Terra Firma: Cuenca, Climbing, & Cojitambo

altschmerz n. Weariness with the same old issues that you’ve always had, the same boring flaws and anxieties that you’ve been gnawing on for years.

So there we were: crammed once again into the very back seat of a full bus with a cast of characters including a hippie with dreads to his ankles, a stray dog, and 60 judgmental Jesus faces on the seat covers kindly reminding us that Jesus loves not smoking.  Never a dull day south of the equator.

The bus ride, which cost us $10 each through the Climatizado service, was long for a small country like Ecuador, taking about six hours. We boarded the bus in Baños at 9am, stopped once for a bathroom break in Guamote, before pulling into Cuenca a little after 3pm.  Cuenca is Ecuador’s third largest city, though that title comes by a wide margin, over one million less than both Quito and Guayaquil.  It is also regarded as the most European city in Ecuador due to Spanish influence on the colonial architecture.  Considering how much easier backpacking Europe had been, I was really hoping Cuenca would be a “little Europe”.  As usual, I had booked the cheapest hostel in town as close to the bus station as possible.  There was nothing more miserable than lugging our heavy packs and our twenty plus pound rope bag all through larger cities in search of a hostel. 

Hostal Sanchez was located only one kilometer from the bus station and, while a little hidden inside the wall-to-wall businesses and storefronts, we found it easily enough.  The door was a dingy little metal cage at which we had to ring the buzzer for five minutes before anyone answered and let us in.  Despite the dodgy looks of the outside, the inner reception area opened into a spacious and relatedly lovely common area, though we later found out that was only because the hostel owners and their family occupied all adjacent rooms. Our room was a little less lovely.  Despite how much different the pictures online had made it seem, our room was a small (maybe ten foot by fifteen foot) windowless block, with bright sky blue walls that looked sickening in the sole yellow florescent bulb hanging in the center.  There were two top level screens leading only to the hallway and two twin beds.  I was getting a little tired of booking “double rooms” as opposed to “twin rooms” under the promise that we would be getting a double, not a twin, bed only to be disappointed.  What could we really expect for $11 a night?  Besides, Chris and I were used to sleeping on all manner of less than desirable surfaces: backpacking air mattresses in a solo tent, reclined car seats, a shared back seat of a sedan, airport floors, a foldout couch bed (which we slept on for three months), you name it, we’ve slept on it.  Four nights on a twin bed wouldn’t be the death of us.

One might think living out of backpack would eliminate mess out of a sheer lack of material goods with which to make one.  However, living out of a backpack also requires one to uproot everything out of said backpack in order to find the one thing you need, hence resulting in a mess anyway.

That night, we dove into the city, wandering aimlessly until we found a restaurant for dinner and a grocery store so we didn’t have to buy dinner out anymore.  Grocery stores were suspiciously difficult to find in Cuenca.  Even after searching them on our map apps, we could only find a total of two actual grocery stores in the entire city, and a small handful of condensed grocery stores. As long as they sold tuna and milk, we wouldn’t starve.  We were, after all, still toting around an impressively large bag of oatmeal we had bought back in Baños.

The following day, we decided to get our bearings in Cuenca itself and set out on a long and looping explorative mission around the city itself.  From the hostel, we looped south down to the Rio Tomebamba, making up the southern border of the city.  We walked along the river, past the university, and eventually got to the very south west corner, opposite of where our hostel was located.  Cuenca was definitely a lot nicer than pretty much any other city we had seen in Ecuador.  The further we got from the center, the nicer the houses got.  So nice, in fact, that they were all surrounded with eight-foot fences topped with electric wires that clicked with electricity as if to say, “Don’t even try it.”  It may have looked a lot nicer, but we were, after all, still in Ecuador, land on thievery and incompetent police.  Even the locals seemed to know it.

