Sunday, May 13, 2012

Hiking North along Ecuador’s spine

With teary eyes, an upset stomach and my adoptive mother Margoth firmly placing some emergency cash in my palm, I was dropped off at the terminal in Guayaquil to catch a 9-hour bus to Loja. I have an aunt that lives in Loja, and I figured that moping among family was preferable to moping around strangers. I rightfully assumed that I would need a little while to pull myself together after Justin went home, and having the support of family in a small town with not a whole lot to do seemed the ideal remedy. Like normal, I didn’t have a plan other than getting to Loja, after that, it really was all up in the air. I was thinking that I would spend a couple days there, try to explore some of the areas nearby, maybe even hike around in some of the national parks...slowly working my way up north to Quito. In the back of my mind I was debating a couple of different options. The first was whether or not I was going to go to the Galapagos and the second was whether or not I was going to head back down south to Chile for the ski season. The answer to both of these questions would help me determine a route and timeline for Ecuador. At that particular moment I had neither, just a stomach turning flips and my face stained red around the eyes from crying – I missed a boy, it was hard to think about the future.

So I didn’t. I sat around. I stared at a computer. I attempted to write blog entries. I sorted through pictures. I napped. I ate. I sat around some more. I sent a few emails. I watched bad Spanish soap operas with my aunt. I talked to my mom. I thought about thinking about what to do, then sat around again. Then, what seemed like out of the blue, I got an email and I had to make a decision and had to make it fast.  I was accepted for a volunteer position at a luxury resort in the Galapagos and they wanted me to get there soon. From that point on it was a whirlwind making up for the lazy days I spent doing nothing. I bought a flight to the Galapagos which meant I had exactly 10 days to haul out north to Quito, so much for meandering and “taking it slow.” This was a swift kick telling me that it was time to stop moping, to stop just sitting around feeling sad. I was past the halfway point on this trip. I would be heading home soon. I should be enjoying these last few months as a nomad. Before too long I’ll be a real working adult again, with limited but paid vacation time. I won’t have the freedom to decide on a whim that I want to spend a month tearing down fences, cooking lunch for a pack of hungry co-workers in a quaint mountain town, nurse and tag juvenile green turtles…to just up a go to the Galapagos. I should be excited. I should be grateful at least, and do something with the time I have left.  So I did.

LOJA – PODOCARPUS NATIONAL PARK (I lost my camera in the galapagos and didn't have a chance to upload them first. So I am stealing some from google so you get some kind of idea of what things kind of looked like.)

I looked at a map and logged onto my couchsurfing account. A little bit of effort and I had a plan, places to stay and a reasonable timeline to do it in. But before I left Loja I had to at least see Poducarpus National Park. It’s a huge expanse of land that has been preserved as a national park in the southeastern region of Ecuador. There are a variety of trails that you can take, some that last several days crossing from one side to the other, past lakes and along high mountain ridgelines. Of course you need a guide to do this and you need to have planned ahead. At this point I didn’t have the money for a guide or the time to reserve a spot, so I settled for a day hike.

As luck would have it, I picked the only day that it rained. Not just a little bit of rain either, we’re talking constant downpour. I was hiking high up too, high enough to be in the clouds and they were so thick they blocked the view at about 6ft away. But I am stubborn and said I was going for a hike. I hiked for about 6 hours that day in Poducarpus National Park and didn’t see a damn thing but clouds and rain. My only consolation was that at least there was another lunatic out there with me. I met a nice Dutchman at the trailhead and the two of us hiked together…laughing at our lot and the apparent lust of the gringo to endure unnecessary discomfort. You better believe the local people don’t hike, let alone with foul weather, and here were the two of us with mud half-way up our shins, soaked clothes and frozen fingers hiking for several hours in the rain to get a panorama of absolutely nothing.
Then it occurred to me; the locals might have something figured out.

It had been a few weeks since I’d hiked at all. The little hike Justin and I did in Huaraz and before that the Salkantay Trek were the last bit of physical exertion I’d done. It was harder than I remembered. I think all that sitting around on the beach had made me a bit soft. Only thing I needed was a pedicure and I’d be back to my pre-Patagonia self. As much as I’d love a pedicure right about now, the thought of all those months of hard hiking undone so fast was a bit depressing.  I actually did like it - I missed it I think, even the cold, dirty uncomfortable parts. I knew that I would have a couple more opportunities along the way to Quito. I would be passing through 2 other national parks and planned to hike them both – even without hiking boots.  

