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Published: December 15th 2009
Museums, Churches and Thieves: Aren't All Big Cities The Same? That was my initial impression after leaving Quito by bus. Why are we spending any time at all in a city when we could be climbing a volcano, river rafting in the cloud forest or hiking to Alpine Lakes? Then I took a minute to think about what I had seen- the soaring 4,784 meter Volcan Pichincha, still active. Impossibly beautiful churches hundreds of years old with interiors coated in gold. A 500 year old bible... 500 years old!! The book was probably held by the priests as they tried to convert the Quitus Indians, killed supposed witches and held Sunday mass. Old town Quito is a maze of tall buildings that are layered on one another, dissected by windy streets going up and down steep hills. A dodgy climb to the top of the Basilica del Voto Nacional reveals the city's grandeur. From this vantage point the city seems like water, poured from heaven, spilling out into the 2000 meter high valley. A ride up the teleferico to 3900 meters, giving us a taste of the high altitude Andean cordillera with little effort. In the distance you can see the
journey has just begun if you plan on hiking to Volcan Pichincha, while below your feet the you notice strange plants covers the ground. Alpine cushion plants at the top were similar to the ones Ive seen at Torres del Paine
, 5500 km away... ahh the Andes
I also managed to get robbed. It wasn't the first time and I'm sure it won't be the last! This time the ladrones used the old "squirt him with mustard" trick. It works like this: Suddenly, while using the toilet, you find your ass to be covered in condiment- in this case Thousand Island Dressing. An elderly gentleman rushes to your aid, seeking to brush off the mess. I believe what's supposed to happen next is you turn around and set your bag down or perhaps wear it loosely to the side, while the second thief rushes in and steals the bag in the confusion. Instead what happened was I told the old man forcefully, "no tocarme abuelo, me entiendes!?" with crazy eyes. I knew it was a trap, so I went out of the bathroom and set my things down at the table, leaving them in plain view so as to separate the wheat from the chafe. As I pretended to turn
my back to get a paper towel from the attendant, I saw the culprit. 5'9", well dressed, skinny. Without hesitation or hurry, he lifted only my camera bag to his shoulder and slowly walked away. Running towards him, I pushed him from behind, "Pinche ladron, se mata mother fucker!" He turned to reveal a set of beady little eyes, wide open with fright. I was scared too, but I realized in that moment most thieves do not like confrontation and this was no exception. He gently set the bag down and ran out of the plaza... moments later the Police arrived and Jenny came out of the ladies room. Wow lots of explaining to do! Why do thieves always pick on the big gringo?
I suppose my negativity was because when I'm in a city, I'm always thinking of the mountains. I felt like we I was wasting my time in Quito spending three days to see buildings, monuments and restaurants. These things can be found in every city, anywhere- while 5000 meter Cotopaxi Volcano that dominates the Quito skyline exists nowhere else on Earth. "Why am I skipping ___ to see __?" It's like
a mantra, where I replace the name of the mountains and cities depending on where I am. In this case I replaced a trip to see glacier capped Cotopaxi to see the Equator monument, eat guinea pigs and taste history.
Fortunately in Cuenca both extremes are in close proximity. The cobblestone streets of old town are just minutes from world class canyoning and the alpine splendor of Las Cajas National Park. In Cuenca you can have nature and culture! It was Jen's first time Canyoning
, and I promised her that it would be the most fun she could have without getting arrested. I nullified her fear of exposed heights by appealing to her connection with the earth: "Jen, the only way to see a magical slot canyon carved by a sacred river is by rappelling down it!" I realized by finding an excuse I had defined why I love canyoning so much. It goes like this: Rivers are pretty special right? Canyons are pretty special right? Swimming is pretty fun right? Big cliffs you can fall off of are exciting right? In canyoning you get all of that! You can only safely navigate slot canyons with ropes and survive
the freezing cold water with wetsuits- something our ancestors lacked. You get to see places which human eyes rarely see, where the magical ability of water to carve chasms into the rocks beneath the forest is on full display.
It was fairly challenging to find a Tour Operator that offered canyoning in Cuenca. The one I did find said it was a new tour and there were only a few pictures I could find, so I was a bit skeptical. We met our guides, Monster and Pedro, and they were super cool! They completely enjoyed themselves the entire trip, a mark of a great guide. The only hints that this was a new tour was the lack of drybags and booties/gloves. The canyon was first class, and its drops and clots reminded me of "The Big Nige" canyoning tour in New Zealand
, which was the best canyoning Ive done. The Rio Amarillo has a strong hue of yellow coming from the underlying rocks. The forest above formed a green canopy, making the canyon dark and misty.
