“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Undiscovered Ecuador

Cotopaxi Volcano
We had just saddled up and were following Diego, our Ecuadorian mountain biking guide, down the very steep flanks of an Andean mountain when he promptly executed a spectacular over-the-handlebars face plant, sprawling in a cloud of dust and pebbles. Not a very confidence inducing beginning to an edgy ride down the side of a slippery, sliding mountain. My sea level acclimated lungs were burning from the altitude and the near-vertigo-inducing vista below didn’t give me any comfort that I would make it to the base of the mountain intact. Diego’s dump didn’t do anything to persuade me otherwise.

This was our first full day in the Ecuadorian highlands and we were getting a jump out of the gate, hitting full stride immediately with a bike ride (more accurately, plunge) down the flanks of Cotopaxi, a snow covered 19,347 foot peak in the Andes, the second highest peak in Ecuador. Our bike ride began far up the mountain’s face, at 14,000 feet. We were below the snow line but above—well above—tree line and the terrain was barren, rocky and slick with loose scree and deep volcanic dust. Not a good combination for speeding down a mountain. So we all started out cautiously, squeezing brakes till our hands ached, but as we gained confidence our speeds increased. That’s when the carnage began and practically everyone in our group got to experience Ecuadorian dirt up close and personal--wipeouts which naturally came to be known as “Diegos”.

The flanks of Cotopaxi leveled out as we continued downward, gradually turning into level doubletrack that scribed the perimeter of the mountain. Our exhilarating plummet turned into a slog through high plateaus, starkly beautiful with miles of uncluttered backdrop in all directions. Little vegetation and no trees made for a forbiddingly captivating landscape and we enjoyed the better part of the day pedaling through the Andean highlands as the weather gradually deteriorated, turning first to rain and then to a pelting hailstorm that covered the ground with a white dusting of icy pellets. Enchanting.
An excellent introduction to this small, overlooked country. Only slightly larger than the state of Nevada, Ecuador encompasses a remarkable variety of landscapes-- glacier-covered peaks, desolate high plateaus, verdant highlands, lush green Amazon jungle and the bustling cosmopolitan atmosphere of Quito. Trekkers tend to head to the more glamorous South American destinations of Brazil, Peru and Chile which is a big mistake. Ecuador has as much natural beauty as its more famous neighbors and, unlike those three countries which are huge and sprawling, Ecuador is small enough to give trekkers a chance to experience all it has to offer in just a few days.

That compactness became quickly apparent. We had spent the evening before our Cotopaxi excursion at Hacienda La Alegria, a working dairy ranch dominated by a sprawling 1911 era ranch house. The best way to experience a ranch is on horseback, of course, and we had saddled up and hit the trail, riding among the lush fields and smattering of small hovels that huddled along the narrow paths through the ranch’s backcountry. And yet within a couple of hours of leaving La Alegria we had transitioned from that inviting green ranchland to the harsh mountain slopes of the Andes. Try that in Peru, where a day’s drive often gets you only halfway to your next stop.

From Cotopaxi we headed to the village of Banos--if you go to Ecuador, you have to go to Banos—the country’s adventure capital. Nestled between two mountain ridges in a subtropical cloud forest and surrounded by waterfalls and near vertical forested walls, Banos is small and charming. The village square is dominated by the basilica of Nuestra SeƱora del Agua Santa, a Gothic style cathedral constructed from volcanic rock from nearby Tungurahua, a still-active volcano.

We took advantage of Banos’ offerings, biking the road from Banos to Puyo and stopping at Pailon del Diablo (Devil’s Punchbowl), a hidden waterfall in a valley near the road. The ride is spectacular, traveling through tunnels and overlooking the broad and scenic Pastaza River valley. The hike down to the Punchbowl is easy and a short crawl through a low overhang leads behind the cascade.

