Latacunga & Pujili: Pulling Together, Persisting

nihilism n. The rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.

By the time we finally arrived in Latacunga, it was almost midnight.  We were upset, angry, and exhausted, to say the least.  We had spent the greater part of the bus ride fighting in hushed tones, not because we were angry with each other, but because we were so angry in general and we needed to aim it at something.  Since it didn’t seem like we would ever get the opportunity to aim it at the person who wronged us, it had no choice but to escape to those most immediately around us.  Unfortunately, that meant each other.

We immediately took a taxi for $5 into central Latacunga and stumbled into the first hostel we saw, the Hotel Central.  For $20 a night, we got a nice private room with a private bathroom and collapsed in bed, hoping we might wake up in the morning to find that it had all been a terrible dream.

But morning came as bleakly as the previous night had ended and we founded ourselves still depressed beyond all measure.  We were weak from not having eaten anything the night before and had little will to remedy that.  I finally forced myself to stumble down to the reception desk and order some breakfast for us for $3 each.  They were even kind enough to allow us to eat it in our room, bringing up the huge breakfast on a large tray right to our door.  We were grateful that they had allowed us to eat our breakfast silently in the privacy of our own room rather than face the world with puffy, red-rimmed eyes and a nihilistic attitude toward the entire world.

Losing the laptop forced us to reevaluate our goal.  It had been an expensive mishap, one that neither of us could really afford but that we had to figure into our budget for the whole trip now.  $1,500 for a new laptop would buy us two months in South America, two months we could now no longer stay because we had to think ahead.  Chris especially had no desire to remain on a continent that had only seemed to give us both trouble since day one.  He had already shortened his trip back in Panama by rebooking himself a flight at the end of January.  Now, he wanted to go home even sooner, and I couldn’t say I blamed him.  While I had planned to stay in South America until our original tickets home in March, the idea of now staying behind for nearly two months on my own had become painful.  To be frank, I was scared.  So much bad had happened and it seemed to escalate in scale.  Where could it go from there?  Would something bad happen to me physically?  Being alone down there, I couldn’t discount the idea, and I, too, started seriously weighing my options.

On one hand, I didn’t want to leave, mostly because my very best friend Jeffrey (whose writing you should totally check out at www.whocairns.wordpress.com) was coming to Peru for a two month backpacking trip of his own.  The plan was for us to meet up, hang out for two weeks and do some trekking before I left him on his own.  I knew he was really looking forward to seeing me and I him.  I hadn’t seen him in six months, a typical time apart given that he lives in Florida except for his summers in Montana.  If I didn’t wait to see Jeffrey then, I didn’t know when I would get the chance to see him again.  The twenty-something life flux is anything but predictable.

But as much as I wanted to see Jeffrey, I still dreaded that month and a half on my own.  Not only was I exhausted from being taken advantage of, but I knew I would also be incredibly bored.  You see, February is coincidentally the rainy season of the Peruvian mountains.  Most tour agencies even refuse to do treks around Cusco that month because the weather is so bad.  Did I really want to stay in a country where I couldn’t do anything outdoors for a month?  I would essentially be burning money to stay in hostels and stare hopelessly out the window until Jeffrey arrived.  Given the financial problems of the trip already, I really couldn’t justify wasting more money.  And so I made up my mind.

I decided I would indeed rebook my flight home.  The prices for Chris’ flight had already gone up but I did find a United flight a few days after Chris’ departure for a price much cheaper than we had originally booked.  Even after JetBlue’s $70 cancellation fee, I would be paying slightly less.  The catch was the JetBlue would only refund the money on an online account with them, ensuring that I would one day have to fly with them again, or else lose the $200.  Whatever, I just wanted to go home.

I struggled with it because it felt like quitting.  And as much as I felt like quitting life in general as we left Quito, I am no quitter.  In fact, I am do goddamned stubborn that I will endure the most demeaning and miserably degrading experience simply because I don’t have the ability to say, “No.”  It’s a problem I’m working on.

But this was me saying “no”.  No to being taken advantage of just because I was a gringo.  No to being constantly afraid of watching my stuff.  No to the perception that travel is always wonderful.  And no to the delusion perception that leaving before planned somehow made me less of a traveler.  Part of travel is knowing how far to push your luck before it becomes too much.  Knowing when to quit is as valuable a skill as perseverance.

Speaking of perseverance: Just because I was quitting the trip early didn’t mean I didn’t still have to persevere through our remaining time.  We had a job to do and while it would have been easier to wallow in the hostel all day, we set out to go start gathering some information about Latacunga for Eva’s website. 

Being the gateway to Quilotoa Loop, Latacunga provides a lot of important logistic services for Loop hikers.  It’s where most people store their full luggage before hiking (most hostels do it for free there) and it’s also the last chance to stock up on groceries and any other supplies one needs.  Once on the Loop, hikers will find little outside a traditional weekly market and a corner convenience shop. It’s also where a lot adventure and guide agencies to the local mountains, like Cotopaxi and the Ilinizas, make their base and organize treks.  After speaking to four different agencies, my recommendation is Neiges/ Cotopaxi Mashlea’s Tour.  While most guide agencies will say just about anything to get you to purchase their services, this company offers a lot of free advice about how to hike the mountains unguided where possible and gear rental to do so.