The trip started with a wade to the edge of our first drop, about a 5 feet plunge into a large pool. The water was freezing bewneath our feet...
I figured I might as well get the wetsuit working and jumped in feet first trying not to get too wet. Holy shit it was cold! I turned around to watch Jen, and with eyes wide open we all saw her belly flop into the frigid pool- welcome to Alpine canyoning! We couldnt stop laughing, and she was all smiles for most of the trip. The only negative was no neoprene on our hands and feet, but even that allowed us to feel the full effects of the river and was probably therapeutic for sore ankles and wrists. After multiple slides, jumps and abseils we stopped for tea and snacks. Just when we got warm, it was time to continue. After more excitement replete with high fives, screams of joy and hair raising leaps of faith between boulders into shallow pools; we arrived to the end. There was a choice- a final 75 meters of 3 steep rope descents into a narrow cataract or a hike out. This biggest section was optional, but I convinced Jen to do it despite her reluctance. Once we committed to the first and second 20 meter waterfalls we arrived at la ventana pool, where
there was no turning back. The guides worked as fast as they could to rearrange the ropes for the descent while we stood waiting, chest deep in the ice cold pool. I looked through the window of rocks over the edge- it was 35 meters straight down into a shallow pool of stones. "It's probably best you don't look over the edge" I said to Jen, but of course she didn't listen. I could see the fear in her eyes, but I assumed the shaking was from the cold water? We tried to chimney ourselves above the incessant flow of just above freezing water. Finally the ropes were set and I went first. Leaning over the edge, waterfall screaming and mist spraying, you let your weight sink into the rope. Instinct takes over as you once you put your trust in that rope, place your feet and slide down. Your fear keeps you honest as the river bathes you in its nourishing current... this is living! Once at the bottom I watched Jen fearlessly come down, whereas before I went she thought she might vomit from fear! We hiked out, talking about the thrills we had. Jen, travelling for the
next 12 weeks through Peru, Bolivia and Chile said, "I wonder if there's anywhere else along my trip I can do this!" yes, she was a convert!
After a half days rest we got up at 7am to go on our overnight excursion into Parque Nacional Las Cajas arranged by Expeditions Apullacta. Our guide Fernando was super nice as well, speaking little English but wonderfully clear Spanish. We hitched a ride on a gravel truck to the park entrance(this was the 'public transport' option!), where we switched to someone else's truck bed and were let off at the trailhead. The drive up was quickly spectacular, going straight up into wide and green glacial valleys. Jagged peaks were bathing in fog, and a light mist came down. When we started our hike, our guide turned into a walking encyclopedia of the plants and birds! We breathlessly hiked up the the pass to sweeping views of the Alpine Lake Wonderland of Las Cajas. In the distance was the clear path of the Inca Trail. Hundreds of lakes spread out in all directions from this overlook, and this pass was the highest altitude of the backpacking trip and the highest elevation I
would get to this vacation: 4088 meters. After a brief rest, we continued on past Puya stalks
and cushion plants
. Back at the Apullacta office when we were packing our bags they had so many rubber boots for rent, and we soon realized why! So...much...mud..... I mean they told us about it but we thought, what's wrong with a little water and mud for 2 experienced backpackers? But this was no ordinary place. Las Cajas is basically a giant sponge, the cushion plants and lakes holding tremendous amounts of fresh water- thus its importance to the people of surrounding communities. You aren't really walking over solid ground as much as behind held above the water table by a durable cushion of plants. Where the plants fail or where they haven't colonized, your feet descend into the mud and water. Once section of firm cushion plants had a hold in it, when I looked inside I could see running water underneath even though there was no stream to be found! Some parts of the trail were quite sad. When one trekking route gets muddy its in our nature to walk next to the mud on the fresh plants so as not to get
stuck. Then that route through the plants gets trampled and another one develops. Soon there's a 4 meter wide mud highway in what used to be pristine vegetation. I suppose this is why when visitation to sensitive areas gets too high, the Park Services are forced to build raised trails from wood planks
It wasn't long before we connected with the Inca trail. Certain creek crossings had the original Inca stone work! That was pretty cool, but for me things got way more interesting when the Polylepis Trees began to appear. Polylepis trees
are the highest growing tree in the world, growing on the slopes of some Chilean Volcano's as high as 4,600 meters. They form pure stands, their contorted orange and flaky trunks fighting the incessant rain and wind. Downhill we went, seeing countless streams, lakes and cliffs as the lichens and moss passed beneath our feet. We arrived at the Inca Ruins, a camp for the messengers along the Inca Trail. Just the foundation remained, and as our guide explained the significance of the moon shape(the moon comes out at night, so the place to sleep needs to be that shape) and the lack of doors (doors allow evil into the house, you must crawl in), the clouds cleared.
