Our current time zone: GMT +8 (We're home in Singapore!)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

In Search Of Care Bears & Condors

No, not really. But if you were as high as we were, you would be expecting to see a Care Bear or 2 hopping around in the clouds, or at least catch a glimpse of the rainbow arches on their little cloud-mobiles.

Before arriving in Otavalo, we had heard and read so much about the good hiking in the Andean slopes and were looking forward to covering a couple of simple treks. At Rincon del Viajero (the guesthouse we stayed at), we signed up for the Laguna Mojanda trek along with 2 other couples from France.

Actually, the full name of the trek was "Lagunas de Mojanda y Fuya Fuya Climb". Somehow, the second half of the title didn't register in our minds and we set off on a drizzly morning expecting to do some light walking around the lake. We got a bit worried when the French came down dressed for some serious hiking, complete with gloves, hats and trekking poles.

We, on the other hand, were wearing our swimwear under our clothes. We weren't expecting to swim in the lake. We had simply run out of clean underwear! We had been spending 1-2 nights at each rest-stop enroute from Bogota to Otavalo, so we didn't have any opportunity to wash our clothes for a week and have them dry in time for the next bus ride. We felt really silly wearing swimmers to hike in the hills! But (dirty) beggars cannot be choosers.

Too lazy to run back upstairs and dig through our luggage for our hats and gloves, we convinced ourselves that we would do fine in the pleasant weather and that our bodies would warm up once we started walking. So off we went... in the back of the truck!

The rickety ride was as good as any Osim massage chair! (See the poles next to Dan? Well, not ours.)

The Lagunas de Mojanda lie 17km south of Otavalo in a protected high paramo (grasslands) area. When we arrived at the lakeside, Dennis, our guide and owner of the guesthouse, briefed us on the 2km climb to one of the twin peaks on Fuya Fuya.

Yes, a climb up the mountain. True, 2km doesn't sound too bad. But Otavalo is at an elevation of 2,560m, and we were heading for the mountain peaks - one of which was 4,266m and the other... even higher. Our tropical born-at-sea-level hearts were ill-equipped for the 2-hour climb (back home, our bodies are only good for going to the beach, the pool, the cinema and for eating ice-cream!) Every step we took seemed like a climb in itself already. Thankfully, Dennis had come prepared on behalf of his unprepared guests and lent us walking sticks and a pair of (too big) gloves, which kept falling off my hands but prevented my digits from freezing nevertheless.

Nooo, we were not going to just walk around this lake and take scenic pictures! Oh noooo.

The trek started off fairly easy, the slopes gradual, the paths well-marked and the ground, firm. Everyone else moved really quickly ahead. I lagged behind the rest, stopping to snap photos and hopping from foot to foot to dodge the "beef patties" left behind by grazing cattle.

Through the tall grasses we went. The tip of that black knob in the photo was our destination.

We were very fortunate to be blessed with the sighting of an Andean condor! According to Dennis, while this wasn't an area famed for condor sightings, it was possible to spot them gliding through the skies - if we were lucky. And we were! It was hard to tell whether it was a condor at first. He was definitely a big guy - wingspan about 4m - but we couldn't quite catch a glimpse of the telltale white collar and white wingtips.

White collar and white wingtips!

Although condors look very grand swooping through the skies over a canyon or grasslands, they are vultures after all and look pretty ugly up close! The condor must have been the inspiration for the old, cranky, evil vultures seen in cartoons, typically depicted with a bald, pink, wrinkly head, a fluffy collar of white feathers, huge black body and gnarly claws. Sqwaaaak!

The group paused throughout the trek to take rest and enjoy the views of the lake. Being the slowest of the lot, by the time we caught up with them, it was time to move on again! Vamos! Even the smokers were climbing faster than we were! Dammit! My limbs were willing but my lungs, breathless. And my heart is a wimp! (It was just as wimpy back in 2003 when I scaled the summit of Mt Kinabalu and had to be enticed to press on with the thought of some post-climb scuba diving in Layang Layang.)

I realised halfway through the trek that I was holding my stick upside-down! No wonder I was lagging far behind. Hopefully with the bird the right side up, I would be rising quickly with the rest!

As we rose higher and higher up the mountain, the clouds closed in quickly on us and we soon lost sight of the lakes behind us...

