nudging the wine glasses the waiter was placing on the long table further and further away from us. Initially they sat a few feet from us, but Jake, being a massive lad on the turbo-lash, was determined for us to dine and drink together, so we end up sitting opposite. Jake is extremely amusing, and Katie is great fun, and we have an excellent, beer fuelled banter session, talking about rather obscene things far too loudly, including Jake’s rather persistent “party-boner”, only to discover near the end of our meal that we are sitting right next to a group of American Christian missionaries in Jaco to set up a non-denominational church. We try to curb the extremity of our banter, with absolutely no success. Highlights of the evening were Katie telling Dylan while Jake was in the bathroom that she had a slightly unconventional relationship with Jake, having recently slept with his brother, and Jake, while Katie was in the bathroom, telling both of us that he was definitely not in a relationship with Katie. All in all, a thoroughly fun couple of people, and I hope I see them again either back in the States or on further travels. We make vague plans to party later on in the evening with Jake, but we are all absolutely knackered after a long day of travel, drinking, and not much sleep. I pass out in Dylan and my bed at around 9.30 p.m., while Dylan “checks out the town”, and “definitely did not meet our friend Juan, or visit a brothel.”
Day 2. May 16th 2013
Get up around 7 a.m. with the intention of renting surf boards from a guy on the beach who said on Day 1 he would be there at 7.30 a.m. Said guy was nowhere to be seen, but an equally tanned but slightly more elderly and weathered surfer dude rents us a couple of long boards for $10 each for the day. I was slightly afraid that I would again be attacked by the shark/minnow, but the surf looked decent, so we go in. The waves were about four footers, but surpisingly powerful, and on bailing, could hold you down for what seemed like an eternity. I must admit, it was pretty frightening at times, and I agreed with Dylan’s description of the waves taking hold of you and spinning you around like a washing machine until they are done with you. Not really finding much we like about Jaco, we decide to pack our bags and hit the road again.
Looking back onto Jaco, Dylan (left), me:
Get a WhatsApp from easy on the eye Israeli girl, who wants to do a bit of traveling with Dylan and me, but don’t hear back from her after I write back. The plan is to have lunch at a beach just south of where we are, named Playa Hermosa, and then head north west to Playa Tamarindo, about four hours drive away. Playa Hermosa is indeed beautiful. We drive along a dirt road and stop when we see some surfers packing up their gear after a sesh. The two surfers are originally from Japan, who now both live in Costa Rica, one a Japanese restaurant owner in Jaco, and the other an architect who had lived in Santa Monica for ten years. Thoroughly nice guys, who had just been surfing in the six to eight feet rollers, a little too big for Dylan and me.
Playa Tamarindo, Dlyan (left), Japanese architect (right):
We grab lunch at a beach-side restaurant, eat fish tacos, for a change, and remark that everything in Costa Rica is rather expensive. The prices are very similar to those in NYC, and you can pay in dollars everywhere. Also notable, is that everyone can speak perfect English. I hadn’t had to use any of my Spanish up to this point. Dylan finally agrees to let me drive the car, or is just too tired to drive himself. I do the first half, Dylan does the second. There are a couple of ways to get to Playa Tamarindo, without much difference between them. We decide on a particular route, purely because you get to cross El Puente de Amistad (The Bridge of Friendship). While crossing it, Dylan and I decide to manifest our bromance by holding hands and making extremely loud, deep, gutteral, animal noises which at the time were very amusing, but in hindsight, very strange. We arrive in Tamarindo around 5 p.m. and instantly like the place more than Jaco. It is fun surfing town, with more of a laid back, and slightly less of a prostitute-and-cocaine feel to it. We are desperate to get into the water for a surf, so are determined to find a hostel quickly first. We strike gold with La Botella de Leche (Milk Bottle), a hostel recommended to us by one of the staff at Papas y Burgues.
It has a very amiable owner, an elderly (but probably totally hot back in the day) Argentinian lady named Marianna, who sorts Dylan and I out with a dorm room at $13 a night, but says she’ll make sure no one else will sleep in it, thus making it a private room. What a legend. And there is a pool. Dylan and I head down to the beach, rent a couple of 9ft+ longboards and hit the surf. Absolutely perfect three footers with really clean right and left breaks. We surf until the sun sets and we can no longer see the waves. We are both in heaven.
Back to the hostel for a quick turn around before we head to Nigui’s Restaurant on the recommendation of a doctor friend of mine back at Mount Sinai who has been to Tamarindo a couple of times. I eat a whole red snapper, and dylan eats fish tacos, again for a change, washed down with lots of Imperiales. We go to Pacifico, the bar next door, recommended to us by the guy who rented us our boards, for “reggae night”. It’s a fun, but rather expensive bar. We meet a female American college volleyball team. Their coach had made five rules for them, one of which was not to make out with guys. There was no ruling, however, on making out with girls, which I thought was rather strange, but titillating at the same time. I go to the bathroom at one point, and return to find Dylan chatting up a couple of American chicks at the bar. Both from LA, one is an ER social worker, the other works in fashion. They seem to like us, but the one who takes a liking to Dylan is about as fun as a herpes flair, refuses to drink, and makes her friend go home with her. Numbers/emails are exchanged, with the intention of meeting up the next night. Shortly after they leave, Dylan and I, realizing that it is getting late and that we want to get up early for some more surfing, leave the bar, return to Botella de Leche, and hit the sack.
