Day 4: Isinlivi to Chugchilan
We’re sitting on the deck of the hostel, outside the dining room, Chris drinking his coffee and I my tea. They are always hot, ready, and included here from 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Claire and Lilah play a game of chess while we wait for breakfast. Lilah beat Claire the night before, with a little help from Mom when Claire was getting overconfident and boastful. She’s eager for a win with this rematch.
Our face and necks are greasy with a thick layer of sunscreen after the realization that the cloudy day before had not filtered the sun light as much as we thought. The sunburns are in obvious places – noses, cheeks, necks, arms – but also places I can’t remember being burned before – eyelids and the lengths of my fingers. The sun takes no solace on high-altitude travelers so near the equator. We vow to continually slather on the sunscreen. Chris will even set a timer on his phone to remind us to reapply frequently.
The morning is relaxed, as we’ve already repacked our day packs and are ready for the day ahead. Humidity has foiled my plans of washing in the sink as we go. None of the clothes I hung on the makeshift line the night before are fully dry. Some are worn damp, while the rest are carried in a plastic bag in my pack for the day. I’ll hang them again at our next hostel and cross my fingers. The only thing we have left to do is wait for our 8:00 breakfast, courtesy of Llullu Llama. Breakfast is clearly ready when Balloo, the hostel’s resident Saint Bernard, sits with his nose against the glass of the dining room door.
This morning we don’t make it in for breakfast in time to sit together at one table, so we split up into pairs. Chris and Claire chat with our dinner friends from the night before. Lilah and I make new friends from Canada. The conversation is just as good as the breakfast of house made yogurt that is traditional for the area. It is slightly sweetened and much runnier than we’re used to. We poor it over a bowl of fresh fruit and top it with a homemade granola that is my favorite part of breakfast. They bring bowls of the thickly sliced and fresh made sourdough bread with large plates of scrambled eggs. Lilah makes hers into an egg sandwich.
After grabbing our sack lunches, purchased from the hostel, we set out for our 13.7 km hike (about 8.5 miles). Unlike the previous days, we only have one item on our list today, a long walk, and we’re feeling pretty good about it. The steep downhill path marks our beginning. We have many backpacking buddies setting out from Llullu Llama at the same time. Claire quickly leaves her parents and sister in the dust to keep up with her new, cooler and much younger, international friends. The remaining three of us stick together at Lilah’s pace.
I begin to know well the trouble with a steep downhill slope on a through hike. Unlike the joy found in the downhill after tagging the summit of a Colorado peak, on a through hike a nice downhill only means there’s an even steeper uphill ahead. We will gain more and more altitude as we go along the next two days, so I will learn to dread losing the elevation I just worked so hard to gain.
We take the ups and downs with a fair amount of ease (Lilah needs a sucker to get her legs moving pain free), until the road Ts just after a long, sandy path through a shallow white canyon. After studying the directions provided by the hostel, the crossed through parts with new notes that are no less confusing, we decide to turn to the left and head up another steep, green slope. Our hunch is correct, and we soon meet up with Claire and her buddies. We wait on the path as they make their way back up after breaking trail to get a closer view of a cave downhill. When they make it back, our large group continues on the slope that gets steeper and more exposed as we go. Rereading our notes, and a defeated glance at Chris’ GPS, tell us we’ve chosen the wrong way. So many trails up these slopes that lead to farmers’ fields and rural homes make it confusing.
Heading back downhill, we soon find ourselves in a deep cut path that feels much more like a jungle or rain forest than the exposed one above. We are pleased to walk for some time through comparatively flat terrain, past small farms and along a river. The sounds are soothing, and our legs and feet quicken while the going is easy.
Claire isn’t happy about her parents’ insistence to stick together, as she sees her friends fade into the distance ahead, but she stays with us until we cross the river and sit down beside them again for lunch.
Lunch is a welcome comfort, with no better spot than by the river. As we fill our bellies with mouth fulls of the chunky sliced fresh bread smeared with butter and filled with ham and queso fresco, it begins to sink in just what we have ahead of us. I had expected to be much closer to our destination by lunch, knowing that the flat ground we’re on now means there is much harder work in store for us this afternoon. We have a lot of altitude to gain, and the sun is just beginning to beat down, hot and unrelenting.
Satisfied, with plenty of lunch to spare still in our packs, we set off again. In no time at all we find ourselves on a steep dirt path, sun blazing over head. Stopping briefly in front of a quaint, little church in the square of a tiny, quiet town, gives us time to assess what we have ahead of us.
It looks very familiar to what we found near the end of our trek the day before – the steepest of narrow paths, switch backing over and over again to an unseen summit. At the same time it begins to dawn on me that perhaps this sunscreen we’ve been reapplying religiously throughout the morning, wasn’t the best choice for this particular location. We’ll later be advised, by our new Canadian friends, that natural, zinc-based sunscreens just won’t cut it with the equator so closely looking over our shoulders. “You have to get the waterproof kind, with lots of chemicals, if you don’t want to burn,” she’ll tell us. Oh boy! Lesson learned.
