Since my last blog, I’ve been to quite literally some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
First came Baños, regarded as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country – but it wasn’t always like that, and it doesn’t have that exploited feeling. There are a lot of hostels and foreign-owned restaurants, but it’s also a weekend getaway for Ecuadorians and people travel there for religious purposes. Since it’s only about an hour and a half from Riobamba, it is a perfect place to spend a weekend and take a break from weeks where a lot of my days are spent without even seeing another blond person. (This is something I love by the way, despite the fact that I receive a lot of stares and sometimes feel like a fish out of water).
Within 48 hours, I had learned my way around the small town center, tried the famous juice and candy made with pure cane sugar, been in jaw-dropping awe at the sheer beauty of “La Ruta de las Cascadas,” or Waterfall Route, where the highway curves through a deep green canyon graced with waterfalls every 5 minutes, tried Ecuadorian empanadas, bought artesanías that I didn’t (entirely) need, soaked to complete bliss in the natural hot springs from the volcano Tungurahua, salsa-danced with Fernandita, indulged in gelato and crepes and vegetarian dishes, chatted with Brits over mediocre craft beer, and treated myself to a massage and an excruciatingly painful facial.
Oh yeah, did I mention the original purpose of this trip was for my job? I took advantage of an extended weekend, but the first intention was to evaluate several attractions as a place to bring our students. And this was indeed the highlight – visiting Pailon del Diablo, a strong waterfall that you can walk behind and soak yourself to the bones if you so choose. Standing so close to the waterfall is the epitome of feeling grounded ~ it’s as if the whole world around you is exploding, yet your roots are completely stable. Not sure if I’ve mentioned lately that I love my job!
Traveling on the weekends is a fun happy medium, because I get to participate in “backpacker culture” without the extra baggage (literally) of being always on the road and living out of a backpack for months on end. It’s so nice to do that for a few days and then return to a place I can call home in the same foreign country. Meeting people and hearing them talk about where they’ve been and where they’re going, from Mexico to Argentina in a mere 6 months’ time, just reaffirms for me the importance of slow travel and my tendency to get to know one country at a time. It’s not a checklist in my book; I have my entire life to see all the other countries in Latin America. That is, of course, assuming that I will live past tomorrow. And if I don’t, I will be content having seen what I’ve seen until now, immersing myself in the culture and learning the ins and outs of each one, without sacrificing certain things or places (and having had more authentic experiences).
The following weekend came my magical voyage to Secret Garden Cotopaxi, a hostel constructed on its own in the middle of an incredibly beautiful valley surrounded by various mountains, culminating with Cotopaxi itself. Cotopaxi, another elusive volcano, a perfectly rounded snow-topped, cone-shaped glory that only allows itself to be seen in sacred moments when you probably don’t have your camera on you. This is one of those places where you step out of a vehicle and you are automatically at peace, surrounded by a secret-feeling tranquility that induces immediate gratitude and awe. Plus there is an organized snack time every day and endless banana cake at all hours, how can you go wrong? There I escaped from technology and society for the weekend, lost my Kindle-reading virginity, ate more food than I would like to recount, played with alpacas, and saw one of the most beautiful sunsets I can remember.
We hiked to a waterfall on the first afternoon, complete with sliding down a muddy wall on my butt and crossing the river on the rocks only to submerge my leg enough for the water to fill one of my rubber boots. Then came the chance to climb a waterfall. I was almost lame and backed out but Kaitlin would never let me do that, “face your fears,” she whispered. And it was nothing.
A night drinking wine in the hot tub under the full moon and bright stars with new friends preceded the next day’s hike to Mount Pasachoa, at 4200 meters, the shortest mountain of the valley’s circumference but possibly the tallest altitude I have reached in this life (I’m a bit ashamed to relent that I am a Coloradoan who has yet to summit a 14er). Also I’ll let you do the meters-feet conversion because I am unable, more shame. Anyway though, it was SO beautiful and amazing; my legs were grateful for an ascent, my lungs for the reminder that breathing is not always so easy.
The higher we got, the less circulation in my hands, breathwork more important. And all of a sudden I was on top of the world, astounded by the Avatar-like 360 views, over there is Quito – one month ago that day I descended from the sky through moonlit clouds into that very valley.
Mint tea, sandwiches, and banana cake.
A condor flies by.
“Everything is a gift,” Antoine proclaims. What an incredible daily mantra, one that I have repeated in my head since that moment, it speckles my days with appreciation.
The next moment, we are flying down the mountain, running, with the utmost concentration and the biggest smiles on our faces.
The next, I am strolling along the flat plains, trying to remember the complete lyrics to Little Hands; freedom and bliss. How could it get better than this?
The next day I rode a horse, that’s how. I am always wary of touristic horseback riding opportunities; often it entails nose-to-butt trail walking and the horses aren’t maintained well. That was not so here, Capulli and me, we were galloping together through open fields, a vast landscape shadowed by Cotopaxi and the mountain I had summited just 24 hours earlier. One moment through rocky plains, then we were crossing a river, then all of a sudden we were in a field of pines that smelled like home. The sun shining through the clouds, the wind in my hair and his mane, the epitome of freedom.
The entire weekend was so special, almost the kind that I don’t blog about, but I felt you all need a glimpse of the beauty that is Ecuador.
It’s always such a trip to spend some intimate time with nature and then return to civilization and air pollution within an hour’s time. That was one of those places where as I’m driving away I feel as if I left something behind. I suppose when I feel that it means there is a piece of my heart in that corner of the world.
I will be back, without a doubt.