Good stories typically don’t begin with food poisoning, but this one does.
For the WorldTeach Ecuador End of Service trip, our cohort visited the cities of Mindo, Otavalo, Quito, and Cotopaxi. I knew that all of the cities were going to be amazing, but I was especially excited to visit Cotopaxi National Park, home to a huge active stratovolcano that all Ecuadorians adore as a landmark of their home country.
The volcano is located between Riobamba and Quito and acts as a landmark for those traveling between. The beauty of Cotopaxi does not transfer in photos. It is huge and snowcapped and is in stark contrast to the nearly barren landscape around it, dark and scrubby with bushes thanks to previous volcanic eruptions. Even Ecuadorians take every opportunity to stop and photograph the mountain — a phenomenon I witnessed twice while traveling with members of my community.
Unfortunately, on our last night in Otavalo, I made a bad impromptu decision to order fish at a restaurant, and knew pretty much instantly that I was a goner. I spent the long bus ride to Quito drinking water mixed with a Pedialyte packet and willing myself not to be sick. During our one day in Quito, I rested and willed my body to recover so that I could enjoy our very last trip as a cohort.
In typical style, the journey from Quito to Cotopaxi was not as straightforward as a foreigner might expect. Our WorldTeach directors had scheduled a van to drive our group, 6 volunteers and 2 directors, to our hostel. We met outside our hostel, Secret Garden Quito, early in the morning with our things packed. For sake of space, the driver strapped most of our backpacks to the roof of the van. As I was one of our members least likely to feel carsick on a typical basis, I sat in the back of the van. The journey was bumpy and windy and I tried my best to stare straight forward and breathe deeply. I had hardly eaten in 48 hours, but I still felt awful.
About halfway to Cotopaxi, our driver randomly pulled onto the side of the road and we saw 2 backpackers running towards our van. Confused, our director asked the driver why we were picking up more people when we had booked a private van. The backpackers soon piled in and we sent more of our belongings to be slung up on top of the vehicle. Space was now tight, but we embraced the moment and began chatting with the couple who had joined us. Soon after, we began off-road and spent about 45 minutes bouncing and jolting down a rocky dirt road towards our hostel — seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
I think that the only places we passed in that 45 minutes of off-roading were a couple lone farms and a passing truck or two. Somehow, I managed to contain my sickness and we pulled up at the Secret Garden Quito’s brother hostel, the Secret Garden Cotopaxi.
The Secret Garden Cotopaxi is like no other hostel I’ve ever experienced before. It consists of several buildings spread across a hill and looks as if it would belong in Alice in Wonderland or The Hobbit, which makes sense as some of the rooms are built to embody Hobbit holes. In the center of the small spread of buildings is the communal cabin located directly behind sprouting gardens and two large trampolines. On either side of the central building are cabins that house large groups with bunk-beds. Further up on the hill, visitors can find composting toilets and hot tubs covered by greenhouse roofs. Check out the drone footage video of the hobbit holes, housing, and Cotopaxi and prepare to be amazed.
Upon arrival, the entire hostel staff greeted us out front near the garden and helped unload our belongings into our shared cabin. We then entered the central communal building, passing through a bright sunroom filled with colorful hanging hammocks, giant bean bags, and 5 or so lounging dogs on our way to the main room. We plopped down on sofas and the staff began to welcome us and explain the daily happenings of the Secret Garden.
Included in your stay at the hostel is a guided waterfall hike the afternoon of your arrival, home cooked meals that suit dietary restrictions, and roaming access to the property. The hostel also offers excursions for guided horseback riding tours, a Cotopaxi summit, various hikes in the area, and a visit to the national park. Since our stay was a short one, we opted for the horseback riding tour.
In addition to a couple of permanent staff members, the Secret Garden Cotopaxi is run by employees who work for their room and board. I was fascinated by their stories. Many of the employees visited the hostel as guests and later decided to return to work for 3-4 weeks. However, nearly all of the staff that I chatted with had long outstayed their original plans. Some had even been there for 3-5 months and changed travel plans or job plans to stay and work for longer.
Their joy was palpable and I was intrigued by their lifestyle. After all, there is absolutely nothing in the vicinity of the hostel except for the surrounding mountains. They shared stories about the opportunity that the hostel provides to complete unplug due to their lack of wifi, the guests that they were able to meet, and about time spent exploring outdoors that the location provides.
For meal time, staff and guests alike gather at one large table in the communal center and talk over delicious homemade food. In the evening, guests and staff stay up talking, relaxing by the fire, playing card games, or enjoying a drink. I felt as though I was experiencing something really special surrounded by an international community of travelers. You had no choice but to experience the moment fully with no phones or internet and no where else nearby to rush off to.
Although I had to miss out on the waterfall hike due to my food poisoning, I was able to recover enough to join in for the horseback riding tour. Again, I was struck by contrast between the looming volcano, Cotopaxi, and the surrounding barren landscape. I don’t know how to exactly describe the landscape because I’ve never seen anything like it. I assume that after lava wiped some of the surrounding land, mosses and small plants began to grow. Today, the land is covered mostly by clumpy tufty grasses and small shrubs. It is also quite cold!
Cotopaxi was breathtaking from all angles and our 3-hour ride provided plenty of opportunities to stare and wonder. Moving uphill and crossing over small streams, I galloped on a horse for the first time and held on for dear life. I chatted with those on horseback around me and took moments to reflect on all that I had done during my 8 weeks in Ecuador. It was only fitting for the trip to end with another big step outside of my comfort zone. On our final leg of the journey I pushed through food poisoning, reflected on close friendships built over the course of the summer and got to know strangers over shared meals. I packed toilet paper in my backpack in case of emergency, I went faster on a horse than I would have thought I could, and I said goodbye to new friends not knowing when I would see them next.
I understand now how visitors of the Secret Garden turn into short term employees who turn into long term family. It is hard not to experience this same feeling of aching to stay when you’re laying on one of the trampolines in the crisp air gazing at the stars witnessing Cotopaxi’s snow-topped beauty. I’m still not sure if the bravest choice is choosing to stay or having the guts to say goodbye.
Many of the photos in this post were taken by my fellow volunteer member and friend, Rachael Ferguson. Thank you for the amazing photos, Rachael!
The post above does not reflect the viewpoints of the WorldTeach organization or of the United States government.