Showing posts with label Ecuador. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ecuador. Show all posts

Video: Traveling the Andes Mountains - Spine of the South

In 2015, photographer Eric Hanson spent seven months traveling the length of South America along the spectacular Andes Mountains. Starting in Ecuador and ending in Patagonia, he captured thousands of photos of the landscapes that he encountered along the way. The very best of those images can be found in this breathtaking video, which give us an incredible look at these amazing mountains. Sit back and enjoy this clip, it is gorgeous.

Spine of the South from Overland Collective on Vimeo.

Video: A Visit to the Amazing Galapagos Islands

Located 620 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands are one of the most famous and intriguing destinations on the planet. It was there that Charles Darwin first formulated his ideas of natural selection and evolution as he observed unique wildlife, some of which exists no where else on Earth. This video takes us to the Galapagos and gives us a glimpse of those creatures, as well as some of the wonderful landscapes that exist there. If you've ever wanted to visit this place for yourself, this short film might finally convince you to make that happen.

GALAPAGOS from irenaVision on Vimeo.

Video: A Journey Through the Galapagos Islands

With their stunning natural beauty and dizzying array of wildlife, the Galapagos Islands are one of the top destinations for travelers from around the world. Located 906 km (563 miles) off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are home creatures that don't exist anywhere else on Earth. They are also the isolated living laboratory that spawned Charles Darwin's concepts of natural selection and evolution. In this video, we take a photographic journey through this spectacular setting, catching a glimpse of some of those animals, and the wild settings that they live in.

And when you're ready to visit the Galapagos for yourself, my friends at Mountain Travel Sobek can help. They offer multiple options for exploring the islands, and other parts of Ecuador as well. This truly is a destination that should be on the bucket list for any adventure traveler, and MTS can help you get there.

Galapagos from Tom Pinsard on Vimeo.

Video: South America by Drone

Adam Humphrey, the filmmaker behind this beautiful short film, spent five weeks backpacking through South America, covering more than 19,000 km (11,800 miles) in the process. Along the way, he shot some amazing video – with the help of a drone – in Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, and Peru. The results speak for themselves, as viewers are treated to fantastic shots of some of the most stunning landscapes on the continent, if not the world.

South America by drone from Adam Humphrey on Vimeo.

Adventures in Quito: Hacienda El Porvenir – A Base Camp for Andes Adventures

Over the course of ten days in Ecuador, I have had the privilege of seeing a number of truly wonderful things, while also staying in some fantastic lodges along the way. If you’ve been reading my posts throughout my travels, you have no doubt seen me mention a couple of these great hotels, several of which I have recommended highly. But nothing prepared me for my stay at Hacienda El Porvenir, a traditional mountain lodge that can serve as your base camp for adventure in the Andes.

El Porvenir isn’t likely to impress on first glance, especially if you’ve visited one of the more modern and upscale lodges in the Quito area. But don’t let the exterior fool you. This is a place that will capture your heart, and call you back for future visits. The hacienda has a charm and character all of its own, and a soul that is pure Ecuadorian.

The main house that makes up the lodge belonged to the same family for six generations. About 15 years ago, they decided to convert it into a hotel, first starting with some very basic accommodations that are not unlike something you’d find in hostel. Over the years, they have expanded the operations, and added on additional rooms and buildings, allowing for El Porvenir to meet the needs of more guests. Those additions include incredibly comfortable suites, family rooms, and options for singles and couples. The result is that the lodge pretty much has something for everyone – and every budget.

The entire hacienda covers more than 1000 hectares (2470 acres) of prime real estate on the edge of Cotopaxi National Park. In fact, on clear days, the massive volcano can be easily seen from the hotel itself. Other prominent peaks throughout the area are visible as well, giving El Porvenir some of the best views in all of Ecuador. All of that land is put to good use as well, as guests can book horseback rides into the highlands, hit custom made mountain biking trails, or go hiking on self-guided or full-guided tours. If you like staying active on your travels, and like to stay at a place that can provide several forms of adventurous pursuits, this is definitely the place for you.

El Porvenir is an Ecuadorian ranch at heart, and it stays true to those origins today. The lodge has an impressive herd of horses, and many head of cattle also roam the fertile grasslands that surround the guest quarters. Several times of year, expert horseman from across the globe visit the lodge to take part in an authentic cattle drive, during which the local chalcas – Ecuadorian cowboys – round up wild bulls for use in regional celebrations, mock bull fights, and for use in the kitchen. These popular rodeos are an Andean tradition that remain popular to this day.

Speaking of the kitchen, the management at El Porvenir has worked hard to create a very tasty menu as well, all with food sourced locally. Their gourmet offerings keep guests very satisfied, with fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats that are purchased from the local communities. As with several of the lodges I stayed in on my trip, the food was definitely a highlight, with the steak filet in gooseberry sauce – made from berries picked right off the mountain – as a true highlight.

My stay wasn’t all about just soaking up the comforts however, as I got to take part in several activities while I was there, including a nice self-guided hike that provided excellent views of the surrounding countryside. But the true highlight was a morning horseback ride into the Andean highlands on a near-perfect day. The ride took us up above 4200 meters (13,780 ft), with Cotopaxi gleaming like a beacon the entire way.

I have to admit that I am not all that comfortable on horseback. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to ride several times, usually in amazing destinations, but for some reason I have never been entirely comfortable in the saddle. But the sure-footed Andean ponies that are in use at El Porvenir are well trained, good-tempered, and extremely easy to ride. After just a few minutes in the saddle I was feeling comfortable and confident, even as we jogged up well-worn trails into the hills surrounding the lodge.

My ride went on for about four hours, with spectacular views at every stage. The thick grasses of the highlands proved to be no impediment for the stout horses, who are capable of carrying large loads, even at attitude. My steed in particular had to work hard, as I am certainly larger than most of the Ecuadorians that I have met on my travels.
Adventurous travelers who want to explore the Andes by horseback will find excellent guides and horses at El Porvenir. Even if you’ve never been on a horse before, they’ll provide you with good training and support, both before and during your ride. I’m told that about 50% of all visitors are complete beginners, but they all do fine once they get settled in the saddle. Judging from my observations, I’d say that is an accurate statement.

While I didn’t get the opportunity to mountain bike one of the outstanding trails at El Porvenir, I did get to see the bikes that guests have at their disposal. They include some top-notch models with disc breaks, full suspensions, and carbon fiber frames. Often times when you visit a lodge such as this one, you get bikes that are old, and lacking features. That isn’t the case here, allowing visitors to ride with confidence. That certainly makes for a much better experience for both new and experienced riders alike.

As I’ve said previously, one of the things that has impressed me the most about Ecuador is how friendly and accommodating the people are. Everyone I have met has been incredibly hospitable, and that includes the staff at El Porvenir. From the moment you arrive, to the time you checkout, the staff is courtesy, professional, and quick to assist. That includes the front desk managers, the cooks and waitresses, and the friendly ladies who deliver hot water bottles to your door each evening, and light the wood burning stoves in the suites. You’d be hard pressed to find a friendlier crew in any mountain lodge around the world, and I believe it is that level service that keeps brining customers back.

If you’re planning a trip to Ecuador yourself, and you’re looking for an unforgettable place to stay, you really do owe it to yourself to book a room at El Porvenir. With options for every budget, great food and service, and plenty of adventure activities on site, this is a truly great lodge. Whether you just want to relax in a serene, picturesque setting, or fill your days with hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking, you’ll no doubt be charmed by this Andean retreat. It is fun, romantic, and comfortable, with distinct feel that is unlike any other place I have ever stayed. Truly a great Ecuadorian escape.

