Thursday in Vilcabamba!
Slept like a rock last night. It’s so peaceful and quiet – not a noise, except occasionally a donkey braying in the distance. But for the most part, the best sleep I’ve had in ages. The bed is excellent, my sleep number 90 or whatever – nice and firm with just a hint of cush. The single comforter (no sheet) is exactly the right covering for these mild nights. Talk about sleeping in a bliss cloud in Heaven…that’s what it feels like.
Got up and got going on my incredible hike today – the Mandango Trail. Walked down to where it starts, but got a false lead at the beginning, so lost about 15 minutes. This trail is rated one dot from the most difficult, and there’s five dots in total, and it’s supposed to take approximately 4 hours. I asked before leaving the Hosteria Izhcayluma whether the 4 hour designation is normally true or is it over-estimated for the slow pokes. He said it can be done in 2.5 to 3 hours if you’re really moving along. So I figured maybe I’d do it in 3 hours.
Once I got started on the right trail, it was climb climb climb through much greenery, with gorgeous butterflies dancing in the air in front of me. Almost stepped on a walking stick, but managed to avoid him at the last nano-second. He should’ve been in a bush, not on the trail. Climbing higher I passed a dead cow…actually, I should say the remains of a cow. I smelled it just a few feet before seeing it, and there was nothing left except skeleton and some cartilage and the hide and hooves. Nature was recycling it quite well.
Climbing uphill further (stopping occasionally to allow my heartbeat to relax) I crashed right through a very strong web of a very large spider. It scared me – it ran to the side and I saw it’s size and had a sudden surge of surprise and fear. Fortunately it appeared as afraid of me as I was of it, so I carried on and passed two large snails mating…or maybe they were just communicating, or kissing…I’m not sure. But their soft parts were all over each other. I need to learn from a snail expert what this closeness was all about.
The views kept getting more and more stupendous – wide expansive green valleys bordered by verdant mountain ridges.
Finally arrived at the First Cross – what a climb to get there! Ate the bread and cheese I brought, and drank almost all the water I had, which wasn’t much, cuz I had felt badly for the two little pigs I’d met on my wrong turn on the beginning, and had given them some water from my stainless steal water bottle. They were on the dirt roadside on a 5′ tether to a cut-in-half large tire that was empty of water, and they looked thirsty to me.
Arriving at the view from the First Cross is nothing short of stupendous. If you hang glided you’d give your eye teeth to launch from there. The entire southern part of Ecuador is spread out around you, all the valleys, all the peaks, all green, with little villages below. Stunning, exhilarating, and thin on oxygen.
Carried on up to the Second Cross, which is even higher than the first. Getting there was a little more precarious than to the First Cross, as I had to scale a mostly clay and rock wall in one place (free-climbing) for about 20 feet, and the footing around the base of this higher peak was truly precarious with almost no surface to find footing on.
Just before the top of the Second Cross I realized I had lost my hostel room key – total bummer! It had been in my shirt pocket and I had tied the shirt around my waist. I retraced my steps about 50 feet back down the trail and found it, thank goodness, right where I had freaked out at the second gigantic spider that had caught me off guard with it’s trail crossing web.
Finally, up at the Second Cross, I re-read the directions about this Mandango Trail, and it said that if you found the trail difficult to this point, you should not continue but turn around and go back out the way you came in.
I thought it had been a bit of a scramble at times, but nothing I couldn’t handle, so I carried on. But Whoa! A little further along the narrow ridgecrest came an eye-popping place where side to side there was no more than 2 feet, with total sheer drop-offs to each side, and an angle of decline to get down this part of the ridge trail that was at LEAST 45 degrees. I stopped and thought about this before attempting it…this was a mental challenge, this descent.
Finally, I decided I really had no choice. It would have been a long retracement of the trail to go back the way I came. So I sat down on my butt and very gingerly and gently eased my way down the 20 feet or so of this trial-by-fire bit of trail. The drop-off on either side was hundreds of feet with nothing but grass to hold onto, and the rock and clay conglomerate that I was climbing down was dry and crumbly, and could easily have stress fractures in it that I couldn’t see.
I tried not to think about it and just stayed easy and gentle and didn’t look down at anything other than the narrow steep clay and rock comglomerate in front of me. Obviously, I made it, or you wouldn’t be reading this now. But when I finally arrived at the wider part of the ridge trail and looked back at whence I’d come, see picture above on right, I praised God and gave many thanks to the Universe for traversing it safely.
The now-a-little-wider ridge trail seemed to continue forever, with stunning vistas on each side. Then I came upon the cows blocking the trail…talking gently to them and letting them know I needed to pass them, not herd them, they finally moved aside and I carried on. They were very large, had enormous horns, and looked wild – like they owned the mountains, and no doubt they do. Cow trails criss-cross everywhere across every mountain in Ecuador I’ve seen.
The trail kept achieving new heights, and I took pictures from each of them. Finally, I arrived where the trail headed down, and here it got a little questionable. Like, the trail disappeared. I read and re-read the directions to no avail. I surveyed the various seeable trails from every noll and tried to figure out my exact location and destination. I even traced and retraced my steps many times to keep trying to find and continue on the trail…very poorly marked and largely grown over (plants grow fast down here). But eventually, through lots more cow encounters and false leads, I finally made it to the bottom, with legs that felt like dead pegs. Basically, the descent is through a canyon along the creek, so I would’ve made it one way or another just by following the water, but being on the trail is truly a whole lot easier than bush-whacking it without a machete.
Fortunately, just as I closed the last cow gate behind me at the end of the canyon trail next to the road, an empty taxi went by and responded to my hailing him down. He rode me up to Hosteria Izcayluma, where I drank great quantities of water, took a well-deserved shower, and had a delicious lunch of tomatoes and mozzarella cheese in balsamic vinegar.
After checking internet I walked into town to shake down the tightness in my legs, and was able to purchase my return flight to Quito, but from Loja to Quito it was totally full for a Sunday departure, so I am now having another adventure…a bus from Vilcabamba to Loja, and then a bus from Loja to Cuenca, in order to catch a flight from Cuenca to Quito. This should be quite exciting because anytime one tries to make a series of connections in Eucador in order to keep a fixed departure time from a distant place, all HELL can go wrong. Anyway, that’s three days in the future, so I won’t worry about it right now.
Met up with Emma, a wonderful young woman who is from Canada, via Norway, who is in film industry, and makes coconut oil lotions for face an body. She and I explored more of downtown Vilcabamba and then caught a taxi back to Hosteria Izhcayluma together – she’s staying here also.
Tomorrow I ride a horse all day up to the National Park, then hike an hour in the Park, then ride back down and try to arrive back in time to rendezvous with the ex-pat folks hosting the movie night at their place. I expect to barely be able to walk by the end of tomorrow. Stretcher, anyone?