Thursday, January 23, 2014

El Cajas National Park—hiking at 3,800 meters

This really was supposed to be the blog entry about food and other good stuff, but I had such an unbelievably great time today on my excursion to the El Cajas National Park that I simply have to write about it.
Driving through an Alpine valley toward the cloud forest
During my city bus tour yesterday the guide had mentioned the possibility of a trip to the national park, and I had been able to talk a couple from Montana, Bob and Julie, into booking the same trip—we needed a minimum of three people to make the excursion happen. When I showed up at 8:50 this morning at the cathedral, our guide, Miguel, and Bob and Julie were already waiting, so off we went. It was about a 40-minute uphill drive from Cuenca (about 2,500 meters elevation) to the base of the real climb. Here we tanked up on coffee, and I bought some Oreos, in case we were going to be caught by unforeseen circumstances.
Our starting point was above this lake
The driver of our modern van took us all the way up to the highest spot of the road that leads on to Guayaquil. At exactly 4,167 meters (or 13,671 feet), this must have been one of the highest roads I've ever been on. Up here one is on the altiplano, the treeless sponge that regulates Ecuador's water supply. Precipitation (rain or simple clouds and fog) on the west side of the Continental Divide will flow into the Pacific; on the eastern side, all the water eventually collects into the Amazon basin and dumps out into the Atlantic, more than 5,000 kilometers away. Quite a humbling thought when one sees the small waterfalls and lakes and rivulets. We drove back down for about 300 meters elevation loss and then started our walk. Yesterday, it had sounded as if we'd go for a pleasant walk around some lake—but the truth was that we were about to embark on a 3-hour, 7-mile hike that bordered on trekking.

At about 12,500 feet one can feel every little incline, and even walking downhill requires more effort than one would suspect. Miguel, himself around the 60-year-mark, made sure that we paced ourselves, with many stops and the opportunity to look around. After the first kilometer or so, our small group was alone, and we didn't see anybody else except for two fishermen in the distance. The soil is moist, cushioning every step in a pleasant way. In some spots it felt as if we were walking on a sponge, and in a few places we had to be careful to not slip in muddy sections. There were lakes everywhere, some large, some tiny, and rivulets were babbling along. Wherever one looked, there were small waterfalls, and the sound of running water was ever present.

It was a good thing that we had to walk at an easy pace and stop often because it allowed us to really look around and notice all those tiny little flowers and plants that dot the ground. There was one plant that looked like a dandelion, but it had no stem and the blossom was stuck to some flat leaves; the same was true for the daisies—no stem. Next to the flowers were lichen-like plants that were soft to the touch and reminded me of star-like patterns one finds in baroque church ornamentation. It was a foreign world with a ground-hugging flora that would suddenly explode into color, only to meld back into all shades of green.

We did walk through a small stretch of forest. These were quinoa trees, which don't have anything to do with the fashionable grainy stuff that health-foodies like so much. The tree is called in Spanish arbol de papel, or paper tree, because of its bark that flakes off like the layers of a croissant—seriously, they should call it croissant tree! These odd creatures were between 300 to 500 years old, all gnarly and twisted in inexplicable patters. The bark reminded me of that of madrone trees that also lose their outer layers.

We didn't see any wildlife except a few tiny birds, but we did come across a healthy pile of something resembling dog shit; Miguel told us that it was the "poo" of the lobo de la montana. A while later, some not-so-inviting smell alerted us to the rabbit-like droppings of alpacas, the cousins of llamas that like to crap in the same spot over and over again.
The lobo de la montana craps big'uns ...
... and the alpaca produces coffee-bean sized pellets
The weather steadily improved, and finally the sun came out and we could shed a few layers. It was simply gorgeous. I was so glad that my knee was holding up, and I have decided that I will check out a trekking trip in Argentina that I had read an article about. And then there is Kilimanjaro, something on my own, secret bucket list. That leg behaved!

After about three hours we finally got back to the road, at a somewhat lower elevation than where we had started. Our driver was waiting for us, and the four of us piled into the van. Included in the $50 price for this tour was our lunch, which we ate in a scenic restaurant at our original starting point. We were greeted with a canelazo, a tart yet sweet, slightly alcoholic drink that's served warm, made from a particular plant the name of which escapes me (I later happened to see it in a street vendor's basket). This was followed by one of the best potato soups I ever had, with lots of fresh corn kernels and a generous slice of avocado in it. And the main course was trout—the others went for the pan-fried kind while I opted for the steamed version, with a garlic-cream sauce. Delicious.

With guide Miguelito

After lunch, we drove back down the mountain to Cuenca. On the way we saw some wild llamas on the road, and the vistas were reminiscent of a drive through the Alps. I have to say that our group was perfect: Julie, Bob, and I really hit it off, as if we had known each other for years. And Miguel was the perfect guide—not overbearing, full of interesting information, with a good sense of humor, and just the kind of attitude that actually makes you want to tip him. If you ever need a personal guide—who has been trained by the ministry of tourism—whilst in Cuenca, he can be reached at 099 820 6423, or I hope you enjoyed the photos of my excursion to the paramo, and I hope that you will—someday—get a chance to see this amazing place yourselves.
The paramo at its best
And I promise, the food entry will come—this afternoon I collected a little bit more material for the Epicurean's Guide to Ecuadoran Cuy-sine.

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