After Savannah and I bumped our way back down from Cotopaxi Park (much smoother than our trip up), I continued to head South. I had found a hostel off of the PanAm Highway called Taita Pacha, which was listed for $5 per night to camp. After departing the park, I left E35 (the PanAmerican HW through Ecuador) and took a less traveled highway. I felt like I was driving through the clouds… well I was driving through the clouds. It was incredible how high the roads wound upwards!
Eventually I crossed a river and pulled into a very empty hostel. I chatted with the couple who ran the hostel & restaurant and paid the $5. Though the restaurant was closed, I was still welcomed to sit inside – it looked really, really cool. They gave me some fresh (pineapple?) juice and I used the wifi to plan out my next few days and check on the border status of Peru (at this point, still closed until Jan 16th). I met and pet lots of friendly dogs. My favorite was a sleek, black and brown dog named Loki. The rest of the day I worked in my van organizing, cooking up some food, and reaching out to potential places I can stay in my van once I arrive in Santiago for my job (no leads yet but still hopeful).
Around dusk, the husband of the couple approached my van and we began chatting. He was dressed modernly with jeans, a North Face fleece, and shiny leather shoes. He asked where I was heading and what I was doing while in Ecuador. He seemed hurt that I hadn’t planned on spending more time in the area where he lived. I tried to explain I was on a bit of a tight timeline, but he insisted I must at least see the local waterfall. I agreed I would try to go in the morning before heading off. We chatted about a few more topics – like work, the landscape, Cotopaxi, but we were limited in the words we could share given the (my) language barrier. Eventually, he asked if I would join him in going to see this local waterfall. The gears turned in my brain as I weighed the potential risks in agreeing to ride in his truck to go see a place I’d never heard of, but I also felt a sense of trust with this man whom I had only just met. After some wavering, I agreed to go and told him I’d meet him at the truck in 5 minutes so I could close up Savannah from the encroaching mosquitoes and change into some hiking clothes.
The drive to the waterfall was about 20 minutes. As we drove farther from the hostel, and Savannah was left behind, I did doubt my decision a few times. I didn’t know where I was going, it was getting dark, my van was left unattended… But with every thought of doubt on the kindness of humanity, it was broken by his offer to share with me more about his life. As we crossed the main bridge over the river into town, he said he often goes fishing in that river to catch “trucha” (trout) to bring home to eat. We drove under the massive volcano, Tungurahua, and he explained to me that 18 years ago the volcano erupted and we could still see the channels that the lava carved out. He honked and waved at just about every person in that small town, and everyone seemed so happy. Once we arrived at the waterfall, we passed an abandoned spa that he said had been demolished by the lava from the eruption. We talked about the local flora and fauna – I taught him “cow” for “vaca” (cow in Spanish) and I asked about the local serpents and monkeys in the area. We saw some horses and he shared that he had another farm farther South where he guided horseback riding treks. I shared that I grew up on a farm and worked as a guide in the Drakensberg, South Africa. I asked how he felt about Covid and if this year things would look up with more visitors coming to the hostel, and he said he believed if he stayed positive, it will all work out. Our conversations were short and limited with our shared words, but it worked.
The waterfalls were stunning. When I asked if people swam in the pools in the summer, he shivered and said it was way too cold. Of course now I needed to feel the water for myself, and it was indeed freezing. He said there used to be a rope to climb to the top and I really wished there still was.
On our drive back to the hostel, our conversation turned more personal and he asked how I felt about traveling alone. I was honest, in the simple words that I knew, that I enjoyed the adventure but that it was difficult at times. He admitted that he would not like to be alone as much and was happy to have his family, I could imagine that to be so. I eventually admitted (and surprised myself) that I was a bit worried about being able to make friends in Santiago once I got there, given that I’m not very good at Spanish yet and that I think it will be hard to connect with people. He told me that friendship doesn’t come from talking, but from the heart, and that little by little I’d keep learning the language anyway, so I shouldn’t worry. Just after this bit of conversation, a mouse ran across the road. At first he cringed thinking he had hit it, then rejoiced that it made it – “That’s good luck!” he said, “See, you will have good luck!” For the rest of the drive back we talked about our families and their occupations and the differences between the US and Latin America. We got back to the hostel just after dark and I thanked him for the tour as he returned to his family. It was an unexpected, and cherished, connection in a foreign place.