Tierra del Volcan, the company that owns El Porvenir, also has two other Haciendas in Ecuador, and can arrange a number of other adventures for you in the country as well. Be sure to check out their website to see what else they have to offer. 

Team Seagate Wins Adventure Racing World Championship

Part of the reason I was in Ecuador over the past week and a half was to cover the start of the Adventure Racing World Championship, which began in the Andean highlands, descended through the rainforest, and eventually ended on the Pacific Coast. While I was there, I witnessed the start of the race, during which 50 coed teams of four set off on a grand adventure that would cover more than 710 km (441 miles) on foot, mountain bike, and kayak. The race was an exciting one to say the least, and in the end there were some familiar names standing on the podium.

The top team at this year's ARWC was Team Seagate from New Zealand, who were the odds on favorite to win the event before it even started. They managed to complete the entire route in just 4.5 days, which is an impressive feat in and of itself. This was a course designed to test the participants at every turn, and having witnessed some of the route myself, the race certainly lived up to its billing of being a tough one.

Second place went to Team Columbia Vidaraid of Spain, who put in impressive performance throughout the race as well, finishing four hours and 15 minutes behind the winners. Team Movistar of Ecuador claimed third place overall, proving that the home field advantage can play a factor. This talented team was near the top of the leaderboard almost the entire way, and they managed to finish in a little over five days.

I want to thank the entire staff at the Huairasinchi Explorer – the host of this year's AR World Championships – for putting on such a great event. It was a joy to be back in the middle of a major adventure race once again, and it was great to catch-up with old friends, and make new ones too.

Also, congratulations to Team Seagate for running a great race. They were certainly the class of the field, and remain the best AR team in the world.

Adventures in Quito: Hiking in the Shadow of Cotopaxi

For most of my trip to Quito I had Internet access, and was able to write about my days events as they happened. On the final few days of the trip, I was in a mountain lodge that didn't have Internet, so I continued to write about my adventures so that I could share them when I got back home. I'm now getting back to my regular routine, but still have a couple of stories to share. Here's the first one about a day I spent trekking in Cotopaxi National Park.

After two straight days of gray clouds that hung low over the Earth, it was a relief to wake to sunshine and blue skies. That meant that my last day of trekking in the Andes would at least get off to a good start, and we might actually see some of the amazing scenery that had been teased over the previous two hikes. It seemed that the day was looking up, and I hadn’t even rolled out of bed yet.

Unfortunately, that feeling wouldn’t last long. When I did roust myself from the massive and comfortable bed at the Santa Ana Hacienda, I discovered that I wasn’t particularly feeling well. I’m not sure if it was the altitude or something I ate the night before, but there was definitely some stomach troubles brewing. Never the less, I was determined to hit the trail, as this was the day we would be hiking in Cotopaxi National Park, right in the shadow of the massive volcano itself.

After a quick breakfast (my stomach wasn’t much interested in food) we checked out of the Santa Ana and set off on the road to the park. Traditionally, the trek I was doing would have begun on foot at a different lodge, but my friends from Tropic were doing me a favor by showing me this route, so we had to take accommodations where we could find them. A short drive down the road put us in the national park however, and we soon transitioned to foot.
As expected, the clear skies afforded us some amazing views of the mountains that surrounded us, including Pasochoa, a 4199 meter (13,776 ft) peak that we had summited just two days earlier. But of course, the real crown jewel was Cotopaxi itself, and the gigantic volcano didn’t disappoint. It stood out starkly against the clear blue skies as clouds lightly drifted by just below the summit. It was an impressive, awe-inspiring sight, and most definitely worth the wait.

We set off across the open grassland at a steady pace with the snow-capped summit of Coto gleaming in the sun. It was impossible to ignore the giant mountain, which loomed overhead, despite the fact that there were three or four other prominent peaks that were also clearly visible from the trail. Cotopaxi is a mountain that demands attention with its beautiful, yet rugged lines, and massive presence on the landscape. 

The trail began as an access road, but soon turned into a series of twisting routes made by other trekkers, and the wild animals that inhabit the park. Before long, we were wandering through narrow valleys, up steep hills, and over prairie lands inhabited by numerous wild bulls and horses.

About an hour or so into the trek, we turned up an embankment out of one of those valleys, and climbed to the highest point of the day. It was the top of a hill that stretched roughly 3950 meters (12,959 ft) into the air, providing fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. It was a spectacular sight, and on a clear day, it was easy to see for kilometers in all directions. 

The site was so good in fact, that the ancient Incas liked it as well. More than 500 years ago, they built a fortress on top of that hill, and used it as a lookout point and way station for travelers. Some of the walls from that fortress remain to this day, marking the history that the region has witnessed over the centuries. 

The climb to the top of the hill wasn’t a particularly challenging one, but it was enough to get my already delicate stomach even more upset. I found myself laboring to hike to the top, and while there, it took longer than normal to catch my breath. Up until that point, I had been feeling fine, but the labor of the climb had kicked me into another level of suffering. For the rest of the hike I’d struggle to maintain a solid pace, and felt the energy drain from my legs in an unusual fashion. Fortunately, I never actually got sick, but the rest of the trek was a challenge when it really shouldn’t have been.

This hike is the third in a four-day lodge-to-lodge trekking itinerary offered by Tropic. The route is perhaps the most beautiful of all, but it truly shouldn’t be a very difficult walk. In fact, most of the time you didn’t need to use trekking poles at all, although Tropic definitely recommends you bring them. For the most part, the hike crosses over open landscapes, with just grasslands surrounding you. On occasion it does wander into rubble fields left over from previous eruptions of Cotopaxi, or up into the high-alpine marshlands, where the same thick, tall grass that plagued me on Pasochoa two days earlier attempted to make life hard once again. 

After descending from the Inca ruins, we struck out across open fields towards some natural springs that crisscross the national park landscape. These incredible clear – and incredibly cold – streams were a source of tranquility as we hiked along their banks. Fed by the glaciers on Cotopaxi, the water rushes down hill to join ever-enlarging rivers, which provide a steady source of water to Quito and other towns in the region. 

As we continued upstream, we actually came across the source of one of the babbling brooks. Our trail passed right over the point where the water broke out from its subterranean well, and gushed out onto the land above. It was at that point that we reached the furthest point of our trek, and started to loop back towards the end point. Cotopaxi had been on our right all morning, but was now shifting to the left as we started towards are finishing point at lodge called Tambopaxi.

On this day’s hike there were four of us crossing the wide-open fields. Our head guide Fabian lead the way, and I tried to follow close behind, although me waning energy levels made it difficult to keep up at times. We were joined by two representatives from Tropic – Javier and Carmen – who answered my questions about the trek as we walked, Typically, a group on this trek ranges in size from 2 – 6 clients, plus a guide, which is the perfect size for an adventure like this one. Anything larger becomes too cumbersome, and the fitness level to the group can vary too greatly as well. On this day, I would have said that we were all well matched, although I found myself the one who was lagging. 

By the time we started our return trip, some low hanging clouds began to move into the area, and the view of the summit of Cotopaxi became obscured. For the most part, it was still a very lovely day, but the telltale shift in the Andean weather was on the horizon. As we walked, we spied some of our locations from previously in the day from the distance, including the Inca ruins, which stood out at the top of the hill. We also encountered more wild bulls and horses as well, all of which scurried away at our approach.

Finally, we made the final push up, and out, of the valley below, and found Tambopaxi lodge, where our van was waiting to hurry us along to our next destination. For me, this marked the end of my travels with Tropic, as they dropped me off at the El Porvenir lodge, where I would spend the next two days before returning home to the states.

