The hike....and the aftermath....
Trip Start Jan 04, 2008
34Trip End Apr 08, 2008
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It's morning and I'm lounging in a hammock on the upper floor of the hostel, overlooking the canyon that runs through Chugchilan. Just about every part of my body is a bit sore, especially my legs... and my knees are screaming for a day of rest. But I have this huge sense of satisfaction about yesterdays hike...it was demanding (at times downright crazy) but through all sorts of landscapes - high mountains, steep farmland, teeny towns, and across near vertical slopes....generally my nemesis. Once again to prove that the more you put yourself on the line ..the more effort you exert - any type of effort - the more rewarding the journey.
So we start the day with a hearty breakfast at the Cloud Forest Hostel. Did I already say how amazing this place is? Way up on the ledge of the canyon, they make you feel right at home. The breakfast couldn't have been better, dinners are delicious, and the people who work here are friendly and familial. And of course you can't beat the price - $10/day including bkfst and dinner...ok that's my commercial for the Cloud Forest Hostel.
After breakfast we all pile into the camionetta - the little truck - and rock and roll our way to Quilotoa, a magnificent crater lake...it takes us about 2 hrs to drive there over the same wild roads we took in the bus that we swore we'd never take again. But it's not raining now and the truck handles way better than the bus...but the road wash-outs are still there as are the steep drops...we only get stuck once...water is flowing across the road and has carved some deep ruts in it...but we get out and with some shoveling and rock maneuvering - and faith - the truck overcomes and we arrive in Quilotoa in one piece. This is a place well worth visiting - right now all parts of the community are out working on a sort of community-traveler center...looks like everybody in town is here, and I think this is going to be quite a place when they're done - it already is.
After lots of contemplation about route and who is gong to hike where, we start off around the crater, high up over the rich emerald lake far below. Most of the surrounding land is deep ash soils over old lava... this thing hasn't spewed lava in a long time but we're told it's been known to bubble and boil and there are all sorts of superstitions grounded here. It seems that wherever there are bold natural environmental phenomena, there are folktales, beliefs, superstitions encircling and woven into the history reflecting nature. Banos with its Tungurahua volcano and agua santa, and here with the crater and the canyon. So I guess the living Earth provides inspiration for all sorts of cultural uniquity. Anyway, on to the hike.
First our group...an especially delightful and interesting crew to be sharing this adventure with. Two people from Madrid by way of Doctors without Borders in Africa who are gentle and a pleasure to be around... two people from the US...oceanographers in the making...both environmentally sharp (Tim tells me about the volunteer work he just finished in Patagonia...I make a mental note to interview him later for my project)... they're both good natured and seemingly up for anything....there's a young guy from Vancouver that's sort of a hippie-surfer wanderer, laid-back and charming in his own way, and a woman from Australia who is only going to share part of the hike with us but shares lots of stories on the ride into town. One of the best parts of traveling is the people you meet and the intense, even though of short duration, bonds you share....to generalize, they're generally bright, well traveled, communicative, non-judgmental and open to other people and all the possibilities, and this group is no exception.
We're circling the crater looking for the start of the hike back to Chugchilan. We follow the directions in Lonely Planet and things we've been told, but when it comes down to it, one sand wash looks the same as the next, and did we pass 2 or 3 or 7? Depends on what really constitutes a sand wash....but for those of you attempting the same hike, there is a pile of rocks about 3 feet high that you can't miss (really) that indicates the beginning of the trail. There's a photo of it in this entry if you want to be sure you recognize it. Anyway, we make the "most common error" and leave the crater trail too soon but it all works out when we circle back to the right trail. The trail heads away from the crater, down towards the canyon. We can see the town of Chugchilan perched up on the canyon edge in the distance...doesn't look far but there's a big gap in the Earth between here and there...we've got to go down, down, down and then up, up, up....
Lots of distractions along the way...baby goats to grab and cuddle with and to watch them learn to hop around, leaping into the air with joy and freedom...steep farmland to cross....when I say people are farming near vertical slopes, I'm not exaggerating. There's corn and fava beans and some other stuff that I don't recognize taking hold in the seemingly barren ashy earth. I'm wondering if all these erosional washes would have happened if the slopes were covered in their natural vegetation...I wonder what the area will look like in 100 years....will it still be tillable? Will it still even be there? Because these are some of the most eroded mountains I've seen, partly because of their own natural instability and partly because of their intense use. I try to capture some of the slopes in photos...broad, sandy, ashy vertical plains, and deep crevices where it looks like the slope just cracked open. Little do I know that in a couple of hours I'll be crawling my anxiety-filled way across maybe an 8 inch ledge on one of these vertical, unstable slopes, adrenaline-crazed and trying desperately to not slip down into the canyon below. You dedicated blog readers know by now that that is hardly my strength...not the kind of challenge I thrive on. While it's happening anyway....
