Lost and Found in Quilatoa

This right here is one of my favorite stories ever. Well, okay, perhaps the words on paper don’t quite match the experience as I remember it because words alone can never really explain such things. But it is the kind of story I want to shout from the rooftops. If only everyone would just understand…

It has been suggested by the lovely Ms. B. that I can be overly cynical. Indeed, if you read my last post you will probably come to the same conclusion. Nevertheless, I disagree. While it is true that I am exceptionally cynical about the government, the economic system and the perpetual imperial war, I am exceptionally optimistic about human nature. To my mind, the coming collapse of the imperial capitalist world order is a good thing because I believe in the power of human beings to create a wonderful world to live in. No doubt, the transition is liable to be dicey. There’s probably a 50 50 chance our entire species and quite a few others will burn out in a blaze of glory when it all unfolds. But I really don’t think so. I believe in free will and I believe we as a species will choose survival. Sometimes when I watch or listen to the news, I have to scratch my head and wonder as the specter of doubt seeps into my consciousness. But, then again, I remember experiences like this time in Quilatoa and once again I believe.

Anyway, here is the story.

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Lost and Found in Quilatoa

Latacanga, Ecuador; March 20, 2011

No doubt about it, we are definitely lost. The wide clear horse path shrunk to a single human foot trail before it petered into nothing. We have before us now; a wide open beautiful view of mountains and a valley. We are somewhere in the vicinity of the Quilatoa Circuit. There are a few houses scattered randomly in the distance but there is no definite and clear direction to go. What should we do? Retrace our steps backward to the trail we lost or continue ahead looking for our destination? I see a small group of locals picking vegetables in the field across the way. I hope that we are not trespassing. I put down the rock I carry for protection, bring forth to my face my most innocent smile and head over to the farmers to ask them directions.

By the time we arrive in the City of Latacunga, Ecuador, I am in a bad mood. I try to ignore it, put forward an enthusiastic face, but the truth is that I am grumpy as hell. The specter of neo-colonial tourism has engulfed Ecuador like an endemic disease and I feel somehow a part of that specter. I try to deny it. I’m a traveler not a tourist. There’s a big difference. Or so I like to believe. At the moment, however, I have an urge to ditch out on Ecuador completely. Go straight to Colombia or the jungle or someplace real. I can’t take anymore of this merry-go-round. Actually, what I really want now is some beach. Only a couple weeks of travel time left. I’m tired of tourist trap world and I’m also tired of the long journeys and the endless walks. I could use some hammock time on an isolated beach with a view of the ocean and no resorts for hundreds of miles.. I could use a splash in the waves… But no, that is not possible. Now is Carnaval time in Ecuador so the beaches are packed and expensive and crazy. We have to wait four more days for Carnaval to end before we can go there. Ok, what shall we do?

The Quilatoa Circuit is Ms. B.’s idea. She read about it on the internet or in the guidebook and suggested we go there. It’s a hiking circuit in the mountains near Latacunga. There’s some public transport so you don’t have to hike the whole thing. But the basic idea is that you can hike from indigenous village to indigenous village through a mountainous canyon and past a crater lake. There are places to stay in all the villages. In other words, it’s hiking with cultural exchange; my favorite kind of activity. I’m a little concerned about the possible effects of the ongoing neo-colonial tourism on the Circuit but I’m hoping for the best.

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Our night in the city of Latacunga is not too bad. All the tourists have gone to special hotspots on the beach for Carnaval so it really seems an Ecuadoran place. We stay in a local hotel rather than an international hostel and the staff who serve us are friendly and genuine. I feel like I’m traveling again. It’s a foreign country. I’m a guest and not a conqueror. I only hope that it stays that way for our coming adventure.

The following morning, we leave half our belongings in the hotel storage and head to the bus station. I carry a full pack with a sleeping bag and all our clothes. Ms. B. just has a day pack with a camera and water bottle. I don’t want her burdened for the days of walking ahead so I carry almost everything. The bus station is total chaos just like Latin American local bus stations usually are. I love it. Total madness! Everyone goes every which way all at once. How can this insanity possibly function? But somehow it does. I want to see the schematic, the plan, the computer program. But there isn’t one. It is chaos principles; organic functioning; the hive in action. There are no other tourists and it seems like there is no rationale. Nevertheless, we buy two tickets, follow the flow, shout out our destination and somehow we end up on the right bus going in the right direction. Two hours later, we arrive in the town of Zumbahuha.