Eventually, we stopped for lunch at a small and cheap shop where we were the only patrons.  If there was one thing I loved about Ecuador, it was the cheap food.  For about $6, I was able to try my first dish of ceviche and Chris a tender filet of chicken.  We made a mental note to stop back if we had time.  The restaurant also happened to be close to Cuenca’s only climbing gym, C3, short for Cuenca Climbing Center.  While our map initially led us to the wrong destination, we asked for directions on the restaurant and found it only a couple blocks away.  We hadn’t brought our climbing shoes that day, but at least we knew where the gym was for future reference.

         From there, we looped back up the western side of the city, to hit one of the only full sized grocery stores in Cuenca.  After navigating a mess on construction and torn up streets, we found it, oddly located in a shopping mall, of all places.  We stocked up on a few more items we hadn’t been able to find the night before and headed back through the heart of the city to our hostel.

That evening, we attempted cooking in the hostel for the first time.  It was one of those awkward situations where the hostel kitchen was also the kitchen of the family who owned it, and thus we felt a bit like intruders using it at all, despite how nice the old woman cooking there was.  It didn’t help that the kitchen was in a horrible state of disgust and disarray: moldy food in refrigerator, dirty dished crusted with food and grease piled in the sink, even a few cockroaches skittering from hiding place to hiding place.  I shuddered and attempted to cook our pasta as quickly as possible.

The following morning, we set out to Cojitambo, Ecuador’s first climbing area that was, in fact, the main reason we had gone to Cuenca at all.  Getting to Cojitambo from Cuenca wasn’t particularly difficult, but it did require two separate bus rides:

  1. Cuenca to Azogues: $0.75 each, 1 hour
  2. Azogues to Cojitambo: $0.50, 45 minutes

The terminal in Azogues was small and we could see the bus we needed to get to Cojitambo right away upon arrival.  It was a bright green Panamerican bus that ran about every half hour.  We loaded up and prepared to travel into the mountains.

Arrival in Cojitambo was unceremonious as we joined the small cluster of locals disembarking from the bus.  No tourists to be found and we could feel all eyes on us.  Cojitambo was a tiny town to say the least, with one main square flanked by a beautiful church, a café, a bakery (if you want to stock up on cheap carbs for climbing), and a convenient store.  Across the square, just outside another small row of residences, we could see the 500 ft. volcanic climbing crags rising sharply and dwarfing the town that shared their name.  We set off in the direction of the crags, going on nothing more than pretty basic approach directions and hope that we could figure out the area beta.  It turned out to be much more difficult than we had thought.

We started by traveling up the road at the left side of the square until it faded into a rocky, dirt path entering the woods.  This path quickly splintered into many as it intersected with a limestone quarry, where the tinkering of hammers and the chatter of locals echoed off the massive limestone boulders.  Beyond the quarry, the path became indiscernible, splitting in all directions and ending at impassable rock ledges or thick brambles.  Eventually, we edged our way left far enough that we found ourselves on a small path leading to the leftmost area of the crag.  It was there we met Nicolas and Juan Gabriel Carrasco. 

Nicolas, somewhat like us, was a German traveler basing himself in Colombia at the moment to study, but taking large breaks in which to travel around South America for the pure purpose of climbing. Juan was a local man with whom he was staying and paying to guide him in Cojitambo.  Juan was also unique in another way; he was one of two founders of the Cojitambo crag, having developed much of the area himself beginning over 25 years ago.  We thought back to our time in Xela at Cerro Quemado where we had also had the fortune to meet the crag’s founder.  Twice now, we had been incredibly lucky in these instances.  We only wished we had known it was possible to stay with Juan Carlo in Cojitambo, as we would have gladly done that over commuting back and forth from Cuenca.

Juan quickly gave us an overview of the area, and a few pointers on the easiest way to get to the different walls.  After we expressed our interest in multi-pitch routes, something new for us, he recommended we start on the opposite side of the crag (of course) at an easy 5.7 and 5.8 two-pitch route.  He and Nicolas were setting their sights on a five-pitch route on the left side from which they would reach the top of the crag and descend down the other side.  We bid them farewell and set off in the opposite direction.

