"Somehow everything suddenly became greener as if exploding with life, and the drops of water bouncing across the canopy made it seem as if the trees were dancing..."
I recently walked for my graduation from the university of Alabama, and being exhausted from the long and arduous journe (Post 195 credit hours) I have decided to take that time honored tradition that only those planning on furthering their education can take. Gap Year! That's right! Before I (hopefully) matriculat into med school I am taking a full year for travel, the best kind of education! So where to start? Well as you may have noticed my lovely little quote above (Saddest Pixar Movie EVER), I have headed south of the border and I am currently basking in the rays of the Ecuadorian sun forest! ...NOT! It's called rain forest for a reason! Yep, you got it! IT RAINS! But more on that later.
We arrived in Quito, Ecuador at about 9pm, and ever since getting on the plane in Miami I have become accutly aware if one thing - I don't speak Spanish! Ecuador is not one of those countries where you can speak English and they understand you. THEY SPEAK SPANISH!!! But luckily for this first month of my trip I am with a group from my university, and a few of us have some lingual skills under their belt. Now I just need to get my bearings before I break off on my own in a month! Another thing to be aware of if you are flying from Miam, that airport has the most nonsensical layout I have ever seen, not to mention their complete lack of signs. Make sure to arrive in plenty of time to locate your departing flight, or risk a Spanish flight attendant dragging you through the airport saying, "We run! We run!" Not the best way to start a trip (though this is probably the third time thats happened, and no matter what the language they always use "We Run!"). So, we arrive in Ecuador at a regional airport and take an hour long bus ride to actually get to Quito. Apparently they moved the airport from the center of the city to the outskirts at a lower elevation in order to try and make landing safer for planes, at the cost of convenience (how could they!). Anyway, our first night was basically taking the bus to our hostel and settling in. The hostel was good for the first night, probably because we were exhusted, but the second night we were kept awake by our German neighbors late night drinking games, and became accutlyaware that the was a BYOTP kind of place (Bring Yur Own Toilet Paper!). Don't think I will be frequenting the place in the future.
The second day we awoke around 7am, fully rested and ready for adventure! The first task of the day was acquiring food! The group took a bus to a local market called "Santa Clara", where we proceeded to be taken advantage of by locals when buying produce. Only a few of us spoke Spanish, and I think the tenders could smell our fear! But all was safe, because our coordinator John showed an extreme lack of trust in our produce-buying capabilities and went to a local supermarket to get staples to supplement our own purchases. While out shopping we also stopped to purchase jungle boots for $12 a piece (I HATE JUNGLE BOOTS)! Working our way from our shopping excursion it was time to visit our first Ecuadorian Forest of the trip! A cloud forest to be precise, which being a forest with high epiphitic diversity due to high precipitation up near the precipitous white bubbles hanging overhead, so just as romantic as it sounds. The reserve's name was "Jocotoco Yana Yaku", and it took about thirty minutes to reach from Quito. Our first order of business was to spread out our spoils from our market escapades to share with the group. It turned out that we were quite successful, even if a bit poorer, and we had laid out before use a feast of tropical fruits supplemented with Johns sandwiches and Nutella! The best part was that I didn't know the nam of any of the fruit I tried, so it was definitely a new experience for my taste buds (thank god John is unfaithful - NUTELLA!). The rest of the day was our intro hike into studying tropical plant diversity, which lasted about two hours. It was such a nice leisurely hike, small slopes and the occasional hummingbird flitting about, that it left us with a very large misconception of the challenge that layed before us the next day.
We woke up at 6am that morning and were quickly ushered onto our bus without proper input of macromolecules for higher brain function. They told us that we would get breakfast later and that we just needed to get going so we could make it to our destination before dark. The thing is we had to swing by the airport quick for a forgotten bag which turned out to be an hour long process. Thus by the time we arrived at our preplanned dining spot it was 11am and the bus was full of ravenous college students about to seize control over hiking rations. I'm not sure if it was that or the fantastic cooking, but the food we recieved at this random roadside restraunt was the best meal I had had in weeks (my diet before this had been restricted to final exam stress eating + copious amounts of coffee). It was a simple dish of chicken, beans and rice. Another two hours in the bus and we finally arrived at the foot of the mountain that we were about to ascend. Yes, contrary to what anyone tells you, this was a mountain. Anyone who wants to argue can climb it first, and then come talk to me!
