Chimborazo – Part I

 

My road to Chimborazo: Ecuador’s highest peak and the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from the centre of the Earth.

 

Saturday Night, 19th November 2016

It was around 8PM and the public hot springs in the touristic Ecuadorian town of Baños were bustling with locals and foreigners alike, all enjoying themselves in one of the several pools.  Half-submerged, head leaning back, eyes closed, with each arm perched on the rim of the pool, I was in a state of utter and complete relaxation.  I had arrived earlier that day by bus from Quito with two fellow travellers (an American and a Chilean) and we passed the afternoon by hiking up to the popular Casa del Arbol – a giant tree swing on a field up in the mountains.

It only cost $1 entry to re-live childhood memories on an adult-sized swing

Unfortunately, on that particular afternoon there were thick clouds obstructing my potential swing-boosted view of the 5,016m-high and recently active Tungurahua Volcano, which looms above the Baños valley and which the locals vehemently dissuaded me from climbing due to it being muy peligroso.  The swing was certainly a fun reward at the end of the three-hour hike with several encounters with irate farm dogs (always carry a stick with you, or be prepared to throw rocks at or kick the little yappers if they get too close).

The hike combined with partying in Quito the night before resulted in one pretty exhausted little Aussie backpacker by the time I got to the hot springs.  Speaking of which, at night they are impossible to miss as there is a 50m-high waterfall right next to them, lit up an alien green colour and visible from nearly every corner of Baños.  The water in the first pool was hot, murky and a dirty brown colour.  People of all ages and walks of life packed the pool full, literally to the brim.  The unappealing brown colour was likely from the scrubbed-off dead skin cells floating around (is that why the place is called Baños?) but to be honest at that point I didn’t really care.  My aching muscles were slowly being soothed and the $3 USD entry was a fair price to pay for the unique experience with the massive waterfall above me.

At that point I was reminiscing about my journey so far as I was nearly at the 6 month mark.  This is a kind of badge of honour for backpackers: you’ve survived some sketchy situations, seen some cool places, and had awesome experiences with new friends – and… – there is plenty more to come!  For me, the need to re-acquaint myself with my motivation and reason to keep travelling was very important.  While my original motivation for leaving Perth 6 months prior had not changed markedly, it had morphed with new flavours and dreams over the months.

Significant milestones (including 6 months of travel!) in one’s life require a requisite level of celebration.  It’s important as it makes the milestone or achievement official, whether just to yourself or also within your social circles.  The only thing is that my particular definition of ‘celebration’ might be a little bit different to most other people.  I moved on to the second pool which was much hotter, really shallow, and perhaps a bit cleaner than the first.  Lying fully horizontally in the shallows with ears beneath the surface and my nose above, I was quietly considering whether I should throw caution out the window and just go for Chimborazo.  I had the time to do it.  I had the desire.  After being told upon arrival to Ecuador that Cotopaxi (my original plan) was closed due to activity, I had to set my sights on another mountain.  Of course, I wasn’t going to choose the 3rd highest, so naturally I went with Chimborazo.  But did I have the experience?  That was my only doubt.  But sometimes in life you just need to say screw it, which is exactly what I thought as I slid my ass fully into the boiling-hot water of the third and final pool.

It must have also boiled my brain because the next day I booked a tour to Chimborazo.

 

Monday Morning, 21st November 2016

Fast forward two days later and I have just entered the Chimborazo National Park, beginning my hike up to the first shelter.   At this point I should probably add some factual information to my story.  First of all, Chimborazo is an inactive stratovolcano with a claimed peak of 6,310m* above sea level.  It is also the highest peak in Ecuador; the second-highest being the more popular Cotopaxi at 5,897m.  But more impressively than that, Chimborazo’s summit is the furthest point on the surface of the earth from the centre of the earth.  In fact, it is approximately 2km further from the centre than the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest (8,848m).  This interesting fact is due to planet Earth not being a perfect sphere, rather an oblate spheroid which is thicker around the equator.

*I really enjoyed reading Mark Horrell’s blog of his Chimborazo climb here where he measured the peak’s highest point at only 6,284m (26m lower than the official number – perhaps due to the glacier melting?)

