R,S, & E have left Ecuador (Booooo). We are now south of Quito on the well known Quilatoa loop, but a few northern stories remain that should be told as we move on. When we stayed in Peguche, we hiked to the "cascada" , the falls that give the town it's name (see a picture in an earlier post). Peguche in Spanish means "breath, or vapors, of the water" and these falls hold spiritual powers in the eyes of indigenous peoples. Looking closely, you can see a mystic cloud over the falls, and one can understand a sense of reverence that accompanies it. Through the ages, the indigina have used the waters for ritual baths, cleansing, and empowerment. I could not help but take a moment to steal Emma away and anoint and bathe her with water from the falls. In the future, if Emma develops telekinesis, or can foretell the future, you might have me to blame!
I enjoyed several special experiences at Hacienda Zuleta. Their condor restoration project continues to grow, and it was noted that the 8 wild condors we saw that morning were about 20% of the entire wild condor population of Ecuador – which really put things into perspective for me. The view from the aptly named "Valley of the Condors" was spectacular in every direction, but I left the group and their horses to bicycle back to the hacienda, through the town, and up an adjacent ridge. The views were golden, but roads were paved in cobblestone, and it was a jarring ride up hills steep enough to relieve me from the saddle for short periods.
The roads turned to dirt, and farmland was tilled through 45 degree inclines. Thomas, the manager at Zuleta, had described a hiking trail atop the roads that crested the ridge, and I managed to make it up to a vista that looked down the other side to the fairly sizable city of Ibarra below. While there was a small lake further around the volcano I was circumnavigating, I turned back - both tired and unwilling to miss even one meal at our hacienda. The ride down was hairy, as I constantly reminded myself to sit back and not to squeeze the front brake. I later learned that I climbed just shy of 3000'.
Earlier that morning while at the condor aviary, Thomas had described a hike further up into the valley through some of the last virgin high altitude jungle/cloud forest in Ecuador or all of South America. I was intrigued, but we had less than one morning left for the 4 hour hike. In light of my interest, Thomas arranged an early morning start the next day, but no one else elected to accept a 6 AM alarm. This became another unforgettable experience as I and my guide Antonio set off at 0630. We hiked along a stream through the valley (forded it no less than a dozen times up and down) and then up towards the jungle as my guide described various medicinal plants, birds, and flowers. He was excited to find a feather from a large wild bird. Good luck, it quickly adorned the band of his fedora-like hat. Part of the "trail" had been cut earlier that month and we somewhat easily followed a path up to the first set of falls. Beyond that, I learned to stay at least two machete swing lengths behind trail cutting Antonio. The jungle was thick and thorny in places and moss covered trees were covered in vines that criss-crossed the trail. One quickly learned to sense the grip of a vine over your foot, and I was thankful for the hat that protected my head from low hanging branches. Our ultimate goal was "los cavos", or "the caves" and Antonio had not been there this year. It was necessary to radio the hacienda and check directions, but we found the trail and continued up. We were pushing the clock at this point, but my guide really wanted me to reach our goal. After passing the first set, we made it to the second. They were large enough to be home to jungle fauna; we found footprints of a large cat outside. We were the first visitors of the season, and nearby we spotted the body of a young jaguar – about 2 ½ feet long. I realized how special this was when the guide radioed down to talk of our find. The jaguar carries a powerful spirit and Antonio took the tip of the tail and one paw for good luck. As we headed home, we stopped and whistled every fifty yards or so in order for the spirits to follow us down into the valley. Very cool!
I made it back in time for a quick shower, and joined the rest of the crew for an 11 Am taxi to Otovalo, where the story continues…