We are, more or less, winging it. We have very little info as to where we are going or what we are doing. There’s a tourist office in Zumbahuha but we don’t stop in for directions. Instead, we accept a ride to Quilatoa village in the back of a pickup from the very first local who offers us one. The charge is 9 dollars. That seems high for a 45 minute drive but we go along anyway. It’s afternoon when we are dropped off at the first hostel at the beginning of town. It is locally owned but not super cheap at 30 dollars for a double including dinner and breakfast. Actually, it’s kind of a shithole so we decide to continue on. The next place is cheaper… only 20 bucks a double with meals and much cleaner. It has no heater but lots of blankets and there’s a nice view from the veranda. . The gold toothed man who shows it to us is like a colorful character from a 1970s sci fi film. He has the power to provide us with any and all possible tourist wishes or desires.

So we take the room, drop our bags and head into the village to find some food and get directions on how to go to the crater lake. If it is not too far, maybe we can walk there today before the sun sets. The scene we discover is a little surreal. Quilatoa is not really a town or a village. It’s a basic, old-fashioned Ecuadoran tourist trap built around a superb natural attraction. Honestly, no person would choose to live in Quilatoa. It is high altitude, barren, cold, wet, and constantly foggy. It’s darn uncomfortable. As we stumble through the hovering mist, we don’t see homes or farms or village services. All we see is guesthouses and artisanal shops. All the guesthouses are similarly priced and of similar quality. Low budget, local Ecuadoran quality. No doubt it’s a tourist trap but at least it’s a trap with some original Ecuadoran character.

We have a very good chicken almuerzo for only 2 bucks in one of the hostel restaurants and then follow the signs through the mist towards the lake. There’s a horse trail of sorts that leads into a natural passageway between two steep cliffs. It’s like a crack in the surface of the earth. We walk through the passageway… it’s only a short distance… and emerge at a lookout on the edge of a crater…WOW! This at least qualifies as a holy shit! It is absolutely one of the most mind bogglingly beautiful places that I have ever seen. The interior is oval shaped with a size of several football fields. The walls are steep strong cliffs many hundred feet high. At the bottom is a lake; colored a psychedelic bluish green. It looks other-worldly; like an exaggerated version of a far away imaginary planet. Can this be real?

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Of course there is a trail… a horse trail zigs and zags along the rocky cliffs winding it’s way to the bottom. There’s a building down there and a small dock with boats. There’s a couple tents. There’s people and horses. Some are down below and some are going up and down on the trail. How about that? Totally cool. It’s some kind of hostel down there. It’s a shame we already checked in. It doesn’t look very far. If we had known, we could have stayed at the bottom of the crater. Should we go down there now? It’s pretty late in the day. Do we have time to go all the way down and come all the way back up again? It’s cloudy and damp. It might rain hard. Maybe we should wait and hike to the bottom tomorrow… Yeah right, let’s just go a little ways. We can turn around and head back at any time.

So yes, we do hike to the bottom. And it is a wonderfully glorious little journey. The steep path is quite difficult in the thin mountain air but certainly not impossible. Several enterprising locals try to convince us that it would be better and easier on a horse. We decline the four legged transport and walk. It only takes us about 45 minutes to reach the bottom. And what can I say about a place like Quilatoa Crater Lake? It is beautiful beyond words. Incomprehensively beautiful. It’s the kind of place that has power to inspire the soul.

The journey out of the crater is a lot more difficult than the journey in. But such is the nature of the universe. It takes us over two hours to struggle our way uphill through the mist and descending darkness to reach the top and the cluster of guesthouses. We find our way back to our room as daylight disappears. I drink a few beers on the veranda while we wait until dinner. Ms. B., however, stays snuggled under blankets in the room. It’s cold and wet and damn uncomfortable in this place, but that crater lake sure is cool.