Traditionally, the Tropic mountain lodge trek would actually have one more leg. On the fourth day of that itinerary, the group leaves Tambopaxo and hikes up to the glacier line of the Cotopaxi, which is located at about 4800 meters (15,748 ft). While I would have liked to have been able to go for that final stage, considering my low energy levels after today’s hike, it would have been a tough slog for sure. 

Fortunately, an afternoon of rest at Hacienda El Porvenir has helped me to recover to a degree. Tomorrow, I’ll go horseback riding in the Andes, as that is one of many activities that the lodge offers. Visitors can also take in additional hiking trails, go mountain biking, or simply enjoy the ambiance that surrounds the traditional Andean farm/ranch setting. While very different from the other lodges I’ve stayed in on this trip, it provides a setting that fits in amazingly well with the Andean traditions.

Adventures in Quito: Trekking the Andes Highlands

If you read yesterday's (admittedly long) post about my adventures in and around Quito, Ecuador, you probably already know that the Andes highlands can be a challenging place to go for a hike. The weather is unpredictable – especially during the rainy season – and the trails can be steep, difficult, and often completely hidden by high grass. It was with that in mind that I woke up this morning in the incredibly warm, and comfortable, Cotopaxi Pungo lodge wondering what I'd face on my second day of hiking in the Andes. Turns out, I needn't have worried at all, as today's trek was very leisurely,  not to mention rain-free, while still providing plenty of wonderful scenery to enjoy along the way.

After yesterday's very soggy trek, I had set my trekking gear close to the fireplace in my room at Cotopaxi Pungo, and overnight, most of it dried nicely. The lone exception was my boots that still felt damp. Knowing that I needed to have good, sturdy shoes for today's walk, I dug out my thickest pair of socks, and slid them on. Then, with a bit of trepidation, I slid them into the boots in question, only to hear a resounding sloshing sounds, and feel the socks already begin to dampen. This wasn't a good start to the day, but there was nothing to do but grin and bear it. 

Fortunately, the weather outside didn't appear like it would be sending rain our way anytime soon. The clouds were once again hanging low, obscuring visions of the surrounding mountains for the most part, but it at least seemed like we'd get off to a dry start. So, after grabbing some breakfast, I returned to the trail with my guide Fabian, who led me to the summit of Pasochoa yesterday, and Carmen, a representative of Tropic  the adventure travel company that has been introducing me to one of their itineraries. The company does everything in Ecuador, including taking visitors to the Galapagos Islands, the rainforest, and the Pacific coastal region. 

Before we set off, I was informed that we were not granted the normal permit needed to hike the trail that was on the schedule for the day, so we'd be walking an alternate route along a road instead. Apparently, since we weren't scheduled to say in a certain hacienda along the route, the permits were withheld, so we had to make the most of the situation. Hearing this news, I was wondering what we might miss out on along the way, as trekking a road didn't sound like a lot of fun. It turns out the road runs almost parallel to the trail anyway, and we were still treated to some excellent views along the way. It should also be noted, that we probably encountered a half-dozen cars on the dirt and cobblestone route, and perhaps eight or ten other people walking it as well. In other words, it wasn't crowded, and it still afforded us a great connection with the Andes forests and grasslands that are common in this area.

Today's hike was to follow the Pedregal Trail, which winds its way along the Pita River – a source of water for the valley below. The Pita begins on the glaciers of Cotopaxi, and its runoff helps to sustain life in the region. But as noted, we had to take a detour, and while we were no longer following the Pedregal, we were essentially on a parallel route. 

The morning air felt cool and damp, but upon striking out from the lodge, we were soon plenty warm with the exertion of the hike. The road went over, around, and down, some rolling hills, while the clouds played peekaboo with the surrounding scenery. Nearby, Cotopaxi loomed large, but its summit remained hidden by mist and cloud cover. At one point, even Pasochoa, yesterday's big challenge, appeared from behind the fog, giving us a brief glimpse of where we had been just 24 hours earlier. 

About 45-minutes into our walk, a black puppy joined us on the trail. We weren't really sure where he came from, but he soon fell into stride along side of the three of us, as we made our way through the highlands. He stayed with us throughout the entire day, enjoying the walk as well it seems. The friendly pup showed no indication that he wanted to return to wherever he had left, and the dog was with us as we arrived at our lodge at the end of day. In fact, he seems to have already been adopted by the staff, and has made friends with the llamas that graze on the grounds. 

As our day wore on, the clouds dissipated some, giving us a better look at the surrounding countryside. What we saw were rolling hills covered in incredibly fertile grasslands, which were perfect for farming and grazing of livestock. Many of the fields we passed had horses or cattle in them, and small homesteads dotted the landscapes. Occasionally, one of the farmers could be spotted going about the days chores. Any that past close enough to see our wandering trio were quick to greet us with a friendly "hola" or "buenos días." The warm and inviting people of Ecuador are found high in the Andes as well it seems. 

Around noon we stopped for lunch, and were soon greeted by the six mountain guides that had accompanied us on our Pasachoa summit, and soggy trek from yesterday. They were walking the same route as us, and had started a short time after, but had caught up just as we sat down for sandwiches and snacks on a covered bench. It was a lively and fun reunion for all involved, as it seemed like we all shared a common bond following the mountain storm we had survived together the day before. Our combined groups would hike the final section of the road to our lodge together, with much laughter to be had along the way. 

As the afternoon drew on, the sun even poked out from behind the clouds, and blue sky appeared overhead, That made for a pleasant walk to the Hacienda Santa Ana, a historic hotel that was once home to the Jesuit priests that came to the area. It has been restored, and looks fantastic, with beautiful and comfortable rooms as well. The restaurant serves wonderful gourmet meals too, which make it a wonderful destination following a long day on the trail. 

Tomorrow, I'll spend just half of the day with Tropic doing yet another trek, this time along the Cotopaxi Trail. It is said to be another relatively easy hike, and we're predicted to finish up by around noon or so. Hopefully the weather will cooperate, and provide us with some good views of this awesome mountain. It has proven somewhat elusive over the past couple of days. Once I'm done with the trek, I'll then transfer to the Tierra del Volcan, a lodge that sits right on the edge of Cotopaxi National Park, where I'll spend my last couple of days in Ecuador before returning home. 

The trip so far has been filled with wonders, both cultural and natural. Ecuador is a wonderful place for adventure travelers, as it has so much to offer outdoor enthusiasts. But the thing that will stick with me the most upon my return to the U.S. is just how friendly and hospitable the Ecuadorian people are. Everyone I have met has been incredibly accommodating and polite. That is a wonderful impression to take away from any destination. 

AR World Championship Update: A Major Penalty Has Deep Impact on the Race

What a difference a day makes at the Adventure Racing World Championships here in Ecuador. Not only have we seen nearly every team hit with a major penalty, it has had a major impact on the standings as well. While the controversial ruling from the race organizers has left some teams incredibly dissatisfied – including the team that was leading the race yesterday – it looks like all appeals are likely to fall on deaf ears, which means we could have a dark cloud hanging over the event.

The penalty came about because the race's rule book specifically says that during Stage 3 of the race,  all teams must keep the river on their left at all times. All but three teams  – Seagate, Team Silva, and Team Polaska AR – failed do to this, with most of the teams crossing the river at the wrong point. As a result, the three teams that obeyed the rules had longer times on that leg. To make up for this mistake, race leadership is enforcing a four-hour penalty on all of the teams, save the three listed above.

