On Friday I learned the word “cabalgazo” which means a trail ride on horseback. I had looked at a few websites for “day trips” from Quito and contacted a few of them to see if they were open to transporting me and my wheelchair. Bus tours: no. Private tours with a driver: yes! I went with one from Rebecca’s Adventure Tours because the information on the site seemed very clear and there was an agent to chat with via the website so I could ask wheelchair related questions. Turns out there was no problem, their driver was cool with packing my disassembled powerchair into the back of his SUV.
So, for around 200 bucks I got picked up from my hotel by a lovely tour guide (Thank you Eduardo!). We went on a 2 hour drive south of Quito to Cotopaxi, a national park around the Cotopaxi Volcano (20,000 feet!). We saw Chimborazo in the distance which was pretty exciting if you’ve read about it all your life and then see it for the first time in person.
Then, past the visitors’ center down a long gravel road to a small ranch and lodge within the park which I think climbers use for acclimatization, Tambopaxi. We stopped along the way for coffee and a bite to eat, then had another cafecito at the lodge while waiting for our vaquero guide, Edison. The view from the lodge was great – we sat there having our coffee with a view of wild horses and the Cotopaxi volcano itself lightly wreathed in mist. While I think I could have gotten into the lodge with my wheelchair (a somewhat rugged path, but ramped ) I opted to walk in because it was very close to the parking lot and I wouldn’t have to walk around very much. Note, also, the bathroom in the restaurant was very accessible!
Eduardo drove me down to the corral where I was fitted out with chaps, a helmet, and a poncho and Edison helped me get up on my horse Francés.
Before the ride (admire my amazing chaps!!!)
Francés the horse could tell I had no idea what I was doing but he seemed like the perfect sort of wise trail riding horse for beginners. I would describe him as phlegmatic, even as a philosopher, wisely following the other horses on the way outwards from the ranch, then eager to trot and get ahead on the way back towards his lunch. While he didn’t take any directions from me in the first part of the ride, by the second hour we had reached an understanding where I could get him to walk, trot, and go where I wanted, within reason, though to canter required some extra effort (whacking him on the ass)!!
Edison on the other hand was mounted on a more spirited and responsive horse clearly used to working with cattle, prancing around, turned on a dime, a super great horse. Eduardo was on a nice black horse; he is a much better rider than me but maybe not very fond of trotting. I am not used to riding “Western” or Spanish style very much as when I was a teenager I had riding lessons english style, with short stirrups, a different kind of saddle, and notably, the posting trot… which you can’t really do in a saddle with a giant pommel and your legs dangling in low stirrups. But, the saddle was very comfortable!
So, that’s the company and the horses — I’ll talk a bit about the ride! We started out across a very bare plain, an alpine meadow or páramo, scattered with pumice and clearly made of volcanic ash, not very many plants but a few wildflowers, mostly asters (yellow and other colors) and some purple flowers whose name was something like gentian (as in gentian violet). We saw tons of Andean Lapwings and some Plumbeous Tyrants (Eduardo had a bird book and binoculars and knows a lot about birding, geology, and history, really a pleasure to talk with!) and so many wild horses. Apparently the wild horses of Cotopaxi are famous for being an isolated population that are largely descended from horses of the original Spanish invaders. They would watch us carefully but didn’t seem spooked by our approach.
The landscape was incredibly beautiful and peaceful. I imagined being a traveler in past times walking or riding over these meadows.
As we went over and around some rolling hills the land got greener, the vegetation more various, more like chaparral. We saw a bull standing by a low hill, and Edison galloped at it waving his hat and shouting to chase it off. Whew! I wish I had a video of this, but I was too focused on being ready to stay on my horse Francés in case the bull came at us and he took off running, so I didn’t even think of my cameraphone!
I asked Edison for help lengthening my stirrups because my knees were killing me. This was a helpful tip from my mom who is an experienced rider and owns a horse! It did help.
After that we got into some stony meadows with little streams flowing through (which we forded) and then came to a deep canyon. Our trail went right along the edge of the canyon so my very tame trail ride had some moments of tension (for me anyway!) looking down and thinking how Danny told me to please not die while on my trail ride. I was glad of my chaps because we went through some prickly, tall plants. The canyon was beautiful, you could see the river rushing at the bottom, and layers of volcanic ash, pumice, and what I think you might call “ejecta”, boulders that came flying out of the stratovolcano like bombs! To the north, Rumiñahui, a smaller volcano, to the west, this river canyon, and to the south, Cotopaxi towering above us topped with snow.
Crossing some of the streams was also a little exciting as Francés, with a mind of his own, would give a little hop to get out of the stream when he could have easily just walked over it – but no. Then later when Edison and Eduardo on their horses did a little dramatic jump over a narrow gully, Francés refused it, I brought him around again hoping my leaning slightly forward would encourage him to jump, and then he deflated my ego completely by stepping calmly over the 1.5 foot gully at a walk. I felt like a dumbass — it was hilarious.
Coming back around in a wide circle through this beautiful valley, the path was more rocky and rugged in places, but by this time I was more confident at sticking on the back of my horse as he scrambled up hillside trails and did his weird little top of the hill hop, as if he wanted to get the hard parts over with as fast as possible. We passed a big hill and cliff face that looked like granite. Eduardo and I competed lightly to show off our enjoyably dilettantish geologic knowledge. Luckily for me when you say geology related words like “magma” or “stratovolcano” or “basalt” in a spanish accent it mostly works.
By this time I was so sore! Wow! it was OK but I was aware of the difficulties of going at a trot. I ventured a joke…. “Que gran aventura…. Ay que gran aventura, PARA MIS NALGAS” which finally got a laugh from my companions.
We cantered a bit and it was really fun! But also exhausting! I was feeling the altitude, not like a headache or anything but just, my heart was pounding and I felt very tired after just a little trot or canter.
Humorously, when I got back to the hotel, I realized my Fitbit thought I had walked and run up 98 flights of stairs over the 2 hours of our trail ride! I got a lot of little congratulatory notifications and virtual awards for climbing, which by rights should belong to Francés.
Dismounting, I definitely needed help, because my legs just wouldn’t move! They felt like cooked noodles! Who cares, right, I can barely walk anyway! After a few minutes hugging MOTHER EARTH ***** OMG HURRAH I AM NO LONGER ON A HORSE ***** ¡¡¡¡¡AY, GRACIAS PACHAMAMA!!!!! GRACIAS AL DIOS Y AL VIRGEN DEL APOCA-FUCKING-LIPSIS!! I CAN’T FEEL MY LEGS!
OK so finally I manage to get up, take off the chaps (I wish I had those amazing chaps – so comfortable, and with a pocket big enough to hold my coffee mug) and get into Eduardo’s SUV and then back to the lodge for delicious potato soup (Locro de Papa) and some more coffee. Eduardo and I showed each other pictures of our families and looked at his bird book and then drove back to Quito. Oh he also nicely got out my chair and helped me assemble it for a stop at the Visitor Center on the way home, so I could buy some alpaca scarves and a sweater and poncho for gifts for my family, which I appreciated – while I am getting around Quito just fine, I can’t go into most of the shops so I really wanted help with souvenir buying in a place with an accessible entrance! (I can’t even buy postcards – I’m waiting for Danny to help with that!)
Well, that was my adventure. Parts of me are STILL FEELING THE ADVENTURE, let me tell you. MOSTLY MY BUTT.