We started our trek by crossing a bridge to the foot path which started out as fields of vegetation. Now when they first told me fields, I was expecting vast expanse of windswept grasses swaying as if dancing... What I got was mud and a thorough obliteration of all romantically notion remaining from the cloud forest. But really, lots and lots of mud. I had actually cast away the jungle boots in favor of my trekking shoes for some more traction, and soon my legs were coved in mud up to the knee. But in retrospect I don't regret my choice, because while my shoes stayed tightly laced to my feet no matter the depth of the mud chasm, my companions were not so fortunate. After about an hour of this, we began the acent. The very muddy acent. Basically for the next four hours we were all in various states of slipping, falling, and exasperation as we pulled ourselves up this mountain. The group of twenty had broken down into micro groups of about three each depending on the fitness level of its members (I was towards the end, not at the end but towards), and we relied on each other to keep pushing on. The problem was that we were so out of breath, considering we were exerting ourselves at a much higher elevation than that what we were used to. So about every 30 meters we stopped, breathed, complained, and then
pressed on to repeat the sequence. I will say there were some breathtaking views along the way. I just didn't get to see them often because looking away from my feet would mean falling down the mountain. Sadly, despite skipping the most important meal of the day, dark fell when we were still about 30 min away from base camp. This was when I discovered my absolute favorite thing in the world! Headlamps!! They are so convienient, hands free, and it makes it so you hand see in the dark! Like you have magic powers, or secret animal DNA! Yep, headlamps are amazing and I owe them my life for getting me up the rest of the mountain. My arival at the summit was the end of one of the hardest hikes of my life. I didn't get to see too much of the camp since my three primary concerns were shower, food, bed. The shower being a bucket and a cold water spring left much to be desired. Dinner however was fantastic, and I was able to meet our caretakers, Carlos and Silvi, who would be feeding us for the rest of our stay! People who give me food are always awesome in my book! After dinner it was straight to bed, and while others chose a cot in a close quarters shed, I pulled out my hammock and set up in the dining area. From here commenced complete shut down of higher brain function for the next 10 hours.
Next morning I was woken up by a sweeping sound. It was 6 am, the sun had just risen, and John's son Charlie was sweeping the floor. In my delirious state I couldn't fathom why someone would be sweeping the floor at 6am. Once I had properly awoken, I remembered he was 13, and 13yr olds do unfathomable things. Silvia had already started breakfast, and one by one my companions wandered out of their sleeping nooks in search of coffee and sustenance. Breakfast consisted of basic things like bagels and granola, and so we sat in the outside dining area re animating our hiking-torn bodies, and trying to figure out exactly what we were doing up at such an hour. Turns out John becomes akin to a kid in a candy shop the moment he steps into nature, and had us dressed and ready to go on a hike the moment we finished breakfast, despite our slight traumatization the day before! Luckily it wasn't too long of a hike and mostly consisted of stepping about 50 meters from camp and begin discussing how to asses plants based on their leaf conformation. It was at lunchtime that we discovered what our diet would be like. Silvia was a great chef, and the food tasted amazing. There just wasn't much of it. We had been put on limited rations, and thus we nicknamed our abode "Alto Coca Fat Camp". Mark, our host, was quite adamant in us sticking to a strict meal regimen. I don't think it crossed his mind that hiking requires an imput of nutrients in order to keep going on multiple hikes a day. But we did. I think we hiked the same trail over five times, and each time John or Laura would point out something new we had missed. Eventually we had to switch to a new trail because the one we had been using had become so muddy from overuse that it had become impassable.
