Scenery from Ecuador: Mountains and “The Death March”

STUDENT REFLECTIONS FROM THE 2018 VT ECUADOR STUDY ABROAD TRIP

Cloud Covered

Perhaps the final hoorah of our trip was a day hike which had earned the name “The Death March”. Yes, I know this sounds like the complete opposite of a good time, but some of my best memories from this trip are from situations that challenged me. The intimidating name of the hike only makes it so each student properly prepares for the endeavor. Anyone attacking the challenge with a good attitude would not only complete the hike, but enjoy sights and accumulate experiences that can hardly be imagined. Armed with the aforementioned positive attitude and a full belly from a massive breakfast buffet, I set off determined to conquer the infamous death march. The hike occurred right next to the town of Papallacta. Our guide, Patricio, was a lifelong resident of Papallacta and had constructed the trail we were trekking up. At the base lodge we already stood at an elevation on nearly 11,000 feet (double the highest elevation in VA), and by the end of the hike we stood surrounded by clouds at over 13,000 feet.

The journey to climb nearly a kilometer higher into the sky was anything but leisurely. Just to get to the trail head we had to hoof it up an incredibly steep pasture walking alongside llamas and cows that seemed to hardly notice our presence. The first half of the actual trail was covered in dense woods and required a machete to maneuver, but we were used to this. A new challenge came when we crossed over the tree line and in to an altitude where spectacled bear droppings and tapir tracks outnumber the amount of trees covering this landscape. The hike crossed over three separate peaks, each one higher than the last. A brief stop for pictures at the first peak, and we were quickly on to the second. This part of the trail had sections where we had to traverse the steepest gradient I had ever come across. We had to clamber up on all fours standing near vertical, but with the ground only inches from our face.

When we finally reached the second peak we stopped for a much need snack break. Completely surrounded by clouds, our visibility was minimal but that did nothing to damper any of our spirits as we built up excitement to go to the top. 10-15 minutes later we stood at nearly 4,000 meters above sea level, taking pictures with nothing but clouds surrounding us all as happy as could be with our accomplishments of the day. The trip back down was even more jovial. Keeping track of all the times we fell over laughing more raucously after each successive fall. By the time we all got back to the lodge we were exhausted and beaming, staring up into the mountains in awe of what we had accomplished, and well deserving of a long dip in the natural hot springs.

– Silas Beers, Fish and Wildlife Conservation

Mountains

I missed the mountains. Shiripuno was an amazing experience but it was located in the Amazon river basin. I wanted to be in the mountains. The ride into San Isidro was a nail biting and jaw dropping experience. The bus weaved its way up the side of the mountains. The sharp turns occurring in higher frequency as we climbed to a higher elevation. As we would go around each turn the views would keep getting better and better. A gap in the trees would reveal a heart pounding drop. As you looked further out into the valley and towards the horizon rows of tall green and grey cloud shrouded ridges would appear. The sun began to set as we neared San Isidro. The sunset framed the peaks in a way that makes you question if this is real. There is no way this is real. Views like this only occur though green screen edits in movies. But there I was awestruck and happy to be in the mountains.

Once we arrived in San Isidro the mind-blowing views did not stop. The roof of the game room clubhouse showed an amazing scene as well. The sun was still setting so the sky was a light pink. The mountain crests met and were dotted with small clumps of clouds. Below the mountain was a slope down to a valley with a salt lick lake cupping the lowest elevation. Gorgeous.

When I thought that it couldn’t get any better I was proved wrong. We set our bags down and explored the lodge. The way to the main lodge is a rocky path painted green by the plants that have claimed it over the years. The walls were covered in vibrant green moss and the trees above created a tunnel of foliage.

The short trail let out to another astonishing view. There was a cabin nestled at the top of the sloping connecting trail. Farther down was our destination the main lodge. The lodge was a large building with glass windows and a huge deck. On the deck the overlook was even better than the game room. The view was a still portrait of the climb up the mountains only it was framed by a forest on either side. I was giddy with excitement about what this new place could offer and I was sure it would not disappoint.

– Taryn Smith, Biological Sciences

Green Screen

When describing the Auca highway during sunset the only word I can think of is ‘green screen’. For a whole three hours, our bus traveled from the lowlands of Shripuno to the small city of Coca. With clear skies and our window opened, I got to see some of the most incredible views in the world. The majority of the ride was overlooking the Amazon basin. Large mountains filled the scene with the beautiful purples, yellows and blues of the sky rolling in the background. I must have around twenty pictures on my phone from during that ride, but none of them do any justice. I refer to it as a ‘green screen’ because every time I would look out the window it seemed too perfect to be authentic. No way was what I was looking at actually real – it had to be something out of a movie. Within seconds the scene is totally transformed as we entered the cloud forest through an overpass. The mountains covered with big wispy clouds and totally different greenery. It’s amazing to me how fast the scene was able to change. The atmosphere around the lowlands, San Isridro, and Papallacta is completely different while still being within a couple hours of each other. It is crazy to think that when I drive four hours back to Virginia Tech from northern Virginia, I am basically seeing the same thing the entire time, but here in Ecuador, the weather, surroundings, and the animals can completely transform.

– Georgia Boley, Biological Sciences

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