Our job was to wander the city and scout out these services, writing down their details, asking common questions the traveler might have, and taking photos where necessary.  It was an easy job, but a tedious one, and I quickly began to regret my decision to bring nothing but a dull carpenters pencil to write with on the trip.

The next day, we decided to take a trip to the nearby colonial town of Pujili, 14 km west of Latacunga.  Pujili is best known for its market and brightly colored colonial style buildings, but other than that, there’s not a lot of reason to visit Pujili.  It provides a nice break from the bustle of Latacunga for a few hours, but its entertainment becomes limited quite quickly.  That’s probably why there are no hotels or hostels in Pujili itself.  Instead, it’s best just to take a cheap ($0.45 each way) bus from Latacunga’s Terminal Terreste for the day.  Buses leave every 15 minutes and the ride only lasts 30 minutes.

Our brief tour of Pujili began by strolling through the market, partially because that was the main reason we went to Pujili in the first place and partially because it was located right across the street from where the bus had dropped us off.  Markets in general are a big deal on the Quilotoa Loop.  Each village and town has its own market on different designated days and each have their own niche specialties.  The Pujili market, for instance, is known for its sale of fine pottery while the Zumbahua and Guantualo markets are known for their early morning animal sales.  These markets are not only a unique and colorful treat for travelers passing through, but an important entity in the local economy.  Many people who live on the Loop are simple farmers who earn a living by selling their goods at these markets, and since the Loop boasts no supermarkets beyond Latacunga, the markets are also the locals’ only opportunity to buy goods as well.

  • Latacunga (Tuesday, Saturday)
  • Pujili (Wednesday, Sunday)
  • Saquisili (Thursday): The biggest and best of all the Quilotoa Loop markets.
  • Guantualo (Monday)
  • Zumbahua (Saturday)
  • Chugchilan (Sunday)
  • Sigchos (Sunday)

Due to their importance, the markets are almost always bustling and Pujili’s was no exception.  Beneath a large blue open sided Quonset hut that encompassed the main square were stall upon stall of various products: blankets of strange bundles of green plants, white canvas bags of rice and beans, stacks of brightly colored fruits, and the odd stall that contained a conglomeration of off little trinkets and toys.  Since the market was confined to the square, it didn’t take us long to look at just about everything before we wandered away from the hectic one block radius to the virtually abandoned remainder of the city.

Pujili may not have been particularly exciting, but it was a charming city, no doubt.  Most of the architecture we had seen so far was little more than cement blocks and simple square homes, so Pujili’s colonial style buildings seemed remarkably well-designed and pristine in comparison.  The municipal palace next to the central park, a gleaming white buildings with pink accents and lively courtyard, was perhaps the nicest building I had seen in a very long time. But again, the problem with Pujili was that there wasn’t much to see beyond that.  We spent a little bit of time wandering through the dirtier streets before finally making our way back to the market.  It had been a grand total of an hour since we had arrived. 

Since we still had no much time left in the day, we thought we might be able to catch a bus to Zumbahua, the next furthest town from Pujili in the opposite direction of Latacunga.  Zumbahaua was also meant to have one of the only climbing spots in the area and we thought we might check it out on the off chance that we ever had enough free time to visit it. 

We asked at the main bus station where we might get a bus to Zumbahua and, as tradition, we were told many different things.  We followed directions to various bus stops along the main street, each one that told us to go somewhere else.  It was the story of how we got anywhere down there and it was getting old.  Finally, someone told us that we should wait down on the main road just where it curved to the left, right at the base of the iconic colorful staircase.  We sat down on the curb there and waited.  And waited.  No bus came and eventually, a man asked us where we were trying to go.  We explained we wanted to go to Zumbahua and he told us a bus wouldn’t come for a long time.  Instead, he offered us a ride for $15.  We considered the offer but finally decided it was just a little too expensive for us and dejectedly returned back to the main bus terminal to catch a bus to Latacunga.

Back in Latacunga, we picked up some laundry we had taken to a laundromat and headed out for dinner.  After wandering around the lit up streets of Latacunga (decorated in bright white lights for Christmas), we finally settled on a small coffee shop and café called El Submarino Café.  Located just one block away from the central park, it didn’t look like much more than a hole in the wall, holding only three tables.  But it was cheap, with combo burger meals starting at $2.50.  Even better, it was probably one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten in my life.  Granted, my extended stint as a vegetarian meant I hadn’t really eaten that many burgers over the last six years, but still.

The next morning we would be leaving Latacunga and with it, leaving behind the comforts of modern living and stepping back into village life for a little while.  We had no idea what to expect of the next month, but maybe that was for the best.  We only seemed to find ourselves in trouble when we thought we knew what to expect.