As for a little overview of our daily camp life, think cabin in the woods meets Pompeii. There was a sleeping structure with bunks, a dining area, a kitchen area, and as you might have guessed the ever present monotlithic volcano sitting in the background. Well, I shouldn't ever present since clouds and precipitation often obscured our view, so let's call it the vanishing volcano! Though it's proper name was Raventador! Camp life basically consisted of hanging out in our hammocks and begin Silvia to feed us. This is understandable since every other waking minute John was ushering us down new trails! Every once in a while would I bust out my travel mat and get some yoga in, but often I was to exhausted to try anything but Savasana! You may have some ideas what we were using for facilities, eing in the middle of the rainforest. Thankfully we had a fully functional outhouse. As for shower time we got a bit creative.there was a small stream about two minutes from camp, but it was nowhere big enough to bathe in and required a bucket. So instead we would take a ten minute hike to a bigger stream with a mini waterfall and a deep pool. Eventually you get used to the cold water and it's great! The trick is staying clean getting back to camp through the muddy hike. Dinners, though often un satisfying in the quantity department, weroften pretty fun with stories being told or just sitting and learning more about each other. My favorite part was going to be! Of course you have the most obvious reason, but my exhaustion wasn't it. After getting used to the hammock I have to say its my favorite way to sleep! And if you rember that we are in a RAIN forest, imagie going to sleep to the sound of rain and no distracting electronics in sight (though you feel like an old man having to get up to pee every three hours).
There were probably three amazing moments that I experienced at Alta Coca. The first was after we had stopped at a water hole for a swim. I was the last one out and was left behind by everyone, and on the hike back I was hit by a sudden downpour of rain. Somehow everything suddenly became greener as if exploding with life, and the drops of water bouncing across the canopy made it seem as if the trees were dancing. It was at that moment that it really hit me, "I'm in the Rain Forest". As obvious a statement as that is, it still was a moment of sweeping emotion that made me feel like a kid again, running about in the rain shouting at the top of my lungs. The second moment was when I was lounging in my hammock at base camp. We had just finished dinner, and the only available light was that coming from the few headlamps of people still awake. There was a sudden grumbling, and I thought that another rainstorm was coming in, as they tend to do. Instead I watched in rapture as crimson streams started flowing out of the blackness of the empty abyss that during the day was a scenic overlook. At first I wasn't sure exactly what I was bearing witness to, but then it hit me. VOLCANO! During the day the best you could hope to see were plumes of black soot shooting into the sky, but with most of the world's light snuffed out (save gorgeous view of starlight when the clouds gave way) the molten rivers were in plain view. The third amazing moment was when we took a group hike down to some caves on the reserve. The caves themselves weren't incredibly interesting, but what really excited me was the stream flowing into it that gave rise to cascades and waterfalls. After the caves most of the rest of the group returned to camp, but me and Jenny stayed behind to swim in a pretty deep part of the stream. When we got in, we noticed another waterfall a little farther upstream that looked interesting, so we decided to check it out. It not only turned out to be apart of a much larger waterfall, but also had a basin at the bottom that was at least 7 feet deep and perfect for swimming!
The climb down from Alto Coca wasn't nearly as bad as the ascent, but still it wasn't a cake walk. Unless we're talking mud cakes. By the time we all got down we were thoroughly disgusting, but luckily for us there was a river where we could wash ourselves and our laundry before boarding the bus. The river was next to a highway, so I wander what the Ecuadorians thought of all the pasty white humans bathing in the river beside the road. After a harrowing experience in a bus built for ten, not twenty, we arrived in Puyo where we would stay the night before heading to our next reserve. The hostel was like a palace for three reasons: 1) there were actual beds. 2) Showers with hot (lukewarm) water!!! 3) the blessed gift of Wifi! The creature comforts, ya know! We got in around 5pm, so after unpacking John said it was time for dinner. Now I will give it to john, he knows just when to apply food to increase group moral and keep us going (very deft application of chocolate on or in between hard hikes)! We went to an amazing pizza place where he bought each of us our own individual pizza, which you would understand what that meant if you had spent a week hiking at high altitude on limited rations (ie. fat camp). The evening was spent enjoying good company with excellent food, Laura (our Columbian doctoral student) taught me restraunt Spanish, and we all proceeded to forget our troubles over drink and merriment. Even running back to the hostel in the rain was fun, as all the locals looked at us as if to say, "Do the Gringos not know it is raining?" while sitting in their shops watching our meandering through the flooded streets.