But it's time to descend into the canyon...Our instructions come from a couple of 10 year old boys we meet along the way....the bridge is out because of the recent heavy rains, the crossing is muy malo (somebody replaced the bridge with a temporary log across the ravine with a dramatic drop below it), and we'd better take the zig-zag way down to the river. One thing that's evident...people will give you good info/bad info...they'll tell you anything just to provide an answer sometimes. So you have to decide who is telling the truth....Hard to tell sometimes so we go with what seems to be the consensus among 10 year olds en route and we snake our way down the canyon side. Sometimes the path is thru deep cut cracks in the soft earth...sometimes it's over the top of the sideslope (which I efficiently accomplish by sort of slithering along on my butt)....the path is washed out in lots of places and I'm thinking this will be the hardest part....
But the adventure turns to a dig-in and do it whether you're panicking or not trek when we see these tiny ledges we have to cross that are WAY high up and TOTALLY unstable. I watch Aleisha, the oceanographer, slither and scrape her way across and know that if I don't do it soon, its not going to happen at all...I always believe that there's nothing you HAVE to do...you can always turn around and go right back where you came from...although this time the trip backwards is pretty sketchy as well. And it helps to know that there's at least one other person of our group who's pretty freaked out by this part too. So I try not to look down...only at where my next foot will be placed...I'm pretty much filled with a blank minded state of got-to-do-it-ness...and I have some quietly encouraging and deeply appreciated help from Luis across the seemingly impossible parts. And there are about 3 of these crazy stretches to cross...I feel incredibly grateful for the solid earth that receives us at the base of the canyon wall...we congratulate ourselves on arriving intact and gaze in awe at the crossing we just completed on the wall of ash above.
We still need to climb back out...I'm thinking we'll have to do the same basic trek on the other side of the canyon. But I'm rewarded with a simple river crossing on a log, and a reasonable hike out. Yes it's uphill, and I do find myself panting in search of oxygen...and it takes a while...but once again I feel grounded and safely enveloped by the landscape. After many hours of hiking we all reach the hostel, hot showers, a tasty dinner with our group and some participatory dancing with the young girls in the community (who dance a lot faster than I seem to have the strength for)...all is good...tomorrow a day of rest...and satisfaction.
Sunday, March 29/30 ?
A very quiet day in Chugchilan...reading, writing, visiting with the ecolodge nearby...looking at the systems they have set up and their interaction with the community. I interview the caretaker...got some great footage. It's now evening and a whole new crop of people have come to the hostel. We meet them all at dinner and once again, they're a thoroughly delightful lot. This place is like a magnet for cool people. Everybody has their story to share...I'm going to miss these kinds of interactions when I'm finished with my travels....
Time to head back to Latacunga. Going along the northern part of the loop this time...hopefully the road is better. So we take the milk truck, which is a Toyota pick-up truck with two big barrels of milk on it and some passengers. You get to stand in the back and hang on for dear life...not too hard for the first few km but as the truck goes along we pick up more passengers....always room for more it seems. We're the only gringas on the truck and at its peak there are 13 adults and 7 children PLUS our luggage in the truck bed. And believe me, that's crowded! I'm sort of hanging on right at the back of the truck...and I seem to be the back rest for the young woman in front of me...there's this general body pressure towards the back of the truck....right where my chosen spot is. I keep trying to push back towards the front...lots of body language going on here. I watch in amazement as a mother nurses her baby while the truck is bumping along and while she's standing up in the back. I barely have enough balance to pull out my camera once in a while to snap a photo without falling out. And then we hit a road block....a landslide has dropped a huge blockage of soil and rocks in the road....everybody out of the truck so they can gun it over the muddy pile of debris. A little inconvenient but I got some great photos out of it. The real challenge comes when it's time to get back on the truck. Everybody RUNS for a spot and, of course, they all beat me to it...by the time I climb on I'm further back than I was before....if that's possible.
But the scenery is truly magnificent...we drive along muddy, bumpy, curvy roads stopping every once in a while to pick up a plastic bucket of milk someone has left waiting for us. It gets poured in the big barrel, we move on to the next awaiting bucket. The ride to Sichlos takes just under 2 hours...I feel as though I've had a workout from hanging on but the ride is the high point of the day. As I watch the milk being poured into the barrel, I know well why my stomach might be a bit out of sorts....I really don't hesitate to eat anything that's offered to me....and this is just one example of a food that might be a little difficult for my system.
A few hours later we arrive in Latacunga...looks like we're not going to be able to spend the last week on an Ecuadorian beach as I'd hoped....partly due to that serious flooding between here and the coast....would make the trip far too lengthy or perhaps even impossible. So we're headed to Cuenca...one of those UNESCO heritage site cities...probably going to spend just a little time there and then to Vilcabamba for some hiking and peace and tranquility and then maybe to the coast to grab a bus to Lima for my flight back to the US. Coming in for a long weekend to see my sweet girl Corinthia and to reconnect with my friends and to take care of some odds and ends. It'll be nice to be home....always nice to be home. Then I'll be headed off to Hawaii for a month...the Big Island....the volcanic landforms there are supposed to be amazing....