The “Cloud Forest”

All the passengers were loaded on the truck, yet we were still missing one. This is a pretty common occurrence with overlanding, but usually we have some contact with the office or even the individual to let us know they’ll be arriving late or won’t be coming. It’s 7am on the second day of the tour and we’ve had no word from the office nor the passenger. So, as much as we’d hate to leave someone behind, the show must go on. Now, realize we have sent an email to the office and let a note at the front desk of our hotel with contact info and our agenda, but that’s all we can do. Hopefully our lost soul will find us at our next destination riding on public transport.

I wish I could say that the drive out of Quito was less stressful than the beginning of the morning, but like I said before, it’s a labyrinth of one-ways and blocked off roads. Even though the map looks rather straight forward, we find ourselves scratching our heads and looking for a reliable taxi driver to give us a hand. Now, we could just ask him for directions and leave it at that, but why not just have him direct us by driving in front and leading the way out of town. This was the wise decision and actually our passengers are none the wiser. So, with one u-turn and a taxi driver leading the way, it only took us an hour and a half to leave the city.

Chugchilan was our destination for the day, but the trip had never been run this way and we weren’t sure how long the journey was going to take nor did we have proper directions to get us there. The passengers were in the back chatting away as they usually do on the first few days getting to know one another and we were blindly (yet effectively) finding our way. After a few stops to make sure our choices of roads were correct and the detour caused by rebuilding of a bridge, we knew we had found the road less traveled, the road we needed to climb into the mountains.

The journey takes us through winding one and a half lane roads dipping and climbing, zig zagging on old asphalt and dirt roads carved out of the side of the mountains.

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Chugchilan is a small village situated at 3200m above sea level in Cotopaxi region of Ecuador. Most days it’s covered with a layer of clouds and a fine mist consistently falls. But, as our fortunes would have, we’ve got beautiful sunshine and blue skies. The hostel we are staying is a great little place with multiple floors and hammocks abound. The group does lunch, wanders the village and then settles comfortably into the hammocks. Today is a casual day that will prepare us for our hike tomorrow.

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Not only does the hostel have a great environment, but Frank (the hostel chef) provides us with fantastic meals. For $15 a day, you get comfy rooms, use of hammocks, free wifi and game room along with breakfast and dinner. It’s true value for your dollar.

The following day we have a latish breakfast and everyone gets kitted up for their day of hiking. We’ve been told that the hike is moderately strenuous and should take between 4-6 hours. Our transportation is an old dilapidated truck with a little bit of seating but mainly we climb into the bed for our 45 minute ride up to Quilotoa. Quilotoa is a beautiful lake situated at 4000m nestled in a caldera of a volcano in the western Andes mountains.

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Our notes lead us to believe that this trek would be about 7 miles and moderately strenuous except for the final mile climbing up from the canyon to Chugchilan. Now I ask you, “Which is more comfortable hiking? Going uphill or downhill?” Let me add that the terrain is uneven and the pathway is narrow enough for you not to be able to stand with your feet side-by-side. Initially the path was pleasant and easy, although remember you are hiking at 4000m and even the slightest of inclines makes you lose your breath. Walking along the ridge of the caldera was stunning with 300m overviews of the lake and its inhabitants down below. Truthfully, nobody really lives down in the caldera, just a few companies that you can rent kayaks from to putter around the lake.

As we wandered down the side of caldera, we were amazed at the differing landscapes that had risen from the ocean millions of years ago. Although we were at 4000m, you could do a little digging and find yourself some seashells that had been deposited on the sea floor. Not only that, our path took us through pure sand that made you feel like it was time to get out your beach towel to soak up the sunshine.

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On our way down we came across a few villages where the kids were kicking soccer (footballs) balls and jumping rope. The children were shy but a few let us take their picture as we walked along the path together. These are the types of experiences that we all had hoped for when coming to South America. Well, at least in my eyes. Hiking and exploring the local villages is what fascinates me. Walking in their shoes, trying to speak their languages, and eating the local dishes is what traveling is all about.

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As we reached the top of the canyon, the group sat for a rest. Most looked over the edge of the canyon and questioned how we were getting down and was that Chugchilan all the way over on the other side about the same elevation that we were standing at at that moment? Up until this point the trail was fairly wide and not that difficult, but now we were going to trek down the side of this canyon on what looked like a mule trail. Most of the group made their way down the path at a decent pace with minimal discomfort, but when you’re leading an overland adventure, you get a diversity of individuals with a diversity of skill and active levels. This trip was no different and we had a few that were having problems making it down the fairly steep and narrow path. I’m not the kind of hiker who cares whether we finish the hike in the fastest time ever, so I made sure that they group lagging behind was comfortable and stopped when they felt they needed some water and rest.

Although this was nice for them, the other part of the group was graciously waiting to down below to climb up the other side of the canyon. Nat was back with me and we both decided that she should go ahead and take the others up the other side so they didn’t have to wait for the slower group. I wasn’t there, but I assume they protested slightly as they were all very thoughtful and liked being together, but then finally decided that the hostel was where they wanted to be relaxing in their hammocks after a nice shower.

Slowly we made our way to the bottom and then had a nice little rest before we started the slog up the other side. Once we got going, the group found their footing to be more comfortable and all they had to do now was control their breathing. Easier said than done when you’ve just flown thousands of miles the previous day or two and have been living at sea level or close to it.

In my mind I had a feeling Nat was sitting at the hostel with the group debating whether or not to bring the truck to pick us up. But, I made no mention of it, because I wanted then to push on and finish the trek. Especially after they had worked so hard and had so little left of it. We climbed up one of the last little ridges to meet with a local dirt road and there was a collective sigh of relief from the group. Our guide pointed out where our final destination was and they knew they were just 45 minutes or so away from relaxation. “We’re almost there! You guys are doing great.” As I said this, we rounded a corner and heard the clamoring of a truck coming our way. “Is that our truck that took us to the top earlier?” I smiled to myself, yet was kind of disappointed for them cause they would get assistance and not finish it all on their own. Well, two of the group hopped on the truck without hesitation and the others decided that they wanted to finish the trek themselves if that was ok. I told them that I would be happy to continue on with them and we could make it in probably another 30 minutes.

Huffing and puffing they finished the last climb up the cobblestone path into the town and when the road flattened out, you could see they were standing tall with pride. I always love taking people on treks, especially when it challenges their expectations of what they can do. The smiles on their faces are so gratifying to me, similar to when I was teaching and the light build would go off in a kids head.

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The day ended with a well deserved hot shower and fantastic meal cooked by Frank at the hostel. Most people questioned the “moderately strenuous” explanation of the hike along with the overall distance but all were in good spirits.

The best part comes in the next couple of days when their bodies tell them how strenuous the hike really was!

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