Category: Hiking

:: pasochoa paramo ::

It is abnormal to start a hike at almost 12,700 feet. The air is fairly thin, there are no trees, and the wind can howl like nobody’s business.  This is not terrain for a leisurely stroll, which was good, because we felt like a proper hike up a mountain.

Pasochoa is one of the smaller mountains in the Ecuadorian Andes, but it is also one of the more accessible.  It is overlooked by the riches of the Andean Sierra, with seven higher peaks visible from its summit, including Cotopaxi and Antisana, both of which are close to a mile higher.  At a mere 13,800 feet, or 4,200 metres, it is a fairly easy, non-technical climb.

Instead of climbing from lower down the mountain, which most people do from the northwest side, we drove up through the fields, cattle gates and onto the paramo from the west side.  We had been staying on a lovely farm and this access point was just a few minutes up the road so it was ideal.  We didn’t expect to be able to drive as far up as we did, but we were grateful given the inclement weather and additional weight of our 16 month old on our backs.

The paramo is a universal ecosystem up in the high Andes and is evident from the tussock grasses, empty spaces and large birds of prey circling above.  It is kind of like moorlands and certainly without good visibility, one could easily get lost in the fairly featureless expanses.

It was a fairly cloudy day so many of the peaks were mostly hidden, but we still enjoyed being on the lookout for the larger peaks.  Really we just wanted to get out and stretch our legs and finally have the chance to summit a proper Andean peak. The open expanses in all directions were quite stunning, it is hard to believe that when you stand atop the summit, it is only about twenty or thirty miles from the centre of Quito.

Fog seemed to roll in from all sides, but especially up from the crater of Pasochoa.  An extinct volcano, it’s thrilling to see how previous eruptions have moulded the landscape and provided fertile ground for unique high altitude vegetation.

All four of us made it up to the top, though Piper was the only one really exhausted from the experience! As you can see – climbing mountains is hard work!

:: cloud forest ::

Some places in the world on the tourist trail can seem off the beaten path despite how well known they are.  Mindo is such a place.  Settled into a valley surrounded by lush cloud forest and small rivers rushing off the Andes Mountains, this small little town is a place to slow down and enjoy whatever nature is willing to reveal.

The town center is home to a few blocks of dusty streets, little shops, wood houses and a half-neglected town square.  From every corner you can see the clouds rolling in and out over the lush green landscape that surrounds Mindo.  Within minutes of the town center you can find yourself a million miles away, on the banks of a rushing river or on a trail surrounded by enormous leaves, tropical flowers and cascading waterfalls.

The cloud forests of Ecuador are home to an amazing array of biodiversity and birds.  Hummingbirds are such a common occurrence here that you can become almost complacent about seeing them zipping around mere feet from you – always too fast for the camera unless you are dedicated to photographing them.  The natural beauty is extremely accessible and almost hypnotic.

One of the great natural highlights of Mindo is the chance to hike in the cloud forest of the Mindo-Nambillo Reserve.  A rough hewn path traces the edges of hillsides and takes you down sharp slopes to small secluded waterfalls.  It is a trail where you will see a few people, but you can still feel as if you have the entire expanse of nature to yourself.  To reach it, you ride the several hundred metre long tarabita over the river valley below.  The tarabita can best be described as a metal cart suspended off of a solid cable that holds about six people.  Think coal mining cart crossed with a zip line run by a diesel engine.  It is magnificently simple and beautiful to dart across the open vistas on something that undoubtedly would not pass a safety check in the States or Europe.

There are other hikes around town including down the quiet road along Rio Blanco with its waters that flow directly out of the crater of the Guagua Pichincha volcano.  Or head to the La Casa Amarilla and follow trails through the guava plantations and up to a rickety perch high above town.

Of course if hiking isn’t your thing, then you can go for a relaxing tubing ride down the river or check out the Mindo butterfly farm.

Then again, maybe you need more adventure, in which case the canyoning and zip-lining options await.  The latter was quite fun as I went with our friend Aarne one morning.  We had a great time flying from hillside to hillside, sometimes upside down in the mariposa (butterfly) position!  It might not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it!