The barren plains of Chimborazo are absolutely devoid of greenery and any distinguishing features.  Small rocks and boulders are the only things which thrive here, overlooked from above and afar by their glacier-capped overlord.  So what made me come to this uninviting place to ‘celebrate’ my personal milestone?  Well, the short story is that I wanted to mark my 6 months of travelling with a truly high note (pun intended!).  The long story is that I had climbed dozens of volcanoes and mountains up to this point in my travels (the highest of which was just shy of 5,000m) and I felt that it was time to step it up to the next level.  Crampons and ice picks have always been out of reach to me in Australia and so my curiosity was massive.  On the 25th of November I would be flying to the Galapagos Islands and so I didn’t feel like I had enough time to do the popular Quilotoa Loop (usually takes 3 to 4 days).  As such, the 2 night / 3 day Chimborazo experience would fit perfectly into my schedule.

The experience would prove to be a brutal introduction to mountaineering and a baptism in the nasty effects on the human body of high altitude and sub-zero temperatures.

 

Stay tuned for Part II where I will very openly go into more details of my personal experience on the climb and what lessons I took away from it.

Are you a Tourist or a Traveller?

I want you to think – right now – whether you identify more with being a ‘tourist’ or a ‘traveller’

 

Regardless of what images and emotions the two words conjure in your mind (and which one you identify with more) we’ll get to the implications of your thoughts in a few minutes.

 

As humans we all naturally gravitate to identifying ourselves as part of a social group.  This begins with the family and country we’re born in, the school we studied at, our friends, the sporting team we support, and extends even to the particular brand of shoes we prefer.  This behaviour is evolutionary.  More specifically, it springs from one of our most ingrained survival instincts.  From the early stages of our evolutionary path we discovered the benefits of belonging to a group, the most identifiable benefit being personal security (think of all the bears, lions, and hostile tribes roaming around).  This group concept was so successful that it better enabled us to hunt, protect our offspring, and grow our average group size until we had thriving societies which eventually adopted agriculture and new technologies.

 

Nowadays, as physical security is no longer the primary concern in our governed and policed societies, we predominantly seek emotional security in groups.  I’m going to define emotional security with an arbitrary threshold.  If a person is below this threshold then they are not emotionally secure.  They are more susceptible to mental illnesses such as depression and display poor decision-making.  If a person is above this threshold then they are emotionally secure.  They have a healthy resistance to mental illnesses and exhibit better decision-making.

 

So what does all this have to do with being a tourist or a traveller I hear you say?  Well, I am willing to guess that most of us identified as travellers.  Let’s try to understand why through the group-belonging concept and maximising our emotional security.

 

For those of us with imaginations susceptible to stereotyping, the word ‘tourist’ usually conjures images of DSLR-laden, suitcase toting, hotel lobby-frequenting, please-rob-me looking, sandals-sporting, cruise-ship loving people of undefined age and gender who congregate in herds near the biggest and most impressive monuments.  On the flip side, the word ‘traveller’ usually brings up images of adventure, going solo, backpacking, exploration, less-trodden paths, bucking the trend, quality cultural encounters, and unexpected discoveries.  As such, the word ‘traveller’ has less stereotypes attached to it which is what enables us to appropriate positive qualities to the word which we desire others to see in ourselves.

 

I identify most as a traveller.  This implies I have a natural bias against anyone who is not in this group, especially those identifying as “tourists”

 

The implications of examining the most stereotypical versions of the two words are clear, whether or not your mental images were more diluted versions of the descriptions I provided above.  It is only natural that we choose to identify with a social group which we believe maximises our emotional security (whether or not it actually does is another matter).  I’ve experienced this numerous times while chatting to other backpackers.  In sharing our stories we would often bemoan “all the damn tourists” crowding a particularly popular place, or exalt in how “travelling opens your mind”.  I bet you’ve never heard someone say “being a tourist really expanded my previously narrow worldview”.

 

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a tourist as “one that makes a tour for pleasure or culture” and a traveller as “one that goes on a trip or journey”.  Even in the linguistic definition of the two words we can see the potential broader appeal of the word ‘traveller’ as being associated with a ‘journey’.  A trip is a trip while a journey is something personal.  A journey can transcend the mere physical transportation of your body from place to place.  This is why there’s a kernel of truth in the saying that it’s not the destination that matters most but the journey.

 

 

Note:  Whether you identified more with one group over the other may have absolutely no correlation with the number, quality or depth of the experiences you’ve had while exploring the incredible planet earth.

My Top 15 Hostel Dislikes

The difference between average and excellence is surprisingly slim

 

13-Dec-2016
Krassen Ratchev

 

Our expectations of hostels is higher than ever before.  If you agree that a hostel should be much more than merely a place where one goes to sleep for 10 bucks a night then you’re in good company.

