Last night I barely got any sleep – maybe three hours. Was mourning the loss of Brandon – my beloved dog of just over 11 years – it’s been 8 months to the day since he passed.
But, made myself get up and prepared for the big horse ride today. The caballero (cowboy) came in his cowboy hat and picked me up with a taxi at 9 a.m. and took me to their tour office downtown. He and his younger brother are in this business together now for just one year. They have 18 horses, and just yesterday they took out 9 people! But today it’s just me alone. They had me put on tall rubber boots and gave me a leather cowboy hat, and we were off. Walked a couple blocks to where the horses were hitched, mounted up, and away we rode.
The horse I rode was a beautiful black boy. And the saddle I sat in sucked. The stirrups were turned inward so the legs, at least the right leg, was forced into a very awkward and somewhat painful position. And it was unable to be hitched up any higher so I couldn’t really put any weight in the stirrups unless I stood up in them. But it couldn’t be fixed so I just lived with it.
We trotted (ugh!- very painful in this saddle) and cantered (much better) until we crossed our horses through the same river near the tilted bridge I wrote of earlier, cantered up the hillside and then trotted along the same road I had walked just two days ago up the valley. By this time my butt was already sore and we had only just begun. Finally we arrived at the Podocarpus National Park sign and crossed the rushing rocky river to get to the slippery clay trail on the other side, where we started going up, up, up.
These little horses are nothing short of amazing. Very sure-footed and strong, and simply beautiful souls. Most of the horses here receive pretty good care and are in good condition. These were no exception. And they have endurance beyond belief! The saddle and blankets and myself on top must have totaled in at least 250 pounds, and they carried it all up the extraordinarily steep and slippery clay and loose rock trail. And they just kept puffing and going!
The trail is so well worn that in places it has been eroded into a narrow canyon with high walls of clay and rock conglomerate on the sides, with trees growing on top of that. The trail is also pitched with occasional steep steps the horses had to leap up, and leap down on the way back. Mind you, I was hanging on ALL the time! To the horn on the way up, and the back of the saddle on the way down…Aieeee!
The vistas from the ridge were immense. Giant valleys on each side, with rock-laden rivers way below, and across the valley you could see the many smaller canyons filled with lush trees growing in their water rich soils. And, believe it or not, there is a white-leafed tree here that reminds me distinctly of the white spiritual tree in “Avatar.”
About halfway up the trail we dismounted so I could take pictures. I had wondered from the way my horse walked whether he was in pain or not, so I checked out his saddle rigging and noticed he had a large swelling and rubbed-red-raw area where the cinch was cutting in under his leg. Showed my caballero guide and he set the cinch further back. We mounted up again and continued on.
After riding 3 hours we arrived at a flat grassy area where we dismounted and my guide left the horses to graze, untied, while we went on an hour hike in the Podocarpus National Park. I became a bit alarmed as the “trail” (read “machete-hacked thread-the-needle through the trees monkey path”) we descended went almost straight down, and I asked the guide whether we were going to come back up this way. He indicated I shouldn’t worry, as we were coming back up another way. Still, there was so much direct descent, I knew wherever we came back up would be a haul. Finally we reached a level area and, after bush-whacking our way up a gushing creek (thank goodness for the high rubber boots) we came to a clearing and… Whoa! There was a stunning tall waterfall splashing before us! And the white spiritual tree from Pandora in “Avatar”! Wow!
I thought this was where we were going to have lunch, but NO-ooo! Wearily following my guide again, we scaled dark damp dirt embankments higher and higher through the jungle, sometimes with no more than a pre-arranged rope to pull ourselves up with, or a twig or vine that was barely still attached to the soil, until we arrived again at another creek, and then WOW! A very tall waterfall, even grander than the first, was cascading over the cliff high above and crashing into the pool before us! Stunning!
THIS was where we finally had lunch: bread, guacamole, and tuna out of the can. He offered me “orange juice” which, when I learned upon reading the label was an offshoot of Coca-Cola and had more artificial ingredients than real, so I drank only from my water bottle.