Day 3. May 17th 2013
I have been up several times during the night with explosive diarrhea. Was probably E.Coli transferred from unwashed hands to the salad I ate with my red snapper last night. I feel terrible. However, I manage to drag myself out of bet to hit the beach again with Dylan for some early morning surfing. The waves are just as good as the day before. We surf all morning, and grab lunch at The Whiches Surf Shop Restaurant. For the first meal since arriving in Costa Rica, neither of us has a fish taco. Dylan has huevos rancheros and I have grilled chicken, rice, beans, and another (probably E.Coli ridden) salad. On the way back I pick up Latin America’s equivalent of Imodium at the local pharmacy, which doesn’t help a huge amount (I lost count but I think I had in the region of thirty bowel movements that day, all of which had the consistency of a Diet Coke). Dylan and I decide to explore a beach about 10 miles away called Playa Grande. It is meant to be stunning and have great surf. It is, and it does. We arrive, after being intercepted by a herd of cows complete with cowboy on horse, and later, a large lizard.
We arrive at a beach side bar called Taco Star, meet some great South Carolinans who all work in the motor industry, vacationing for their third time in Playa Grande, who are drinking Imperiales. I would like one too but my stomach is telling me no. Dylan orders a fish taco, just to mix things up, and sinks a couple of Imperiales, while I manage to take down some rather delicious banana bread. We take a look at the surf, which is bigger than Tamarindo, but less clean, and no one is surfing. We get the itch to hit the water again, so jump back in the car to head back to Tamarindo for another round of surfing until sunset. The scene was one of those you would imagine on a post card: perfect sunset with a huge sail boat that seemed to appear at the perfect moment, just underneath the sun as it sank below the horizon. Breathtaking. As we walk back to the car along the beach in near total darkness, Dylan and I talk about how much we like this place, and how we want to return: it has everything we had hoped for: great surf, relaxed atmosphere, friendly locals and tourists, and a great hostel to come back to after a long day in the water. I get in touch with my Mount Sinai emergency medicine doctor friend and she recommends that I take Ciprofloxacin 500mg twice daily, which Dylan has already been telling me to take all day, but which I was too stubborn to take. Given that she is an attending emergency medicine physician, and not a first year ENT resident, I decide to take some. Thankfully Dylan, who seems to be prepared for everything, including nuclear war, has brought some along, so I start the regime. Unfortunately I feel too unwell to go out, and spend the next couple of hours with hot/cold sweats and fever in my bed. I feel a bit better when Dr. Roden comes back from the supermarket, having had to charm the cashier into re-opening the till after the store was closed, with gatorade and a few other goodies.
I receive an email from the LA girls from the bar last night, wanting to meet up. I tell them I’m too unwell to come, but drive Dylan down into town to a restaurant next to the Monkey Bar, which apparently is the place to be on a Friday night. I have a fairly shitty (if you excuse the pun) night’s sleep, and am woken up by Dylan around 5.30 a.m. Our plan was to get up at 6 a.m. to go surfing. With my rather frequent explosive expulsions, and the fact that Dylan has only just got home, this seems unlikely.
Day 4. May 18th 2013
Getting up at 6 a.m. did not happen. I was feeling a bit better, but it took enormous effort to wake Dylan up, let alone get him out of bed. We managed to leave La Botella de Leche just before 8 a.m. as we needed to get back to the car rental place in San Jose by 1 p.m. We return our long boards, to which we had both become rather attached, said our goodbyes to the surfer dudes in the rental store, and hit the road. I drove, as Dylan, in his hungover state, was incapable of doing anything aside from sleeping and saying he was hungry. Intermittently, he would perk up, and tell me more about his night on the town last night. One thing he mentioned was that, although definitely less sleezy than Jaco, he was offered several $10 blow jobs last night at The Monkey Bar, which he commented was fairly cheap. Compared to what, I thought? We once again cross El Puente de Amistat, hands are held and loud, deep, gutteral, animal noises made. The roads in Costa Rica are actually pretty good, and aside from largely being one lane, so getting stuck behind slow trucks inevitable, the journey wasn’t too bad, and we make it to San Jose by about 12.30 p.m. We decide to treat ourselves to a Denny’s right next door to the car rental company, which was a first for me. I crush an enormous double cheeseburger with seasoned fries, and Dylan takes down some combo of eggs, potatoes, cheese, onions, peppers, and a few other bits and bobs. Denny’s, like every single restaurant/bar/hostel/place in the whole of Costa Rica, has wifi, so we catch up on emails for a couple of hours as we have some time to kill before our 5.25 p.m. flight. Get the rental car bus to the airport and check in, with a minor scare when the guy at the check in desk says he has no record of us on the flight we are taking. All eventually is well and we find our seats on the plane, thinking we have the row to ourselves. We don’t. A Guy sits in the aisle seat, so Dylan moves next to me. It is then I realize that Dylan smells like the worst BO I’ve ever smelt, which I let him know about rather loudly. He says to me, rather quietly “It’s not me”. Then I realize that the guy who just sat down has managed to share his BO with me, through the distance of a full chair. It is awful, and I want to gag, but I can’t as I’m laughing so hard after blaming Dylan for the stench. Shortly after takeoff, we move seats, Dylan goes back to his usual state of sleep, and after about an hour, we land in San Salvador, El Salvador for our connection to Quito, Ecuador. Flight to Quito has been delayed a couple of hours, so I catch up on diary writing, while Dylan nods off again, and then, needing to satisfy his other infantile desire, goes off in search of food.
