I struggled to take photos from the back seat of our taxi as it snaked its waythrough the busy streets of Quito. We were on our way to the new Quitumbe Terminal where buses leave for Cotopaxi,  one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. The concierge at our hotel claimed that the bus-station was about five to ten minutes from our hotel but it took over a half-hourto get there – “Must be five Ecuadorian minutes,” I thought.

Stuck behind other taxis and interesting vehicles

Thebus was modern and comfortable, fully equipped with leather seats and a flatscreen TV that played an overly dramatic soap opera. As tempting as it was totake in the steamy Spanish drama, I opted to drown out the audio by listeningto a new salsa playlist on my i-pod.

Before long I was drifting in and out of sleep, barely catching glimpses of childrenplaying on sidewalks, cows grazing, women fetching stacks of hay on their backs, dilapidated shacks, and silhouettes of Andean peaks in the horizon.

(Tip: One-way bus tickets from Quitumbe to Cotopaxi  cost $1.50. Trip is about 1-1.5 hours long)


On the bus to Cotopaxi

About an hour later my friend Alix tapped me on the shoulder after seeing a signsaying Cotopaxi. She went to the front of the bus to ask the driver where weshould get off and he immediately pulled over and said “Aqui” (here). In a wildfrenzy we hopped off the bus, collected our bags from the storage compartment, andthen stood on the sidewalk (a bit bewildered) trying to decide what to do next.

Cotopaxi in the distance

In the distance we saw the snowcappedCotopaxi volcano which suggested that we were somewhere near where we needed tobe. Seated on the sidewalk in front of us was a heavy-set woman breastfeeding alittle girl who seemed well beyond the appropriate age for suckling.  From the corner of his eye an elderly mannoticed the lost expressions on our faces and quickly headed in our direction. Witha kind smile on his face he asked if he could help us, so we asked him to pointus towards our hostel, the ‘The Secret Garden.

He had never heard of it –apparently the hostel was in fact a well-kept secret.  He offered to arrange a ride with a friend whohe claimed would know the hostel and could take us there in his pickup truck (fora small fee of course). A few minutes later he returned and said that his friend would do it for $38. The price seemed pretty steep, so in truebackpacker style we tried to bargain him down to $20.  He said that $38 was the final price. We needed to find a cheaper alternative.

My first real-life lama sighting on a street corner in Lasso

Although we refused the old man’s offer, he was still kind enough to direct us to an Internetcafé where we could attempt to get the hostel’s phone number and arrange a cheaperride. Five minutes later I was on the phone with a volunteer at the hostel whoinstructed me to take a bus to the town of Machachi (half-hour away), get offat the statue of a man riding a horse, then wait for a driver who she wouldsend to pick us up (for $15). We made our way back to road where we were first dropped off to catch the busback to Machachi. Along the way I had my first sighting of a real-life lamagrazing on the road corner.

As soon as we got off the bus in Machachi we saw our cheerful driver Omar, a youngman dressed in a bright purple Adidas sweater waving us over to his pickuptruck. He quickly loaded our bags into the back seat and we headed for themountains along a bumpy road that weaved its way through a handful of littlevillages. At a certain point the paved road turned into a rocky track just wideenough to handle one-way traffic. The sun quickly disappeared behind themountains and the temperature gradually fell to level that I hadn’t felt sinceleaving Canada.

(Note: Trip from Machachi to Secret Garden is approximately 45 minutes long)

The Secret Garden Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

Arriving at The Secret Garden we were greeted by Alex, the volunteer who I had spoken to a bit earlier. In her thick Dutch accent, she informed me that there were no cabins available – ‘Only tent-cabins’. Not paying too much attention to what she was saying, I made a slow 360 degree revolution taking in the stunning landscape. Once again I was in the middle of another unbelievable paradise. It was as if the scene were painted by God himself – rolling mountains, snow-capped volcanoes, colourful flowers, wooly lamas, endless skies and our hidden getaway – The Secret Garden.

More on The Secret Garden coming soon…