This has obviously had a major impact on the race. As I write this, Team Seagate is now in the lead, with a two-and-a-half-hour head start on Columbia Vidaraid of Spain. The French team of Caffte UPS Maurien/Vanois is now in third place, three hours and 15 minutes behind the leaders. That squad was in the lead when they were hit with the penalty.

With a few days to go until the first team is expected to arrive at the finish line, there is still time for anyone to make up ground. But Seagate is a very experienced team that doesn't make many mistakes, and catching them is going to be very hard. Still, anything can happen at this point, which is why it'll still be interesting to see how everything plays out. Hopefully, this penalty won't have an impact on the ultimate winner.

You can follow the race live by clicking here. The site includes the most current locations for each squad, and has the latest news and commentary on what is happening out on the course.

Adventures in Quito: A Mountain Trek During Which Ecuador Reminds Me That it is The Rainy Season!

One of the activities I've been looking forward to the most since arriving in Ecuador is trekking in the Andes. Don't get me wrong, I've loved everything else I've done so far, and the good people of Quito have been incredibly accommodating and friendly. On top of that, over the past couple of days, I've had the opportunity to mountain bike down Cotopaxi – a 5897 meter (19,347 ft) volcano – and visit a lake inside a volcanic crater that is simply breathtaking. But I love to hike and climb, and was ready to really stretch my legs in the high country. That opportunity came today, and I was reminded of the old adage "be careful what you wish for."

This morning I checked out of the wonderful Patio Andaluz hotel, and waited for my trekking guides to arrive. They were coming to pick me up for the day's adventure, which included a climb up a 4200 meter (13,779 ft) mountain by the name of Pasochoa, followed by a traverse of the region that would end with a descent into the Pita River Canyon. The trek promised spectacular views and a wonderful nature experience in the Ecuadorian highlands. To say I was excited would be an understatement.

The trek is offered by Tropic, an adventure travel company that can provide just about any Ecuadorian travel experience that you can imagine, including lodge-to-lodge trekking though the mountains. Tropic has a reputation of being incredibly professional, as well as innovative in their approaches to sustainable travel. True to that reputation, my guide showed up exactly on time, introducing himself with a hearty handshake. After introductions were exchanged, I jumped into the large van, where a driver was eager to get underway. I was informed that we would be stopping for some other guests who would be joining us on the hike, and with that we were off into the Quito traffic.

Before long we had stopped to pick up a sales representative from Tropic, as well as six mountain guides who I would have the pleasure of hiking with today. Most of them had not taken this particular trek before, so they were learning the route from Fabian, our lead guide. Once everyone was collected, we were off to start our adventure.

The ride out to the trailhead took about 45 minutes, with the road going from a modern highway, down to a cobblestone trail over the course of that time. At one point, we even had to stop to clear a large tree that had fallen over our route. It took a group effort from all of us to open the route back up, but soon we were speeding along toward our destination once again.

Eventually we hopped out of the van gathered up our gear and box lunches, and started up the trail. In the beginning, it was a path that was very easy to follow, and while it started off a bit steep, it soon leveled out some, giving us a chance to catch our breath along the way. It was also an early opportunity to take in some of the scenery, which was striking, although a bit muted due to low hanging clouds, and the threat of rain.

Soon, the trail turned upwards at a steeper grade once again, and we moved out of the Andes forest and into the marshlands that cover much of the upper sections of the mountains. This proved to be tough going, as the tall grasses that grow on the side of Pasochoa can conceal uneven ground, slick mud, dense roots and a host of other obstacles waiting to trip you up. On top of that, the grass is so thick, and soft, that it almost makes using trekking poles impossible. Not only do the tips of the poles snag on the grass itself, they also sink deep into the blades, sometimes providing no real assistance at all.

It took about three hours to reach the summit of Pasochoa, with the altitude and terrain being the biggest challenges of course. The route, which was often lost in the grass, was a test for the legs and lungs, with a fairly steep angle to the approach ridge. While the altitude certainly left me gasping for air a few times, it was the grass that ultimately proved my biggest nemesis. It would continue to do so throughout the day, but on the last push to the top, I simply gave up using my trekking poles, and resorted to pulling myself upwards using the dense plants as my method of stabilizing myself.

At one point, we moved off of the grass, and onto the rocky summit, and it was far easier moving across the solid ground than it was the unpredictable marsh lands below. Once on the rocks, it was an easy climb to the top, where we took a brief break to enjoy some snacks, and take in the view. Unfortunately, the clouds that has been following us that morning were still around, so there wasn't much to see from the top. Still, on occasion the mists would part briefly to give us a glimpse of the lovely valley below, providing a tantalizing look at what must be an amazing site on a clear day.

Before departing from the summit, two of our guides took a moment to thank the mountain and nature for allowing us to hike to the top. They spoke briefly in Quechua – the native language of the highlands people – and the rest of the group repeated afterwards. The Quechua people have a deep connection with nature, and many of those traditions continue to run deep today.

After that, we descended from the top of Pasochoa and started the traverse across a mountain ridge towards our next goal. Unfortunately, the tall grass once gain made the descent a challenge, and covered the trail to a degree. At times, I felt like a clumsy ox as I trudged through the moorlands, sometimes stumbling on precarious footing, or sliding across the slightly damp blades of grass. My Andean guides suffered less than I did however, at times making it look effortless as we moved up and down the mountain. I envied their agility on the trail, as it was clear that they had lots of experience in this environment.

Our trek continued up and down the route, until we defended across a narrow saddle. At that moment, the skies cleared briefly once again, and the surrounding landscapes were revealed through the clouds. I was once again struck with how lovely the views must be on a clear day, as they were certainly impressive even on our trek, which was ensconced in mist and shadow for most of the hike.

Soon, the clouds closed in once again, and we continued along the trail, which rose up to our second summit of the day. Not nearly as challenging as Pasochoa, it never the less gave us some fine views, including some highlands ponies that were grazing in the lush pastures near by. At this point, it even looked like the skies might clear a bit, and provide us with a bit of sunshine for our afternoon walk. That thought was fleeing however, and soon the gray skies rolled in once again.

We were now more than four hours into the hike, so we decided to descend further down the trail before stopping for some lunch. That was when those dark clouds that had been following us all day decided to make our lives just a little bit tougher. The rains came in a few large, cold drops at first, but it soon started to downpour in steady fashion. We had all slid into our rain gear at that point, and were in doing our best to continue along the trail. By now, the thick grasses where soaking wet, making it even more difficult to navigate through the marshlands.

I have often said on this blog that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear, and never was that more accurate than today. The heavy rains would soak through any equipment not designed to repel lots of water, and thankfully most of my gear lived up to the challenge. For some reason however, my boots took on water, despite the fact that they have never had issues in the past. The result was wet, cold feet for the latter section of the hike.

Eventually, we weren't just getting rained on, but had small pellets of hail thrown at us at well. By this point, even if we were dry, most of us were at least a little cold. We had to climb one last steep ridge, before beginning the final descent to the trails termination point, and while going down made things a lot easier, we still had a good distance to go before we could find respite of the downpour.

Thankfully, we eventually moved out of the marshlands and back into the Andean forest, which helped provide a bit of shelter, as the rain started to lessen some. At that point, we were actually back on a clearly defined trail – the first in hours – which helped make the descent an easier one. Soon, we even left the forests behind, and were trekking through farmland pastures, with our mountain lodge even in sight. Knowing that we were close to a dry shelter from the on-going storm spurred us on.

