Tag: hiking

:: cascada de peguche ::

It rains a fair bit in Ecuador.  Small streams are frequently torrents of water, thus leading to many waterfalls.  Most are hidden well out of site in the jungles and cloud forests, but some, like the Cascada de Peguche near Otavalo, are quite accessible.

The Cascada de Peguche is not a large waterfall, only a mere 20 metres or so, but there is an intensity to the water that is impressive.  And with usually only a handful of visitors it is quite a tranquil place amongst the trees.

We have been pleasantly impressed by the number of Ecuadorians who get out and enjoy the tourist sites, both natural and cultural, within their country.  On most of our visits to Peguche there were only a couple of dozen people around, enjoying leisurely walks and the falls.

During Carnival, however, we were among a thousand or more people – all of them spraying espuma (coloured shaving cream) and throwing water balloons at everyone else.  It was a very festive atmosphere but not at all conducive to quiet contemplation of nature or staying dry!

That aside, it is a lovely area with a nice easy hike through towering eucalyptus trees – at least one of which is 100 years old – along side a lovely stream.  It is very family and pet friendly, and you can find a few local vendors outside the entrance selling trinkets, souvenirs and local delicacies.

There are some small pools below the falls that are ritually important for the local Kichwa community.  Every year before the Inti Raymi Sun God Festival on June 21, people come and cleanse themselves in order to prepare spiritually for the celebrations.  I imagine that is quite a busy day as well, but more culturally significant and probably less chaotic than the espuma fights during Carnival!

All in all you can’t go wrong with a little side trip to Peguche if you are in Otavalo. The place really is beautiful and there are also some impressive traditional weaving workshops in the town itself that are well worth a stop.

:: imbabura ::

Up.  Then up some more.  Then straight up.  That is roughly how I would describe climbing Imbabura.

By its very nature mountain climbing involves going up, but this mountain is not like the rolling inclines of Pichincha.  No, it is a knock you in the lungs, step by step, assault from the moment you get out of the car.  But it’s truly stunning and well worth the climb!

The weather was beautiful and sunny to start as we slowly climbed up through the paramo with sweeping views of the valley and Ibarra below.  However Imbabura is infamous for inclement weather on the top and before long the clouds rolled down the flanks of the mountain and grey misty conditions became our reality.

This didn’t deter us in the least, in fact it was rather magical to climb through the ever rockier landscape with swirling clouds all around us.  Sudden reveals of steep, rocky descents were slightly off putting to our good friend Matt with his fear of heights, but they did keep us on our toes!

The climbing got a bit harder and more technical towards the top and with an increasingly restless toddler on our backs, we took the wise and well-considered decision to cut short our ascent just shy of the peak.  It had been a good, but tough, climb and we all really enjoyed the day out on the mountain.

:: living in the shadow ::

Ecuador is a country of volcanos.  Tall ones, extinct ones, and iconic ones.  From Quito they are visible in every direction and they truly capture the imagination.  For the beauty and majesty of spotting a distant volcano on the horizon, there is something truly spectacular about living literally underneath a nearly 16,000 foot active volcano.

Pichincha stands ever-present above the city and is impossible to ignore in your comings and goings.  The city stretches up its lower flanks and has repeatedly been showered in ash throughout the centuries – most recently in 1999.  The ever changing clouds and light playing off the expansive mountainside give texture to the shifting atmosphere around the city.  And if the natural beauty wasn’t enough, there is the historical significance of the location as well.

On 24 May 1822, a small battle on the slopes of Pichincha between the Royalist Spanish army and the army of independent Gran Colombia, which was a pan-Andean alliance, proved to be a pivotal turning point in the history of the independence movement of South America.  Fought at 3,500 metres above sea level and lasting mere hours, the decisive engagement permitted the independent forces to control Quito and therefore united the three areas of Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil under the independent banner of Gran Colombia.  Eight years later those three city-states would merge into the newly independent nation of Ecuador.

The historical significance is sometimes lost in the sheer grandeur of the place, but it bares thinking about as you pass the sheer slopes, thick paramo grasses, and unforeseen gullies on your way up the volcano in the cable car.  In mere minutes the TeleferiQo will take you more than 1,000 metres up in elevation and deposit you over 4,000 metres above sea level.  There, if you are lucky to have a clear day, you are treated to truly panoramic views of Quito and a dozen, often snowcapped, volcanos on the horizon.