Finally we board the flight to Quito. This time only Dylan gets the exit row, while I rough it in regular economy. Needless to say, Dylan sleeps the entire flight, but so do I. Very slick arrival at Quito airport, and we were in a taxi to our hostel The Secret Garden in no time. Our taxi driver seems to think he is driving a racecar as he weaves between traffic, straddles the middle lane of the two way highway, and uses both the right and left shoulders of the highway to make his Formula One turns. Dylan and I become increasingly concerned as our taxi driver appears to be driving away from the city of Quito, and takes winding, very steep and poorly lit and paved roads. We briefly discussed how easy it would be for our wannabe Michael Schumacher up front to drive us into a dark alley, pull a gun on us, take all of our valuables and tell us to get out of the car. We try and work out where we are using Dylan’s travel guide map, and it actually appears we may be going in the right direction, so we manage not to lose bowel control during the car ride. Arrive at The Secret Garden around 2 am and are shown to our dorm room where our six travel companions for the second leg of Dr. D and my adventure are already in situ. As we open the door, we walk into what I can only describe as a wall of fart. It literally smells like someone had dropped trou in the middle of the room, squatted down and crunched out a massively smelly turd. Fingers are pointed, names are given, but ultimately the culprit never took ownership of the incredible odor, which I thought was rather poor form. I mean, if you are going to create such a potent stench, to the point that it is impressive, at least be proud of it.
Our new travel mates are comprised of six lads, Chase, Ebbe, Nithin, Chris, Dave and Kenny, who are friends of Dylan’s from his time as an undergraduate at MIT, whom I have got to know over the last four years of being at med school with Dylan. They are a great bunch, and each brings something different to the table. A few travel stories from Costa Rica are shared, while trying to distract ourselves from the ungodly smell in the room, before we all pass out.
Day 5. May 19th 2013
Breakfast at the Secret Garden could not be in a more striking setting. It is served on the open roof deck of the hostel, with a magnificent view of Quito and its beautiful Basilica, Basilica del Voto Nacional (Basilica of the National Vow):
I’m up a bit earlier than everyone else, so I order eight eggs and bacon breakfasts, with croissants, yogurt, fruit and juice, hoping that this will set us up for our day of hiking ahead. We whack it all back fairly quickly before we have to pack to set off to the adventure company Dylan has organized our hike with. We plan to scale the tallest peak in Ecuador, Mount Cotopaxi, a 19 347 ft (5897 m) volcano. During the packing, I notice that Chase has packed his own ice axe, helmet, climbing boots, and I’m pretty sure a 60ft climbing rope into his 185 liter climbing bag. Much fun is pointed at Chase for having all the gear, but perhaps the joke will be on us when we slip off the icy surface on the summit of Cotopaxi, while Chase will be hanging from his ice axe with one arm off the ice cliff face about to rope himself back up the mountain, like Sylvester Stallone did in the movie Cliffhanger. The fact that that movie was absolutely terrible, that Sylvester Stallone cannot act his way out of a paper bag and that no-one, even with the flexibility of a 14 year old Russian Olympic gymnast, could have pulled off the move he did in order to avoid falling to his death, is totally irrelevant. Also noted during packing was the fact that while everyone on the trip had traveled with hiking bags, Dave Nole, in his infinite wisdom, had decided instead to pack all of his stuff into a massive wheelie bag suitcase. He said he planned to hike the entirety of Cotapaxi wheeling his gear behind him and would only pick up his bag if absolutely necessary.
We are driven in a 4x4 and a taxi, (although we were promised a 15 person van for the eight of us) to the adventure company, Ecomontes Tours, where Dylan had kindly arranged everything, and coordinated with Javier of the adventure company, right down to the sizes of the waterproof jackets and pants we would be renting for our climb.