These mountains were much larger than I had anticipated! From pictures of Cajas they don't seem all that dramatic- but in person they are imposing and dominating. The harsh wind and cold makes you think twice about the possibility of climbing a distant peak that seemed so easy from maps, pictures and google earth. Finally after another hour of hard hiking we arrived at our lakeside camp. We took pictures along the lake shore as our guide caught a small trout. Dinner was delicious, there was almost too much food!
The next day we hiked out, which was just as long but much more muddy. After hiking up and over a ridge during a fierce storm with 50 km/hr winds and 10 meter visibility, we descended into the east side of Las Cajas. things suddenly felt much more tropical as slowly the forest became thicker and thicker. Epiphytes appeared, as did a new host of flowers, trees and birds. Walking through this Tropical Montane Cloudforest
3500 meters high, its easy to sense the transition between this forest and the Amazon Rainforest so far below. It is lush, moist and just as dense; humid and biodiverse with little difference between summer and
winter temperatures. It rains everyday, and the bright overcast skies make the forest green so deep it penetrates the eyelids. Epiphytes, Mushrooms, Moss, Liverwort, Flowers, Birds... it was all quite magical! We made it to the huge glacial valley of Lago Llaviucu, and during our lunch break in a clearing of this grand glacial valley our guide pointed out gaps in the cliffs where Andean Condors nest. We had a laugh as he called out to them, "brothers, come give us a flight so we can see your majesty!". Without fail, a condor appeared from over the cliffs! Then another, then another. For the next 10 minutes we watched the 3 magnificent birds soar above us. This was the first time Jen had seen the Andean Condor, the largest bird in the sky, and being an Ornithologist it seemed to mean a lot to her! It made me think of Las Jaivas, a classic Chilean band who's music seems to capture the essence of the Andes
We finally made it to the car, and began the drive home. It was then that I began to feel ill, each bump in the road making things worse in my stomach. Once we got to Hostal Macondo my situation had deteriorated, but not enough to give our
wonderful guide Fernando a healthy tip and take our bags inside. Jen cleaned up and went to the Internet cafe as I cleaned up and took a rest. The rest turned into diarrhea, and the diarrhea turned into stomach spasms, which then escalated into vomiting. She went out to dinner alone and came back with much needed sprite and juice for the sickly traveller so far from home. That night the entire contents of my body were expelled for seemingly no reason. I mean, we all ate the same things, drank the same water; so why would i be the only one to get food poisoning? Why me, Why now!?
The next day Jen explored Cuenca on her own as I recovered. She met an elderly man who showed her around town, he thought it a shame she was travelling alone! She soon discovered what international solo travellers know- that friendly company is never far away, be it a local stranger or new friends you meet in a hostal. I spent the day laying in bed , consuming nothing but water, apple juice, sprite and rice. I also kicked my caffeine habit and lost 2 notches in my belt, so
I guess it wasn't all bad right? One thing I did do was arrange our flight to Guayaquil($97 for 2 people, one way!) and after 2 days of rest we were off to meet our clan for the 7 day live-aboard SCUBA diving trip in the Galapagos.
After the grand Galapagos trip, I returned back to Quito while Jen began her epic South American journey. I was in Quito for 2 days before my flight left and I had planned to go river rafting- but the city had a few more things in store... On rising from my hotel at sunrise, I looked out the window to see something which few get to see- the rising rays of the sun lighting up Cotopaxi Volcano in all her glory! A friend who lives in Quito says that she never gets to see Cotopaxi like this- was this the Pachamama laughing at me, begging me to return to see the things that really warm my heart while travelling? I thought rafting the Quijos River would allow me to have the last laugh, but again I was betrayed- the road to El Chaco was closed due to a repair of an oil
pipeline! All I could do was smile as I sipped my coca tea, pondering my return to this wonderful place...
Los Alpes Bed and Breakfast http://quitolosalpes.com
Terra Diversa (Canyoning near Cuenca) http://www.terradiversa.com
Expediciones Appullacta (Backpacking Parque Nacional Las Cajas) http://www.apullacta.com
Waterdog Tours (Rafting the Rio Quijos) http://www.waterdogtours.com
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