Monday, January 2, 2017

Hiking in the Magical Forest in the Ecuador Cajas National Park

Recently, Michael and I had the pleasure to be on a gorgeous hike exploring the magical forest in the Cajas National Park with our friends, Bill and Darby. And it truly is magical, even enchanted.

Our ride to the Cajas National Park was the first step into the magic, even as I realize that I see our new hometown of Cuenca as pretty magical. My husband and I moved to Cuenca from the USA back in May of this year and we are still in awe with the beautiful skies and clouds, the stunning views of the mountains surrounding Cuenca (translated from Spanish as "basin"), the rock-filled rivers where many wash their clothes daily, and more. Now, traveling just minutes from Cuenca, we had gorgeous scenery as we drove through towering mountain peaks and relished the blue skies with puffy clouds.

For those without a car, it's an easy bus ride - go to the bus terminal and get a bus going to Guayaquil and ask to be let off at the Cajas National Park. Coming home, flag down a bus going back to Cuenca. We've heard it's an easy trip. 

I loved the Cajas National Park Visitor Center - small but packed full of wonderful snippits about the Cajas, done in a very tasteful way. 

We started on the hike, and immediately descended upon a lake that had me oohing and aahing. We're high up - over 13,000 feet above sea level. There were teeny tiny flowers on the ground, and you could tell from the gnarled branches and tree trunks that the weather is rugged here, and nature had adapted well. Especially, we loved paying attention to the tiny instances of floral beauty hidden under foot and to the unusual quality of the trees' and bushes' growth. I was enthralled with the variety and individuality of the natural wonders. What a treat!

The scenery was constantly changing, and around this bend, up a slight incline or simply a few steps more, the scene changed completely, again and again.

I remember saying I wish I could take a few steps, then sit for an hour and appreciate the gorgeousness, then take a few more steps, and sit for another hour, and do that again and again. I'll probably come back and do just that. That's my idea of meditation - to breath and drink in all the beauty, in nature's silence.

You can see the breathtaking scenery in the photos - in person, it's even more amazing.

Everything felt so primal and vibrant. I remember appreciating some of the plants, flowers, trees, clouds, etc. and saying silently to them, one at a time, as my gaze rested on each one, "You are beautiful!" And I could swear I heard from each one back to us, again and again, "You are beautiful!" It felt like they were appreciating us and our recognition of them as much as we were appreciating them. And yes, I did feel as though I'd been transported into another universe where those conversations seemed perfectly natural.

We were aiming for what's known as the highest forest in the world. And as we entered the forest, the stillness and grandeur stunned me. It was like entering the aliveness of the Avatar's movie, the magical fairy tale landscapes of Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, Lord of the Rings and more, as well as the vibrancy of the Redwood Forest and the best of National Geographic specials.

I knew I was seeing in 3-D, after all our world is in 3-D. But as I closed my eyes and opened them again, the 3-D effect seemed magnified as the landscape leaped towards me. I felt deliciously enveloped by the aliveness all around me.

The energy here is profound. There seemed to be a buzz in the air. There are fallen trees and branches everywhere, and trees that are almost growing horizontally, until they twist again in another direction. Eons ago, boulders had crashed into the forest, and some are partially submerged, and more are camouflaged by trees and foliage, and yet others form the foundation for hidden caves and crevices. Perhaps as a possible residence for the Wawa Grande (South America's name for Big Foot or Sasquatch) and family. There's a gorgeous sponginess to the forest floor, like many layers of moss and leaves all compressed.

There was one tree in particular that my husband, Michael called my attention to. As he was hiking past the tree, he felt the unmistakable energy of the tree and was drawn to it immediately. Connecting with this magnificent wise quinoa tree essence was a treat. Like in Avatar where they show the interconnected source energy, it felt like this magnificent tree was that source. In connecting with the tree by first with my hands, then arms, then full body hugging, the energy coursed through me. Looking up towards his branches and leaves above me, they waved in unison and synchronization, seemingly delighted to feel us and be with us in such connection. I felt literally energetically, almost magnetically glued to this beautiful tree and his energy and when I tried to disconnect, it felt like I was a layer that had become attached to the tree that didn't want to be separated. I felt almost sucking noises as we pulled apart reluctantly. I could barely remove myself to continue our trek. As I was disengaging from this precious tree, it felt like I asked his name and he told me his name was "Tomas", and as I turned away, he continued, "Or Tomasina, if you prefer." I turned back in amazement - had he really spoken to me?  Again, another magical spot where I would like to luxuriate for an hour or a day, in silent communion.

Once we got into the forest, the path took us in a straight line out to other vistas, but that was not for us. We climbed over tree trunks and branches, tested the sponginess to make sure there was solid footing underneath, avoided holes to the right and the left, climbed up and down on rocks and basically made our own path. We knew we couldn't get lost and we were on an adventure!

I'll have to admit that at times this part of the trek felt beyond me. Sure footing was essential as one didn't want to have one leg sink into a deep endless layer of moss, or slip on a rock going up or down hill and not be able to navigate the next steps safely. I was grateful for the offer of one of Bill's walking sticks (ski poles), everyone's encouragement, and even a helpful shoulder or hand, and I simply went slowly and surely. Everyone was very understanding, and perhaps they were experiencing much of what I was. Anyways, it was enormous fun and I'll do it again. I kept remembering to drink and breathe in all that beauty, and finally we emerged out at a lower level right by a lake.

And it was quite marshy in spots. This is where Bill was leading the way, and all of the sudden he sunk in up to his knees. That would have been a great photo op, and later on, when he removed the boot and poured out the murky black water.

We continued along the lake, being careful to avoid any other quicksand-like spots. Our socks and shoes did get soaked as we squished our way through. Such childlike fun!

Coffee, water and snacks stops were so appreciated. Bill had brought coffee (even with milk and sugar, as we desired - such luxury!), delicious Ecuadorian dark chocolate found in the mercados, and nuts/dried fruit. We rested, munched, sipped, and onward!

We identified our way back, knowing we had plenty of time before sunset, but would we make it back before the rain? At this point, we were going uphill a lot, and I found that short frequent rests were helpful. My legs were a bit jelly-like - even though we walked a lot around Cuenca, I hadn't exercised like this for a while! Even though we were at high altitude, I found that I had pretty good breath, but my legs were needing to process more oxygen like they were used to at lower elevations.

I've probably bored you with my descriptions of the scenery, but just because I haven't mentioned it much on that way back, well it was just as glorious and delectable! Copy, paste those appreciations here!

As we completed the last leg of our hike, it was starting to sprinkle lightly. Perfect ending to feel the cool wetness - so refreshing. And we ended up at the delightful cafe, where Bill's recommendation of the "best hot chocolate ever" was so appreciated. And at Ecuadorian prices, it was a bargain at only $2.00 per cup. We tried their empanadas as well - I can highly recommend the $1.50 "pollo" one - with a flaky fried crust, it was a delicious handheld chicken pot pie. We had brought some "cachitos" or croissants which were perfect for dipping in the hot chocolate.

This is exactly the type of adventure that Michael and I love! Getting off the beaten path, creating our own adventure, and discovering the hidden treasures. We were grateful that even though we were pretty tired at the end, that we slept well, and barely had any soreness the next day. If you ever get close to Cuenca, Ecuador, visiting and hiking in the Cajas National Park is a highly recommended treat. It's not always easy to get out of your comfort zone, especially in a new country, different language, and we loved joining Bill and Darby on this amazing day!

We'll be back often - so eager to be in the forest, and with Tomas and other beauties of nature again!