From left to right: Dylan Roden MD, Chris D’Annunzio, Dave Nole, Nitin Perumbeti, Chase Lochmiller, Kenny Rosche, Tom Flaherty MD, Ebbe Strathairn
Unfortunately, not only were none of our sizes nor equipment picked out for us, or even there, but Javier was no-where to be seen. According to the lady rushing around like a headless chicken trying to get all of our equipment in the right sizes, Javier had been out on the town last night, playing his guitar and drinking heavily so was too hung over to make it in. What unfolded was so disorganized it was almost comical. To say that the people in this company couldn’t organize a flour fight in a bakery is a massive understatement. Hiking boots of various sizes, crampons, water proof tops and bottoms, fleece tops and bottoms, helmets, ice axes (see you really didn’t need to bring one Chase), harnesses, carabiners, gators, all of various sizes, were handed out at random, and in various states of disarray. Only one of my hiking boots had laces, and my “waterproof” pants had an enormous amount of duct tape on them from previous holes, most worryingly around the anus area. Chase was feeling rather smug as this was all transpiring, sitting back watching the chaos unfold with his own pristine equipment to his side on display. However, that feeling was rather short lived, as he found out that the only thing which we had to pay extra for, a sleeping bag, he hadn’t brought along. Come on Chase, even Sylvester Stallone in that awful movie would have brought along a sleeping bag.
After about two hours of this debacle, we reluctantly pay for the trip, load our bags onto two 4x4s and start our journey. We drive about 25 miles south of Quito to a place called Machachi, a bustling town, home to one of our two hiking guides, Juan Carlos, so that packed lunches can be bought. There is much hanging around as the other guide, Segundo, with the other half of the group, drives back to his house for some unknown reason, and we have to wait for him in Machachi. It does give the other four of us a bit of time to take a look around. Crossing the Main Street of Machachi is probably the least safe thing I have done on this trip so far, with maniac drivers coming thick and fast in both directions, but on the other side, there is an open stall set up in a tent where you could buy a washing machine, a tv, an oven and a set of speakers at a seriously discounted rate, while the salesman in charge let you know this very loudly via microphone.
Also notable are some colorful and at times, profound, murals, lining the main road, as well as about 30 shoe shiners who would shine your boots until you could see your face in them for $0.50. We are the only tourists in town, which is a bit of a novelty as a traveler in this day and age.
Translation of above: one can live two months without food, and two weeks without water, but only a few minutes without air.
Finally Segundo arrives, but now Juan Carlos is nowhere to be seen. After a bit more hanging around, we are all reunited, and set off for our next hostel Chuguiragua Lodge, situated about 45 minutes drive from Cotopaxi National Park. The hostel is lovely, made up of several large, two story cabins surrounding a central dining hall. We are put into two beautiful four person rooms, and then fed our packed lunches, which were distinctly average. They provided us with two packets of chips, which were both in fact made from bananas, and then some bread with non descript white cheese, and some non descript cold cut which looked about 20% meat, 80% something else. The plan after lunch is to hike one of the surrounding mountains, a 15 489 ft (4721 m) volcano named Ruminahui, with the aim of helping our bodies acclimatize before we tackle Cotopaxi the next day. Much discussion is had between us about what gear to bring, how many layers to wear, whether we needed crampons, whether Chase needed his ice axe (I was fairly sure he would bring it along anyway), and so on and so forth, as our guides had given us absolutely no instructions. We make our best bet on what we will need for the hike and head down to the cars, only to be told to go back and get our helmets. That we do, and then we are off. We arrive at the entrance to Cotopaxi national park about half an hour later, the guides pay the entrance fee, Kenny takes a dump, and we are back in the cars and at the foot of Ruminahui in about 15 minutes. It is extremely blowy when we get out, so layers are put on, and then the hike is started at about 3 p.m. The scenery is stunning: green and surrounded by sharp peaks and flat topped volcanoes, with the snow capped Cotopaxi in view. The first part of the hike is along a fairly easy dirt track, but suddenly we veer to the right, and we are climbing a very steep incline up the mountain. It is extremely hard work at this altitude, my heart rate quickly reaches the high one hundreds and I start breathing very heavily. Thank goodness I’m not the only one feeling the effects of the altitude; we all agree it is tough when we have our first rest stop. It is much of the same, trudging along until about 100 meters from the summit, where things get rather steep, and rather scary. We are told to put on our helmets and warn others when we dislodge rocks which roll down directly in the line of fire of those below us. Purely because the other guys are gentlemen, and not because of my superior athletic abilities at all, I summit first. Unfortunately the view isn’t great as we are covered in cloud, but what we lacked in view, we gained in the absolutely terrifying sheer cliff drop on the other side of the peak. It is one of those that you look at, and you have to squeeze both your internal and external anal sphincters just not to crap your own pants.