Dinner is a non-spectacular affair and the eating area is freezing cold. We share the meal with a couple of Dutch cyclists who are rather unhappy about the quality of accomodation. The night is unpleasant. The two big beers impose on my bladder and it’s a long cold walk across the dark compound to the toilet. I sleep hardly at all. I lie there awake with the cold and mist chilling my bones. Morning finally comes. We eat a substantial breakfast, pack up our belongings and head out towards the next destination.

The trail from Quilatoa to Chuchilan is supposed to take five hours to walk. It follows the rim of the crater for a while but then descends away to criss cross a river valley and gorge. It’s only seven or eight miles long but there’s a lot of steep uphill and downhill. At the beginning of the trail there’s a big sign that warns against robberies and suggests people hike in big groups of at least four. It also says the way is difficult to find and suggests a local guide. Ms. B. and I are alone; we are a group of only two and we have no guide. An eerie mist covers the landscape and obscures our view. I have the full pack and Ms. B. has a day pack. I have our passports and a fair bit of cash. Is this a stupid thing to do? Are we asking to get robbed? After all the stories I heard in Vilcabamba, I’m more than a little bit paranoid. This is the kind of place it happens; lots of rich tourists and lots of poor locals; dark misty trails in the middle of nowhere. Maybe this is a bad idea.

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We only walk a short distance before we encounter two locals. Their faces are covered with bandanas because of the mist so we only see their eyes. They offer to guide us on the trail for money. They warn us about getting lost in the clouds. But we don’t want a guide, we can’t afford one, and who’s to say these guys are trustworthy anyway. No thanks we say, and continue on our way… A little while later, a group of snot nosed little children come running and laughing through the haze. Seriously, they look like mischievous urchins from a dark and creepy fairy tale.They ask us for regalos (presents) but don’t hang around long. The sound of their laughter seems to linger in the clouds for quite some time after they are gone. A short while later; we meet another local man. He too offers to guide us for a price and warns that the pathway is confusing. We ignore his advice and continue on alone.

So, here we are, walking through a scene like a science fiction movie set with other worldly apocalyptic imagery. Strange characters keep emerging from the mist to warn us that the way is dangerous and confusing. The unreal, semi-psychedelic lake keeps coming in and out of view as we circumnavigate the rim of the crater. The atmosphere just seems saturated with doom and gloom. It feels like something bad is about to happen. Is there a threat lurking in these clouds?

That’s when I decide to pick up a rock. There’s one in the path. A perfect size. About as big as a grapefruit. Nice and solid. Do I need it for protection? Probably not. But maybe. You never know. I pick it up. Once again, just like on the Sacred Mountain in Vilcabamba, the presence of the rock in my hand increases my paranoia. I toss it up in the air and catch it. A rock is a weapon. I never really thought so before but now I do. And having a weapon in my hand makes the world more dangerous. Why? Action and reaction. It’s a fundamental law of the universe. I should drop the rock and drop the fear. Why won’t I do it?

Some time after I find the rock, the trail divides into two trails. The path to the right continues following the crater’s edge. The path to the left descends into the valley. We know that eventually we must go down so we decide to follow the left trail. I pass the heavy rock from my left hand to my right as I head down the steep hillside. Almost immediately, the trail shrinks in size. It gets smaller and smaller and smaller as we make our way down hill. Finally, the trail disappears completely and we are lost. Now what should we do? Thankfully, we see a group of locals picking vegetables across the way.

Put down the weapon… drop the rock… And that, my friends, is what this story is all about. Actually, that is more or less what this whole darn book is all about. It doesn’t matter if the weapon is a rock or a gun or a dollar bill. If we approach strangers with fear and aggression, we will receive fear and aggression in return. But if we approach strangers with kindness and friendship, we will receive kindness and friendship in return. This is a truth I have lived in my travels. This is a truth in which I sincerely believe. So why is now different? Why am I carrying a rock and thinking of it as a weapon? This corruption of my soul began back in Vilcabamba. That’s where I first picked up the rock. That’s where I first saw the evidence of the gringo invasion and heard stories of the violent reprisals. That’s where I picked up the fear. The rock is a metaphor, a symbol, a way of seeing the world. With a weapon in my hand and aggression on my mind, my vision is distorted. If I put down the weapon, then I will see.