At long last, we reached the Cotopaxi Pungo mountain lodge, which would be our accommodations for the evening. I had expected to walk into a warm, dry location, that offered few amenities, other than a hot shower, a good meal, and a place to sleep. What I found instead is an amazing hotel nestled in the Andean highlands. As I write this, I can see views of the mountains around us outside the large windows, while lively flames dance in the fireplace. Tranquil music plays out of speakers overhead, as I'm comfortably working away on a couch in the common area. The rooms are even more comfortable, with kingsized beds, a spacious living area complete with a fireplace of its own, and a shower that was even better than I had imagined. In short, this is another wonderful Ecuadoran hotel to add to your list, as it has an impeccable, friendly staff dedicated to keeping their guests happy. And when the skies clear, it offers some of the most incredible views of Cotopaxi that you'll find anywhere.

I'm sure if you've read this entire report of my day, you must be thinking that it was a miserable one. But despite the challenges of the trek, which includes the inclement weather, it was actually a very good hike. Would it have been better without the heavy rain? Of course! But I'm in Ecuador during the rainy season, and poor weather is possible at nearly anytime. I've actually been fortunate that for the most part the weather has been beautiful. But sometimes, the mountains can be difficult, and today was one of those days. I still greatly enjoyed reaching the summit of Pasochoa, and the rest of the trek was also a lot of fun, despite the challenges we faced along the way.

My advice is that if you plan to do this trek during the rainy season (October - April), you should come prepared to deal with rainy weather. I think you'll still find it to be an excellent walk. If you come during the dry season (May - September), the skies will be clearer, but the winds can be extremely high, creating colder conditions. Dress warmly, particularly for your summit push.

Tomorrow, I'll continue trekking with Tropic on another long hike along the Padregal Trail. I'm told that this one is easier than today, with gentle trails through the grasslands once again. If the weather improves, it is also suppose to extremely scenic, with great views of the surrounding mountains. Here's hoping we get some good weather for that hike, as I'd love to get some great photos to share with everyone. I'll keep you posted on that trek too.

AR World Championship Update: From the Highlands to the Rainforest

I may no longer be covering the AR World Championship directly while I'm here in Ecuador, but that doesn't mean that I am not still trying to follow he race as best I can. I've only been able to check in when I've had Internet, but of course I'm eager to see how things are shaping up in the early going.

It was an exciting first day yesterday to say the least. The coed-teams of four too off yesterday morning at 8:30 AM local time on a trekking route through the highlands of the Andes. Since then, the lead teams have transitioned three times,  going from on-foot, to their bikes, back to foot, and back to their bikes once again. Over the first day and a half of the race, the lead has shifted a couple of times, with some surprising results heading into the second evening.

The top team at the moment is Caffte UPS Maurien/Vanois out of France. That isn't particularly surprising, as this team is made up of very experienced adventure racers who are amongst the very best in the world. Close behind them is the Spanish team of Columbia Vidaraid, and in third place is Team Movistar of Ecuador. They are using the home field advantage to the fullest at the moment, taking advantage of their familiarity with the terrain and weather conditions.

Other teams of note are lurking just off the podium. For instance, the Team Tecnu Adventure Racing from the U.S. is currently in fourth place, while adidas TERREX is in fifth. Pre-race favorite Team Seagate from New Zealand is one spot back in sixth place as well.

With the race only two days old, a lot can happen yet. The winner isn't expected cross the finish line until sometime around Thursday, and the lead is likely to change hands multiple times before then. Still, the race is shaping up to be a really competitive one, and it could come down to the wire. At this point, no one is running away with the event, and there are still plenty of major challenges to come before it is said and done.

You can follow all of the action at the live tracking website, which is updated regularly not only with team positions, but also news articles about what is happening out on the course. Also, be sure to drop by SleepMonsters, as they have two great reporters following the race, and posting updates as well. They'll keep you in the know as to what is happening here in Ecuador.

Adventures in Quito: Cultural Immersion and a Fine Walk in an Active Volcano

My adventures in and around Quito, Ecuador continued today, with a very active hike that left me breathless for more than one reason, and a visit to a traditional Quechua homestead. It was a great mix of cultural immersion and outdoor adventure, something I'm finding this country excels at.

The day started with me having to check out of the very charming PapaGayo Hosteria, which was simply a wonderful place to spend the evening last night. The staff are incredibly warm, inviting, and hospitable, and I can't recommend a stay there enough. If you're thinking of coming to Ecuador, you should do yourself a favor and book a room there. The atmosphere is wonderful, the food is delicious, and rooms are very comfortable. PapaGayo is located not far from Cotopaxi National Park as well, and  is a wonderful base camp for any number of adventures within the area.

After checkout, my guide and I were off to Saquisili, a nearby town that is famous for its open air market. Apparently, on Sundays and Thursdays, it is an incredible place to stop by and soak up the local atmosphere, while shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables, local craft goods, and innumerable local delicacies that are made fresh right on the spot. Unfortunately, on a Monday morning, the market was a bit subdued, with fewer shops open. Still, it was very nice to walk the aisles, taking in the sights, sounds, and especially the smells. The aroma of fresh fruit fills the air wonderfully, and numerous stands were selling bananas, oranges, strawberries, and enormous blackberries. Other shops were hawking shoes, bags, clothing, and DVD's that didn't look to be altogether legitimate, but they all fit into the atmosphere perfectly. I can only imagine what this experience would be like on a Sunday, when the entire town turns out to shop, swap gossip, and share a meal.

Since the market wasn't as hopping as we had hoped, my guide suggested that we drop by the home of a local Quechua family with the extra time that we had on our hands. The Quechua tribes are indigenous to South America, and can trace their roots back thousands of years. Many of them still practice their traditional lifestyle, which includes living in a simple hut made of mud, stone, and leaves, while also farming the land, and raising some livestock. I'm always fascinated by new cultures, particularly ones as storied as the Quechua, so I was more than happy to take the opportunity to visit one of their homes.

This particular Quechua household belongs to the highland tribes of the Andes, although their are Quechua that live in the rainforest as well. The entire family lives in one small hut, including the grandparents, their five children and spouses, and 12 grandchildren. The kids were off to school as you would expect, while the other family members were working the field. That left the patriarch and matriarch of the clan at home to chat with us. It didn't take long to figure out that they were just as hospitable and friendly as every other Ecuadorian that I've met on this trip. They offered us a snack of cooked potatoes and hot sauce, and patiently answered my questions about their lifestyle. They also told jokes, laughed heartily, and eager to share their home with visitors.

That home is about as simple as you could possibly imagine. It has a raised bed where the children sleep, while the adults curl up in blankets on the floor. They cook their meals on small traditional stoves and in the fire place, which also provides heat on the cold, rainy nights in the Andes. A small cage kept contained a quail, which provides the family with eggs, while more than 80 guinea pigs scurried about the room. The guinea pigs are part of their regular meals, and throughout my visit, the little guys cooed soothingly. To say they were adorable would be an understatement, but for the Quechua these animals are not pets, but an important source of food that they have included in their diets for hundreds of years.

After saying our goodbyes, we were back on the road to our ultimate destination of the day – Quilotoa Lagoon. This lake was formed more than 800 years ago, when the Quilotoa volcano erupted, causing the caldera to collapse. Now, the crater is more than 3 km (2 miles) across, and is a popular destination for visitors looking for a challenging hike in a beautiful setting.

The views from the top of the crater rim, which sits at 4000 meters (13,123 ft) are nothing short of spectacular. The lake is beautifully contained inside the walls of the volcano, which remains active to this day. In fact, when you stand on the edge of the water, you can occasionally see the tell-tale signs of bubbles, created by seismic activity underneath, rising to the surface. While there are no signs that Quilotoa has any plans to erupt anytime soon, it is humbling to know that it could.