Enter our next hiking segment. We had a bit of a slow start, everybody slowly emerging from the fluffy confines of their beds. Breakfast was served by the hostel (fried egg, plantains, and avocado) and I finally got my first cup of good coffee in ages. Our bus was supposed to arrive at 9:00, but didn't show up, so we sat around for about an hour soaking up as much WIFI as possible. Then suddenly John comes running in saying "Quick, grab your stuff! We gotta go!" He had apparently been able to convince a local bus to stop by our hostel and pick us up, away from their normal route, but it wouldn't wait for long. The next few minutes was basically a mad scramble to throw your bag onto the lower carriage and then find one of the sparse seats between the Ecuadorians, who looked at us like we were insane. Somehow we were all able to get on without leaving anything, or anyone for that matter, behind. Once the bus started moving again, at a rapid pace, John started laughing and said, "that was fun!"
The bus dropped us off at the entrance to Rio Zuñac Ecological Reserve, and the first thing we had to do was hike up a long, cobbled road to reach the hiking trail that would take us to our cabin in the woods. At the mouth of the trail, we were extemly relieved to find that John had hired several porters to help carry up supplies, who were very missed during our hike to Alta Coca. I was in for a fantastic surprise during this hike, as #1 it was relatively mild for a hike, and #2 waterfalls!! Rio Zuñac Reserve gets its name from the turbulent river descending from the Andes that divides the terrain and gives rise to numerous waterfalls along its path. So the supposed 3 hour hike took me over 4 hours because I kept stopping to take pictures and take in the scenery. I especially loved the occasional rope bridge that left you hanging meters above the resounding cascades. When I did finally make it to our destination, I was greeted by a tiny cabin-like structure that basically consisted of a dining hall, porch, and sleeping area. Not nearly as nice as the facility at Alta Coca, but it did have one thing going for it. The river was merely 20 steps away, meaning you could take a bath whenever you want! There are areas when you can sit and let the pounding of the current roll around you, and even a deep pool where you can swim! Dinner that night was basically a feast, for the porters cooked us up very large bowls of chicken, beans and rice! For some reason, while others appetites have dismally shrunken at the higher altitude, mine has increased threefold and I ended up consuming multiple peoples portions (after eing given proper consent, of course). Dinner was topped off by Johns timely application of M&Ms and tea. It was after this that I realized my genius in bringing a hammock in lieu of a sleeping pad, because while the other guys were attempting to find realty space in the dining room and porch to set up for the night (girls commandeered the sleeping area) I hung my hammok on the porch and let the combined sound of the river and occasional rainfall drift me into peacful slumber.
The next day we found out the real reason they brought us to Rio Zuñac: free labor. To be more precise you could call us unpaid research assistants. After breakfast we climbed up another 300meters to a ridge where David, a local botanist, wanted us to set up a 100X25 square meter plot for long term research purposes. We were split into 4 groups, and tasked with surveying a 25X25 plot, identifying all trees that measured over 10cm in diameter, and taking and labeling samples from each. Just half of the plot took us about 4 hours to measure out and survey. Measuring the diameters proved to be an especially grueling task as we had to clear away any vines and epiphytes attached to the trunk in order to get clear measurements. As for the sampling, each of us was assigned a porer, ours name was Tito, who would astound us by scaling our trees and grab branch samples for us, sometimes as high as 15 meters with no harness. When we broke for lunch we had only finished half of the plot setup and surveying, and it became clear that this was to be a multiple day affair. The second day my group was the first to finish, despite the random downpours experienced throughout the process. After we had removed the ropes and hammered in aluminum labels into the recorded tree trunks, the plot was finally finishe and would be left to nature until the re surveying in 5 years. It's kind of cool when you think about it, especially considering that no one else has completed any long term suddies in this area.