When you need an escape from all the nature, you can check out one of the local chocolate businesses in town.  El Quetzal, now famous for its chocolate tours and treats, started as an internet cafe.  The owner’s brownies were so good, and the supply of sufficiently good chocolate so spotty, that the owners decided to start producing their own chocolate.  Now you can tour the small production site and have an interesting overview of the process, and most importantly get a custom tasting of them all!  The chocolate is very good, and it is only available in Mindo, Ecuador and in Michigan – the home state of the American owner.

With a laid back feel and nature at every turn, Mindo is a lovely little getaway.  Spend a day or a week and you will surely recharge your batteries and feel like you escaped the big city for a while.

Thanks to all of our family and friends who have explored this area with us so far – it’s been a great adventure discovering and rediscovering different parts each time!

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Amongst the many places to stay, we highly recommend the little unknown airbnb ‘wooden cottage’ set amongst gorgeous gardens and hosted by the fabulous Clemencia and Jaime Beron.  Stay tuned for more about their expansive botanical garden, pitahaya plantation, haven for the local birds, homemade breakfasts and their very own frog concert – an amazing experience overall!

:: baños ::

There is something in the water in Baños, a small town in the middle of Ecuador.  Some people will tell you it is holy.  Others say that it has minerals that lead to better health.  Others don’t care about the water because they are too busy throwing themselves off bridges, swinging over cliff edges, and ziplining across river gorges, and quite frankly the water wouldn’t help them even if it did have magic properties!

Nestled in a peaceful river valley and guarded by the 5,000 metre high, and rather active, Tungurahua Volcano, Baños is a destination with a little bit of everything.  It is a common stopping point on the backpackers circuit, but it also attracts lots of local Ecuadorians for the spa baths and laid-back attitude.  It is a place that can tempt someone to visit for three days and then never leave – as evidenced by many of the hostel and restaurant owners!

With our 14 month old Piper in tow, thereby limiting the amount of white water rafting and mountain biking we could do, we opted to go for a lovely hike along the fields and hillsides overlooking Rio Pastaza.  We were hoping that Tungurahua would show itself, but it remained mysterious and shrouded in the clouds.

We wandered along a winding path up into the small fields and rampant plant life of the area.  The moisture that comes up out of the Amazon region and the lower altitudes makes the whole region from Ambato to Baños a prime fruit and vegetable growing territory.  We saw lots of tomate de arbol trees, also known as tomarillo (a fruit commonly made into juice here), maracuyas,  or passionfruit in English, (another fruit that makes an even better juice), and normal tomatoes as well.

In fact, we had a lovely little exchange with a family harvesting their tomatoes as they stood on the other side of the small river valley from their greenhouses.  They were using a tarabita – a small metal cart that hangs off of a metal cable operated by a pulley system.  Using this simple mechanised transportation system saved this family hours of hauling wooden crates of tomatoes down and then back up the steep slopes of the river gorge.  Cora helped to unload a few crates, gaining bemused looks from the family which was clearly not used to gringas moving their tomato harvest!  We exchanged a couple of cereal bars for fresh tomatoes – so good we enjoyed them right there as we hiked!

Back in Baños we wandered into churches and past cafes.  We saw a small local festival, admired the local graffiti and watched people at the ubiquitous candy shops pulling the equivalent of taffy in the doorways.  It was odd to see so many of these shops all offering their version of the same thing and literally standing mere feet from each other as they pulled long strings of the light brown sticky substances off of pegs.  Wrap and pull, wrap and pull, and at some point determine it is ready!

An unexpected find was a classic Italian trattoria, owned by a native Italian!  Carpe Diem had fantastic handmade pastas and a casual setting away from the main area of town that made it perfect for us.  We are not huge connoisseurs of Italian cuisine, but this was truly wonderful home style cooking.

A common outing from town is to hire bikes and ride the road down the river valley heading towards the jungle.  Along this road are a series of waterfalls, the most famous of which is El Pailon del Diablo or Devil’s Cauldron.  This thunderous waterfall carves its way through a narrow gorge to dramatic effect.  To truly experience it, you can walk down into the river gorge on a fairly well built path and then slink your way under and around rocks to stand virtually under the flow (bring a change of clothes).  It is loud, wet, and intense but well worth the effort to get so close to a true spectacle of nature.

