With no desire to tempt fate a second time with a bus ride back to Quito, we hire a driver and a car for $55, which is worth every penny in comfort and saved time. With just 24 hours left, we have but one season left to conquer. The fastest route to winter leads to the snowcapped Cotopaxi, the world's highest active volcano, an easy day trip just 90 minutes outside of Quito. Along with a father-daughter duo from Chicago, I travel (Kathryn is sick in our hotel) to Cotopaxi with Fernando, a bilingual guide from Safari Ecuador, who gives fair warning about the road conditions in the park. It is soon clear that the $10 entry fee the government collects from each person does not get funneled toward road repair. But even hard-core potholes can't detract from the park's sparse beauty (well, until the series of three that takes out our rear right tire). Tiny purple flowers called chocho grow close to the ground, hiding from the wind. Packs of wild horses, descended from animals that broke away from a hacienda long ago, graze on the grass, their manes grown long.
As our SUV, its odometer at 512,000 miles, climbs above the tree level, the flowers and horses disappear. A stripe of 100-year-old lava serves as a reminder that this frigid place could glow hot at absolutely any moment.
At about 14,700 feet, we park in the last spot for cars to stop. The wind is fierce, and I have to push the car door open with my legs. I take just a few steps and breathing becomes a chore.
"What can we see from up there that we can't see down here?" asks the Chicago dad (who instantly becomes my new hero).
"It's just the goal," Fernando replies.
But with a quick three-way glance among the dad, daughter, and me, it is decided: The goal has changed. Two Chicagoans and a New Yorker know winter well enough, so an hour's climb up the volcano - with tiny blades of ice cutting into our faces - is suddenly off the itinerary.
Back home, it takes me two days to recover from my weeklong adventure. Next time, I think I'll spread four seasons (and the adventures that go with them) out over 365 days.
Where to Stay
In Quito: The rooms at Café Cultura are handpainted with designs sure to bring on sweet dreams — from delicate hummingbirds and fish to flowers and angels. Start each day with the hotel’s top-notch breakfast; dine on the front porch and watch hummingbirds hard at work in the garden. Robles 513 y Reina Victoria; 011-593-2-222-4271;
www.cafecultura.com; singles from $69, doubles from $79.
In Otavalo: Never has a place been so difficult to leave as Casa Mojanda MountainSide Inn & Farm. It overlooks a patchwork of fields and is home to Sammy, one of the friendliest alpacas around. Cap off your evening with a home-cooked meal from the garden before settling into bed in a room warmed by a fire. Unless you’re up for an adventure (and have a strong stomach), hire a car for the trip from Quito; at $2, the buses are a bargain, but they fly up the curvy mountain roads at a frantic pace. 011-593-6-292-2986; www.casamojanda.com; $140 per night, double occupancy, includes a full (and fantastic) breakfast and dinner.
In the rain forest: The cabins at Sani Lodge are spare but comfortable. You’ll spend more time hiking and exploring than you will in your cabin, anyway. Bug-phobic folks be forewarned: They grow ’em big in the rain forest. 011-593-2-255-8881; www.sanilodge.com; four days and three nights for $450, or eight days and seven nights for $1,050.
Safari Ecuador charges $40 for a day trip, including a continental breakfast and a picnic lunch; Foch E5-39 y Juan León Mera, Quito; 011-593-2-255-2505; www.safari.com.ec.