After a short wait at the top for the rest of the group, we are off back down again, as it is fairly cold and nasty at the top. I am much worse at going down than going up. Our guide tells us to sit down if we feel unsteady, which I think was the first instruction he had given us all day, which was actually pretty decent advice. I was now beginning to understand why my waterproof pants had so much duct tape around the butt-hole area. We descend, as the sun sets, and it is fairly uneventful until the sun completely disappears and we are in darkness. Luckily, most of us have brought head lamps, which we put on during a rest stop. Somehow, during that stop, Chase and Kenny become separated from the group, which the rest of us only realize about 15 minutes later. This was fairly inexcusable on the part of our guides, as there should always be one guide at the front, and one guide at the back of the group, no matter what, but our guides had decided, inexplicably, to both walk at the front. We call out to the missing two but do not immediately get a response. After a few minutes of calling out, we hear Chase calling back and eventually see a head lamp in the distance. Chase, understandably, is angry that the guides went on ahead, but holds his tongue until we reach the cars back at the bottom. Then he lets rip. Everything he said to the guides was totally justifiable, explaining to them that the whole reason we were paying them was for our safety, and that the most basic part of this is ensuring all members are accounted for, and, as above, one guide should be at the front, one at the back at all time, but I couldn’t help feel as like it was a middle school teacher really telling off one of their students for being a naughty little boy. I try and ease things a little as I speak to Juan Carlos in Spanish on the way back to the hostel, during which I find out that this is the first time he has ever been to that mountain. For all I know, it could have been the first time he had ever been hiking.
Back at Chuguiragua Lodge, we are served spaghetti Bolognese which really hits the spot. Salad is also served, but no one touches it after hearing about my Costa Rican horror story. Ice cream follows, then we fill up our water bottles with the intention of drinking at least a liter before we head back to our cabin to go to bed. We shower in the lukewarm/cold showers, I put on most of the clothes that I own in order to warm up, without much success, a few stories/banter is shared in our respective rooms, before we all crash early in preparation for day one of our two day hike up Cotopaxi.
Day 6. May 20th 2013.
Leisurely start as we don’t have to leave Chuguiragua Lodge until midday. Breakfast is at 9.30 a.m. and consists of the usual non-descript fruit juice, bread with butter and jam, some invariable egg concoction, and tea or coffee. Our guides do actually arrive on time, and there is the usual confusion about what we should be wearing for the first part of the hike, and the usual minimal instruction. Again, we do our best to guess. After passing through the Cotopaxi National Park gates, we stop, and are finally instructed to put on our rented hiking boots, and other gear. We continue in the 4x4s along a very steep, winding road until the road abruptly stops, and we park. I have a fairly nasty headache which I put down to the altitude, despite the fact that I have been drinking more water than a camel at an oasis in the last couple of days. The temperature has dropped significantly, since we first got in the cars in the morning, so extra layers are put on before we start the first part of the hike up to el refugio (the refuge, aka base camp). It is a steep and very tough climb, and only serves as a reminder of how hard the entire hike is going to be. After about 45 minutes of panting, we reach base camp. It is a fairly basic building, with a kitchen and tables on the first floor, and bunk beds on the second. We are instructed which bunk beds to occupy, and are then served tea, chips, and some fairly awful pork-rind. I am trying to eat as much fat as possible, as fat has the most calories per unit weight, and I know we will be burning a lot tomorrow, so I try and eat as much pork-rind and powdered milk as I can, before I feel nauseated.
During this feeding, much discussion is had about our various bowel movements during the trip. I am afraid I started this all off on day one in Ecuador, as I relayed the story of my explosive diarrhea in Costa Rica. Adding fuel to the fire was the Bristol Stool Chart that I had been sent by a doctor friend in the US. This is a way of ranking your poo in terms of consistency. Each time anyone had a bowel movement, we would rank it according to the chart.
Throughout my ordeal in Costa Rica, I was a solid 7, or rather an unsolid 7. Chase was complaining that he hadn’t had a bowel movement in about 5 days. I would have thought, given his penchant for having every single piece of equipment known to man, that he would have brought some stool softeners along with him, but apparently this was not the case.
The guides (who had now doubled in number to four; one guide for every two hikers) said that if the weather was good, they would take us out to teach us how to use crampons, the ice axes, ropes, etc. on the glacier. Unfortunately we were covered in cloud and it did not let up all afternoon. The plan was to have supper around 6 p.m., hit the sack, and wake up at 11 p.m. for a midnight ascent. Supper is good, comprising chicken soup, rice, chicken and vegetables, and half a canned peach each. Spirits are high, and we are excited about the early morning summit. We ask our main guide, Juan Carlos, what are the statistics on people making the summit. He said, 70 % make it, 30% don’t. Most of the people who don’t reach the top fail to do so because of poor weather conditions, he said. About 90%+ made it when the weather was good. We hit our respective bunk beds around 7 p.m., and try and sleep. I find it very difficult because of the excitement of it all, and because of my splitting headache. I take some Advil, as that usually does the trick when I have headaches, and hope for the best.
