Day 134 – 16 Jul, 2015
July is here at last!! The time had finally come for me to get a taste of home – my mom was coming for a visit for 2 whole weeks and I had been looking forward to this for months!
Mom arrived in Quito’s large and modern international airport and we were staying at an equally modern and upscale hotel in the trendy La Mariscal neighborhood. Spending every night prior to her arrival in some combination of hostels, guesthouses, or camping, the hotel was a treat for both of us and to ease Mom in slowly to life in Ecuador. Not only that, but she brought me a big ol’ care package of cosmetics, favorite snacks, and some replacement clothes so I felt downright spoiled.
We toured around the old city and La Mariscal for a day, taking in some of the famous monuments like the Basilica del Voto Nacional, Parque El Ejido, and El Panecillo. But Mom had flown all the way from Florida to get here so we thought it wise to get out of the city and into an unfamilar frontier, the cloud forests of Mindo.
Mindo is only about 90 minutes away from Quito, but they may as well be worlds apart. Quito, being a large and sprawling metropolis, was the stark contrast to Mindo’s small town charm. Accustomed to the international visitors passing through, Mindo is well-equipped with the tourist racket, tour companies that “speak English” with prices to match line the main street, but in spite of this, the locals are friendly and welcoming and only subtly encourage you to spend money as opposed to the in-your-face approach found elsewhere in Ecuador.
We had 2 days to spend in this little corner of the jungle so we got down to business right away. Top of my list was a waterfall hike, where you can see 7 waterfalls on a short jaunt into primary rainforest. I was already becoming quite numb to these sites, but Mom was new and this sounded like a good taste of a mildly challenging adventure. Mom likes to hike, but she doesn’t have the opportunity to do it that often so we both thought it best to keep it relatively short and simple.
As we left our guesthouse that morning, we met Danielle and Ben, 2 friends that were also headed to the waterfall route and offered to share a taxi with us. The entrance to the hike itself was a little intimidating. There is a small open-air cable car (tarabita) for about 4 passengers that is shuttled across the valley to the trailhead on the other side. I have a general rule-of-thumb where I try not to think about the actual danger involved in such a ride. Even though this is Ecuador, and they probably don’t do routine safety checks, I try to think about how many times they operate this contraption every day and what are the chances that it will fail when I’m in it? Statistically speaking, there is a higher probability it will fail when I’m not in it so I forge ahead. Danielle, Ben, Mom, and I are locked in to the same car and sent on our way, taking photos from the canopy and only nervously joking about the precariousness of our present situation.
Glad to have our feet back on the ground, the 4 of us started on a steep downhill path to the valley floor and through El Sanctuario de las Cascadas. It was beautiful. Each waterfall was slightly hidden off the main path and we would almost have the entire scene to ourselves. A large tour group was hot on our heels so we pressed on, trying to maintain the quiet serenity as long as possible. As we descended further along the trail, Mom was slowing down. I know she was thinking about the walk back up to the cable car, as was I. She was already running low on water and the jungle heat was rising rapidly. Danielle and Ben turned out to be great partners for this hike; they slowed down to our pace and even helped us spot some of the unique fauna that we otherwise may have missed.
When we reached the second to the last waterfall, there was a bottleneck on the trail. The only place to cross was on a narrow log across a pool at the base of the fall. A group of guys that had arrived ahead of us decided this was a perfect place for a swim. Ben hesitantly offered that he would go in if I did. After a couple of tentative minutes of negotiating and some cautious toe-dipping, I accepted his challenge. The water was the kind of cold that takes your breath away, the kind that causes your lungs to sieze up and your whole body to vibrate beyond your control. All we needed was the money shot – the photo under the waterfall. Standing under the water was nearly impossible and a genuine smile appeared to be more of a grimace. The water was so powerful it compromised the integrity of my bikini bottoms so I was forced to let nature win this one. You only live once, right?!
After this bold dip, we decided we had enough and began heading back up the path. In spite of the heat, lack of water, and the difficulty level of the terrain, Mom did great. We have a bit of a history of me underestimating the hike and her underestimating her physicality (a 2009 Iceland incident comes to mind). When we arrived back at the cable car, a bit exhausted and a lot relieved, we immediately noticed the trusty cable car was stationary in the middle of the line. Well, this was weird… Ben noticed something was off. The pulley that was attached to the lower cable was scalding hot and noticeably bare – no cable. A few minutes later, the pulley operator calmly returns and says this might take awhile. My first thought? Oh, shit. It’s 3:00, the cable has completely snapped, and this is Ecuador. Completely no chance this will be fixed before dark. There were even people stranded in the car – I can’t imagine what they were thinking!
Faced with few options, we were told that the only way out would be to walk, 2 hours down the valley and back up the other side. Promising to keep the pace slow and steady, we went back the way we came, resting at regular intervals. Mom is 64, but it’s never easy to think of your parents getting older. To me, I think of her as 20 years younger like she was the last time I lived at home. When you have that moment of realization where time has progressed without your awareness, it’s jarring and disconcerting, to say the least. She and I both knew we had no choice but to move forward through the jungle path, although my internal monologue was fearing that I had royally fucked this up. Why did I bring her out here to do a hike in this country where they most assuredly don’t have any park rangers or clean water or medical assistance and the insects are as big as your hand? Where if you fell off a cliff or got lost or ran out of freaking water and died, that they would just sweep it under the rug so their tourism wouldn’t be affected? I desperately wanted to be back to something resembling civilization, preferably with air conditioning and ice water. And exactly the moment when I was mentally cataloging my survival skills (approximately none), we emerged at the top of the trail. The ugly yellow rusty cable car still sat stagnant with the people inside appearing more than a little agitated. We barely glanced back at that hunk of junk before hailing a taxi back to town. I truly hope the passengers were rescued before dark….
The rest of our time in Mindo was less eventful. We went exotic birdwatching with Travis, our guide from North Carolina, and on a night nature walk to look for spiders and frogs with a guide from England. Sadly, the Ecuadorian guides were in the minority.
There was also a visit to a chocolate factory, where after touring the plantation and processing area, we were given samples of raw chocolate mixed with a variety of ginger, cinnamon, honey, pepper, etc to see how each of these variables affected the flavor of the chocolate. Usually these tours are such a gimmick, but this one was good and the samples were plentiful and worth it.
As a farewell send off to Mindo, Ben and Danielle were going to a frog concert with an invitation to join them. A what concert? Yes, a FROG concert. About a mile up the road, a frog habitat has been established with a natural pond and wilderness conducive for breeding. The habitat includes a viewing platform for paying customers, of course. At dusk, the chorus begins. Soft at first and then louder and more intense. Guests are served wine while they listen and after about 30 minutes, the guides lead the group around the pond to get up close with these noisy amphibians. The tour was nice and I was unexpectedly pleased with the “concert” but I wish the operators would limit the number of visitors per night in the name of conservation. Way too many people trampling through this beautiful habitat.
Mom and I hadn’t traveled together in about 6 years. Mindo was only the prelude of her stay in Ecuador, but if we can look past the fact that I almost killed her on Day One, then I’d say we were off to a good start!