Fire and ice.

Do you ever picture countries with a certain color as a theme; sort of an overriding tone to the background? To me, Cambodia was orange: the earth under ancient trees, rusty waters of the river in Siem Reap, sunrise capturing the stones of Angkor Wat. Costa Rica was always rich, vibrant green, with life exploding from every inch of space; Panama, yellow and a little eerie. England is grey; Colorado, the misty blue of mountains. I think Ecuador’s color is white: not literally of course, but the combination of so many different colors merging into one. Jungle, cloud forest, beaches, islands, ice, volcanoes, the Andes – all in a surface area of less than 300,000 km², blending with incredible ease. I’m already slightly in love with Quito: the ring of mountains surrounding its sloping streets, women in shawls selling fruit from baskets in the road, the small triangular flags decorating bohemian La Ronda. Many of the black metal balconies are covered in geraniums – salmon pink geraniums! – and El Panecillo, the imposing statue of the Virgin on the hill, casts its eye over the whole city. The president’s palace is now open to the public, a decision of the current president, and the park beside it is frequented by monks and nuns. Inside, the Catholic churches are glittering, sweeping ceiling-ed and elaborate – filled at the start of Lent with lines of people waiting to mark ash on their foreheads – while the Basilica’s gothic towers are guarded by carved reptiles and amphibians native to Ecuador instead of gargoyles. There’s so much in one city.

I’ll go back some weeks and start with Volcán Barú, my favorite part of Panama by far. The climb is somewhere around five hours, starting at midnight and reaching the summit in plenty of time for sunrise. In clear weather the view encompasses both the Pacific and Caribbean oceans. I went with a group from a hostel in Boquete, although after an hour or so most of us were content to walk at short distances apart and keep to our own thoughts. Paved road soon turned into a rocky track, kind of tricky to navigate in falling-apart running shoes, and most of us couldn’t work out how a bunch of Jeeps managed to drive to the top. The prospect of looking down from the highest point in the country was more than enough motivation to get over the toughest parts; and even in the early morning dimness, the feeling of being at the top came in a rush of adrenaline. And cold. After weeks of over thirty-degree days in David, the sudden and significant drop in temperature was intense. Apparently not enough to prevent falling asleep on the peak, but hey. There’s a huge cross, around eleven feet tall, that claims Barú; its peach tint complementing the pale glow of the clouds when the dawn breaks. Down is hard on sore limbs; the full beauty of the volcano realized in daylight, and against a soundtrack of Ben Howard.

And then there’s Cotopaxi. The highest active volcano in the world, according to Ecuador tourism, although the last major eruption was in the 19th century. My tour agent roommate had booked two girls onto a tour that required a minimum of three people, so I was able to go with them for a climb and bike ride on the mountain. Plus breakfast; breakfast was good, too. The funny thing about travelling is that it’s still just life, only with a more rapid change of pace and place. Karla (my co-worker/kind of boss) and I have been watching a lot of Frozen. Such a great film: the music is fantastic, especially the duets – and maybe the Spanish lyrics for ‘Let It Go’, the more liberating ‘Libre Soy‘, are an improvement – and the animated landscapes are so cool. Even if Anna is completely to blame for the whole sending her sister over the edge situation, and the trolls were kind of creepy and pushy, the ending was rather lovely. So I would be lying if I said I didn’t pretend to be in Elsa’s ice palace when playing around at the base of Cotopaxi’s glacier; and absolutely empathize with her desire to be alone somewhere isolated and awe-inspiring.

Cotopaxi is exactly that: gigantic, terrifying but simultaneously drawing you in. Its name comes from one of Ecuador’s indigenous languages, Quechua, and means “the neck of the moon” in reference to the position of the full moon like a head adjoined to the volcano’s shoulders. Lower down, there are layers of sediment from previous eruptions; and at some point the earth becomes red – initially russet, but deepening until crystalline dapples of pink and crimson are seen through dense glacial ice. The mountain’s environment changes so fast: a gravelly terrain of silt and dirt, barely visible under a thick cloud of fog and precipitation, transforms at 16 000 feet into snow, ice, and a light wind of sleet. I know how melodramatic it sounds, but it felt like the mountain was alive: as though Cotopaxi was a being in its own right, angry and in full command of its storms. I can’t get over the colors on the glacier – the translucent blue coated by snow, and the dark contrast of the rock underneath. Pale, pale green thousands of feet below. Wild horses, and tracks from a fox. The strength of the wind and the cold that bites; how surreal it is to snap off an ice stalactite in your numb fingers.

Earth is a beautiful place.

*   *   *

“Now walking back down this mountain/ With the strength of a turning tide.” – Ben Howard, ‘Keep Your Head Up‘.

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