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 wonder 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 real beds. 2) Showers with hot (lukewarm) water!!! 3) the blessed gift of WiFi! The creature comforts, ya know! We got in around 5 pm, so after unpacking John had said it was time for dinner. Now I will give it to John, he knows just when to apply food to increase group morale and keep us going (very deft application of chocolate on or in between hard hikes)! We went to a fantastic pizza place where he bought each of us our individual pizza, which you would understand what that meant if you had spent a week hiking at high altitude on limited rations (i.e., fat camp). The evening was spent enjoying good company with excellent food, Laura (our Columbian doctoral student) taught me restaurant 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 regular route, but it wouldn’t wait for long. The next few minutes was 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 incredibly 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 wonderful 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 little cabin-like structure that 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 a feast, for the porters cooked us up enormous 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 people’s portions (after being 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 reality space in the dining room and porch to set up for the night (girls commandeered the sleeping area) I hung my hammock on the porch and let the combined sound of the river and occasional rainfall drift me into peaceful 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 another 300 meters 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 four 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 to get clear measurements. As for the sampling, each of us was assigned a porter (our 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 apparent 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 finished and would be left to nature until the next 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 studies 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 cozy cabin. A total of 8 out of 20 of us decided to stay down and were left one 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 the mountain looking like they were dying. Covered in mud from head to toe, they told tales of flooded tents, steep slopes, and fundamental discomfort. 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 arm hairs).
The hike down the next day was great, mostly because I left before most of the group and spent the 3 hours hiking down alone (the occasional porter sprinting by carrying 5X his body weight!). I hiking alone for two reasons: 1) You 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.
Story continues in “Banos to Otavalo” post!