Even knowing where we needed to go, the trek was anything but easy.  The route running along the base of the cliffs was erratic and unmaintained.  It dipped up and down through slick muddy bowls and over mossy rocks.  It rambled through dense, low hanging clusters of willows and thorn bushes that snagged our clothing and tore our skin to shreds.  I had never regretting wearing sandals so much in my life.

Finally, we made it to the landmark Juan had spoken of: an ancient Inca altar, now nothing more than a broken semi-circle of bricks tucked against the rock crag.  Just up and to the right of this altar was the multi-pitch route.  Chris and I had never attempted a multi-pitch before, but it was something we had wanted to get into for a long time.  Since we weren’t exactly prepared for it, however, lacking the necessary doubles in gear (i.e. quick draws and most importantly, a second ATC) we had to get a little creative.

Chris led the route first while I belayed from the bottom.  At the top of the first pitch, he secured himself to the wall and perched on a narrow ledge that made up the belay station.  He untied himself from the rope and lowered the opposite end down to me.  Given I had the ATC with me at the bottom, Chris had to belay me the old fashioned way, wrapping the rope around his back.  We had decided to do it this way because the maximum tension ever possibly thrown on a rope by a top-rope fall was significantly less than a fall on lead.  Besides, it was a low grade and I was confident I could make it without falling.  Like most of the routes in the area, the first pitch was a mix of vertical and slab.  Its volcanic make-up led to a serious lack in large holds and an overabundance of little hands and feet.  Upon reaching the belay station, Chris and I switched places, and I secured myself to the two clips with two pieces of nylon webbing.  We repeated the process once more.  On the second pitch, I found my mouth growing dry and my nerves vibrating throughout my body as I realized how much higher I was usual.  I’m not afraid of heights, but I was a little afraid of the possibility of taking a fall on an antiquated belay system from that height.  This pitch was also the harder of the two.  Shortly above the belay station, I reached the crux of the climb, a slabby and polished section of wall with nothing but slopers.  Chris was sitting at the top over the hump out of my sight, so I bit my lip and pushed forward, trusting the precarious holds and my own ability.  As I crested the slab and topped out on some dirty rock, I fell into Chris’ embrace as we celebrated completing our first multi-pitch climb.

From the upper belay station, we walked to the top of the formation, where a parking lot reachable by a road on the opposite side of the crag lay next to a small outpost cabin.  We took a few minutes to drink in the sights below us, including the town of Cojitambo appearing smaller than ever, before preparing to rappel down. 

Descending down the pitches would require us to repeat the process in reverse, meaning I was the first to descend.  The slab section gave me even more trouble on the way down than it had on the way up, as I know I couldn’t just allow myself to fall off the edge of it since Chris was practically holding me up.  While we had a backup catch in place making it impossible for me to actually fall, I still didn’t want to risk pulling him off the wall and having to deal with that mess.  Instead, I down-climbed nearly the entire way back to the first belay station, where I rigged myself to the wall and prepared to lower Chris down.

Minutes passed and I vaguely heard voices, including Chris’ from the top of the crag.  From the little I could hear, I was able to discern that Juan and Nicolas were up there talking to Chris.  Their five-pitch route must have been successful.  I waited patiently for him to finish talking and yell down that he was starting the descent, but the yell never came.  After five minutes, I could feel the sun searing the bare skin of my back and I wondered what could possibly be taking Chris so long.  He was social guy, sure, but I wasn’t exactly in the most comfortable position.  Finally, fifteen minutes of me snapping pictures of my feel on the belay station and bored selfies of myself, I saw Juan drop down over the hump and self-rappel down the line next to me.

Maybe a long and boring wait, but at least the view wasn't half bad!