We (the Dutchman and I) were able to hitch a ride back into town and said goodbye. I walked to my aunt’s house. She wasn’t home, but had left me a key. I let myself in, started a load of laundry and took a shower scrubbing the mud out from in between the toes, the nails and any crease in the skin. This is the apparent downside of hiking in Keens. I did the best I could, but it would take a few rounds to get the dirt off me and warm water is a precious commodity. Besides I got the worst of it off.  By the time my family got home I was packed up and mostly clean. I was planning on leaving the following morning and it was best to be prepared.

Since I had a plan and everything now, it would work out that life would have another. Apparently it was Semana Santa, or Holy Week, and well, that meant there were no buses leaving that particular Sunday. Of course there isn’t, that would be too easy. Basically that meant I had another day to hang around Loja.

pretty much my visibility while hiking

kind of what I thought I was going to see

When I did get myself a bus it was to head north to Cuenca. I was going to be couchsurfing again, both in Cuenca and in Riobamaba, and then spending my last couple nights in Quito in a hostel. I’d heard lots of good things about Cuenca. It’s a beautiful colonial city, home to several universities, and lively music and nightlife scene. It is relatively small, the center easily navigable by foot. The climate is ideal; neither too warm nor too cold, kind of like California but not on the coast and with a hell of a lot more history. It’s green has good water that can be drunk from the tap and lots of park space. It’s a favorite spot for ex-pats. I was told that lots of retirees move to Cuenca for exactly those reasons. I liked it. I was pleasantly surprised; if I was an expat I might live here. And to top it all off, I was couchsurfing with some great people who showed me around, introduced me to friends, tried to teach me to salsa dance and gave me the inside scoop to get to Cajas National Park.

Cajas is another gem. It’s an easy bus ride from Cuenca, maybe an hour on a well-paved highway that leads to Guayaquil. The bus just drops you off on the side of the road a little walk from a park ranger/information station. This park as well as Poducarpus, is massive. There are several trails that span from 2 hours to 3 days. Some climb, some meander, some connect into others creating more opportunity to explore. But the landscape there is special. It’s not the dense thick green, blanketing the mountains like everything surrounding it, like everything in the south. It reminded me more of Valle Chacabuco – strikingly similar, the colors, the vegetation, even the shapes of the landforms. There were lakes and lakes and lakes everywhere, 167 to be exact. It’s higher up in elevation, in that transition zone that always makes something unique. As I moved north from Loja to Cuenca to Riobamaba and finally to Quito, it wasn't just up directionally on a map it was expressed in the elevation as well. I was climbing and so were the cities. This park exists at an elevation and special microclimate that allows there to be wetland, grassland, cloud forest and high mountain forest…and all of it is shaped by an abundance of glacier formed lakes. 1 day hiking there was simply not enough. Sadly, it was all I could give.

Cajas National Park

Between my gracious hosts and this beautiful park, it was one of those times that I wished I didn’t have a plan. I would have stayed longer. Unfortunately m I did have a plan, and it had to be followed. So after 4 very fast days I was out of Cuenca and on to Riobamba.


I didn’t really have a desire to go to Riobamba to see the town per se. I wanted to go there because it is part of the highlands and therefore the hub that gets you to Volcan Chimborazo. To any of my friends that like to climb mountains this one should be on your list. It is the tallest mountain in Ecuador at 6310meters and topped with a massive glacier. Being in Ecuador, therefore at the equator, its peak is the furthest point from the center of the earth. Technically, you could say it is the tallest peak in the world. I had to see this thing. I had to hike at least part of it.  I have sense enough to know I wasn’t going to summit the beast, at least not without training, appropriate gear and an amazing guide. I didn’t have any of those things, but I was strong enough to at least hike up past the second refuge, Refugio Whymper, and at 5000+ meters I considered that at least something. Not only did I want to see the volcano, frolic for a moment in the snow, and take a picture of myself smiling at 5000meteres, I wanted to see the vicuña.

what a vicuña looks like

Chimborazo on a clear day...definately not what I saw

Volcan Chimborazo is located within in the confines of another Ecuadorian national park. Part of what makes this park so unique is that is it a reserve for vicuña. These little critters are another of the camelid family that seems to thrive in South America. A cousin to the alpaca or llama, and more like a sister to the guanaco, I had been hoping to catch a glimpse of one of these ever since I started this trip.
You can get to the park two ways. One, take a tour and pay a shit-ton of money or two, take a local bus and follow the trail-markers for free. Like usual, I opted for option 2. It was the usual routine. The bus stops along the side of the road and I get out to be left close to a park entrance sign and miles away from anything else. It was cold here. Biting cold. I looked up at the sky and it seemed like it hadn’t quite decided. This day could clear; it would still be cold, but potentially sunny. Or those clouds in the horizon could thicken, dumping and unforgiving rain or maybe even snow at this temperature. So I did what I came to do, I started hiking.

