Sunday, November 25, 2007

Andean Nightmare - The Horseback Slip n' Slide

The sun will set. Night will fall, the rain will continue and we will be stuck on a remote Andean mountain at 8500 feet above sea level, with no food or shelter or ability to change out of soaking wet clothes. We may be in Ecuador, but hypothermia is a serious threat and our horses, usually sure of foot are just as nervous as we are on the cliff edge.
In the itinerary that Ma-Le prepared, our excursion for this day was a hike into the hills of Vilcabama, Ecuador culminating in a climb into the jungle canopy where we would experience our first zip line. Excited - I paid no attention to any other details of this day - fixating on what I expected to be the highlight of my trip - zipping through the jungle - 50 feet above the ground.

When our host, Charlie of Cabinas Yambala offered me the reins to his personal horse "Speedy" I realized that I should have asked earlier for the detailed plans of our day. Apparently to get to the zip line way up in the cloud forest, we'd have to travel on horseback from 5000 to 8500 feet above sea level, carefully navigating the cliffs and fording the rivers along the way. Three hours by horse - then 1 hour of hiking - then the zip line.
Speedy knew the way, so I would lead the procession of Ma-Le, our guide Jorge and two other travelers, Nate from D.C. and his girlfriend Brenda from Mexico. We left at 9 am and within less than 20 minutes we were riding a ridge line into the mountains with Mandango in the background. A well-horned cow ambled along in front of us with little room to move from side to side.

For the duration of the three hours up we were literally on edge.

The horses do all the work, laboring all the way, stopping to lick their own sweat from their sides or to eat the grass along the trail. It was cute at first, but the more you tolerate, the more they take advantage. "Vamos!" or "Let's Go!" began routinely echoing through the valley as we all encouraged our horses along.

Dry scrub gives way to cloud forest and as we pushed up higher and higher, gorgeous pink mountain azaleas, aloe plants and giant tree ferns decorated the scenery. I've never seen a landscape like this before - It looks like a wet, painted desert.

After 3 hours of gently kicking our horses up the mountain, a plateau came into view and my horse began galloping along the cliff edge - novel at first, but when I couldn't remember the Spanish word for slow or stop I yelled "he's going faster!" to which the bilingual horse responded by going faster! We had arrived at the camp - where we had lunch before trekking on foot.

After nearly an hour on foot we descended into the valley where the high altitude vegetation gave way to more typical tropical jungle. It was raining higher in the mountains and the streams had begun to rise as we came upon them. We crossed to the zip line by log - an easy task here before the rains had started. The return trip was more treacherous.

After 4+ hours trekking into the mountains, we arrived at the zip line - to which I said "where's the rest of it?". No really. This is it? The zip line consisted of 2 spans, the first being roughly 50 feet long (as seen above). Once you've zipped down this section, you walk across a rickety rope bridge (with safety harness attached), harness into the 2nd zip line which is about 40 feet off the ground and zip back down. Ma-Le was terrified on the final leg and I must confess to being nervous.
You know something in Ecuador is dangerous when they provide safety precautions. I was underwhelmed, but the trek to get here was stunning and Speedy, my noble steed was a good conversationalist. He claimed to not like getting his feet muddy and would step around puddles on the way up. Bad news for the trip down.

As we unharnessed from the zip line, it began to rain. It was supposedly the dry season in this part of Ecuador and when we asked our guide how the horses do in the rain, walking down a cliff edge, he said he didn't know. He'd never had to do that before.

It drizzled as we hiked back to the horses. A beautiful scene, but if it kept up, the 3 hour horseback ride down would prove to be a nightmare. Jorge decided we should walk them down. Looking at my watch and doing quick math, it occurred to be that if it was 3 pm now and it took 3 hours to climb up and sundown is 6:20 pm, we would probably arrive back at camp in darkness.

To panic would serve no purpose. So we grabbed the reigns and began to head down with 1200 lb animals at our back. The trail is narrow from repeated use by horse and cow. There are no water bars so as the rain falls, it creates a constant cascade of water and horse poop on the trail. You can't imagine how slow an hour passes until you have trudged ankle deep in muck, listening for the sound of a horse sliding on rock and writing your own obituary to this crazy scene.

After an hour, everything on my body was soaked. The soles from Ma-Le's boots had completely come off and she was walking on her socks. And the Mexican woman's horse could have cared less that our time was short and slowed us down by grazing more often than walking. The horse not the woman.

Without good footwear - Ma-Le was forced to climb back on her horse, despite the danger of sliding off the cliff. We all decided to try this for a bit but 90 minutes in, Pamona, Nate's horse slipped on rock near the edge, tearing a chunk of flesh off it's leg and nearly sending Nate 1000 feet into the canyon.

How much further? 30 minutes Jorge says.

By the time we hit the three hour mark, I was continuing to ring water from my clothes. Rain jackets were useless and I would tell you how much water was coming off of me but at this point it was too dark to see. With Ma-Le still on her horse, I led mine through the narrow passages and barely escaped being crushed when Pamona slid into Speedy causing a horsealanche with me trapped and nowhere to go. Like a scene from a cartoon - Speedy stopped within an inch of my face, both legs spread to either side of the trail and Pamona nearly launching over Speedy.

How much further? 15 minutes Jorge says. Of course he said 30 minutes and hour ago.

By the time we reached the cabins, it was pitch black. No street lights, no house lights. The Yambala River was swollen and raging and we were exhausted, soaking wet and covered in mud. We got cleaned up, enjoyed a fantastic four course Ecuadorian meal by a toasty fire and were asleep by 9 pm, lulled into dream by the roar of the river.

at 1 am, the rising river caused a whole new nightmare......

too be continued!


  1. heyy.. this sounds like quite an adventure... and the way you tell it.. i love it... we should get you a publisher.. you should be writing a seriously... you know.. it sound like riding at the Grand Canyon... i haven't done it yet.. but heard about... maybe if you and your wifey come we can take an adventure.. anyway.. must go to sleep now.. i have now officially finish celebrating my birthday for the week, which reminds me, i think there was only one friend of mine who i didn't get a call from, i forget his name though.. o well

  2. I hope that MaLe doesn’t actually have ‘souls’ on her shoes.

  3. well - i am not too bright. i have edited it but i actually don't knot the proper spelling... is it spekled like the fish? too many homonyms in the english language.

  4. Great storytelling. It felt as if I was right there with you! Keep up the great posts.