“Hello!  We are going to save each other some time and do a double rappel,” he informed me.  I nervously agreed, not really having any idea what a double rappel was, but I counted on his expertise and did everything he told me.  The basic idea was to rappel the entire thing in one go by tying our two ropes together and descending in pairs.  Juan secured my harness to his and to the rope and down we went.  It was awkward to say the least, and I kept losing my balance as we both tried to time our feet plants together.  Eventually, we made it to the bottom and yelled up to Nicolas and Chris that it was their turn.

But nothing ever goes quite as planned. As Juan was readjusting the ropes to prepared for the belay, we found them snagged quite horribly on same on the brambles growing out of the cliff side.  With nothing we could do from the bottom, Juan climbed back up, self-belaying himself to untangle the ropes and allow Chris and Nicolas to rappel down.  Once we were all safely on the ground, we allowed ourselves to laugh and bond over the unforeseen problems before quickly packing up to outrun the storm in the distance.  Back in Cojitambo, Nicolas asked us if we were planning on returning to Cojitambo at all during our stay, tell us he would be up for climbing with us if we did.  We told him we wanted to return the next day and quickly exchanged email information with him to stay in touch just as our bus to Azogues pulled into the square.  We darted away from Juan and Nicolas, hoping it wouldn’t be for the last time.  We planned on seeing them again, but, again, nothing for us ever really seemed to go as planned.

We emailed Nicolas early the next morning informing him that we would be arriving in Cojitambo around 10am and that he should meet us in the square at that time.  The weather outside looked gray and rainy, but we hoped the crag would be dry.  It was at least worth a shot.  We rolled into Cojitambo just before 10am, but there was no sign of Nicolas.  Wanting to give him a grace period, we settled into a café and ordered breakfast.  It wasn’t long before Nicolas arrived and took a seat with us.  As we sat eating our breakfast, we chatted a little more about ourselves and discussed the outlook for the day.  It was still drizzling outside, not heavy enough to soak you, but heavy enough to wet the streets.  Typically, wet streets meant wet rock, but we were determined not to give up without seeing the state of the crag ourselves, so off we went.

But we weren’t alone.  As we had sat eating breakfast, two stray dogs and wandered in the café and made mooches of themselves at our side.  Being the sucker for strays that I am, I tossed them a few pieces of bread, not knowing that those pieces of bread would bind me for life.  As we set out toward the crag, both dogs followed, despite the fact that one of hobbled heartbreakingly on an injured leg.  Eventually, the journey became two much for him and he turned around, leaving us with an excitable and scruffy little female dog who seemed set on following us wherever we went.  Up the path we went, traversing over the loose limestone quarry and up the slippery, muddy path overgrown with prickly aloe plants.  And wouldn’t you know it, that damn dog follow us the entire way, wagging her tail and seemingly enjoying the climb much more than we were.  When we finally reached the wall and flaked out our rope, she curled up right on the center of it.  Despite how cute it looked, we couldn’t very well have a wet and muddy dog on our rope while we climbed, so we shooed her away and began climbing a tricky 5.10c.  The dog didn’t seem too discouraged by our lack of attention and instead dug a hole in the wet ground and curled up in it.  Her white fur was now brown with the dirt she seemingly loved.  I decided to name her Terra.

“No!” Chris told me.  “You can’t name her because then we’re going to get attached to her.”

“And what’s wrong with that?  She can totally come with us on the rest of our trip.  She follows us so well.  Besides, I bet she’s small enough to sneak onto the airplane when we go home! Aren’t you, Terra?”  Chris sighed and shook his head, knowing I was hopeless in these matters.

Over the next hour, we bounced from section to section, trying to find suitable climbs for all our levels, but the rain only grew heavier and heavier.  We tried to wait it out, hunkering down against the cliff in our rain gear, to no avail.  Terra was the only one who didn’t seem to mind.  She couldn’t have been happier curled up on my hiking boots and scoring bits and pieces of our lunch.

