Scenes from Jardín, Colombia

As a traveler, I love discovering little off-the-beaten path gems that feel like the real and authentic country that I’m traveling through. I know there are very few, if any, places left in the world that haven’t been altered in someway by globalization and international travel and I’m not the one to say whether that is good or bad, right or wrong. But I do know but there are still many places out there that have maintained their integrity despite temptation from the outside world and it’s these places I try to seek out when I’m traveling. Jardín is one of those places. Yes, motobikes race through the streets and candy wrappers are scattered on along the sidewalk. But cowboys also prance their prize horses through town, friends enjoy a cup of tinto (black coffee) or a cerveza together in the plaza as evening closes in, and the older generation can be seen out and about in traditional dress. It’s a town that has blended both modern amenities and traditional customs while still making outsiders feel welcome.

Here are some scenes from this unique little town that I came to love in just a short few days:

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A Day in Parque Arvi

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Traveling to foreign cities is great and all, but after a few days I usually find myself longing for some peace and quiet and the greenery of the natural world. The hustle and bustle wears me down.

So to my delight, I discovered that Medellin is home to Parque Arvi, a 16,000 hectare wooded park just a short metro and cable car ride away from downtown.

The park is both a nature preserve where residents and tourists alike can escape city life for a few hours and it’s also an archaeological site that features pre-hispanic artifacts and ruins. Part of the Pre-Hispanic trail – the Camino Cieza de León – actually runs through it.

HOW TO GET THERE

I took the metro from the Poblado Station to the Acevedo Station then transferred to the Line K cablecar that whisked me up the slopes of the valley and over corrugated-tin roofed houses packed together side by side to the barrio of Santo Domingo. The cablecars – or gondolas – may be my favorite feature of Medellin. They give you a fantastic birdseye view over the valley in which Medellin (and several other municipalities) sit and what’s even more impressive is that they’re not simply a tourist attraction. In fact, I’ve seen very few tourists on the cablecars during my rides up and down. Instead, they were built to help the lower-strata families that live higher up on the valley walls get down into the city for work. Medellin has some pretty cool social projects going on. Check out another one – the escalators in Comuna 13 – here.

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Once at Santo Domingo, I transferred to the Line L cablecar that took me even farther up the valley walls and over the ridge into the park. The corrugated-tin roofed houses gave way to fincas (farms) with grazing cattle strewn about then the view below opened up to a huge expanse of wild forest that stretched out as far as I could see. I felt like I was soaring above Jurassic Park!

At the top, I exited the cablecar and was greeted by a small farmers market selling all sorts of goodies: fried empanadas, sausages, and arepas, handmade jewelry, small cups of coffee and locally made mountain wine (which was too sweet for my taste). I bought a cheese arepa to snack on then headed out to find some trails.

WHAT TO DO

Apparently and unfortunately, I discovered that you can’t actually walk most of the trails in the park by yourself and the only tour leaving within the next half hour was a short orchid walk in Spanish, which didn’t appeal to me all that much. So I resigned to walking down a winding paved road (you can also drive to the park, but it takes a lot longer and isn’t nearly as fun) for 40 minutes to a section of the park where I could explore solo – Chorro Clarin (clear stream). I had no idea what to expect, so I was pretty excited when I emerged into this:

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There’s a paved trail that follows the stream for a few miles and alongside the path there are day camp sites and overnight campsites equipped with picnic tables, benches, aesthetically designed shelters and even flat concrete tent platforms for camping. Colombia has its priority straight.

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On the way back, I figured I had two options: option one was to walk back up the road I had come down (boring) or option two was to discreetly set foot onto the Flora Trail that would spit me out about a quarter of a mile up the road from the cable car station – right next to the carabineros station, or mounted policemen. I chose option two of course, hoping that the rule against walking the trails by yourself wasn’t for safety reasons (after all, there are police on horseback in the park, right?). I think I made the right choice 🙂

WHERE TO EAT

Hungry after my hike, I followed signs to a vegetarian restaurant and was greeted by an exuberant hostess who quickly sat me down and served up the most delicious multi-course menu del dia made from organic produce grown right next door. If you made it to  Parque Arvi, don’t miss this spot!