A trip to Baños wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the baños, the thermal baths.  The main baths were in the centre of town at the base of a waterfall.  We opted to go as night fell to experience these magical waters under the stars.  Every afternoon they empty the pools and refill them from the source so we were treated to a lovely clean and hot thermal bath. Though we arrived early, soon the baths were full of people enjoying their warmth and healing.  It was a great experience seeing people of all walks of life relaxing and enjoying the waters.

Our home away from home for the couple of nights was La Casa Verde.  Set a couple of kilometres outside the city centre and right along the river, it is a quiet oasis with a very eco-friendly approach.  The hospitality from Sharon and Steven, the temporary managers, was phenomenal.  These two took a hiatus from teaching in international schools to slow down a bit and try their hand at running an eco hostel.  They did a fantastic job and had great insights on the area.  Strangely the actual owners intended to hold a lottery to ‘auction’ off the place.  For one dollar you could enter and they would pull out a winner, who would soon become the new owners.  Tempting as it was to pack it all in and move to Baños – we decided to skip the opportunity.  The world is just too big to settle down in one place quite yet, but Baños was a lovely place to experience!

:: at the edge of the jungle ::

We arrived at the small car park of our resort and were greeted by very helpful staff, and a very large tarantula.  The mammoth spider was a small reminder that we were no longer in the safe confines of the mountains when it came to wildlife.  Instead, we had descended to the very western edge of the hot, humid jungle that stretches 3,000 km to the east across an enormous swath of South America.

Cotococha Lodge sits right on the banks of the Rio Napo, part of the same riverine system that leads to the Amazon River.  The water rushing past our cabana would eventually find its way into the Atlantic Ocean after flowing through some of the densest jungle and most biodiverse areas on earth.  Sitting under the mosquito net with the lights out, there was nothing but bugs chirping, leaves rustling and the sound of rushing water.  It was pristinely relaxing to walk amongst the stone paths and sit under the thatched roofs with a cold beer.

Of course one of the true reasons for venturing into the jungle to is to see wildlife – mostly on the smaller scale.  We went for a walk the first evening with our local guide Samay and he showed us more different types of ants than you could possibly imagine could live in such a small space.

There were ants you can eat that taste a bit like citrus fruit, ants that you can use to stitch a wound, ants that you can rub on your skin to serve as insect repellant, leaf-cutter ants that ride atop the leaves like old sailors in sailing ships and of course bullet ants, the insect with the fiercest bite/sting in the animal kingdom.  Then there were butterflies, stick bugs, the aforementioned tarantulas, scorpions and numerous others that we didn’t see.  The variety and ability of these animals, and the people who live amongst them, to adapt and survive was truly stunning.

Of course it isn’t just the bugs that are amazingly diverse.  Trees and plants grow in startling numbers and can be used for just about any purpose – hiding from enemies or prey, covering yourself from the rain, serving as a weapon or just adorning oneself for ceremonial purposes.  Towering trees, prickly bushes and low-level ground cover all jostle for space and light, forming a layered environment that is all things to the local communities that rely on them for food, medicine and protection.

One of the true highlights of our trip was the community visit where we experienced many of the daily routines and traditions of the lowland Kichwa.  We were greeted at the river’s edge by an elderly woman who showed us how they pan for gold.  Once used more for traditional adornments, the communities now mostly take these small collections to Tena to sell to be made into jewellery in the larger markets of Quito.  It was amazing to watch the skill and ease of effort this lady went through to unearth the gold flecks, but also how minimal the outcome was for such a task.

We were lucky to be able to witness a small ceremony in the community.  Earlier that morning Cora’s mom received a rather vicious bite from an unseen insect.  By the time we arrived at the community, she was still suffering and the ladies there sensed her bad energy.  The bite had left parts of her hand and arm feeling numb and had brought about extensive pain to boot.  The ladies took a handful of leaves and swept them through the smoke and over and around her head.  The pain was still there, but she felt much better and more positive overall, and was thrilled to have experienced a truly local method.

The local drink of yuca cooked down into a frothy bowl of liquid sustains the population for much of the morning.  It was a little sickly sweet for our liking, but Samay told us that two litres of it will see you through even the most punishing physical labour.  I struggled to imagine how I would fit two litres of the drink into my stomach and then do anything other than take a nap.  Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see how they went through the steps of making it.