 

The better hostels are invariably those where we can make new friends and travel-buddies in a buzzing atmosphere, where we can safely stow our belongings and go on epic adventures and day-trips, where we can cook, drink, smoke, read books, chill, update our social status, send emails, call family and friends, and party or converse with our new buddies until the wee hours of the morning.

 

Such hostels become truly memorable for the above experiences only if they can first and foremost address every traveller’s most fundamental needs of a comfortable, quiet, and safe place to sleep as well as clean, hot showers.  Great hostels should basically feel like a home away from home where we can be ourselves, relax, and recharge our mental energies away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world.

 

To put it another way, you’ll know you’ve come across such a hostel if you feel amply comfortable and happy to spend several weeks there irrespective of its location.

 

But the reality is that hostels belonging to this exclusive, almost-mystical club are few and far in between.  Many would argue that ticking all the boxes and pleasing every single traveller is a lofty, unachievable height – especially in the realm of the standard $10 USD or 10 Euro-per-night dormitory fare.  Better facilities, staff, and location certainly come at a fixed and ongoing financial cost to the owners but there is also an opportunity cost inherent in the more expensive hostels.  By having higher prices relative to competitors in a market segment which is quintessentially known for its low prices, most potential clientele simply find cheaper alternatives and as a result the place ends up offering low value* overall.  This point depends somewhat on location but is usually around the $20 USD limit in my opinion.

 

Which brings me to examine what factors quantify a largely qualitative hostel experience.  Nowadays with the rise in popularity of apps such as Air BNB and Couchsurfing, hostels today exist in a highly competitive and dynamic marketplace.  So how do customers rate them and how does this data then aid prospective customers in choosing a specific hostel to stay at?

 

Hostel Decision (vs. Alternatives) > Yes > Which Hostel?

 

 

HOSTELWORLD.com HOSTELBOOKERS.com TRIPADVISOR.com
1.       Value

2.       Security

3.       Location

4.       Staff

5.       Atmosphere

6.       Cleanliness

7.       Facilities

 

1.       Atmosphere

2.       Cleanliness

3.       Facilities

4.       Location

5.       Safety

6.       Staff

7.       Value

+      Would Recommend?

1.       Excellent

2.       Very Good

3.       Average

4.       Poor

5.       Terrible

+      Ranking (#X of Total)

 

*Value is a very subjective factor relative to the others

 

The two most popular and hostel-dedicated websites, Hostelworld and Hostelbookers, both present an equally-weighted average score (in a “%” and “out of 10” format, respectively) from the 7 different categories in the table above.  Scores for a given hostel are input only by that hostel’s most recent customers and all such scores are averaged over the past 12 months.  I included Tripadvisor in here to show how an aggregate site (with reviews for hotels, hostels, inns, motels, boutiques, etc.) runs its reviews.  In short, we get very non-specific data upfront with Tripadvisor and as such need to read the comments to gain more insight into the place.

 

From my experience I have found that hostels rated with an overall score above 95% cut the mustard for a truly great and memorable experience.  Want to know the interesting thing?  Often times it was the basic things which prevented decent hostels in the 75% to 90% range from joining the 95% club.

 

My top 15 dislikes were the following:

 

  1. Towels are not free
  2. No hot water in showers
  3. Personal lockers unavailable, too small, or they can be cracked open by a 5 year-old child
  4. Dorm room does not have enough free space and feels over-crowded
  5. Quietness after “10 PM” is not enforced by staff or no efforts have been made to soundproof anything, whether dorm rooms or segregating the party area away from sleeping area
  6. Mattress is uncomfortable and too short or the bunks are flimsy and creaky
  7. Dorm room not locked and no key or pass card made available for each person
  8. No kitchen or kitchen is inadequately equipped
  9. Staff members had little to no personality or were not interested in chatting
  10. Drip coffee and drinking water are not free
  11. Breakfast is not free
  12. No information board with bus timetable, maps, points of interest, and cheap day-trip ideas
  13. Inadequate fun facilities in the common area or curfew after “midnight”
  14. Poor general maintenance and outdated facilities and furniture
  15. No snacks, drinks, or toiletries for sale and no bar

 

As a general rule of thumb I discovered that if less than 3 of the above 15 key cardinal dislikes were encountered then that hostel was just shy of a 95% score – keeping in mind that the 7 general categories were more or less fine of course.  And while all of the above 15 points fall under one or more of the 7 general categories, they are nevertheless very specific and quantifiable things.  What’s more is that many of the 15 dislikes are easily fixable or could be designed before construction.  So it turns out that attention to details do actually matter even in the so-called “lacklustre” hostel industry.