Bring your layers, as the wind whips across the open expanse, and your sunglasses, as the sun is extra intense.  Then, wander up to the various viewing locations to see the entire 2.2 million person city spread out below.  It is an incomparable view down, but then you turn around and see the rocky outcropping of Ruku Pichincha still another 700 metres above you.

Pichincha is one massive volcano that actually split itself into two separate summits – named Wawa (Kichwa for baby or child) and Ruku (Kichwa for elder).  Wawa is the higher peak by almost 100 metres, but Ruku is the more easily accessible with a trail leading up directly from the TeleferiQo station.

The trail up Ruku is pretty straightforward with a series of short, steep climbs over the paramo grasses until you reach the rocky face.  Skirting the Paso del Muerte (Pass of Death), the trail leads to a wonderfully energy sapping scree slope before the final scramble over the terraced rock face to the summit.

We have summited Ruku twice – once just the two of us with Mosa and the second time with Piper on our backs.  It is not a mountain to be taken lightly as weather conditions can change quickly from lovely to atrocious, but with a good amount of fitness and sensible caution, it is one of the easier climbs of the higher peaks.  In fact, it is frequently used as an acclimatisation climb by people with plans to climb the highest peaks in Ecuador.

Our climbs really couldn’t have been much different – with lovely mostly sunny conditions the first time and cloud the second time.  And I mean cloud, because we were climbing in the cloud for the last parts.  It gave the summit a very ephemeral feel and a sense that you were literally alone in the middle of the sky.

We have been up the TeleferiQo with numerous visitors for everything from a quick look around the views near the top station to rather arduous hikes through the paramo.  Every time is a little different and unfortunately only once, when Cora was up with friends, have all the volcanos, including Chimborazo 140km away, been visible.  We hope to have at least one more chance to see that expansive view before we depart, but with the schizophrenic Andean weather we will just have to wait and see!

In the meantime, we will enjoy the views of Pichincha with snow, cloud, and sun from Quito.

:: humming through the clouds ::

On the west side of Pichincha sits a wonderful little nature reserve covered in cloud forest.  Yanacocha Reserve is not well known, even though it is mere kilometres from central Quito, and the two separate visits we have made have been all the better for it.

Yanacocha is one of ten private reserves set up and managed by the Jocotoco Foundation.  Jocotoco identifies and establishes reserves in microclimates with endemic species, especially birds, many of which are endangered. Through education centres and eco-tours, Jocotoco provides a better understanding of the importance of conservation and retaining robust eco-systems throughout Ecuador.

A short drive out of the congested valley that houses Quito, you quickly climb the flank of Pichincha and into rolling farmland.  Then a left turn onto a dirt track leads up through the paramo and up to the small administrative building of Yanacocha.  With an education centre and small cafe as well, the main focus is really on the natural experience.  And you don’t have to wait long – as usually within moments you see a hummingbird darting through the flowering bushes!

A dirt track that soon turns into a well-kept path follows the curves of the mountainside and the fog rolls up from out of the valleys or hangs in patches dotting the landscape.  All this moisture allows for a wide array of plants to grow, including some leaves that could easy engulf not only Piper, but probably us as well!

It is a mystical place with the ever-changing fog, or cloud, enshrouding the path and giving fleeting glimpses of the surrounding mountains.  And then suddenly the bright equatorial sun will power through and the full beauty of the place will be on display.  The unique biodiversity right outside of Quito is a breath of fresh air – literally – and will keep your attention as you look left and right at new plants, flowers, or crane your neck to find the birds calling in the canopy above.

There are numerous bird species here, but the real draw is the variety of hummingbirds. Ecuador has around 130 varieties of hummingbird and around 15 are in Yanacocha.  Hummingbirds are truly magical to observe with their wing speed and ability to hover in place.  The colours on display are fantastic as well.  The only shame is that the reserve uses plastic feeders to help sustain the population.  Certainly a more natural solution would be preferable, but considering their hard work to help maintain native populations, it is hard to really argue with their methods.

All in all, this is a great little day, or even half day, trip out of Quito.  It’s provides the perfect opportunity to connect with nature in a micro climate not readily available even within Ecuador.

:: 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!