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HOW TO GET THERE Take the metro to Acevedo Station then transfer to the K line cablecar which will bring you to Santo Domino. No need to exit the metro station. At Santo Domingo follow signs to Parque Arvi and transfer to cablecar Line L that will take you into the park.

COST The entrance to Parque Arvi is free, but the cablecar line J up to the park costs CP 5,200 ($1.70) one way

WHAT TO DO Spend some time browsing the stalls at the farmers market (it’s larger on weekends) and grab a snack before hitting the trails. Tours of the park can be arranged at the tourist information booth straight ahead as you exit the cablecar station. If you want to explore on your own, follow the paved path out to the road then turn left toward El Tambo. At the crossroads of El Tambo turn right and continue down the road for 30 minutes or so until you see a sign on the left pointing toward Chorro Clarin. There’s a hacienda on the right. On the way back from Chorro Clarin either retrace your footsteps or find the Flora Trail on the left just as you pass the hacienda.

WHERE TO EAT The vegetarian restaurant across the street from the cablecar station. Also check out the coffee truck and the local beer stand

Convict Lake Loop

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I’ve been housesitting for my brother and his wife for a few weeks now while they’re off galavanting in New Zealand and one thing I learned pretty quickly is that huskies – especially young ones – need A LOT of exercise. I’m not talking about the usual 1-2 walks a day that satisfy normal dogs. No, I’m talking about at least 3-4 HOURS (or more!) a day of good quality romping: wrestling with neighborhood dogs, chasing field mice, digging holes, climbing rock piles, going on adventures etc… If you need more exercise in you life, get a husky 😉

The other day I could tell that Loba was getting restless (despite her social outings with neighborhood dogs), so we drove up to Convict Lake to hike the three mile loop that circumnavigates the bowl-shaped basin. Little did we know that the epic snowfall that hammered the Mammoth Lakes area earlier this year was still in the process of melting so we had to do a bit of delicate snow-walking on the south side if we were going to make it all the way around the lake. You know how some spring snow gets a shiny, hard crust on its surface? Well one unbalanced step could have sent me sliding down a steep icy-crusted snow bank and into the chilly lake water 😮 That would not have been fun. Loba didn’t seem to have much trouble, though – she was in her element, as husky’s usually are in winter weather. As I trudged along, picking out my next step and trying to stay balanced, she would zoom up and down the snowy hillside and dig holes in the heavy, dense spring snow. Occasionally she’d look back at me with a “what’s taking you so long?” look. We made it through the wintery section and then came to the boardwalk that spans the backside of the lake. Because of all the snow this year, some of the boardwalk was in pretty bad shape 😦 The trail crew will have quite a bit of repair to do this spring and summer once all the snow is gone! When we finally hit the north side there was no sign of snow, but plenty of signs of spring. I shed some layers as the sun now bore down directly on me and I even considered taking off my boots and soaking my feet in the clear lake water. Loba didn’t hesitate to get her paws wet.The contrast between the north to south sides was pretty dramatic, but the lake in the middle remained equally enchanting. I found this blog post of Convict Lake in the summer to give you a different (less snowy) perspective.

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Seven Memorable Adventures From Spain and France

It’s been about a year since I traveled around northern Spain and southern France for three weeks with my then boyfriend and I’m still thinking about the fun times we had. I wrote up three separate posts (here, here, and here) but I wanted to do a recap since I feel like I left some things out. We started in Barcelona – doing all the touristy things like visiting Park Güell (a definite must) and eating lots of jamón and cheese in the markets (inevitable). We then we headed north to Cadaqués and Parque Natural Cap de Crues, which was unexpectedly fantastic. From that small, rocky peninsula, we booked it west to Logroño for delicious wine tasting and pinxtos eating. Then we moseyed north to explore Basque country (by donkey!) and drive along the stunning Bay of Biscay coastline from Elantoxbe to San Sebastian. For the second half of our trip, we entered into France and slowly made our way along the scenic north slopes of the Pyréneés until we reached the Mediterranean. Then it was back south to Barcelona where we started, completing our epic loop. There were lots of memorable adventures along the way – as can be expected – but these seven really stand out in my mind when I revisit our journey.