I left early the next morning, as I usually do when I want to slip away without saying a goodbye. My next destination was a larger city South, called Cuenca. I planned to stay at a hostel there, to get a much needed shower, and then head up into the Caja Mountains for a couple of days. My drive from Puela (the last town with the hostel and waterfall) to Cuenca was an unforgettable one. I left behind the valley villages and continuously climbed up into the clouds. Once on top, I thought looking out ahead that I would have a flat, easy drive. However, it was as if the valleys fell away from the hilltops, like the canyons do from the plateaus in Utah. The road just traced along the tops of the mountains and clouds, which blocked a view of the deep valley floor. I drove by small villages where locals wore bright, heavy looking skirts and jackets. They also wore what is called the “Panama hat,” though it originated in Ecuador, adorned with feathers. The vivid colors (lots of purple!) were amazing against the green and brown landscape. I passed a few roadside stands selling some type of rodent (perhaps it was the classic guinea pig) on a rotisserie belt – teeth, tail, and all! I wasn’t brave enough to try this though.
For hours I drove through what felt like a fantasy land – lush green, hidden among the clouds, and an endless abyss beneath. I did manage to arrange for a hostel ahead of time during some of my stops along the drive and I reserved a room with secure parking for Savannah. I stayed at Hostel Kolibri B&B and was met by a kind, older man who helped me squeeze Savannah into a garage. It was $25 per night for a private room, shower, and wifi. The water was hot and the shower felt amazing. I called home to my parents and Andre, then enjoyed a relaxed evening – I even did a face mask for some self care. I watched a storm roll in off of the mountains out of my window as dusk settled.
The next morning I first went on a mission for some coolant for Savannah, it appeared she may have a slow leak. Before heading up into the mountains, I wanted to have some on hand in case it became necessary. It took me about an hour of driving around Cuenca to find the elusive Ford dealership, since the local shops didn’t carry yellow coolant. The workshop manager was really kind and even checked Savannah’s coolant level and told me it should be fine, but wouldn’t hurt to have some anyway. Once stocked up, I blasted off to the mountains.
The Caja National Park is considered a tropical wet alpine habitat. It contains páramo vegetation, similar to the landscape I hiked through to get to Lago Otun in Colombia. This ecosystem covers 90% of the park and is found between 10,500 and 14,900 feet above sea level. The average temperature is 37-43 degrees Fahrenheit and there’s often intense wind. I learned all of this from the information center in the refugio, as well as the fact that there are 786 lake/wetland sites of water concentration within the park.
The road up to the park was steep but paved so Savannah had no trouble. Upon arriving at the refugio, I attempted to sort out my camping plans (just sleeping in Savannah in the parkinglot) and it all seemed to go well. I did a short hike around the lake, at around 13,000 feet, to acclimatize for a longer hike the next day. It was stunning and made me excited for what I might see the following day up higher.
Upon returning to my van, all of the day hikers were being ushered out for the gates to close. Assuming I was all set, I happily started setting up my kitchen to cook dinner. An angry policeman motioned for me to get the hell out and here we had a bit of a misunderstanding. I had read that people who wanted to camp were supposed to pay $4 and get a ticket, and I had tried to do that earlier in the ranger station, but the woman I talked to said I was fine and that I didn’t need to. After a bit of back and forth with the cop, he called his boss to see if I could stay, and we ended up sorting it out. No one else was up there for the night, so I had the whole parking-lot to myself!
I had planned to hike “route 2” that would include a summit just shy of 14,000 feet and promised a good view of the valley. I didn’t want to walk the road so I followed a route on Caltopo that circumvented the lagoon I had hiked around the day before. I then left the lagoon and followed a stream up into the highlands, and even got a bit of scrambling in around a waterfall. I took time to take photos and take in the little things, like small red and yellow flowers or spike-y plants that I have no idea what their name is. The trail was often obscured by clouds and I felt like I was the only one on the planet, it was pretty amazing.
