Tag: river

:: 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!

:: 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!

:: reservoir in the sky ::

As the rain hammered down, we slowly picked our way through the twists and turns of the ribbon of asphalt winding its way up the mountainside. Regular flashes of lightning illuminated the towering peaks across the valley and cracks of thunder were so close the car shook. With the scenery thoroughly hidden by the elements our focus was on the road up and over the Mafika Lisiu Pass.

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At 3090 metres, the pass is the third highest road pass in Lesotho and not a road to be taken lightly. In just 30km the road goes up over 1400 metres! Leaving the hot lowlands behind, you quickly reach cooler high alpine pastures on the other side of the pass.

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The tarred road to Katse was built as part of the first stage of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and provided a key route between the dam and some of the outlet tunnels in South Africa. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is an amazing feat of engineering, shifting copious amounts of water from the drenched highlands of Lesotho to the parched areas around Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa.

The dam wall stands 185 meters high and 710 meters wide at its top and is the second largest dam in Africa. Nestled within the mountainsides of the central Maloti range, it is very difficult to see the dam until you are almost right upon it, making the expanse of concrete all the more impressive. It took 22,000 people approximately six years and 2.3 million cubic metres of concrete to create this massive engineering feat.

The surroundings of the dam are startlingly beautiful, with the 50km reservoir following the twisting confines of the mountains that rise majestically above the water. Sitting well above the edge of the cliffs, it was fabulous to see the sheer scale of the place and lay back to watch the shifting clouds and fading light.

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We stayed in a small house built originally for the dam workers, but now tied to the lodge that overlooks the dam. From the terrace of the lodge you can sit, have a drink and admire the cross section of man made and natural beauty. Though we had a less open view from the house, we could still see the water and mountains from our back garden, perfect for relaxing breakfasts.

One morning we went for a hike and wandered along the Malibamatso River, below the dam. Following the lovely lazy river to the sound of birds and crickets made us feel miles away.  We only passed six or eight people, a surprisingly low number for Lesotho where, even in the most remote places, you almost always come across a surprising number of people wandering up and down the various hillsides.

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The walk itself had a little of everything – some rolling fields, rocky flood plains, small copses of trees and a little rock scrambling. If we had been inclined we could have gone for a swim, but we left that for our return trip to Maseru where we found a nice little place to swim in the reservoir itself. There we were joined by two boys who had been fishing nearby. One actually joined us in the water, while the other just smiled and laughed at us from shore. Mosa came in as well for one of her first proper swims ever, which I think really amused the boys!

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From there it was back over the Mafika Lisiu pass, this time in the clear sunshine.  We took advantage of the better weather and stopped at Bokong Nature Reserve. This small reserve offers fantastic views out over the Maloti Mountains as well as the opportunity to discover ice rats – a small rodent species endemic to Lesotho.

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The visitor centre is perched precariously over a 100 meter drop into the river valley below, but offers views of a waterfall and the river that take your breath away. A quick 30 minute hike takes you to the top of the waterfall and a perfect picnic spot along the babbling stream. Thankfully the hike is over relatively flat ground, as the 3000 metre altitude really kicks in, even for us who are used to mile high Maseru.

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Headed back to Maseru a while later, the good weather gave way to an amazing landscape with soaring mountains and waterfalls crashing down the sheer cliff faces. It was well worth going back the way we came, though the road was almost more scary in the daylight than in the pouring rain!

A few more snapshots of our weekend away…

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:: qiloane falls ::

Just before descending the small natural rock staircase, I turned back to look once more at our idyllic spot by the waterfall. The sun shone brightly on the enormous cascade of white water and a small breeze rustled the bushes that our dog Mosa had so unwillingly left moments earlier. It was a place of perfect peace on a sunny afternoon, returned to its natural state after twenty friends and seven dogs enjoyed several fun filled hours amidst its beauty.

Qiloane Falls is not on the tourist trail – if there is such a thing in Lesotho. It is an hour and a half drive up into the mountains east of Maseru and then a lengthy hike over somewhat difficult, and usually wet, terrain. There is a pony trekking centre for those who would prefer four legged transportation, though it would not be an ideal first trip for the complete novice horse rider.

The path to the falls is not marked, which is normal for Lesotho, but it’s easy enough to follow if you have some semblance of an idea of where you are going. The key is to find the river, which seems logical enough if you are looking for a waterfall, but it is especially important because the best way of reaching the waterfall is to walk up the riverbed.

There is a way to stay on dry land, but that is not as much fun as walking up a slippery, potholed river of freezing cold ankle deep water!  In the dry season you can walk all the way to the falls without getting your boots wet, but with the rain we have had lately, this was just not possible.

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The walk was amazingly beautiful with the soft sounds of water running over rocks nestled beneath soaring hillsides and the occasional bird overhead.  The last bend in the river takes you under a large cliff face striated with black rock where you can hear the roar of the main falls echoing above you. At the crest of a small ledge in the river the falls come into view, though still partially hidden by the mountainside.

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Only once you are practically right in front of them, can you see the full sweep of the last part of the falls which are roughly thirty meters across.  Above the largest section are a series of other falls even further up which you can see after hiking up the side – a bird’s eye view from across the way would be the only way to see the true extent of this waterfall.

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We stayed there for several hours and enjoyed the majestic beauty and nature of this special place.  Once the sun came out, almost everyone dared to take a dip in the dark and cold koeetseng, the place of a deep pool of water, to cool off and sit under the powerful roaring falls. Legend has it there is a large serpent living there at the base of the falls but luckily we were not privileged enough to witness such a creature or be impacted by its magical powers.

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As far as waterfalls go, Qiloane Falls aren’t the highest or widest or anything else, but the whole location is a truly special place of natural beauty worth experiencing.

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