BIKING THROUGH BARCELONA

On one of our days in Barcelona, we decided to rent bikes and see the city on two wheels. It was a GREAT decision. Bikes – in my opinion – are one of the best ways to see a place because you can cover some distance, but still have the flexibility to go (mostly) where you want at a slow pace. Cars, buses, and trains simply move too fast to actually see and enjoy a location. We started out in the narrow stone streets of the Gothic and Born quarters, swerving and weaving our way through people, and then made our way down the busy La Rambla to the paved pedestrian pathway that lines the Mediterranean coastline. Once we hit the ocean, we steered our bike handles to the left and slowly pedaled down a wide walkway decorated with palm trees. The sandy beaches that we passed on our right were mostly empty because it was too cold and windy for sunbathing, but we did see several incredibly detailed sand sculptures including a fire-breathing dragon! As we continued on, we had no destination in mind, we were simply enjoying the fresh, salty air and the freedom of being on bikes. When we got to the deserted Parc del Fòrum, which was built for the 2004 Universal Forum of Cultures, but now stands mostly empty, we turned our bikes around and headed back to the city for some early tapas and wine.

HIKING IN CAP DE CRUES NATIONAL PARK

I’m not really sure why we chose to make the trip north from Barcelona to Cadaqués and Parque Natural Cap de Crues, but it was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. The drive alone from Roses (where the peninsula ‘begins’) to Cadaqués is stunning – amazing views of the glistening, blue Mediterranean Sea and acres and acres of silver olive groves separated by old stone walls. The town of Cadaqués is equally lovely – whitewashed and quaint. I think many Spanish and French families go there for holidays. The best feature for us, though, was hiking in the Park. After spending the night at a great Airbnb, we explored the rugged coastline and trails for a good 5-6 hours the next day. The area around the lighthouse is great, but there’s also a fantastic network of trails in surrounding areas. At one point, we even startled a family of wild boar!

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VISITING THE WINE BODEGAS OF LAGUARDIA

I may not be a wine enthusiast (or wine snob if you will) but I definitely have a big love and appreciation for the stuff, so a stop in the Rioja region was a must. Since we were in Spain just before tourist season (late March), there weren’t many wine tours or wineries open, but that was fine with us since we tend to shy away from those kinds of things anyways. Instead, we headed to the medieval walled town of Laguardia (no cars allowed in the narrow, stone-lines streets) which is well known for its underground wine caves and bodegas. We dipped down into the underbelly of Carlos San Pedro Perez de Vinaspre and sampled wines in different stages of fermentation while breathing in the dank, musty scent of the cellars. All throughout the catacombs there were wines fermenting in open vats, wines stored in big oak barrels, and wines sealed in dusty bottles waiting for the ‘perfect’ moment to drink. We definitely drank our share of wine that day…

DONKEY TREKKING IN THE BASQUE COUNTRY

This may have been – no, this WAS – my favorite part of the trip. You see, I kind of love donkeys. A lot. So when I saw an Airbnb listing in the Basque country with ‘donkey trekking’ advertised, there was no hesitation. Momo and Django (and Phil – our host) did not disappoint. We took them out for an all day trek and it was fabulous. More than fabulous. We went at donkey speed, so I don’t think we actually covered many miles (6 or 7 maybe?), but we got to see some parts of Basque country that not many visitors get to see. Phil even took us into a deep, dark limestone cave that extended well back into the hills. At the deepest point (after wriggling our way through some scary tight spots), there was a bit of graffiti on the cave walls – some entries went back to the early 1900’s, which was pretty cool. Not that I support graffiti… When we stopped for lunch at the top of a steep bluff looking out over a valley, I had to defend my tortilla de patata from Momo who tried everything – from sneaking up behind me to extending his neck and lips to full potential – to get a bite. Well, more like a couple of bites because I couldn’t resist giving him a taste… The grand finale was riding Django back into town.

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ZARAUTZ

We had been told that the ‘gem’ of the north Basque coast is San Sebastian. And while San Sebastian is great, we thought that Zarautz was even better – more our style: small, laid back, fewer tourists. We had only planned on staying one night, but we extended that to two because we absolutely loved the place. The beaches are beautiful, it’s got some excellent restaurants, and we just felt welcome by the locals, a feeling that is sometimes missing in larger tourist towns. The hike that our Airbnb host sent us on was also fantastic. We took some back roads past vineyards that look out over the ocean, walked through a crumbling and graffitied coliseum, and descended over into the neighboring town of Getaria. Part of this hike was on the famous Camino de Real route. Hungry by the time we got to Getaria, we sat down for a splendid three course lunch and split a bottle of wine that went straight to our dehydrated heads. After lazily walking around town for a bit, we headed back to Zarautz via the oceanside walkway that connects the two towns.