The summit was cold and windy but I did spot some canid scat right at the peak on the trail… classic canid. The clouds gently floated past me and gave me glimpses into the valleys and lagoons below. The cold air froze my face and it was so refreshing. I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay perched, scouting out the valleys below for more wildlife. I only spotted some birds, which sadly I am not very good at identifying, before I decided it was time to head down. The descent was steep and fast and soon I was back at Savannah. My legs were nice and tired and my lungs were full of mountain air.
I reluctantly drove away from the mountains to continue South, I had to keep moving. After another couple of hours driving cloudy, windy roads, I ended up parked behind a gas station for the night with the company of a rabbit.
The next day was another long driving day to Loja, one of the last larger towns before the Peru border. I spent the night at a parkinglot outside of a local park, it was free and convenient. Still with no news about the border, I decided to continue South the next day. I found myself at a hotel for $10. It was a roadside hotel though, and with that came people coming in and out all night which made me worry about Savannah, a cold shower, and being woken up to the sound of a man puking in the room next to me. I think I would’ve slept better in Savannah!
I continued South the next day to a hostel (parking for $5) just outside of Macara, where I had hoped to cross into Peru. That night, while Andre and I were watching a movie together (remotely, obviously) I got the update that the Peru borders would continue to stay closed, without a definitive opening in sight. We abandoned the movie for a call to work out logistics and decided that since it was impossible for me to cross the border now, I should look for a long-ish term place in Ecuador to wait it out and start thinking about back-up plans like trying to ship Savannah around Peru or, worst case scenario, finding a long term storage place for Savannah if I need to fly to Chile to start my job in time.
Granted, I still have quite a bit of time to get to Chile – I need to be there by March 1st so that’s still a month and a half away. Perhaps Peru will open their land borders in 2 weeks and all will be fine. But it never hurts to prepare for all scenarios.
This last week I have been feeling pretty low. I felt ashamed that I was pretty lonely on this grand adventure that I had been dreaming about for years. Some days it would be really hard to wake up and commit to just being with only myself for the day. Other days, like hiking up in the Caja Mountains, it felt like I was truly living out my dream and I was stupidly happy. I’m realizing that this trip is going to always be a mix of being happily alone, and lonely. But I read somewhere that loneliness is a sign that you are in desperate need of yourself, so even on the hard days I know I’m gaining something, even if that is just getting to know myself in this new life a little bit more.
Since I will be in Ecuador for a bit now, I am looking for a farm to volunteer at – similar to my stint in the Drakensberg, South Africa during the pandemic lockdown. I dusted off my Workaway profile and reached out to almost a dozen farms to exchange work for a place to park Savannah and shower/cook/etc. Today, I found a farm and will be meeting the family tomorrow morning to get started. It looks like it will be really cool and an intense cultural immersion. Besides gardening and animal care, I will also be learning about the Inca culture and medicinal plant use.
On a call with my parents yesterday, after explaining my latest shenanigans, they said they weren’t worried because I always land on my feet. I think their exact words were, “ I know you don’t really like cats but you’re like a cat and always land on your feet!” This will all work out somehow I’m sure and hopefully I will land on my feet.
As for that mouse crossing the road, I had hoped that good luck would be for crossing the border into Peru yesterday. When I learned that the borders were closed, I scoffed at the silly good luck blessing that the mouse supposedly gave. But then, driving away from the border with the windows rolled down in Savannah, I sang along to the songs blasting over my stereo and I couldn’t help but feel happy – even though I was retracing my steps back up North. I’ve been gunning it so hard to get South that I momentarily lost what the whole purpose of this adventure was – to experience and explore Central and South America. It wasn’t about the destination but the adventures along the way. Now that I am inevitably delayed, I’m forced to play out the adventure and see what happens here in Ecuador. I of course still have a commitment in March to get to, but there’s time, and right now I can’t rush even if I tried. So it’s time to give Savannah a much needed break, hell even myself a much needed break, and slow down for a little bit.
Updated map of campsites, here!
Really feeling this song lately, thanks Andre for introducing me to Adam Young 🙂