Saturday, July 31, 2010
Up and Down and Up Again
Strong gusts of crisp evening air pushed altocumulus clouds over the Andean terrain, stars graced the night sky flirting with the Laguna Quilotoa a 1000 meters below our tent.
Two hours south of Quito positioned in the middle of the Andeas is the Quilotoa loop. The loop consists of a series of towns connected by rudimentary roads and century old walking trails. There is no bus service connecting the towns. The best way to travel is by foot or the back of a pick-up truck.
An array of patchwork fields flood the Andean mountain side. Brightly clad Quichua farmers straddle the hillside wielding machetes as they harvest wheat, corn, peas and a variety of other produce.
Alaena, Matthais and I needed an escape from hustle of Quito. A few days of hiking in the mountains seemed in order. In true Ecuadorian fashion the guide books and everyone we talked to said it was easy to navigate the landscape.
I woke up to the sun pouring into the tent as Alaena nimbely performed an early morning routine of "extreme yoga" on the edge of the crater. My legs still burned from the 14 kilometer hike from Zumbahua to the small mountain village of Quilotoa the day before.
At 12,400 feet Quilotoa sits on the rim of Laguna Quilotoa. The greenish water fills 250 meters of the 800 year old volcanic crater. Half way around the crater rim trails meander down into endless valleys below.
Our directions told us we were looking for such trail, the only problem was deciding which trail would be best. Alaena took control and decided we would go down a well worn tail that wound through patches of soft sand in which she slid down giggling. Matthais and I kicked the sand and cursed it for filling our shoes.
As we marched down the trail it suddenly ended. Off in the distance we saw a few fellow hikers descending down the extinct volcano. We set off down a Quichua meander and intersect the travelers. Much like us they to have no idea where they were, but they had some idea. They new we needed to make it to a town and from there traverse a gorge and ascend into the cloud forest.
Splitting the heavenly bound green mountains around Quilotoa is a rift valley. On either side shear rock faces stare at each other in ominous fashion. As we descended the rift it was clear we would be struggling up the other side in only a matter of time.
As the 6 of us finally approached the cobble stone streets of Chugchilan we staggered towards Hostal Cloud Forest for cold beers and snacks. As we sat sipping cocktails relaxing our weary legs by the fire a team of brightly dressed adolescents descended on us forcing us into a cultural dance reminiscent of the hocky pocky.
As Dave, a kiwi we met on the trail earlier, stood holding hands swinging our right feet in and taking them back out again. Suddenly I was taken by surprise as a little girl pulled me with all her force into the middle of our circle. I tried to follow her makeshift footwork, but it soon became apparent she had no idea what the proper moves were. I moved my rubbery legs until the young'ins finally allowed us to relax again.
A warm shower, a bowl of fruit, granola and a healthy portion of coffee tamed my morning hunger. I threw on my pack and headed out to meet the others. Our destination was set. Some 5 hours away Isinlivi awaited us. We were optimistic, the Kiwis held what seemed to be the key to our success. They possessed a hand drawn map accompanied by a written description of the route.
Helpful written directions illustrated our way. We followed phrases such as; follow the road until you pass three houses. From there follow a grassy path that goes past some trees. After this you will see a trail going into the gorge follow this trail to the river.
As we wandered down the canyon face I realized we were in for a serious hike.
Before leaving for our trek Alaena left her shoes on a taxi, she was forced to purchase cheap shoes. Because of this her feet were suffering from a series of blisters that littering her feet from our three days on the trail.
As we got to the river at the bottom of the rift Alaena hit her breaking point. She made the decision to pop her blisters. I passed her my Leatherman and she went to work.
Alaena plunged my knife into her feet as a group of gringos approached. They informed us that we only had 2 hours of hiking left and it was not much of a climb out of the valley.
I looked up at the looming trail seriously doubting their intel.
45 minuets later as we stopped for lunch in preparation for our climb out of the canyon I realized my knife was missing. I swallowed hard, looked across the Indian Jones swinging bridge and pictured the mound of grass where Alaena left my knife. I took one swig of water and sprinted off.
The sweat rolled down my face while my lungs burned from the lack of oxygen at 3,000 meters. I kept imagining what it would be like to be an Inca messenger, sprinting the mountains with dire information.
I made the run in 30 minutes. Walking back across the bridge with my knife in hand a light drizzle mixed with my sweat. Everyone was ready to go, I threw on my pack looked up at the massive wall we needed to ascend, took a deep breath and started to hike.
A thousand deep breaths latter I stood on the crest of the rift and looked down at the speck of llamas, cows and thatch roofed homes. We naively believed we were half way done.
We stood on the opposite side of Isinlivi, between us spanned another gorge. According to our shit map we so diligently followed all day we should have arrived in Isinlivi. I took a big handful of granola looked at our exhausted crew and took the first step.
Down and up we went.
My last step put me in Isinlivi, a town consisting of 300 people, one church, a square, 3 shops and a hostal. We pitched our tent in a field of cow pies ate tuna sandwiches, guzzled down water and watched the flames of our fire dance.
We passed out under the cover of clouds laying in a circle around the fire. We awoke to the sun beating down on us and boarded the milk truck back to civilization.
at 7:46 PM