It was a peaceful 20 minutes in repose next to the loud splashings and mist of the waterfall, then we were off climbing like Ninja’s up precipices I didn’t think I could muster anymore! I couldn’t help thinking that I hadn’t signed a Waiver before going on this ordeal, and that if anything happened to me out here in the bush how the hell would they ever get me back to medical help. Then I started wondering if Ecuador has laws that protect its tourists from poorly designed and dangerous tours. I doubt it. Your life is in your hands, and in Destiny’s. Finally we got to the top of a ridge and I saw a sign that said it was the border of the Podocarpus National Park. I believe the waterfalls may have been in the park, but most of our trip was actually at the outside edge of the park. Horses are not allowed in the park.
Saw amazing plants and flowers along the steep trail back to the horses, took pictures of many, and gladly accepted the offered hand for help over the hard parts of the trail from my sweet 23 year old guide.
It was wonderful to see the horses again, but then we had to go DOWNHILL on them. I think I prayed almost the entire way for sure-footing and taking it easy – I think I was in communion with my horse just like they were in Avatar. Each rock in the path I saw and said in my mind “avoid that one”, and each slippery clay steep descent I kept saying “easy now, sure-footing, easy now, sure-footing.” I tried not to imagine him slipping and breaking a leg…he was only 7 years old. It would have been an easy trail to have had an accident on, especially on descent, but fortunately, as with most things here in Ecuador, it all went fine, and we crossed the gushing rocky river again and then up to the road, another river crossing, and finally back to the hitching post, and then walked (if you could call it walking – more like staggering and limping combined) back to their office to retrieve my hiking shoes and pay them for getting me back in one piece and still salvageable.
This is where I started talking to the older brother about at least carrying a First Aid Kit on these tours. And having people sign a Waiver. He seemed to think I might be onto something and seemed to appreciate my concern. I also told him he needed to ditch that rotten saddle. If felt as though somebody had taken a baseball bat and whacked the inside of my thighs repeatedly. There was a large metal round hook underneath a thin piece of leather on each side of the saddle where the thighs rest, and the leather covering simply didn’t proctect against the constant pressing of the thighs. I don’t think he even heard my comments on the saddle. And when I got home and looked in the mirror, I had two rubbed-to-flesh-red raw welts on my bum. Bummer takes on a new meaning…
Caught a quick cab to Hosteria Izhcayluma and changed clothes and dashed back downtown where I had dinner of curried potatoes and vegetables at the vegan restaurant (very yummy and different) on the Town Square, and then meandered over to another place and had the most delicious lemon pie. Went to meet my connection at the appropriate rendevous location for attending the movie, and she wasn’t there. I saw three people walking in the distance away from the rendevous point, and figured I must have just missed her by two minutes. I was disappointed as I had very much wanted to meet the group of people she had told me about, and now I didn’t even know where the event was happening.
Walked backed to the vegan café and saw Martha, of all people, who I had just met the day before, so she called Dennis (the orchid grower) on her cell phone to make sure he was coming to the movie, and lo and behold, all things worked out. I suddenly found a whole group of people who were going to the movie, I learned where it was actually happening and how to get there, and went with this new group in the back of a taxi pick-up, laughing like crazy and all taking pictures of each other. You had to be there, I think. It doesn’t translate as fun as it was. Just one of those wild, serendipitous moments where something that looked like it wasn’t going to work out, works out tenfold better.
The house was gorgeous, the views were glorious, the people were genuinely lovely, and they even had fresh-made popcorn! The whole place had the feeling of being in Santa Barbara hills before it got so dense with homes. Stunning place in every way! And lovely people who had moved to this area from everywhere else.
The choices of movies were “The Blind Side” and “As Good As It Gets”, both of which I’d seen before, so when I was told quietly that there was a small group meeting in another room going to discuss 2012, I decided to join them. We slipped away from the group who were busily watching “The Blind Side”, and sat in a circle and introduced ourselves. There were only 4 of us, but the stories we shared with each other were interesting and informational.
Just before the movie ended, we 4 slipped back in with the movie-watchers so as not to disturb them, and when it was over a whole bunch of us caught a taxi back to town. While driving through town one of the restaurant staff I have become friends with hailed us as we went by, and we had the taxi stop to pick him up. He rode back up with us to the Hosteria.