The abundant love I have for my girls and husband are of no question or doubt, but making our way up the side of this hill, it’s every man for himself. There is little energy to spare on enthusiasm to consolation for a fellow traveler. I do turn around just a couple times on this ascent, for a quick, “Good job, Lilah!” or “Way to go Claire!”, but that is all I can spare. The yelling only makes breathing harder, while stopping somehow makes the sun burn deeper and my muscles refuse the work of beginning again.
I’m just not made of the tough stuff of the natives of this land. With each labored step and heavy breath, it begins to sink in, just how tired and hot and thirsty and sweaty and sunburned I really am. (What a sob story, huh?) My thoughts drift to the Andean men and women who live in these valleys and on these hills, their fields straight up the side of a mountain. It’s a wonder to me their crops ever take root at all on such a slope, but they do, all by hand with shovels and hoes and fingers. The men and women work while being covered from head to toe, mostly in natural wool fibers, the women even in felt wool hats with babies strapped to their backs. The thought of it alone is suffocating. Yes, they are certainly made of tougher stuff than me. Me with my excellent indoor plumbing (I can even FLUSH toilet paper – a rarity in Ecuador) and reliable electricity. Me with my air conditioning and garage, where my car sits waiting to take me to a Walmart right down the road. Me with my packages, delivered right to my front door at the click of a button. I see clearly that the things I have privately wondered at giving up for real living and beautiful scenery have spoiled me much more than I’ve realized, and I like it all so much I probably never could. I’m just not that tough.
An unfamiliar noise pulls me from my thoughts as we finally round a corner to what’s almost the top of this massive hill. Lilah remarks that it might be a lion or a bear. When we get high enough, we see clearly that it’s a black pig rooting in the dark, volcanic soil. We’re grateful for the comic relief and laugh about the sights and sounds of a random pig on the trail. They are much less frequent than dogs, cows, and sheep we see so often.
At the top of a hill we meet up with our hiking companions again for yet another break under the shade of a gazebo on the edge of a cliff. Chris indulges the rest of us, though I know it’s killing him on the inside. We never take this many breaks on typical hikes, and this day is dragging on.
We share in more laughs with the German, Canadians, Sam from Denmark, backpackers from the east coast, and a couple others we’ve not officially met. Then just before we buckle into our backpacks, we slather on even more Trader Joe’s sunscreen stick, SPF 45 (purchased because it was small and could be packed outside of our liquids) though it seems completely futile at this point.
The remainder of the hike is fairly unremarkable, other than the locals we pass. It is a slow, steady incline mostly along the side of a road. It is a rare, newly paved and modern, wide road. The cars, trucks, and buses honk as they fly by, as is their typical warning in this country. We get over far and quick, with little doubt we’d be hit if push came to shove.
Just after I pass a woman of at least eighty, with a huge load of corn stalks strapped to her back with a shawl, we make it to Chugchilan. It’s a little before 4:00 in the afternoon. I feel grateful, both that we’ve arrived and don’t have to carry full stalks for corn on our hot trek. Hostal Mama Hilda is the third hostel on the main road, and we enter the large, wooden gates with a sigh of relief.
Javier, Chris’ climbing guide, made the reservation for us two days earlier after we met with him in Quito. He explained that Mama Hilda still owns and actively runs the hostel, and that she is one of the original leaders who worked to bring tourism to their town. She is just inside the gates, sitting at the side of a white stucco building, cleaning some beans by hand with the help of another young woman. Her hair in two long, dark braids resting on both shoulders, she appears to be of seventy or eighty. She stands and hugs us as we introduce ourselves. She call us “mi amore” as we meet and for the remainder of our stay. This is the first time I feel disappointed and a little shame for my lack of Spanish. She is the kind of woman I’d like to sit down and have a long chat with over a cup of tea, but I just don’t have the skills to do it. I know I’m missing out.
We are very pleased with our room and accommodations for the night. We have a private room with a double bed below and two bunk beds above in a loft for the girls. There are hammocks in their room and outside on our patio. They cheer and yell as they discover it all. We enjoy the lush courtyard, with many flowers and patches of green grass. Hummingbirds flutter and feed on the nectar of the flowers near our porch, while we hang our clothesline and clothes again.
A couple of our new Canadian friends come in for a visit, before we take quick showers that get so hot they sting, quickly turning ice cold, then right back to stinging hot again. Then we walk over to the hostel next door, Cloud Forest, where some women, cut off a big leaf of aloe and scrape out the gel for us to use as a salve on our burns.
We enter the dining room at Hostal Mama Hilda that night for dinner, smelling clean and looking slick and shiny from the aloe. We have a filling, four course meal with the only other backpackers staying at our hostel that night. They are a couple from Austria who’s English is as sparse as our Spanish. None the less, we find much to talk about and feel like fast friends.
Our bellies once again full, we head back to our room. One more slather of the cooling aloe, then it’s time to settle in for a peaceful night’s rest. It’s dark and quiet and comfortable. We give little thought to what will come tomorrow. We are too tired, too sunburned, and too sore to worry about our hardest day yet.