Today’s Solutions: June 12, 2024

Andrew Tolve spends five days in Ecuador rafting, hiking, horse riding and biking with native guides to discover whether the practice of eco-adventure lives up to its promise.

Ode Editors | April 2009 issue

Day 1: White Water Rafting,
Río Taochi


We met our group just after sunup this morning. Bleary-eyed and packed into a van outside a hostel in Quito’s new town, we numbered eight—four tourists, my photographer and I and two local guides, Gaston and Roberto—assembled for a day of white water rafting on the Río Taochi. It had been a rainy week here in the Andes, which boded well for our outing. Rainfall on the tops of the mountains means more drops in the watershed, which in turn promised bigger rapids for us.
Our target stretch of the Río Taochi lay near Santo Domingo, some three hours to the west. We followed a road out of Quito down through the High Andes. Here the mountains were lean and bony, their ridges pronounced, their walls green but sheer. The road wound its way through, only two lanes wide and clogged with a steady flow of traffic: small cars and vans like ours and big trucks and busses too. Seeing pollution literally absorbed into the ecosystem didn’t make me feel all that green.
After all, I was here to assess an eco-adventure. For the next five days I’ll white water raft, trek, horseback ride, and mountain bike my way around Ecuador. The goal is twofold: to be actively immersed in Ecuador’s wilds and to learn about its environment and local communities along the way. So-called eco-adventures like mine have blossomed in popularity. Going green is in vogue, as is the notion of combining adventure travel with environmental and cultural education. Responsible Travel, the company that arranged my trip, is one of myriad companies catering to the concept.
But what exactly is an eco-adventure? It’s easy to say you’re merging adventure with environmental friendliness on a website, but does it ring true on the ground? I’m here to find out. At last we turned off the highway onto a bumpy road in Santa Domingo and reached the Río Taochi. Normally a gentle class 3, it was roaring at a muddy, unwelcoming 4-plus. Gaston and Roberto were clearly concerned. Gaston said, “If we only flip once, we’ll be lucky.” Calming words. Nonetheless, we inflated the raft, fortressed ourselves in helmets and life vests, and set off into the choppy flow.
It was an adrenal rush from the start. Before we had time to work out a good rhythm—Forward, Back, Left Forward, Right Back, Everybody in!—we were thrust into a run of rapids both high and wide. Gustan rode ahead of our raft in a kayak, pointing out dangerous pockets in the current, or downed trees, which was a threat due to the frequent mudslides in the tropical forest. We were in a spectacular setting but moving too fast to enjoy it. One surge followed the next. We almost flipped, then Bob, a Spanish professor at the Naval Academy, went for a swim. I was fortunate to pull him back in before the next boulder streamed by.
When we finally came to a stop, we were exhausted, shaking, and soaking wet. A four-story stone wall rose from one bank and a massive tree on a black sand beach shaded the other. Ferns and shrubs dangled from the wall like Swiss cheese from a cheese grader. Roberto pointed upstream at a bird.
“You see that, it is a cormorant. Very beautiful. They have it in the Galapagos too, but in the Galapagos they cannot fly. Here they fly and dive for fish.”
None of us turned in time to see. The river swept us away once more, on through big rapids and a confluence with the Río Blanco on into a smoother section where dozens of cormorants lined the banks. White egrets flapped low to the water. High overhead tropical vultures wheeled round and round, as though waiting for our imminent demise. It never came. We reached a riverbank overgrown with massive bamboo shoots after three hours on the river, our anticlimactic destination. We popped a few cervezas, ate a quick lunch of vegetarian burritos, then returned up that long and winding road all the way back to Quito. At the end of the day, was it an adventure? Absolutely. An eco-adventure? With shades of gray.