Thick white clouds erasing our tracks

...and the path that lay before us.

Heading into nothingness

The path was got tougher as we neared the summit. The slopes steepened considerably and the loose dirt crumbled beneath our every step. Slipping backwards constantly, I felt as if I was on a stationary stair-climbing machine at the gym! During the last stretch, we had to ditch our poles to free up both hands so that we could pull ourselves up the almost vertical rocks.

And... we made it! Round of applause please!


We rested and chatted while refueling our bodies with biscuits, sugar peanuts (my favourite snack in Colombia and Ecuador) and water. Dennis, being a great host, took a keen interest in Singapore - our history, geography, the languages spoken, our people's different races, etc. He is an American from Ohio who arrived in Ecuador 30 years ago as part of the Peace Corp, married an Ecuadorian girl and settled down in Otavalo. We also enjoyed chatting with one of the French couples, Adeline and Nicolai, who were really kind and offered us their extra sweaters, gloves and biscuits. They were really interested in our travel blog and shared many tips about traveling Ecuador.

Bonding time

Throughout the trek, Dennis kept saying that it wasn't usually so cloudy on the summit and that this was the thickest cloud cover that he had seen in quite a while! We were suppose to get a clear view of the lakes from the peak of Fuya Fuya. We didn't mind, really. It was quite a thrill having our heads literally in the clouds and in a world of white! At this point, Dannie whispered, "I feel stupid wearing my swimming trunks up in the clouds!" We felt so ridiculous that we couldn't stop laughing at ourselves! Which only left us gasping even harder in the thin mountain air.

The way down was much easier, although I still slipped and fell on my butt alot!

Beautiful view of Lagunas de Mojanda

The rest of the group resting and soaking in the views on the grassy knoll

Wrong country, wrong sport!

Now it's Adeline and Nicolai's turn to ride on the Osim chair!

On the way back, I asked Dennis what "fuya fuya" meant. He replied that it means "cloudy cloudy" in Quicha! Well, duh!!!!! Of course we were hiking under a cloud cover then!

Back at the guesthouse, we smothered ourselves in Forever Living Heat Lotion (more on that later!) and gave each other leg massages in anticipation of the deep ache that would set in the next day!

The climb up Fuya Fuya was good training for the more rigorous 4-day treks to come. It gave us an idea of our trekking pace (very slow) and what equipment and clothing we would have to come prepared with for our next mountain adventure. For example, clean underwear, not swimsuits!

Arriba arriba andale andale!


Stephanie said...

beautiful shots!!

popcorng said...

I almost died-ed when I did Mount K! In fact I had mountain sickness and had to be carried down.. people thought I was dead 'cos I was carried down on a stretcher =p

So I think you guys did a great job, considering the difficulty! =)

sharon =)

Lint said...

Wow the scenary looks really really good! Like our carpet grass from afar! Everything seems so peaceful... once i'd died climbing halfway.

Yi Lin said...

Steph, Lint - yeah, the scenery is really great in Ecuador. You can even enjoy it while stuck in your seat on long bus rides. Even Quito - which has it's unpretty side like any other big city - looks enchanting from afar, esp. at night.

Sharon - yeah, my guide was literally hauling me by 1 arm in the dark up to the summit. Mt K is hard cos you start from sea level and arrive at 4000m+ overnight. No time to acclimatise. And the climate changes from sweltering jungle heat down to freezing over just 8km. I saw ppl lying on the ground from heat exhaustion at the beginning. Mt K is def more diffc than Fuya Fuya!

Jo said...

it's very educational man... i've never heard of all the places you mentioned here. hehe. :D great job! by the time you get back you can do the marathon liao!

Jo said...

it's very educational man... i've never heard of all the places you mentioned here. hehe. :D great job! by the time you get back you can do the marathon liao!

Yi Lin said...

Jo - noooo! I hate running. I only like the post-run endorphins cruising through my body. I haven't even done a 10km run before. I'd rather hike for days - cos can walk, can stop and rest, take pictures and break to eat!

As for the never-heard-before places, yeah, sometimes we don't know about them until we hear about them from other travellers. Cos guidebooks can sometimes give very little coverage on really good places. That's the good thing about a long trip - you meet lots of ppl at hostels, your itinerary is flexible and you can change your plans to fit in a new exciting place which you've just heard about!

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