Taking in the entire scene from the top is wonderful of course, but most visitors will want to walk down to the edge of the lake itself. Fortunately, there is an extremely well maintained trail that can facilitate that desire. The trail meanders down the side of the walls of the caldera, dropping some 200 meters (656 ft) in the process. As you can probably imagine, going down is fairly easy, but going up can be tough.

My guide indicated that a typical hike down the trail takes about a half hour to complete, while the return trip is closer to 45 minutes, depending on your level of physical fitness, and how well acclimatized you are to the altitude. We made the descent in just 20 minutes, with stops for pictures along the way, and then climbed back out in just over 30 minutes. It was a tough slog, and I was happy to see my guide breathing almost as heavily as I was. When we got to the top, he informed me that he had just set a personal best time for the ascent, which was encouraging since I was able to mostly keep up with him the whole way, but led me to question his estimate of a 45-minute climb back out for the average visitor. Make no mistake, the ascent out of the crater is a demanding one, and most people will be better served with taking their time, stopping for a rest, and enjoying the scenery. The thin air can be felt on the steep sections of the trail, and any significant shift in altitude should be respected.

All of that said, hiking in and out of Quilotoa is a must-do for anyone visiting the Quito area. It is a spectacular landscape that can't be full appreciated until you actually descend into the crater. It gives you the full scope of the size of the place, and provides some beautiful places to take photos as well. There is even a small hostel at the bottom of the crater, where visitors can book a night stay in advance, or inquire about rooms if they don't want to face the daunting task of climbing out on the same day. The hostel also rents kayaks for those who want to paddle in this amazing setting as well.

Not long after we made the hike out, it was time to grab some lunch before starting the long drive back to Quito. Just as we were settling in, clouds descended on Quilotoa, bringing cold winds and rain with them. Needless to say, we were relieved to be out of the crater at that point, and enjoying warm, delicious potato soup instead. I felt a bit bad for the numerous people we had seen descending when we were on our way up. They were caught in a rainstorm, and facing the long climb in very uncomfortable conditions. Word to the wide my friends. If you visit Ecuador during the rainy seasons (October - December), carry your rain jacket with you everywhere.

After lunch, we were back on the road to Quito, although progress was slow thanks to the poor weather. The three-hour trip stretched to four and half, but eventually we made it back in once piece. Tonight, I'm staying in the fantastic Patio Andaluz in the heart of Quito's Old Town. The atmosphere at this hotel is fantastic, and they provide a level of service that simply isn't found at most establishments these days. This is old-school luxury right off Quito's Independence Square, and just minutes from some of the city's best historical attractions. It is definitely a real treat to get to stay in such a wonderful place.

Tomorrow, I'm off to start three days of trekking on three different trails. I'll be traveling with Tropic, an adventure travel company that is leading the way in lodge-to-lodge trekking excursions in Ecuador. The first of those hikes will be a climb up Pasochoa Peak, a 4199 meter (13,776 ft) peak that is often used an acclimatization route for Cotopaxi. We'll see how well my legs have recovered from todays workout. Hopefully it will all go well!

Adventures in Quito: The AR World Championship Begins, and I Mountain Bike Down a Volcano

In case it wasn't entirely clear in my first two posts from Quito, I've very much been enjoying my stay in Ecuador so far. The city is rich in culture and history, with interesting things to discover around just about every turn. But that said, I'm here for some outdoor adventure, and now that I've had a few days to acclimatize, I've been eager to get my fix. Fortunately, today was the day that would.

Between arriving late in the evening on my first night in Quito, and getting food poisoning on my second, I really haven't had the opportunity to get a good night's sleep just yet. That didn't change last night, because while I did manage to sleep like a log, the alarm went off at 3:30 AM to remind me that there was a major adventure race starting today. The teams weren't scheduled to set out until 8:30 AM, but it was quite a drive out to the starting point, and all the media covering the race had to be there early to stake out a good vantage point.

It turns out, it was completely worth getting up before the crack of dawn to drive out to Antisana National Park, where the Huairasinchi Explorer was scheduled to begin. Once we left the metropolitan sprawl of Quito behind, things started to get truly interesting. The rural Ecuadorian landscapes are beautiful of course, but nothing prepared me for what we'd find in the park itself. Not only did the national park's namesake volcano loom large over the starting line, a variety of other impressive volcanic mountaintops showed their faces as well, including Cotopaxi, the second tallest mountain in Ecuador.
I'd get a much better look at Cotopaxi later in the day, but this morning it was all about the start of the Adventure Racing World Championship. The teams began arriving in Antisana about an hour ahead of the 8:30 AM start. Most were anxious to get the event started, and fortunately for them the race directors were eager to oblige. The starting gun went off right on scheduled, the teams set off on food for the first leg, a trekking excursion across one of Ecuador's most pristine ecological preserves.

As the racers departed for what promises to be an epic adventure, it didn't take long for the teams to begin to separate themselves from one another. No more than a kilometer or two in, the pack split into two distinct groups, with many teams sticking to the main road for as far as they could benefit from it, while others struck out over open country, choosing to navigate more directly towards their first checkpoint. In the long run, these first few moments of the race probably won't decide the winner, but it was interesting to see the strategies begin to play out even so close to the starting line.

The ARWC will now continue for eight days, officially coming to a close next Sunday. The teams face a course that is 710 km (440 miles) in length, and will test them both physically and mentally. They'll trek, mountain bike, paddle, and navigate through some of Ecuador's most spectacular landscapes, going from the highlands to the Pacific Coast, with a visit to the Amazon as well.

The top team is expected to cross the finish line in as few as 5 days. That team is still a very long way from the point however, but there are some outstanding teams already lurking near the top of the leaderboard. They include Team Seagate from New Zealand, Haglöffs Silva from Sweden, and adidas Terrex from the U.K. There is still a lot of racing to be done of course, and it should be an amazing event to watch unfold.

With the AR World Championship now underway, I will turn my attention to other activities in Ecuador in the days to come. That started today, with a visit to Cotopaxi National Park for a little mountain biking. When I saw that I'd be riding down the slopes of the volcano on my itinerary, I wasn't sure what to expect. Turn out, it was fun, white-knuckle thrill ride that tops any amusement park attraction in terms of speed and adrenaline.

In order to ride down the mountain, you must of course first drive up it. Access to the park is gained along a nice, two lane highway that takes visitors through the entrance, and a short distance onto the government protected lands. That nicely paved highway soon gives way to a rough, gravel road that shows the wear and tear of countless automobiles passing along its route. The road narrows as you climb up to the starting point of the ride, which is a visitors parking lot situated at about 4500 meters (14,763 ft). While I was unloading and setting up my bike, others were proceeding up the mountain along a variety of trails. I envied them to a degree, but i wasn't there to climb that day, but instead ride back down the vary road that brought me up.

Experienced mountain bikers will find no technical sections on this ride at all – that is if you don't count the numerous potholes and ruts carved out by passing tires, and the runoff of rain. For them, this will be a fast and furious descent, that is all about the adrenaline rush. Less experienced riders will probably find themselves hanging on for dear life, as they inch their way down the road, which is trying desperately to shake them off their bikes. Make no mistake, this is a fun experience that anyone can do, it'll just be a lot scarier for travelers who haven't mountain biked before.