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L’ANCIENNE BERGERIE BED AND BREAKFAST AND SURROUNDING AREA

What a FIND! We were driving through the middle of nowhere-France, wondering where we were going to spend the night when we happenchanced upon L’Ancienne Bergerie. Becks and Kevin – the proprietors of the bed and breakfast – had transformed an old stone barn into a cozy and luxurious bed and breakfast for off-the-beaten path tourists. Overlooking the slopes of the Pyrenees and situated in a quaint valley with a river running through it, L’Ancienne Bergerie is honestly a gem. Furthermore, Becks is an amazing chef and cooked us – and one other other couple – a gourmet three-course dinner accompanied by flowing wine and great conversation (although I assured the Spanish couple that Trump would never win the 2017 presidential election 😫). The next day, after a breakfast of local jams, cheese, and freshly made hot cross buns, Becks send us out on a walking tour through the backwoods. We got slightly lost, but reorientated ourselves and eventually came across a goat dairy where we ogled over baby goats and purchased some delicious freshly made goat cheese. Our only regret is not staying for another night (or week or month….)

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COLLIOURE

The last stop of our trip before heading back to Barcelona was the picturesque sea town of Collioure in southern France. Whenever we had asked for recommendations of places to visit in southerb France (for our travel schedule is very ‘loose’), people would always recommend Collioure first. And for good reason. It’s a beautiful little whitewashed, pastel town right on the water with great restaurants, lots of boutique shops, and plenty of room for relaxation. We played cards, walked the artsy streets, explored the royal castle, ate good food, and sipped amazing wines. It was the perfect ending to a great trip.

So there you have it – my top 7 favorite memories/experiences from our three week trip through northern Spain and southern France!

The Druid Stone Trail Loop, Bishop CA

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One of the main things I love about spending time outdoors is the ability to explore an area on your own terms and forge your own path if you wish – you can either stay on the well trodden track (which definitely has its time and place) or you can set off on your own and figure it out as you go. I grew up in a family that tends to do the latter, for better or worse. We’ve gone on many “Timber’s adventures” including an 8-hour accidental bike ride around Maui, a white-water rafting trip in the Dominican Republic where the river was so raging that it flowed over bridges, and a backcountry ski trip in Banff where I had to jump down a 12 ft cliff because that was the only way I could go. In the moment, these adventures may not feel ‘fun’, but they always make for good memories and great stories afterwards.

This hike wasn’t a “Timber’s adventure” perse, but I did feel like I got off the beaten path and had to figure out the route as I went. The trail isn’t well marked and I couldn’t find any good maps of the area, so there was some backtracking involved and lots of GPS checking. I also discovered that the trail is STEEP! If you go, take plenty of water (no water on the trail) and plan on being out in the sun for 4-5+ hours. It’s especially hot in the summer months.

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The Druid Stone Trail Loop starts on Bir road, about a mile outside of Bishop (the parking area is marked on Google Maps). Park on the side of the pavement then walk down the dirt fire road to where Warm Spring Road ends in a cul-de-sac. You’ll see a trail leading off to the right. Note that there’s a pretty well marked “Z” trail that climbs up the side of the mountain. This is not the Druid Stone Trail. Keep making your way to the right and you’ll find the correct trailhead.

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The Druid Stone Trial climbs pretty steeply over the next 1.5 miles. There are some switchbacks, which lessen the pitch, but it’s still a grunt! At around mile 1 there is a faint trail that leads off to the right. You might not even notice it because it’s pretty indistinct (I missed it on my way up!) This is where the loop will complete. Continue along the main trail and you’ll come to the Druid Stone boulders on your left after another half mile or so. Definitely stop and spend some time exploring the rock formations, they’re pretty cool! The Paiute tribe called this area Eganobe and used it as a resting/gathering place. I tried to find more information about its history, but didn’t really come up with anything.