The ride to Cajas and the landscape around it was beautiful, in that rich, teeming with life kind of way. The ride to Chimborazo and the landscape around it was beautiful, in that it comes from another planet, how is this even here, mysterious kind of way. It’s so high up, there isn’t enough oxygen for greenery to thrive, just a few little shrubby things struggling to take root in a sea of volcanic rock. Mostly black rock, but when you look closer its actually shades of grey, a gradient from black to ashy white, then spots of copper red and yellow. The whole plateau is brushed with clouds that slide along the ground, too lazy to climb any higher.  Behind it all is the peak of Chimborazo, capped in clouds, hiding the glacier that crowns it. This landscape seems dead. It seems like worlds away from anyone and anything warm and welcoming. Even the people loading and unloading from the bus at the pueblitos along the way are small, incredibly small, like every bit of oxygen is being sucked up by the volcano, and the people who live in its shadows are made tougher but shorter to compensate for its oppressive weight. The landscape seems hostile. Then, like some sort of mirage, or a joke from the gods, you see them, the beautiful vicuña.  Their shaggy reddish-gold coats, long delicate legs, big round eyes, and a weightlessness that allows them to bound through this unforgiving terrain as if it were a prairie.  Unlike the people that manage to squeak out an existence here, the vicuña seem to thrive. Beautiful. Graceful.  Everything about their presence seemed…effortless. I saw several and they brought an almost eerie sense of life to the barren landscape around the volcano.

My hike however, was not effortless. I am not a vicuña.  I took it slow, climbed with a steady pace, taking in the scene and watching the herds of vicuña in the black. In between the first refuge and the second the rain started. Every bit of the volcano was draped in clouds making it impossible to even imagine how high it really is. I stayed for a little while in the second refuge, chatting with the park ranger and warming my hands. He assured me that the weather would clear, but I would have to wait it out for quite a while. After I was thawed I took back to the trail, only to go a little further before my lack of adequate footwear (read: keens water-trekking sandals) and the snow made it impossible for me to go any further. I did the most reasonable thing; I turned around and started back down the trail.  It took a couple hours to get back down to the highway, during which the rain had turned to hail. With the wind and hail even the vicuña hunkered down. They clumped together in little groups, legs tucked up underneath them, faces buried onto their backs. They looked at me when I passed, and I imagine they laughed at the inferior creature that thought she belonged among them. But I accomplished my goal. I hiked up to and a little past the second refuge, setting a personal record of 5020meters.  I saw the volcano (well…kind of given the weather) and laid eyes on not just one, but several vicuña.

Standing down along the side of what felt like an abandoned highway in the very cold, I wondered if it was really worth it. I had no idea when the next bus was coming. It could be a matter of minutes or it could be hours. The cold is more tolerable when you’re moving, but just a minute or two of standing still, it cuts through clothes, especially wet clothes.  Within 5 minutes I was shivering, trying to breathe warm breaths into my jacket and hands. Then I decided it was better to start walking than just to stand there and freeze. There is only one highway, one lane in each direction…and I was fairly certain that a bus was stop to get me. It wouldn’t really matter if I was right outside the park sign or a mile or two up the road.

I was lucky though, I didn’t get very far before a pick-up truck came by. I stuck out my thumb, and they willingly stopped to pick me up.  It was 2 guys, travelling salesmen for some sort of auto soap. They were based in Guayaquil but regularly make the rounds through the whole country. I just happened to be on the road to Riobamba where they would stop before heading up to Quito.  They cranked up the heat and looked at me in shock, as if they couldn’t imagine what in the world would bring me to that particular strip of highway. When I told them that I had been hiking around Chimborazo that seemed even more absurd to them then my standing on the side of the road. They were friendly though, and even though we clearly had different interests, I was grateful for the ride. They took me right to the center of town and dropped off a couple blocks from the main plaza – faster, cheaper and better service than a bus.

The next morning I was back on a bus for Quito. There was more in the highlands region that I wanted to see like Baños, Ambata, Puyo, and climbing Cotopaxi. But these things would have to wait until I got back to the continent. I would only have 2 nights in Quito before my flight.  Time to organize myself, do some laundry and connect with people back home.  I wasn’t expecting to see everything there was to see there, just a taste and enough to get my bearing for when I got back. For now, it was time to say goodbye to the highlands, to colonial cities and to the cold. I was swapping those out for a month on a tropical island, with few people and hopefully, time to work on my tan. 

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