“Somehow everything suddenly become 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 journey (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) matriculate 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 from (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 9 pm, and ever since getting on the plane in Miami I have become acutely 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 Miami, 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 that 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 get to Quito. Apparently, they moved the airport from the center of the city to the outskirts at a lower elevation to try to make landing safer for planes, at the cost of convenience (how could they!). Anyway, our first night was taking the bus to our hostel and settling in. The hostel was good for the first night, probably because we were exhausted, but the second night we were kept awake by our German neighbors late night drinking games and became acutely aware that the was a BYOTP kind of place (Bring Your Own Toilet Paper!). Don’t think I will be frequenting the place in the future.
The second day we awoke around 7 am, 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 purchases. While out shopping we also stopped to buy 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 epiphytic 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 name of any of the fruit I tried, so it was 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 colossal misconception of the challenge that lay before us the next day.
We woke up at 6 am that morning and were quickly ushered onto our bus without the 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 11 am 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 wonderful cooking, but the food we received at this casual roadside restaurant was the best meal I 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 talk to me!
We started our trek by crossing a bridge to the footpath that began 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 romantical notion remaining from the cloud forest. But really, lots and lots of mud. I had cast away the jungle boots for my trekking shoes for some more traction, and soon my legs were covered 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 ascent. The very muddy ascent. 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 convenient, 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 fantastic, and I owe them my life for getting me up the rest of the mountain. My arrival 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 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 6 am. Once I had properly awoken, I remembered he was 13, and preteens often 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. It turns out John becomes akin to a kid in a candy shop the moment he stepped 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 assess 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 about us sticking to a strict meal regimen. I don’t think it crossed his mind that hiking requires an input of nutrients to keep going on multiple hikes a day. But we did. I believe 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 monolithic volcano sitting in the background. Well, I shouldn’t underestimate omnipresent since clouds and precipitation often obscured our view, so let’s call it the vanishing volcano! Though its proper name was Raventador! Camp life 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 be I bust out my travel mat and get some yoga in, but often I was too exhausted to try anything but Savasana! You may have some ideas what we were using for facilities, being 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 larger 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 unsatisfying in the quantity department, were 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 apparent reason, but my exhaustion wasn’t it. After getting used to the hammock, I have to say it is my favorite way to sleep! And if you remember that we are in a RAIN forest, imagine 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 waterhole 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 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 ash shooting into the sky, but with most of the world’s light snuffed out (save the 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 impressive, but what 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 Jenny and I 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 a part 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 story continues as we head to our next destination! Rio Zuñac…