The Amazon jungle
In keeping with Banos’ reputation, all kinds of adventure activities are available including horseback riding, bungee jumping, ziplining and rafting. We took advantage of a roadside zipline, plunging hundreds of feet into a deep canyon and across a wild river, flying like Superman above the jungle. We ended our bike ride in the town of Rio Verde, enjoying the sweetness of plantain and queso from a roadside vendor. Being a tourist center, Banos has an active nightlife with a row of restaurants and bars near city center. The Leprechaun Bar seems to be the most popular and the open courtyard with a blazing bonfire is a nice backdrop to the salsa music that keeps the crowd moving in this two-story bar.

We reluctantly left Banos to other partiers but the Amazon jungle beckoned. The terrain changed noticeably as we made our way into the Amazon basin. The high cloud forest gave way to lush rainforest as we descended into Ecuador’s Amazon jungle lowlands. We arrived at the Shangri la Lodge, perched on a 300-foot bluff overlooking the Rio Ansu, a broad, lazy flowing river that cuts through the edge of the Amazon jungle. We immediately plunged into the rainforest, hiking along the high bluffs overlooking the Rio Ansu. The contrast between the highlands of Banos and the rainforest could not have been more drastic. Heat and humidity replaced cool mountain air. Bugs and thick vegetation replaced open skies and soaring birds. A tarantula the size of a small skillet greeted us in our lodge. Welcome to the jungle.

We floated the Rio Ansu, immersing ourselves in the tropical rain forest. Experiencing the Amazon rainforest from a river is the only way to go and we spied birds everywhere before stopping along the way to make our way through the forest to an indigenous village. Visiting with a villager in the family’s hut gave a brief glimpse into the lives of the villagers and we tasted manioc and chicha, a fermented drink made from manioc.

The jungle is hot and one of the few ways to escape the pervasive heat is to climb a waterfall. Fortunately, there are many waterfalls in the rainforest and we stumbled on a pretty little stream carving its way out of the jungle. We scrambled up a narrow gorge, wading through a rushing stream that plunged over boulders and splashed over rocky ledges. A relatively easy climb with rope assists brought us to the bottom of a 100-foot cascade where a fine mist formed a rainbow in a narrow slot canyon. A picturesque finale to a cooling hike.

Many days of high activity deserved a rest and we moved onto the highlands to Papallacta where we kicked back and soaked in thermal hot springs with the cloud forest and mountain peaks framing our view. Our rest was short-lived, however, and the next morning we were up early for a hike through the cloud forest, looking for exotic birds. A rainy day and cool mountain temps made for a classic high altitude hike through thick forest and high fields.

The transition from the lowlands back into Papallacta’s high altitude prepared us for the Santa Lucia Highlands Plateau, on the northwestern side of Antisana volcano, back up again to near 14,000 feet. Antisana is typical Andean terrain; open, barren, beautiful. We hiked along a road in the national park while Andean condors, variable hawks and buzzard eagles rode the thermals between peaks and caracaras, horses, cattle and sheep grazed the open grasslands, the tableau dominated by Antisana, at 18,875 feet the fourth highest volcano in Ecuador. The summit was wreathed in clouds but the massive flanks gleamed in the afternoon sun, brilliant white glaciers reaching like fingers down from the clouds.

Sunset on the Rio Ansu, Amazon
I’ll take Ecuador. Where else can you experience 19,000 foot peaks and near sea level jungle with mountains, cloud forest, rainforest, rivers, waterfalls and glaciers thrown in—all easily reachable without grueling drives? Ecuador is incredibly beautiful, the people are inviting and friendly and the American dollar (the official currency) goes a long way. And the best part is, few people have discovered its attractions so you pretty much have the country to yourself.

DETAILS:  We took this trip with Active South America, http://www.activesouthamerica.com/.  Their Ecuador trip is called the Tapir Tour.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sure glad you keep a blog - I get way more detail about your adventures this way than straight from the horse's mouth!!! WOW, what fun! You are SUCH a good writer - are you submitting these 2 latest anywhere?