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The trail continues on past Eganobe and climbs pretty steeply. Go slow and drink lots of water. When you get to the top, continue on the path and keep your eye out for a faint trail that shoots 90° off to the right. It’s about a mile, maybe a bit less, from the top of the hill. If you begin climbing up again, you’ve gone too far. (The intersection is marked “Druid Loop Topend 1” on Google Maps). Take this trail to the right and head back down through boulder fields to the main trail. In all, the loop is only about 4.5 miles, but because of the potential heat, the steepness of the trail, and the slightly high elevation (4,000ft) it’s a good day hike!

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24 Hours In Pinnacles National Park

After my adventure into Death Valley, I made my way west to the small and not-so-well-known gem of Pinnacles National Park. It was Sunday, though, so unfortunately by the time I got there all of the campsites were taken (so much for being not-so-well-known….) The Ranger was nice enough to direct me to a nearby BLM campsite called Sweetwater, but of course all six of those campsites were full, too… Hunting season had just started. Thankfully, I was able to stake out a primitive spot up on a hill in back of the campground that overlooked a beautiful, green valley below. I had the sunrise all to myself the following morning. Everything works out one way or another 🙂

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The next day I did score a campsite in the Park and spent that afternoon and the following morning hiking and exploring the caves and trails that make up Pinnacles National Park. Before arriving, I had no idea what to expect, but I was truly blown away by the beauty and uniqueness of the area – tall spires of red, gold, and brown lava rock stand upright amid vibrant green meadows dotted with wildflowers; clear streams run through healthy oak forests; pitch black caves beg to be explored; California condors soar high overhead… there’s just so much variety and diversity to experience in this small but mighty park! Since it is small, I do recommend visiting during the weekday if possible and I hear that it gets pretty hot in the summer, so the shoulder seasons (March, April, September, October) are the better times to go.

With over 30 miles of hiking, there’s a trail for everyone, but here are the two hikes that I did:

BEAR GULCH TO HIGH PEAKS

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I started this hike from the campground via the Bench Trail because on weekends, the parking lot at Bear Gulch fills up super early and the line for the shuttle at the ranger station gets quite long. So instead of waiting in line, I opted to hike the 2 miles from the campground to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It’s a beautiful walk and I definitely recommend it if you don’t mind adding a few miles to your day. From Bear Gulch I continued on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail which followed a pretty little stream and culminated at the Bear Gulch Cave. I wasn’t expecting much from the cave, but it was definitely more dramatic than I thought it would be! A flashlight or headlamp is a must. Once through the caves, I passed the reservoir at the top and continued along the Rim Trail. From there, I took the steep High Peaks Trail to Scout Peak and finally made my way back to the campground via the rest of the High Peaks Trail and Bench Trail. In all, it was about a (fantastic) 11 mile day.  I started this hike from the campground via the Bench Trail because on weekends, the parking lot at Bear Gulch fills up super early and the line for the shuttle at the ranger station gets quite long. So instead of waiting in line, I opted to hike the 2 miles from the campground to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area. It’s a beautiful walk and I definitely recommend it if you don’t mind adding a few miles to your day. From Bear Gulch I continued on the Bear Gulch Cave Trail which followed a pretty little stream and culminated at the Bear Gulch Cave. I wasn’t expecting much from the cave, but it was definitely more dramatic than I thought it would be! A flashlight or headlamp is a must. Once through the caves, I passed the reservoir at the top and continued along the Rim Trail. From there, I took the steep High Peaks Trail to Scout Peak and finally made my way back to the campground via the rest of the High Peaks Trail and Bench Trail. In all, it was about a (fantastic) 11 mile day.

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OLD PINNACLES TO BALCONIES

On my second day in the park, I only had a few hours in the morning to explore so I hiked the Old Pinnacles Trail to the Balconies – about 4 miles round trip. Unlike the previous day’s hike, this trail is mostly flat and pretty easy (but still beautiful!) The Balconies Cave rivals the Bear Gulch Cave in its darkness and otherworldliness – a flashlight or headlamp is still a necessity. My favorite part on this hike, though, was the upper Balconies trail. Perhaps it was because I had much of the trail to myself (most people work on Monday’s 😉 but I just couldn’t get over the magical beauty and magnificence of the stone formations and lush greenery.

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If I had another day in the park I would have done the 9.3 mile North Wilderness trail that branches off from the Old Pinnacles Trail and rejoins at the Chaparral Trailhead parking lot. (See the faint gray dotted line at the top of the map above). That will be a hike for next time!

