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”.
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.
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|
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.
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|