Once you approach the bottom of the trail, the road smooths out to a degree, allowing riders to go even faster. The descent is quite fun, and will give you plenty of speed, and while many riders stop at the bottom of the big slope, it is possible to ride your bike all the way back to the entrance. In my case, a sudden rainstorm brought an end to my afternoon ride, although I did really enjoy the entire experience.

If you'd like to ride Cotopaxi yourself, there are two things to keep in mind. First, make sure that the lockout system on your front suspension is not turned on. Halfway through my ride, I realized I hadn't checked it, so when I stopped for photos, I made sure it was off. That made for a much smoother ride to the bottom, as the suspension took the brunt of many of the bumps for me.

The other thing to be mindful of his your level of acclimatization. For the most part, you never have to pedal on the ride down the slopes of the volcano, but if you continue on, you may have some uphill to contend with. After three days in Ecuador, I was feeling pretty good, but once I had my first major climb, my lungs and heart were screaming for relief. I'm use to dealing with hills both on my road and mountain bike, so it took me a second to realize that my body was still getting use to the altitude. I was trying to climb a decently sized hill, slick with mud and rain, at an altitude of about. 3350 meters (11,000 ft), and my body just wan't quite ready for it. It was rather humbling to say the least.

With my mountain biking adventure behind me, it was time to check in to my hotel for the evening. Tonight I'm staying at an incredibly charming hosteria called Papagayo. If you're planning a visit to Ecuador, you need to put this place on your list of accommodations for where you should stay. The staff are incredibly welcoming, even compared to the impossibly high standards that the Quito, and the rest of the country, have set. The food is delicious as well, and the atmosphere is quiet, and inviting. Located a short distance outside of Quito, the place is a complete gem, and a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of Ecuador's capital.

Tomorrow, I'm off to visit a Quechua village, and do some hiking. Hopefully the weather continues to be amazing, as despite a few late afternoon rainstorms, the conditions have been perfect so far.

More on my Ecuadorian adventures soon!

Video: All You Need is Ecuador

While we're on the subject of Ecuador, some tourism officials shared this video from the "All You Need is Ecuador" travel campaign that the country has been running. It'll give you a nice glimpse of what the place is all about, and what I'll be up to over the next few days. I hope you enjoy.

Adventures in Quito: A Visit to the Middle of the World, and the AR World Championships Opening Ceremonies

My second day in Quito didn't quite start the way I had hoped. After a busy, and fun filled day 1, I was ready to get a good night's sleep, and hit the ground running this morning for more adventures in Ecuador. Unfortunately, a bit of the local cuisine didn't sit all that well with me, and I was woken in the middle of the night to the sound of my stomach gurgling in a tell-tale fashion. Yep, it was a bout of the Revenge of the Incas, or what ever term would should use to describe food poisoning here in South America. While I'll spare you the gory details, lets just say that between the hours of 1:30 and 3:30 AM I was wishing that I was dead. Fortunately, I'm both blessed, and cursed, with a fast metabolism, so while something from last evening's dinner didn't sit well, by breakfast time I was on the mend, and after lunch, I was my old self again.

It's a good thing too, as today was another busy day in Ecuador's capital city. It started with a media briefing for the Adventure Racing World Championship, which officially gets underway tomorrow. This year, the race is being hosed by the Huairsinhi Explorer, one of the top races in South America each year. At a morning meeting, those of us who are here to cover the race in some capacity met to discuss logistics of that coverage, and to talk about how the race will unfold in the days ahead. As you can probably imagine, there are a lot of moving parts for an athletic competition that includes 50 teams of four running, mountain biking, and paddling their way across a 710+ km (440+ mile) course in the remote regions of Ecuador. The briefing helped to put everyone on the same page, and get us thinking about how things will unfold over the next eight days of the competition.

The briefing took place in the offices of Gulliver Travel, one of the leading adventure tour operators here in Ecuador. The company offers options for travelers who want to visit the Andes, the Amazon, the Pacific Coast, and the Galapagos Islands. They also very wisely offer acclimatization packages for Ecuador, which allow adventure racing teams from across the planet to get ready for the AR World Championship. I thought that was pretty clever marketing on their part, and a great opportunity for teams looking to gain valuable skills in a variety of environments.

Sadly, the meeting ran a bit longer than expected, which meant I was cramped for time for some of the other things that were planned for this morning. I ended up having to scrap my trip to the top of Pichincha Volcano aboard the famous Teleferico, a cable car that shuttles visitors to the top of the mountain for some unprecedented views of the city, and the surrounding area. I was let down that there wouldn't be time for that excursion, but the schedule was tight.

With the Teleferico off the table, I instead set out on a 45-minute drive north of Quito to the Mitad del Mundo – the Middle of the World. This monument, which is surrounded by a quaint little village filled with tourist shops, restaurants, and places to get a snack, marks the equator as it passed through Ecuador. The line passes through the village itself, allowing visitors to pass freely between the North and South Hemisphere at will.

The main attraction at the Mitad del Mundo is a three-story tall tower with a ten-ton globe on the top. It provides some excellent views of the surrounding countryside, with the compass points clearly delineated below. Visitors can take an elevator to the top of the tower, but should definitely walk the stairs back down. Each level of the tower offers insights into Ecuadorian culture, with images and heirlooms from numerous indigenous cultures.

After I left the Middle of the World, I traveled just next door to the Museo de Sitio Intiñan, which also sits directly on the equator, and uses that location to its advantage. The site is a mix of Incan cultural displays, and scientific experiments that demonstrate some of the strange happenings at 0º latitude. For instance, you learn how easy it is to balance an egg on the head of a nail when you're at the equator, as well as how the Incan's used the movement of the sun to tell time. It was fun, fascinating stuff, and a good compliment to the more touristy Mitad del Mundo.

Once we finished marveling at the equator, it was time for some lunch at the Crater Restaurant, which is said to offer some pretty spectacular views of the collapsed caldera of a nearby volcano. Unfortunately, that view was obstructed today by low hanging clouds, so I had to settle for a tasty meal, before heading back to Quito proper.

I arrived back in Quito just in time to reach the San Francisco Plaza – a site I visited yesterday – for the start of the Adventure Racing World Championship's opening ceremonies. Over the following hour and a half, the teams were brought up on stage and introduced to the crowd, while a gaggle of eager media types (like me!) crowded around for photo ops. The race opened with a lot of pomp and circumstance that included a large band, a speech from the mayor of Quito, and traditional dancers showing off their moves.

After the opening ceremony, it was time to head to a nearby theater for the race's official briefing, and for the teams to receive their maps which would reveal the course of the race at long last. But before we could move to that new venue, the skies overhead opened up, and began to drop a deluge on those in attendance. You would think that adventure racers would be use to roughing it in all kinds of poor conditions, but watching them scramble for cover from the rain was a source of much amusement. This humble travel writer calmly pulled on his rain jacket (thank you very much Outdoor Research!), which he had remembered to pack because he knew it was the rainy season in Ecuador.

Eventually we did make it to the theater however, and the festivities continue there for another couple of hours. Much of the briefing was to give the racers information about what they could expect out on the course, and how they should interact with the environment (Hint: Leave No Trace!). They were told to watch out for snakes, rabid dogs, and even lava flows. Those aren't typical elements of an adventure race, but they sure will help to keep things interesting.

The ceremony did drag on however, thanks to the numerous cultural displays of music and dancing. While those aspects are always appreciated when you visit a new place, I do believe that by the end, the racers just couldn't wait to get their hands on their maps. Eventually they were rewarded for their patience however, and tomorrow at approximately 8:30 AM local time, they'll set off on their first trekking stage from a nearby national park.