Cajas National Park

Well, we didn’t make it to Cajas National Park yesterday, but we did enjoy a day of doing nothing. We’ve been pretty much on the go ever since we arrived in Ecuador with the 9-day bike trip, Galapagos (where we were kept busy from 7am to 5pm most days), and bus, plane and taxi travel, not to mention walking around the towns and cities we’ve visited along the way. So it was nice to have a day where we did nothing! Actually, I’m pretty incapable of doing nothing all day, so I did walk around a bit and spent some time at a great little cafe called Cafe Austria (fresh juices and apple kuchen!) writing emails and such. For dinner C and I went to Cafe Eucalyptus, which is owned by a British and Romanian couple (Cuenca is chock-full of expats) and it was awesome. The best food I’ve had in awhile! We’ll be back tonight…

But today we did make it to Cajas National Park. We had hired a guide yesterday through Apullaca and he picked us up this morning at 8am with rubber boots and rain jackets. It was 45 minute drive into the park and all along the way the views were stunning. We lucked out with no rain and a high cloud cover, so the visibility was great. Our first stop was at a place called Tres Cruces where there were three crosses almost buried in fist-sized rocks. Apparently the crosses are situated on the Inca trail and each cross represents either the sun, the moon, or the mother earth. As the Incas and other Indians traveled along the trail, they would make an offering at whichever ideology they believed in, placing a stone at the bottom of the cross.

From there we climbed a humbling few hundred feet (made difficult by the 12,000 foot altitude) to the top of a lookout that had great views of lakes and ponds below. In addition to its rugged beauty, Cajas National Park is well-known for its plethora of lakes and ponds, many of which supply Cuenca with fresh, clean water.

We descended down the wooden staircase and got back in the car for a short drive to Toreador Lake where Gustavo, our guide, would lead us into the moorland of Cajas National Park. He gave us the option of doing an easier, flatter route, or to head up into the hills for a longer and more exacting hike. C and I chose the longer more exacting hike, of course. We soon found out the need for rubber boots. The ground in Cajas is saturated with water and much of the ‘trail’ is a mud trap. It reminded me of hiking in Alaska! Interestingly, Gustavo informed us that the water comes from underground springs that keep flowing all year round.

After skirting the edge of Toreador Lake for a bit, we entered a paper tree forest. I felt like I entered the Lord of the Rings! The paper trees are native to Cajas and their bark looks like brown paper peeling off the trunks and limbs. They’re also twisted and gnarly, giving the forest a eerie, yet enchanting feel. It was so green, too, with all the moss, ferns, lichens and ground plants.

I was glad that we had decided on going with a guide because the trail we were following looked like an animal path diverging and converging in ten different directions. Not surprisingly, we were told that it’s not too uncommon for hikers to get lost in the park.

We hiked for three hours up and down the hills, learning interesting facts and tidbits from Gustavo and enjoying the dramatic and breathtaking landscape of Cajas National Park. Both C and I were immensely impressed. Just as we were returning to the trailhead and visitor’s center where we started, the sky darkened and I felt raindrops hitting my cheeks. Just like at Chimborazo, we had impeccable timing! Back in the car the raindrops started to fall more heavily and the park was consumed by low, grey mist.

I took a series of black and white photos that I thought turned out really well:

By that time it was 1pm and I was starving. We stopped at a restaurant/hotel just outside of Cajas called Dos Chorreras – or two waterfalls – because it faces a hillside with two white cascades trickling down. The restaurant normally serves trucha (trout), but had a vegetarian option as well, which was decent (I’ll have to try making yucca fries when I get home!). The adjoining hotel is a beautiful lodge made of wood and stone with several fireplaces and large windows. Unfortunately, it’s about $200 a night 😦 Gustavo said that a lot of honeymooners head there for a getaway.

Then it was back to Cuenca in the late afternoon and after a shower, I returned to Cafe Austria for a beet, carrot, apple, and ginger juice and kept my head turned away from the apple kuchen.

Tomorrow we leave the lovely colonial Cuenca for Guayaquil. C flies out to Baja where he’ll start a new rotation on the Sea Bird and I’ll head south the Vilcabamba and Madre Tierra!