It really is like a miracle. Just as I drop the rock but before I reach the farmers, I have an epiphany experience. It feels as if some sort of super power sticks a key in a lock and lets my soul out of a cage. As the rock falls to the earth, the twisted coil of tension, anger and fear relaxes; my breath releases and I feel free. I stroll across the field, approach the farmers with a smile and explain in Spanish that we are lost. They laugh good- naturedly and tell us we are not the first gringos to be lost here. They show us the way back to the trail and wish us luck on our continued journey.

The next several days hiking the Quilatoa Circuit are glorious redemption. We have such an amazing good time I can hardly put it in words. We get lost several times each day but there are always friendly locals in the vicinity to point us the right way. The scenery is spectacular with cloud forest, a deep canyon, rushing river and tall mountains. The villages are small and the people are friendly and interesting. Most importantly, I feel like I’m traveling in Ecuador again rather than in a U.S. tourist colony. It feels like adventure, it feels like a story, it feels like we are wandering in the great big world.

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It’s also a bit of a workout. We hike for six or seven hours each day with lots of steep up hills and down hills. Getting lost always brings on an adrenaline rush tinged with paranoia and panic. And then getting found provides that wonderous mixture of relief and euphoria. The jourmey becomes a story. The roller coaster of life. The highs and lows of love and living. The struggle and the satisfaction. Getting lost is part of the narrative. And so is learning to trust in the kindness of strangers to set me on the right track. Put down the rock … put down the weapon. I don’t need it. Attitude is everything. Don’t be afraid. Let the story unfold. If we open ourselves to the world, the world will open to us.

I’ll never forget the little old lady. It is mid-afternoon when we hike past her on a very steep part of the trail. She must be eighty years old and she is slumped under the weight of a fairly heavy burden. It’s a big sack of round things; perhaps potatoes. I consider offering to help her with her sack but the truth is I’m already burdened with what I got. And she seems to be doing just fine. She’s going slowly perhaps but does not seem overwhelmed. As a matter of fact, as we go past, she smiles at us and even speaks without slowing down to catch her breath or anything. “Buenos tardes,” she says with a glowing smile, “uds. se van rapido.” (You guys walk fast). I am so impressed by the old lady that I comment about her to Ms. B. at some length. Imagine that, walking these crazy steep trails at that age. How is it even possible?

The funny thing happens about an hour later. Ms. B. and I leave the old lady in the dust. Impressive that she can walk the trail at all but she can hardly be expected to keep up with healthy young whipper snappers like me and Ms. B… We forget all about the old lady as we continue our climb up the steep trail to Chuchilan. Up we go. Zigging and zagging. Climbing towards the top. It’s taking longer than expected. The trail seems to go on forever. Finally, after an exceptionally long zig, we see a sign and the sign says Chuchilan. Down beneath the sign on the trail there are two old ladies having an animated conversation. They are laughing so hard they look like they will drop their heavy sacks. As we get closer, I recognize the one old woman as being the same old woman we passed on the trail an hour ago. Her smile still glows and her eyes twinkle, “Buenos tardes,” she says to us again, “uds. se van rapido.” And then the two of them burst into laughter again.

Yeah, I know; the tortoise and the hare; there’s a lesson in there somewhere. Some lesson about getting lost and getting found again. Eventually, we do make it to our destination. The Cloud Forest hostel in Chuchilan certainly lives up to expectations. It’s the Shangra La after the quest; the emerald city at the end of the yellow brick road. Locally owned and operated; it provides basic comforts in an authentic Ecuadoran setting. The hammocks kick ass, the food is delicious and the view from the veranda is priceless. Small comforts and luxuries magnify in their intensity when indulged in after an arduous journey. A hot shower and a comfortable big bed are truly wonderful things. But they are even more wonderful after a seven hour hike through a mostly cold canyon.

The following days are more of the same. We get lost a lot, but then found. We hike long distances carrying heavy packs. We struggle; we sweat; we breathe hard in the high altitude air. We get lost some more and have to ask locals for directions again and again. They are always helpful. They show us the way. There are other travelers in the guesthouses and walking and riding these trails. Every one seems to get lost here. We hear the same kind of story over and over in all the different guesthouses. Perhaps that truth is the power of this place. Quilatoa; a very nice place to be lost and found.

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