Day 7. May 21st 2013
After an extremely restless and cold few hours, we are woken up at 11 p.m., drag ourselves out of bed, eat some granola and berry yogurt concoction, and make a final equipment check. Our guides help us put on harnesses for the roped part of the ascent, and we all don helmets with head lamps.
We have been split into four groups of two hikers, each with a guide, apparently according to ability. I was put with Ebbe, allegedly the strongest group, but I am certainly not feeling strong at this time. My head is pounding, and my stomach doesn’t feel much better (headache and nausea are two very common symptoms of altitude sickness). Either way, I was up for the challenge, and wanted to get to the top of this volcano, as did everyone else in the group. It is then I think about what a talented and adventurous bunch of guys I am with. Each is intelligent and successful in their own way. Dylan, one of my best friends, is an enormously capable 25 year old about to start an otolaryngology residency at NYU. Chase is a 27 year old IT whizzkid, who writes programs for financial companies in NYC, and has already bought his own several thousand square foot apartment in the East Village. Kenny is a very modest and accomplished 28 year old Singaporean who works in finance, while Ebbe is in his second year of architecture school at Columbia University. Rounding it off are Nithin, a 26 year old computer science and electrical engineering major, who writes programs for a startup in San Francisco, and Dave Nole, a very understated, extremely intelligent 27 year old financial derivatives trader in Chicago. These are the kind of guys I imagine starting the next Google or Facebook. Given the fact that I was in the presence of some of America’s best and brightest, who were also in decent shape, I was feeling pretty confident about the hike to come.
The first part of the hike is very similar to the day before from the car to base camp, aside from the fact that it is pitch black and snowing. We ascend at a slow and steady rate, while we huff and puff, and my head keeps pounding with every step. After about an hour or so, we reach our first rest spot, a flat snow covered slab of rock, between a steep glacier above and the snow/dirt track below. We are instructed to put on our crampons, eat our chocolate and drink our water. That we do. It is freezing, and after about five minutes of not moving, my whole body is convulsing. I still feel rough, and Dylan offers me some of his Acetazolemide, a medication for altitude sickness, which works, without getting too doctorish, by making your kidneys get rid of bicarbonate (a base), which makes your blood more acidic, tricking your body into thinking your blood has too much CO2 in it (CO2 is an acid), which then prompts your body to breath deeper and faster in order to expel more CO2. This then increases the amount of oxygen in the blood, and helps you acclimatize quicker (hours, rather than days without it). I was about to swallow it, before one of the guides tells me if I did, I risked collapsing on the mountain. I quickly spit it out, and realize I would just have to grin and bear it. Off we start again, and soon I realize that this hike is no joke. We are roped to each other in threes, with the guide at the back of each group. Ebbe leads mine, I’m in the middle, and the guide at the rear. This way, if one of us fell, the other two should, in theory, be able to hold them and save them from slipping off the mountain or into a crevasse. I wondered for a minute what would happen if two people fell simultaneously, but then thought it would be best to concentrate on my own footing than anything else. The incline is extremely steep, at least 45 degrees, and each step has to be very deliberate with our crampons and ice axes. One slip, and you could fall into one of the numerous and deep crevasses, which were present to right and left throughout the ascent. To say that I was absolutely terrified would be accurate. Still, we had come to Ecuador to summit Cotopaxi, and we were all getting on with it. Ebbe does a great job of leading from the front, I try to keep the rope between us taught, as was the instruction from the guides, and our guide does a good job of providing tension on the rope attached to me, so that whenever I am off balance, there is some support. We are going at a decent pace, and pass a couple of other groups of tethered hikers and guides who had started before us. I was beginning to feel more comfortable on such a steep ascent, and getting the hang of using the crampons and the ice axe, as well as being attached by a rope to two other people. My head is still throbbing, but at this point I am more concerned with staying alive and avoiding the various ways of dying on the ascent.
An hour and a half or so more, and we pass a group of three coming back down. Surely they haven’t already summited and come back down? It turns out they had reached a crevasse which was apparently too dangerous to cross, and there was no other way up the mountain. Rather than taking their word for it, we decide to carry on and see the crevasse ourselves. In about 45 minutes we reach it. The crevasse is enormous: too deep to see the bottom, and too long to see the beginning or end. It has a ladder spanning about 10 feet across the narrowest part, which doesn’t look wholly unsafe, but Juan Carlos ensures us that the each end of the ladder rested precariously on the crevasse edges. We are very disappointed, but understand that safety comes first in these situations, so I snap a few photos of the impassable crevasse, and we are off back down again.
