After leaving Yacuambe we set off by bus for Guadalupe, farther down the valley. We'd sold our bicycles a week earlier than originally planned when we received an attractive offer in Yacuambe. The road followed the Yacuambe river valley farther down into the Amazon. In places the valley narrowed to almost a canyon. There were a few scattered small settlements along the way but by and large the valley was sparsely settled. All was lush and green on the steep slopes above us and I was wishing for a kayak or raft to ride the rushing river below. In fact, before leaving Yacuambe we'd made some inquiries but no one seemed to be running commercial trips on the river. I suspect that while the Yacuambe River itself would have been prime rafting, we were just a bit too far off the tourist track to make it a profitable business venture.
Our original plan had been to ride our bicycles down to the Amazon from Gima to Gualaquiza, with overnight stops in San Miguel de Cuyes and Nueva Tarqui. That all fell apart when we arrived in San Miguel and discovered that what my map showed as a road was actually a rough mountain trail, impassible for bicycles. Our options were limited. Limited to one. Hire a truck to take us back up the mountain to Gima where we would have to find another route. And then at a community dinner in San Miguel de Cuyes, or Saint Michael of Guinea Pigs, we met Father Angel Sanchez, a circuit riding priest and one of the most hospitable people I've ever met here in Ecuador, a land rightly renowned for hospitality.
Amy and I often fantasize about retiring to Ecuador. Actually, it's more like moving our wool mill and setting up shop there, processing wool, partnering with locals to sell rovings (wool ready to be spun into yarn) and yarn in the local markets, catering to North American and European tourists. It'll probably never happen but then again, this Caminata began as a long held fantasy, too. And if we ever were to decide to stop dreaming and start doing, I think Gima would be high on the list of possibilities.
Gabe left to return to the U.S. and the land of responsibilities on Saturday. I expect Carlitos back on Monday with two bicycles. Since I'd been hanging out in Cuenca for a week I decided I needed to get out of town for awhile. A day trip to Saraguro, a country town about 3 hrs by bus south of Cuenca seemed exactly the ticket. It would also gave me a chance to look at the route we'll be following when we finally set out again in a couple days.
The bus ride was great, the views spectacular..
I'm beginning to think I should rename this venture, “riding buses to Kuelap,” or even, “waiting around in hotels on the way to Kuelap.” But this is after all Ecuador where very little ever goes according to plan and never on time. It's all part of the adventure and I am still having fun, having the experience of a lifetime.
After waiting in Puyo for 5 days for Rocinante to recuperate we were finally ready to be on our way again.
In planning the Caminata I thought the most challenging part would be physical. I anticipated sleeping rough in a tent, irregular meals, walking 15 to 20 miles daily, much of it through mountainous terrain and wondered how much of a toll it would take on this 59 yr old body. As it turns out I'm holding up well and have surprised myself with my stamina. I really think I can do this.
What I had not expected was how hard it would be to keep a pack animal healthy....
Throughout the last year and a half of planning the Caminata I'd always known that the first segment would be the most challenging. I expected the usual aches and pains any 59 year old body, more accustomed to a soft bed, three meals a day and driving the half a mile to the corner store for bread and milk would feel when suddenly subjected to the rigors of the trail. But I also knew, and dreaded, that after setting out from Cayambe, Ecuador at 8,200' I'd have to immediately climb to 13,900' and the Oyacachi Pass through the eastern range of the Andes.
And the adventure begins.
Amy & I arrived in Ecuador on Wednesday, Jan 4. After spending the night near the airport and meeting up with Sergio in the morning, we moved up to Cayambe, which will be our base for the next week of preparations.
I love Ecuador with all my heart and I'm really pleased to be here again. That said, it has been frustrating at times adjusting to the South American pace of doing things. This North American has much to learn from his Ecuadorian hosts on how to slow down and just take things as they come. Tranquilo mi amigo, tranquilo. I've heard it repeatedly and am striving to take it to heart.
Over a year and a half of planning went into preparation for the Caminata. Those preparations included studying maps, making endless lists and even a reconnaissance trip to Ecuador last year. I'd hired a guide, studied up on donkeys, acquired way more “stuff” than 3 donkeys could carry and scrimped and saved to put aside the money. There is no doubt that all that planning and preparation was of immense value. Yet, within days of arriving in Ecuador to begin the Caminata, those plans began to fall by the wayside and I found myself constantly improvising new plans on the fly. Tomorrow I depart South America for the U.S., a full month earlier than I had originally planned. I'll be back in a month with Amy when we'll visit Kuelap. Or at least that the latest plan. But recent flooding in Peru may cause even those plans to change, too.