Being in the jungle, you are forced to think differently about how you obtain food.  Here, they use a long pipe and blow a dart out the other end towards their target bird or other animal.  Though seemingly simple, in reality it is extremely difficult to stabilise and aim the pipe, and then blow with sufficient power to actually puncture the target.  Piper really liked the blow gun.  Just 14 months old and ready to take out prey from fifty paces!  I suspect that if we allowed her one, she would gladly play in the garden with the pipe, though Mosa would almost surely not be too happy with being a constant target!

Being close to the river means that the community has a ready supply of mud to make some stunning ceramics.  You can see the finished example above of a bowl that we used for the local drink.  The process to form and dry the bowl is fairly similar to any other type of ceramic, however they use an extremely hot fire and bits of water to make the final touches or flair to the bowls.  The bowls are then painted using brushes of their own hair and the colours come from seed pods of local plants – especially reds and blacks. The finished products are rather clean, crisp designs that make for perfect little serving bowls.

Of course Piper couldn’t resist stealing peoples’ hearts and before too long Samay and his family had been painted her face with the same seed pods that they use on the dishes!  She was very happy with the outcome!

The river is key to life in this area having long served as a means to move people and products through the thick jungle. We used the river a couple of times, once to the community and once to a wonderful waterfall hike.  The heat of the jungle made the cool pool under the waterfall all the more refreshing.  And the return trip allowed us the chance to float down the river at a gentle pace.  It was amazingly tranquil to float down the middle of a jungle with the sun shining and the cool water lapping at our hands and feet.

All in all our few days at the edge of the jungle showed us the true diversity of this amazing ecosystem and whetted our appetite for the future prospect of a longer, more in depth exploration.

:: nest of the condor ::

Sometimes you don’t have to go far to find beauty and seclusion.  A mere hour or so from our house into the Rio Pita Valley, and heading directly for Cotopaxi Volcano, we found Condor Machay waterfall.

The path to this 80 metre high waterfall takes you along the rushing river, through a green lush paradise with moss clinging to every tree and rock, tree branches overhanging the trail, waterfalls trickling down rocks and roots claiming ownership over the path.

Tucked into a deep sided gorge, you can see why the waterfall was named Condor Machay, which means ‘nest of the condor’ in the area’s indigenous language Quechua.  Here you feel as if you are a million miles away from humanity, when really you are mere miles from the outskirts of Quito.  It is intoxicating.

The path snakes across several bridges, some rather rickety, crossing the river as it cuts its way through the landscape.  After a wonderfully leisurely, and yet full, hike, you get a quick glimpse of the surprise at the end, before diving back into the trees.  Finally, the path opens into an expansive space full of mist from the water crashing down.  The scale is hard to believe without a subject in front.  With its ever changing light, the gorge feels like a completely different place.

Sitting here watching the water running off the rock face above, it is easy to feel a connection with the landscape and to ponder the monumental forces that nature can affect.  It is almost enough to wander off into the wild and just stay out there!

 

 

DIRECTIONS:

Search for ‘Rumipamba Waterfalls Trailhead’on Google Maps (and open if Waze if you want).  Be sure to go to this point and not where it is marked Condor Machay as you may end up on the other side of the gorge, or where there is no road/access.  Park at the bottom of the hill and pay the parking attendant a few dollars.  It’s fairly safe but make sure you don’t leave anything in sight in your vehicle as usual and lock everything up.  There are two trails starting at this point – to the right is Condor Machay. To the left is also meant to be beautiful but about 20 minutes in requires a wet and sometimes deep river crossing so be prepared.  It takes us an hour or so from Cumbaya to arrive, and about 1h40 minutes to 2 hours to get to the waterfall itself.  Enjoy!

:: volcanic camping ::

Mere minutes from the middle of the world sits a deep volcanic crater that is still technically active.  I say active because it isn’t extinct, but it also hasn’t erupted in hundreds of thousands of years.  So active might be a bit of a misnomer.

Pululahua Volcano and crater are now protected as the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve.  Pululahua, which means ‘cloud of water’ in Quichua, is aptly named as most days the crater is filled with thick clouds that roll in late morning.  It’s quite a magical thing to experience, but for those trying to see the crater for a brief moment from the upper viewpoint it can often be impossible.