Day 2: Mountain Forest Trek, Siete Cascadas

Our driver Fernando met us at our apartment early this morning. He was short, tan, soft-spoken, maybe in his early thirties, standing beside a mustard yellow Land Rover that looked comically oversized on our narrow cobblestone street. We hopped in and headed north of Quito on the Pan-American Highway. It was a clear day and all the volcanoes were out. There was Cotopaxi and its snow-capped peak, there Cayambe shrouded in a pocket of clouds. We crossed the equator, known here as La Mitad del Mundo (The Middle of the Earth), and on the far side descended into a broad valley carpeted with sugarcane.
Hosteria Pantavi, the eco-lodge where we’ll be stationed for the next three days, lay somewhere in the midst of that green. The hosteria is owned by Campus Trekking, one of Ecuador’s premier eco-travel companies. They’ve arranged a series of activities to give us a taste of a typical eco-adventure. We had a quick lunch in the hosteria’s dining room—picture a white stucco building overgrown with pink and red bougainvillea, candles on every table inside, an impossibly pleasant server named Sylbana—then it was back into the car and off for our afternoon activity: a trek through a mountain forest with a local guide.
The forest was tucked into a thin gorge forty-five minutes west of the hosteria. We met our guide on a dirt path beside a thatched hut. She was elderly and Indian, dressed in black rain boots and a black hat. In her right hand she held a machete. I had never met anyone that even vaguely resembled her, and yet as we started into the mountains—past orchids, under wet trees, through thick tunnels of bushes and moss—she spoke of familiar subjects: the pleasure of sitting in a hot spring, the wonder of digital cameras, the unlikely rise of Barack Obama. When she wanted to know the time, she didn’t glance through the trees at the sun but rather checked the cell phone in her pocket.
It was a fascinating experience. And whereas yesterday’s white water rafting had seemed like more adventure than eco, here the balance was just right: trekking through an overgrown forest while learning about its plants and the people who inhabited it. Every few minutes our guide, whose name was Maria Theresa Oloando, stopped beside another plant and told us how her people made use of it—for tea, to treat a stomach ache or indigestion, to sooth a rash, for shampoo. She pried one leaf from a bush and tucked it between her forehead and her hat, explaining in sing-song Spanish that she had a bit of a headache and this would treat it.
After an hour of hiking (at times with water up to our knees), we reached our destination: the Siete Cascadas. Seven shoots of water spouted from the rock and converged in a caldron of mist some fifty feet below. Maria Theresa showed us where her community tapped its water and explained that more than three hundred indigenous families subsisted here in the forest. They farmed where they could, produced artisan goods, and when there was demand led tourists like us on hikes. She said the point was to teach people about life in a different world and to show them something they had to work to see. Which seemed to capture the essence of eco-adventure better than I could put into words.
In the fading light we raced back to the thatched hut, where Maria Theresa hitched a ride with us in the Land Rover a few minutes downhill. Then she hopped out and, waving goodbye with her machete, disappeared into the trees.

Day 3: Horseback Ride,
El Corazon Fertil de Imbabura

We woke this morning to the sound of roosters crowing outside the hosteria. I rolled over in bed; my legs were sore from the hike with Maria Theresa, my back still aching from when I pulled Bob back to the safety of the raft on Day 1. The thought that I would be sitting astride a horse in two hour’s time was enough to make me hit SNOOZE.
An hour came and past, however, and we were back in Fernando’s car ascending into yet another gorge in the valley walls, this one larger than the one that housed yesterday’s mountain forest. A river the color of dark chocolate sliced through the gulch below, while peculiar looking trees—tall and skinny and wiry as bean stalks—clung to the steep walls above. The road crossed a bridge that bowed noticeably in the middle, then a second one, then passed a billboard that in Spanish read:
Welcome to Cahuasqui, the fertile capital of Imbabura
In the town square before the town church stood three brown horses, two wearing ornamental saddles. A man in a baseball cap and jeans introduced himself as Christian, our guide. He, like Maria Theresa, spoke no English, just Spanish. He helped us up onto our horses; my photographer took the stubborn male Gastonia while I mounted the more docile Gina. With seemingly the whole town looking on and a banda de puebla, or house band, playing music in the background, we rode off through the square saying “Buenos Días” to every man, woman, and child who was there to watch on.
Five minutes down the road it became clear why this town had earned the title of the agricultural capital of the region. In place of buildings we now clopped past crops: here tall stalks of maize, there tomatoes shaped like tear drops. Christian pointed out artichokes, potatoes, and green beans. While I scribbled notes, Gina made a practice of driving me into the prickly shrubs that separated the road from the fields. It was grassier there, and she didn’t have horseshoes.
The road continued to climb. The fields began to fall away into a canyon. Great sheets of fog rolled in over the mountains in the distance through the fields down into the gully. Christian told me that he owned a farm somewhere in that fog and that he grew potatoes and corn in addition to keeping horses. The food grown here, he said, was transported all around Ecuador and the artichokes were exported internationally. Like yesterday the balance between eco and adventure here seemed just right—trotting up a mountain pass while learning about the local way of life.
Near the crest of the hill we found Fernando waiting in his Land Rover. There would be no equivalent of the Seven Waterfalls today, just an arbitrary stopping point. A part of me had hoped to reach Christian’s farm but the fact was that my rear was sore, Gina was laboring, and I was ready to return to the hosteria. All that awaited on our afternoon itinerary was a trip to the local hot springs, which after three days of driving, rafting, hiking, and horseback riding would be a welcome relief.