The Saraguro Trail is known as the premier Andes to Amazon trek in southern Ecuador. It begins just north of Saraguro, at 8,250 feet, and then climbs to around 12,000', crossing the paramo before plunging to 1,200', all in the space of less than 50 miles. That's a whole lot of up and down in a very short distance. For a good 25 of that 50 miles there is not a single house, pasture or sign of human occupation. It is stark, cold, wet and lonely and I've been dying to experience it. Problem is, dying is exactly what many people we encountered before setting out predicted would happen to us. Well, obviously we didn't die but they had a point. The potential for catastrophe was very real and any help was far away.
As much as I enjoyed my time in Gima, I was ready to get back on the road. Carlitos had arrived late the previous evening and we were looking ahead to our next stop, San Miguel de Cuyes, or Saint Michael of Guinea Pigs. But first, we had to cross the last barrier to the Amazon, the Cordillera Morire, or the "I Will Die Mountains." They are called that for a reason. Rising to 3,450 meters, the mountains here are cold, stark and forbidding. We could expect to find little shelter, no human habitation, a steep climb to the crest and even steeper descent down the other side. The prospect was daunting. Carlitos and I quickly agreed that being prudent was no dishonor and thus we'd hire a truck to transport us to the top. From there it would be a downhill road all the way to the Amazon.
After cooling my heels in Cuenca for a week I was ready to get back on the road. Gabe had departed for the U.S. and Carlitos had returned from Cayambe with two new bicycles. The whole pack animal thing just hadn't worked out. After giving it some thought I'd decided that riding bicycles to Kuelap was close enough to walking. The whole idea is to have a grand adventure, not to lock myself into anything.
Not to say that I didn't have a few reservations. It had been a long time since I'd been on bicycle for one. And in typical North American style, I was totting a lot of “stuff.” How were we ever going to get it all on to two bicycles? Just how safe were bicycles in Ecuadorian traffic? And wasn't riding a bicycle a lot of work? Still and all, given the realities bicycling seemed to be the best option.
Plans are made and plans come to naught, only to make new plans again. And so it goes in Ecuador. After leaving Macas, Gabe, Carlitos and I traveled on to Gualaceo and from there to Cuenca this week. We were unable to continue onward with Rocinante due to his hooves being too soft to hold horse-shoe nails. As it was explained to me, Rocinante was a jungle pony who had spent his whole life knee deep in mud, hauling logs out of the Amazonian jungle. As a consequence his hooves were soft and as soon as we had shoes put on him, the nails began to work loose again. Worse, after a week on on dry, paved roads, his hooves began to crack putting him in serious danger of becoming permanently lame if we continued onward.
We left Rocinante in Puerto Santana, sold on a hand-shake deal....
Ecuador has good food, by and large. Situated square on the equator and with elevations that range from sea level to 14,000' and above, every climatic zone possible is represented here making it possible to grow almost any crop. Only the few crops that require an annual below zero dormancy period, such as blueberries, sugar maple and asparagus are missing. Other than that, the markets are full of an amazing variety of fruits and vegetables, many unknown to this North American. I am always enthralled by it all as I wander through the markets. Strawberries and coconuts, grapes and papaya, apples and mangoes. Bananas, guayaba, naranjilla, and tree tomatoes. Blackberries, oranges, pineapples and more. Not only are they all available fresh from the field but many vendors will quickly make them into yummy juices or batidos (smoothies) upon request.
After dropping my wife, Amy at the airport for her return flight to the U.S., I moved on to Cayambe. I needed to recover the items Carlitos' uncle and Carlos the taxi driver had taken back to Casa del Campo for us, plus go through the two bags I'd left behind one last time. Some of it, the solar panel and the horse's fly spray I'd decided I did need after all. Sergio's parents met me there with fresh clothes for their son and were kind enough to take me to Pifo on their way home, where I could catch a bus to Tena.
Final preparations for the Caminata continued this week. Sergio is not able to start until Monday, Jan 16 so our departure has been pushed back until then. We were able to find our Bathazaer so in the meantime the donkey and I have been making some practice walks around Cayambe. The delay has also given me an opportunity to spend some time with Amy, visiting a few sites around Ecuador.