Following that pre-race briefing, the assembled media gathered once again for a final update as well. The race director gave us some ideas on how to approach covering the race, and what we should expect as well. Sadly for me, most of it didn't apply, as after I see the racers off in the morning, I'll be headed to other parts of the region to have some outdoor fun of my own. That includes some mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding. You'll be hearing much more about those things in the days to come.

Tomorrow, the ARWC gets underway at last, and it should be a good one. The setting here in Ecuador is perfect for an adventure race, and I think this will be one for the ages. I'l try to keep tabs on things in the days ahead, but I'll also be a bit preoccupied with my own adventures as well.

More to come soon!

Adventures in Quito: History, Culture, and Acclimatizing on Day 1

I'm happy to say that my flight to Quito went off without a hitch yesterday, and I arrived safely in the capital city of Ecuador with almost no hassles. There was a bit of turbulence over the Amazon on the approach, which made for a few scary moments on the plane, but other than that, it was relatively smooth sailing. 

One of the things that I love about traveling to South America is that you don't have to spend endless hours on a plane to get there – my flight to Quito was less than 4 hour from Miami – and since you're traveling more north-south, rather than east-west, you don't experience jet lag either. So, with that in mind, I was ready to truly get started on my Ecuadorian adventure this morning – well almost. Because Quito sits at an altitude of 2800 meters (9186 ft), upon arrival, your body needs a bit of time to adjust to the thinner air. That means keeping the strenuous activities to a minimum for a day or two, while you acclimate to the altitude. 

While I am eager to get on with the mountain biking, volcano hiking, and other adventurous activities that I'll be doing in a few days, I thought I'd take the opportunity to explore some of Quito's amazing history and culture while my body adjusted to life above 2800 meters. Since the city's history dates back more than 1000 years, there is plenty to see and do in the area, so I knew I'd have plenty to keep me busy on my first day. 

My first stop was a visit to the San Francisco Church, an amazing structure that dates back to the 16th century, and took nearly 150 years to complete. As a result, it is an interesting mix of various architectural styles, all blended together from the decades it too to complete the massive building. Inside, the church is equally impressive, with dozens of paintings and sculptures, and enough gold leaf to make the interior glow brightly. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to take photos while in the building, but trust me, it was an impressive site. 

Fortunately, I did get special dispensation to take photos inside the next church on the schedule, and it was even more impressive than the first. It was the magnificent La Compañía Church just down the block, which features not only the best examples of Baroque art in all of Ecuador, but it also glimmers with gold. Lots and lots of gold. In fact, La Compañía has more than 200 kilos (440 pound) of gold leaf spread across its awe inspiring interior. This impressive display of architecture took even longer to build (160 years!) than the San Francisco Church, and when you're inside you understand why. There are so many intricate carvings, details paintings, and finely crafted sculptures, that it is a marvel that it only took 16 decades to finish. The shimmering gold leaf, which is in the process of being restored, just adds even more to the wonder. 

After leaving the churches behind, it was time to take a stroll through Independence Square, Quito's most popular outdoor plaza. At the center of the park sits a towering monument to the country's hard-earned independence, which was won from Spain back in 1810. The monument commemorates that historic moment, while also paying tribute to the heroes who gave their lives for Ecuador's freedom. 

From there, I moved on to the near-by La Ronda neighborhood, a trendy location in the heart of the historic district that has attracted a slew of artists, craftsmen, and musicians, along with some wonderful restaurants. This part of the city dates back to the 16th century, and the traditional architecture shows through, but it is also undergoing a renaissance that makes it a fantastic place for visitors to explore Quito's traditional roots, with a very modern sensibility. While there, I met a man who has been creating fine works of art out of metal for nearly 40 years, and another who has been crafting toy tops for Quito's young – and young at heart – for 5 decades. 

After grabbing some lunch in a lovely cafe that provides breathtaking views of the sprawling Quito-cityscape, it was on to the Chapel of Man, an art gallery dedicated to the works of Guayasamin, an Ecuadorian man who gained world-wide fame thanks to his powerful, and soulful, paintings. The museum was a moving monument not only to his works, but also the struggles of man to be more understanding and tolerant of others. The art on display there is raw, heartbreaking, and incredibly moving, and will stay with you long after you've left the building. Guayasamin's home is nearby as well, and serves as a good counter balance to the Chapel. It shows a man who enjoyed life, and the fortunes that it brought him. 

With the art gallery behind me, it was time to head over to the race headquarters for the Huairasinchi Explorer, the adventure race that is hosing this year's AR World Championship. I needed to pick up my press credentials for the next few days, when I'll be attending the race briefings, and the actual start of the event on Sunday. Unfortunately, those credentials weren't ready yet, so I'll have to try back tomorrow. But while I was there, I did get a chance to see the adventure racers preparing for the event, and much like me, they were taking a day or two to get acclimated to the higher altitude. Still, the HQ was a hive of activity, with teams getting their gear sorted and organized, putting their bikes together, and preparing for the start of the race. 

Tomorrow, race organizers will hold the official opening ceremonies, and the teams will get their first idea of what the course is going to look like. I've been told that there are plenty of surprises to be announced yet, and that the teams should expect the unexpected. I don't have any insight into what that all means, but we'll all learn more tomorrow, ahead of the 5:00 AM race start on Sunday. 

That wrapped up my first full day in Quito, and I have to say that it was an extremely interesting outing. The city if filled with wonderful monuments and historical sites, and yet the most impressive thing I saw today were the friendly people. If Day 1 was any indication of what the rest of the trip is going to be like, this will certainly be a memorable experience from top to bottom. 

Tomorrow, I'm off to higher altitudes to get even better views of the city, and then heading to the "middle of the world" at the Equator. After that, it's back to Quito for the official launch of the AR World Championships. I can't wait to see how it all plays out. 

I Am Off To Ecuador!

Just a quick note to let everyone know that I am headed to Ecuador tomorrow for a little fun and adventure in South America. While there, I will be exploring the city of Quito, and everything that it has to offer, while also getting the opportunity to witness the start of the Adventure Racing World Championships, hosted by Huairasinchi Explorer.

That event will feature the best adventure racing teams from across the globe, competing on a 500 km (310 mile) course. The race officially gets underway on November 9, and I will be on hand as the teams go through their initial check-in process with race officials, and as the course is revealed to them for the first time. I'll also get the chance to see them off at the start of the race, before launching some adventures of my own in and around Quito.

Fans of adventure racing can follow the progress of the race at, as well as on the Visit Quito Facebook page. Tourism Quito is one of the main sponsors of the event, and are using it as a showcase for the incredible adventure travel opportunities that exist within a short distance of the city. They've even teamed up with Intrepid Travel, Timbuk2, and LAN Airlines to give travelers an opportunity to win a trip to Ecuador to experience Quito for themselves.

My visit to the city won't just be about the AR World Championships, although I am excited for that event. I'll also be touring some of the great historic locations in and around Quito, visiting Cotopaxi National Park, and hiking and mountain biking throughout the region. In the latter half of my stay, I am looking forward to spending some time with the good folks at Tierra Del Volcán, an ecotourism and adventure tour operator that welcomes guests to traditional Ecuadorian ranches near Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano on Earth. Before that however, I'll get the chance to do some lodge-to-lodge trekking in the Andes with Tropic, another adventure travel company that with an amazing track record for innovation and sustainable travel.

I'm told that I should have Internet access for at least part of the time when I'm traveling. That means that I should get the opportunity to post some stories and photos from my Quito adventure. I am very much looking forward to this experience, and I can't wait to share it with all of you as well.