Day 4: The Hosteria Pantavi

Our final day in Imbabura was supposed to conclude with a train ride through the surrounding countryside. I had heard about The Nariz del Diablo, a train ride in Riobamba that leads passengers down a steep mountain pass known as the Devil’s Nose—caboose first, while passengers cling to the roof of the train. Embarking on a similar experience here while learning about local indigenous communities sounded like a good addition to our trip; however, after talking with several of the hosteria’s staff, who informed us that the train crawled along at a near-glacial pace, that circus-act balancing on the roof was strictly forbidden, and that we wouldn’t have a guide to bring the landscape to life, we decided to relax at the hosteria instead.
This place epitomizes what an eco-lodge should be. Nestled in a valley of sugarcane, it’s an historic Spanish hacienda revamped with an eco-friendly vibe. In each of the antiquated chandeliers hang energy saver bulbs. All water is recycled. Flushing of toilet paper is forbidden; there’s a little bin beside the toilet that’s cleaned twice a day. Some of the recycled water goes to irrigate the extensive gardens that feed downhill from the hosteria’s main building. Each plant is marked with its genus and variety. Walking the grounds you hear roosters crowing and the thrumming of sugarcane whenever a gust of wind blows through.
Yesterday evening we met the owner of Hosteria Pantavi, Camilo Andrade. He’s an accomplished mountaineer and a prodigious artist. His paintings are crafted with local pigments and hang on the walls of the main lodge and guest rooms. In the dining room he’s fashioned stained glass out of recycled glass bottles. At the bottom of the garden, he recently completed a massive mural made of recycled materials, local pigments, and 10,000 nails. After a brief guided tour, he invited us for a drink at the bar. He’s a husky guy, native Ecuadorian, middle-aged, with wavy salt-and-pepper hair and a British accent when he speaks English, which derives from two years of living in London.
He told me that although the hosteria has earned acclaim as an eco-lodge, he didn’t start it to capitalize on a trend.
“It was a feeling,” he said. “I’m a mountaineer and have always been linked to the earth. When I climb, I collect litter on the mountain. It was the same idea here.”
He encourages his guests to get out and experience and learn about the surrounding region; after all, he was born nearby and it was in these mountains that his passion for the earth was born. He coordinates activities with local guides and gives back to the community in various ways, including teaching local kids how to recycle the hosteria’s glass and plastic and giving them the profit. He said he’s never heard of the term “eco-adventure” but that his tourism company, Campus Trekking, along with the hosteria, embodies the concept.
“We promote a lot of nature tourism. All our employees are trained about plants, about botanical diversity, geology, local culture. We push them to know as much as they can. Our purpose here is not just to show our guests how beautiful Ecuador is but to get them out and understanding its intricacies.”
We left the hosteria around noon and, upon Camilo’s recommendation, stopped at a Condor reserve on our way back to Quito. The reserve housed Andean condors, eagles, and owls all rescued from markets, hunters, or private homes. With the last of Imbabura as a backdrop, we admired the surreal wingspan of the condors, then hopped back in the car and cruised home to Quito, hoping to get a good night’s rest before our eco-adventure’s final hurrah: mountain biking down the side of Ecuador’s second tallest volcano.

Day 5: Mountain biking excursion, Cotopaxi Volcano

At its summit, Cotopaxi stands 19,347 feet above sea level. It’s Ecuador’s second tallest volcano and on clear days can be seen all the way from Quito—a conical snow-capped peak looming high on the southern horizon. We reached the gates of the park just before 9am this morning, we being six tourists and a guide scrunched face-to-face in the back of a van with a rack of mountain bikes fixed to its roof. It was cloudy outside, and all of us worried that we might see less of Cotopaxi today than we could from Quito on a bluebird day.
As we crested a rise in the road, however, the clouds cleared, the sun beamed through, and there was the volcano’s faceted peak scraping the roof of the sky. We hopped out, took pictures, and gulped once or twice as our guide Fernando pointed out the base camp at 15,000 feet where our excursion would begin. It seemed impossibly high and obviously stupid and yet fifteen minutes later there we were, unloading our bikes in the rocky, windswept lot.
I have a track record of flipping over handle bars and falling off single tracks, so I started down the volcano at a cautious pace. The road was bumpy and the breaks on my bike seemed more like a catalyst than a buffer against speed. I zoomed past one member of our group, then another, then Fernando zoomed past me. The adrenaline rush was sublime, as was the view if you dared lift your eyes from the road. There was the peak disappearing into a puff of cumulus, there a gorge of burnt sienna red, there a steep slope of high alpine plants.
Fernando waved me to the side of the road and gave me an up-close tour of the unusual life that thrives here. He explained that plant life rarely can survive at elevations this high; however, since Cotopaxi is just south of the equator and seasonal variations are minimal here, plants have a better chance of eking out an existence. They must be small to minimize windburn and sunburn. Many grow bright tiny wildflowers to reflect the sun’s radiation. Others have waxy skin to ensure water doesn’t pool on their leaves and freeze at night. And they all clump together for warmth and protection from the wind. Ecuadorians call this symbiotic sheet of life “la almohadilla,” or the pillow.
“Often people who come here look around and say, ‘Why is this a national park? It doesn’t look like there’s anything here,’” Fernando told me. “The ecological purpose is in the water. This vegetation is very close to the clouds. It’s like a huge sponge. You can feel it.”
Indeed, when you pressed against it, it was as soft as down. Fernando and I got back on our bikes and clattered on. This to me felt like the paragon of eco-adventure, learning about an active volcano while rattling down its slopes at a break-neck speed. Only eventually did the road flatten out. We came to a V and veered right to avoid a menacing looking rain cloud. Twenty minutes later we were on a vast plateau dotted with boulders and hemmed in by a glacial moraine. The grass was Irish green and amidst the boulders grazed an astounding number of wild horses. We ate lunch in their company, then peddled onto the northern entrance of the national park, where we piled back into the van and followed a muddy road all the way home to Quito.

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