We bump into Dylan, Dave, Chase and Kenny on the way down, and relay the message. It appears that Chris and Nitin were slightly more eager to return to base camp when they heard the news from the first hiking group on their return from an unsuccessful summit attempt, so they had already headed down the mountain.
Back at base camp, it is still dark, we are all fairly miffed about having had to turn around, and we start realizing that the guides must have known before we even paid for this trip two days before that getting to the top was not possible. Dave had managed to find out from one of the guides that no one had summited Cotopaxi in the last two months. Therefore, the guides knew all along we wouldn’t be able to reach the top, they were all in on it, accepting payment from tourists via the adventure companies. Horrendous behavior, and we were all angry. Regardless, we wanted to get out of base camp, off Cotopaxi, back to Quito, and to Los Banos, our next stop, as quickly as possible. So we packed up our gear, piled into the 4x4s, and headed back to the wonderful Ecomontes Tours in Quito to return all of our equipment.
After a minor inconvenience of not being able to drive directly into Quito because our 4x4s are apparently too big to be allowed into the city during rush hour (7 a.m. to 9 a.m.), we arrive at the adventure company office, to find it not even open. About 20 minutes later the metal roller door is rolled up from inside the office, and we see the weary face of a man who looks like he had just spent the night sleeping there. This, it turns out, is the illusive Javier, the guy with whom Dylan had booked our entire Cotopaxi hike. There is also a much younger, much more attractive female in the office, with whom it looks like Javier had had a pretty good night. We are tired and disgruntled, and all we want to do is drop off our equipment, get the various things we had left at the office, and leave, but Javier makes this difficult. I ask where to put the gear, and he keeps on dodging the question, referring to other random people in the office, and saying that he is too tired and hung over to deal with this. Then I lose my temper. I throw my equipment over Javier’s desk onto the floor and take this opportunity to let Javier know both in English and Spanish everything about the hike, how we know it was all a scam, what a disgrace this whole thing has been, and what a shame it was for everyone as the main reason we chose Ecuador was so that we could summit Cotopaxi. The spineless Javier blames the guides who he said told him it was possible to summit Cotopaxi a few days ago. At this point Chase steps in and does a pretty good character assassination of Javier, saying: “Your personal behavior has been unacceptable ever since we arrived. You were too hungover to meet us on the first day, and you are hungover right now, on a Monday morning. You clearly have a problem…etc. etc.” It was magnificent. Javier partially accepts responsibility for his own shortcomings, but still blames the guides for the hiking debacle. The likelihood is that they were probably all in on it. A thoroughly untrustworthy, shoddy group of people from whom we were doing our best to get away as soon as possible.
We walk over to a nearby hotel and manage to book a minivan to take us to Los Banos, about 105 miles south of Quito, a place known for its hot springs, white water rafting, and beautiful volcanic scenery amongst others. Chase and Nitin sit up front and are superb DJs for the ride, blasting their latest and greatest house music tracks which are far too cool for me to have ever heard of. Aside from a stop on the side of the highway, where Ebbe and I have a no pants standing up urination session at an outdoor bathroom, the journey is uneventful, and we arrive at our next lodgings, the Great Hostels Backpackers Los Banos, without too much difficulty. Showers are had and then we hit the town in search of food for lunch. We stumble upon a wonderful pizzeria near the town center where pizzas, lasagna, a buffalo chicken wrap (ordered by Chris, who is an Italian, in an Italian restaurant), and much beer is consumed. Dave Nole and I manage to take down a large pizza each, before we head back to the hostel for a quick turn around in order to make it to the hot springs before they close for the afternoon pool cleaning session.
We arrive at “Los Banos”, the hot springs, and are underwhelmed. We are all forced to buy shower caps, and the “hot springs” themselves were just a series of three square pools, each urine colored, with far too many people in them. Nevertheless, we are there, so don the shower caps and go in for a bit. Meet three other Brits in the pool, one of whom is extremely well endowed, and surprisingly doesn’t look like she is in need of orthodontic care, who seems to be attracting a lot of attention from the locals. I try and glean from them where they will be in the evening, and get a general idea of where the good bars are.
Back to our hostel and a bit of a break or, for the MIT boys, some hallway soccer, before it’s time to hit the town again for our next meal. We’ve been recommended a great Argentinian steak restaurant by the manager of our hostel, but unfortunately it is closed, so we settle for a pretty decent French restaurant. The food is good, and more beer, as well as some wine, is consumed. We then endeavor to find our very well endowed British friend without success, but stumble upon a great bar with an open air bar and bonfire in the back. The bar came complete with a white cat, which seemed to take a liking to Kenny.
We are ambushed by a rather verbose Swedish lady who is starting up a Swedish restaurant in Quito, who takes it upon herself to join us at the bonfire and bore most of us to tears with various different stories. I’m pretty sure she wanted to “have a good time” with absolutely any of us. She tried to orchestrate meeting up the next day, which Chase agreed to with the hope of her just being quiet for a few moments. Unfortunately this doesn’t work, but we were all feeling rather knackered from being awake from 11 p.m. the day before, so we return to Great Hostels Backpackers and hit the sack.