The next day we had a choice. We could either stay here in our cosy cabin and work on journals or anything else that suits our fancy, or we could climb another 1000 meters to a high camp where they would begin work on a second 100X25 meter plot, and where there was very little running water (ie. 0 capacity for bathing). As enticing as that sounded, I somehow came to the decision to stay at the cosy cabin. A total of 8 out of 20 of us decided to stay down, and were left 1 porter (named Jesus) to make sure we didn't starve (college kids + fire and raw ingredients = mass hunger). We spent the next few days in re cooperation, consisting of swimming, short days/night hikes, and yoga. My favorite thing to do was to sit in my hammock and listen to the rain sweep over the forest, and the presence of only short winded companions made it the perfect place to work on meditation (daydreaming). This three day break ended with the rest of the group descending down the mountain looking like they were dying. Covered in mud from head to toe, they told tales of flooded tents, steep slopes, and basic uncomfort. Those of us who stayed down felt secure in our decision. This was to be the last night we were to stay in Rio Zuñac, so Adon (one of our porters) made us a fantastic meal of rice potatoes and a sauce he created himself out of just flour and onions! The night was topped off with a ginormous bonfire and s'mores. It turned out to be pretty adorable, since none of the porters knew what s'mores were, and when they took their first bite their faces just lit up! The sticks we had for roasting were also incredibly short, so it became a game of roasting your marshmallow before roasting yourself (a few singed armhairs).
The hike down the next day was great, mostly because I left before most of the group and spent the 3 hrs hiking down alone (the occasional porter sprinting bye carrying 5X his body weight!). I really hiking alone for two reasons: 1) You really start paying attention to your thoughts, and get some in depth looks into your own psyche 2) nobody hassles you when you stop to take a million pictures! I also found myself belting out random songs from my iPod as I descended. The playlist went like this: the Cup Song -> Royals -> The Lion King Soundtrack (the entire thing!) -> The Pokemon Theme Song (don't know where that came from) -> My Favorite Things.
OH MY GOD I LOVE BAÑOS!!! Though I might have been a bit biased since my last taste of real civilization had been two weeks prior. Baños is basically the thrill seekers meca! For one, it is built at the base of an active volcano. The thing could go off at any moment, which might attest to the various volcano paraphernalia around the town, including a very large depiction of Maria above of voraciously exploding volcano inside the church in the middle of town. Yep. I totally expect there to be some kind of volcano worshipping cult there. Ya know, throw in a gringo for ritual sacrifice and appease the mountain for another ten years kind of deal! Apart from the volcanic impeding doom, thrill seekers will absolutly love the various day trips hosted by a number of shops in the city to go canyoning, zip lining, ATVs, Ect. Honestly, for those wanting to explore the jungle and aren't in touch with someone who knows what they are doing, coming here is a fantastic option! I really wish I had more time to spend in the city, but sadly all I got was an afternoon. So how did I spend it? Well the first several hours was basically spent wanting through the streets, looking in artisan shops, and eating good food. But what topped my day off was my very much needed massage. $20 for 65 min full body massage. I know, sounds sketchy, but it was actually one of the best I have every had! Top that off with a fantastic dinner, and dancing! The next morning I was greeted by a fantastic view from the terrace cafe on the roof of my hostel, and then spent the rest of the morning at a local cafe that had hammock chairs and a very wide variety of coffee and teas!