Finally, we called it, glad to have given it a try but disappointed that we hadn’t really gotten to do any climbing together.  Thwarted once more by the weather! We descended back to the village, where we said goodbye to Nicolas and headed toward the bus stop, Terra still close on our heals.  I was desperately hoping Terra would have departed by that point, to spare me the heartbreak of leaving her behind, but still she clung to us.  I knew we couldn’t take her with us, as much as I wanted to ration it to be possible, and as the bus pulled up, I prayed she wouldn’t try to follow us on it.  She didn’t, but she did stand there on the sidewalk, looking confused and hurt as we got on it.  We stared out the window at her heartbroken little face growing smaller in the distance, overwhelmingly sad at having to leave her behind. 

“Bye, Terra.  I’ll never forget you,” I said to the rain splatter glass, hoping that she would find comfort in the next sucker who tossed her a loaf of bread.  Honestly, the stray dogs were going to be the death of me.

Since it was still early in the day by the time we returned to Cuenca, Chris and I decided to still try to get in a little climbing.  Just because the rain had ruined our day outside didn’t mean we had to surrender all hopes of climbing.  There was still the climbing gym, after all.  Rather than walk all the way to C3, we took the #12 bus, which picked us up right in front of the hostel and dropped us off only a half kilometer away from the gym.  We paid the gym’s $5 entrance fee and strapped on our shoes.  I couldn’t help but notice the stench my Red Chili Spirit VCRs were beginning to give off.

C3 was far more impressive than I had been expecting.  With a back bouldering area, a cave section, a large lead climbing section that scrawled over the roof, and a number of aerial silks, it was definitely more modern than any climbing gym we had seen on our trip so far.  The only downside was that the back bouldering area had recently been reset, and there were only a small number of set routes created in the new array of holds.  That meant part of our climbing had to inevitably be some mental route setting.  Chris and I took turns setting routes for the other, attempting to make challenging problems.  Eventually, we attracted the attention of some other climbers who joined in our route-setting challenges including another American on a two-week school trip to Ecuador and a few natives.  I loved how climbing had this ability to connect us to locals everywhere we went.  Even if we didn’t speak much of the same verbal language, we spoke the same climbing one, and that was really all we needed.

Eventually, the time came for us to head home.  It was well past dark and had been raining for hours.  We were hoping to wait out the rain, but considering we needed to leave early the next day, that no longer seemed like an option.  We looked outside and saw it dumping harder than ever.  We could hardly walk home in it, as that would soak our gear to the point of being unpackable for the journey the following day.  A cab looked like our only option, but after the front desk called a few cab companies for us, they informed us that no cabs were available, a common occurrence on rainy nights.  As we lamented our situation, wondering how in the hell we were going to get home, a woman who had been working at the desk approached us and told us she would drive us to a bus stop on the main road.  It would be our best bet for catching a cab.

Even in the ten seconds it took for us to run from the front door to her car, we were already wet.  As promised, she drove us to the main road and wished us luck.  We jumped from her car and ran to the covered bus stop, joining three other people also standing around waving at each passing taxi. We took our turn at the back of the line and waited.  About ten minutes later, it was our turn, and a taxi finally stopped for us.  Shortly into the ride, he informed us that he needed to make an extra stop to pick up his daughter and sister.  We shrugged and told him it was fine, though we nervously tracked the taxi’s running meter through the entire deviation, mentally preparing ourselves to have an argument at the end about the rightful cost of the fare.  The man pleasantly surprised us in the end, knocking the metered price down a bit to what it rightfully should have been.  I felt a little bad about suspecting him of trying to rip us off, but Ecuador had taught me to do to so, or risk losing more than my dignity.  We darted from the taxi into the dry, sanctuary of our hostel and began the arduous task of packing up all our things, now scattered across the tiny room.  It would be our last good night of sleep as tomorrow marked the beginning of the long and difficult road to Peru.  We weren’t exactly looking forward to the journey, but we were sure as hell excited to be leaving Ecuador in the dust.