Day 8. May 22nd 2013
I’m up before most of the team, so I organize white water rafting with the hostel manager, for all of us to be picked up at 2 p.m. for some afternoon rapids. The rest of the group slowly gets going, and we discuss what we should do for the rest of the day. There is talk of zip lining, bungee jumping, quad biking or 4x4ing. We head into town and decide that with the time we have, it would be best spent renting 4 quad bikes. Chase, always wanting the best gear, decides to go for a quad bike with about double the horse power of everyone else’s. He plays down the idea that he rented that particular quad bike as it was an automatic transmission, and that he doesn’t know how to use manual. The rest of us go for manual, and soon we are off hurtling up the side of one of the many surrounding volcanoes. Views are spectacular as we gain altitude, and much fun is made of Chris as he struggles with the manual transmission, stalling frequently. Having said that, later on I stall about 11 times while trying to reverse, not realizing I was doing it the entire time with the emergency break on. We visit a couple of spots: a tree house, with a swing on a cliff edge overlooking Los Banos, run by a rather eccentric elderly volcanologist who claims it is his job to warn the entire town if the volcano is about to erupt.
How he determines if the volcano is going to erupt remains a mystery. Chris buys some overpriced volcano sand for his mom (see Chris being swindled above), and we head back down the volcano to a viewing spot before returning the quad bikes, grabbing some random burgers with pink ketchup for lunch, and heading out with the rafting company for our afternoon adventure.
The rafting group consists of the eight of us, a rotund middle aged Brit, his much lighter, German-sounding wife, and three guides. As we are driven up the winding road, we see the river below coursing through a deep canyon. The rapids look rather large, and we are all reasonably terrified, but nervously cracking jokes, pretending we are not. One of the guides shows us the point in the river at which we must stop, otherwise we will enter a part of the river from which no one has come back alive. A few years ago, five intrepid kayakers tried to tackle the most challenging rapids in the river. All died. So, I think the point he was trying to make was that even if we are having a rip roaring good time, we should stop before the bit where we get killed.
We are split into two raft boats, and I have the pleasure of being paired with the festively plump Brit. At various more dangerous points during the rapid we all had to jump into the middle of the boat, as instructed by our guide. My left shoulder took the brunt of the voluminous Englishman during each of these occasions and by the end of the trip, I had lost sensation in most of the left side of my body. Overall though, great fun, and fantastic rapids, despite walking away from it all like a stroke victim.
Back to the hostel, more hallway soccer for the MIT lads, then out to dinner at the Argentinean steak restaurant, which is open today. During the dinner, I see a table to fairly attractive ladies. Naturally, I gravitate towards it, and ask one of them to take a photo of our table. They oblige, and we get talking.
Turns out, that not only are they all living in Manhattan, not only do they all live on the upper east side, but they are all doctors at Mount Sinai, from which Dylan and I have just graduated. We invite them to join our man table, and they accept. The three of them are Ob/Gyn docs, either attendings or in their last year of residency, and Dylan and I play the Mount Sinai name game with them and discover many mutual acquaintances. Much meat and Malbec is consumed, before we return to our hostel, with the idea of dressing up as various dictators, and playing an epic game of Risk. Chase wanted to be Hitler, Kenny, by default was Chairman Mao, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately I was too knackered to play, but apparently the game went on until 4 a.m. and Chase/Hitler won.
Day 9. May 23rd 2013
I wake earlier than the Risk recoverers, as I have to head back to Quito today for a flight back to the US to make it to my 5th year Brown reunion. Goodbyes are exchanged, and I’m sad to be leaving such a great group of lads. They plan to go to the Ecuadorian jungle after I leave. I make it to the bus station in Los Banos without too much trouble and am lied to by a guy who says the bus on the left is the one leaving next for Quito, when it was actually the one on the right, owned by another bus company. Was too late as I had already paid the liar $2.50 for the 4 hour ride on the bus which left 45 minutes later.
Arrive in Quito at the bus station, which, rather inexplicably, is a good hour taxi ride to the airport. I arrive and check in in good time, have a Johnny Rockets burger and fries, watch the Johnny Rockets employees do a dance right in front of my table, and get to the gate, only for the flight to be delayed.
Am bussed to the plane, which I didn’t even think was done these days, and arrive in Bogota shortly. Flight from Bogota is delayed by two or three hours, but eventually we take off, and when the wheels touch down in NYC, I’m happy to be home. Brown 5th year reunion, here I come!
News from the others on their jungle adventure: great time, but Chase and Dylan both got Giardia! Pretty glad I missed the final leg of the trip.
And I have finally shaved, in stages:
Tom Flaherty MD
June 12th 2013