From Baños we had a 6 hour bus ride to Mindo Loma, and of course I get carsick in the first 10 minutes. So I spent most of the ride in a sprawled out position across two seats trying to sleep it off. We finally arrived at about 6pm to find that our reservations at the lodge were "misplaced", but luckily they were able to reccommend an alternative. Our newly acquired host was a German who's parents bought a huge area of land in Ecuador, and then raised him here. Did you know that during WWII any Germans found outside of Germany were considered traitors and put in concentration camps? I didn't, so I was fascinated when I heard stories of our host's grandfather and his escape from Germany while helping people in his capacity as a judge by marrying Jews to Germans to give them immunity! Faith in restored. The house we were staying in used to be a travel lodge, but it was closed down when the owner decided to start producing tea (Herbiosa Luisa) in his backyard instead. I personally thought that the accomodations were great (cabins), but due to its very remote location and our host being the only soul living here (and ominous looking meat hook outside), most of the girls were convinced we would be murdered in our sleep (or eaten!). Somehow, we survived the night. The next morning we drove up to Mindo Loma, where we would give individual presentations on plant families that we had been previously assigned. My family was Piperaceae, which is the pepper family from which we get all of our black and white pepper. Mindo Loma is actually a bird sanctuary, and during our presentations we had throngs of hummingbirds darting in and out of the cabin area. You could actually sit right next the the bird feeders and feel the air dispersion from the huh velocity of the birds' wings! It brought back childhood memories of sitting on my portch watching this tiny hummingbird we had named Napoleon fight off all the rest to try and monopolize the feeder!
The ride to Otavalo hit a bit of a snag, or better say a pop. Two of our tires on the bus blew out about an hour from our destination, and we ended up sitting around for about an hour and a half waiting for repairs (though I will say if we had been in the US we would have been there all night!). It wasn't until about 10pm that we rolled into a very dead city. It was eerily quiet, and almost iossible to find a place to eat. All of us were wondering, "We left Baños for this?" and went to bed feeling a bit disgruntled. The next morning the city underwent a drastic transformation. The dark streets with iron bars across storefronts changed to a buzzing via de la vita! Shops had customers darting in and out, restaraunts full of waiting tables, but the best part was the market. The night before there was a vast courtyard in the middle of the city that seemed like an area of abandon, but in the light of day one could barely see the pavement amidst the throngs of tents with venders selling their wares to Ecuadorians and gringos alike. And they were fervent about their roles, as the moment you crossed the boundary of the tents their attack began! With wave after wave of offers and counter offers, it becomes a bit dizzying trying to make a purchase, but you get used to it. I learned from. European markets that first you visit all the tents before making any purchase because there is almost always duplicate items for a lower price. Though it was my first time haggling in Spanish, it seems the skill is quite cross cultural. I spent a total of $19, and bought 2 scarves, a bandana, and two pairs of earrings all handmade! The only reason I didn't turn spendthrift was the promise of cheaper wares when I visit peru in a month. So that was basically may stay in Otavalo consisted of bartering, good coffee, and having Laura teach me Spanish. Overall a very successful venture.
The last leg of our journey. We woke up early so we could make two small side trips on our way back to Quito. The first was a trip to the equatorial line, because who doesn't want to stand on two hemispheres at the same time? And after all the hardships of the trip, John guessed that our muscles could use some rehabilitation, so he decided to take us to his favorite hot springs in Oyacachi. Getting there was a bit perilous, and required about an hour of slow travel on poorly cobbled roads, but the scenery was breathtaking. A rolling mountainous background with green fields and the occasional farmer tilling about. Every once in a while we had to stop for cattle or sheep to get off the roads, because in Ecuador they let livestock roam to allow for cheaper feeding. When we finally made it to Oyacachi I was a bit hesitant. I was expecting lukewarm waters like what I experienced in Italy, not the luxurious hot springs I went to in Japan. I was pleasantly surprised to find the water to be at least 40°C, and very good at melting the knots away from my shoulders. There was also a freezing cold river coming down from e mountains that you could quickly jump into if you were brave enough! After about two hours of bathing and tanning in the cool mountain air, we had a delicious lunch of Tucha y Arroz (trout and rice) made by some of the locals. We then headed back to Quito for a final banquet a rooftop terrace with the best view of the city where we said farewell to our fellow biologists and branched off on our different ways. For me, a week of recovery in Quito and then a two week internship at an organic agricultural farm! Be on the lookout for more posts! ciao ciao!
By the way, here are links to the photo albums for the trip!