At the base of the crater are a few small farmsteads and a campsite, complete with fire pits, running water, and for some of our friends the key selling point – flushing toilets.  Along with three other families, we took advantage of the still dry weather and spent two nights away from the city in the quite heart of a volcano.

There are two ways into, or out of, the crater.  You can either drive a rather fun dirt track with too many switchbacks to count or you can hike down from the rim.  With all our camping kit and little Piper we decided to drive.  Once all four carloads of people arrived we were quite the group of eight adults and 11 kids.

We had a great time sitting around the campfire, going on a hike, and playing bocce with glow in the dark balls!

 

We were lucky and had amazingly clear weather almost all weekend depsite the usual clouds that roll in.  Through it all Piper was a true outdoor loving camping guru – even though it was her first time.  She loved trying to follow the other kids around, slept great in amongst the sleeping bags, and generally just had a fantastic time.

All in all it was a terrific weekend with great weather, laughter and friends! Looking forward to future camping adventures in Ecuador soon!

 

:: the hills are alive with zebras ::

One of the better ways to spend a three day weekend is with good friends, in nature, seeing wild animals.  So this is exactly what we did.  With our good friends Armin and Brigitte, we drove down to Mountain Zebra National Park in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.  Originally set up as a conservation area to help preserve the dwindling Cape Mountain Zebra population, this wonderfully diverse, but compact, park is also home to lions, black rhino, cape buffalo and cheetahs among many other species.

The Cape Mountain Zebra was once on the very edge of extinction, but with the founding of Mountain Zebra and a couple of other smaller national parks in South Africa, this sub-species of mountain zebra is on the mend, though still vulnerable due to its limited habitat.  These animals are slightly smaller than their brethren of the plains and they have all white bellies, but really unless you are a zoologist, it is pretty hard to tell the differences, unless the two types are standing next to each other!  Zebras are great safari animals, because they generally are unbothered by close interactions with humans and tend to offer some fun facial expressions or physical activities.

Seeing the zebras was great, but it was the opportunity to track cheetahs on foot that really captured our imagination.  After our wonderful experience at the Kwa-Cheetah Centre in South Africa, we thought a little walking safari to see a cheetah would be ideal.  We set off bouncing along one of the more rugged tracks in the park until our guide picked up a radio signal of one of the cheetahs.  Some of the cheetahs wore radio collars both for ease of tracking for the walking safaris and also for research purposes.  It did make the experience seem a little contrived, but then we set off on foot up a rocky hillside and practically walked right next to the dozing female cheetah in the shade of a small bush. The radio signal told the guide which general vicinity to look, but we were actually rather lucky to find her as cheetahas are ridiculously lazy and unless you happen upon one, like we did, they tend not to move unless they are hunting.  Once there, we had a lovely experience not more than twenty feet from her.  We had a quiet conversation about cheetahs and then after about ten minutes went back on our merry way.

We spent the rest of the weekend on self-guided drives around the park seeing rock monitors, slightly intense looking spiders, a herd of cape buffalo with a baby that wandered right past our car and even a distant sighting of the black rhino.  This last sighting prompted a fun little stalking exercise along a curvy track as we drove forwards and backwards trying to spot them in the distance through a little copse of trees.  We had hoped the rhino would re-emerge on the other side, but to no avail.  They were quite happy tucked away out of sight and this time we had neither permission, nor the inclination, to wander into the brush on foot to find them!

The animals were certainly the high point of the park, but the landscapes were unexpectedly stunning. Set amongst some rolling hills and plateaus, parts of the park had enormous sweeping views over the fields below, while other parts were hemmed in by deep ravines and thick copses of trees and brush.  Like so many other parts of southern Africa, the skies were expressive in their own right, with tufts of clouds marching across the endless blue palate – it truly was a landscape meant to be painted!

The lodging was a rather basic unfenced hut, but it was cozy enough, especially with the fire going.  The stars were quite bright and thankfully the lions were not interested in us!  All in all it was perfect for the four of us, though the lack of warm water in the outhouse style shower did make for bracing starts to the mornings!  Overall it was a lovely little getaway to another beautiful corner of this enchanting country and region.

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