The city of Quito sits at 2800 meters (a little over 9000 feet) which is already at a high altitude but for our first overnight excursion we traveled to an ecosystem called the Páramo which is right below the snow level of the Andes mountains at 4000 meters (approximately 13,000 feet). Now, to put that into perspective, the highest mountain east of the Mississippi and the tallest point I had ever been up is Mount Mitchell which is only 2000 meters, lower than the city of Quito. Our trip began on Monday morning and ended on Wednesday afternoon.
On Monday, we all gathered at the bus stop and began our journey. We drove about an hour and a half outside of Quito up the Andes mountains to a volcano called Antisana. Once we were about 3500 meters up, we spotted our first animals, the endangered Andean condors. It was breathtaking! We all got off the bus and watched as they flew right over our heads. We were all glad we had our binoculars ready. Unfortunately, my camera was not good enough to get a good picture of them, but they were amazing to watch. We then got back on the bus and drove a little more until we spotted our next animal, the white tailed deer. Now, for many of us, white tailed deer are something we are used to seeing every once in a while in North America, but they are actually endangered in Ecuador. We finally arrived at our hiking location for the day. It was a short and easy hike which was really good because it helped us get used to the altitude. We learned all about the animals and plants there and about their adaptations. It was very cold and rainy that day (and by very cold I mean between 30 and 40 degrees F). Once we finished our hike, we went and had lunch at a restaurant and conservation center called Tambo Condor. The food was amazing! We found out we were staying there in the little cabanas they had (which meant we had amazing food the whole time). After lunch, we walked up the road a little ways to a cliff where there was a known condor nest. We waited, saw a few more condors, and learned how cold it really gets when the sun goes down. We then went back to Tambo Condor, had a lecture, then dinner. After dinner, we went back to our cabanas where we learned there was no heat or hot water. So, we snuggled up in our sleeping bags and went to sleep. My pictures from the first day are below.
On Tuesday, we woke up cold and a little uncomfortable after sleeping on the floor all night. We went to breakfast then left for our hike that day. Tuesday was one of the hardest days I’ve ever had. The beginning of our hike was great! It was uphill but it was on a path so it was ok. But then, we merged off the path. We found ourselves walking uphill through tall bushy grass without a trail at 4000 meters above sea level. It wasn’t too long before a few of us began to fall behind the rest of the group. My breathing was labored, my heart was racing, and every step I took seemed to require more energy than the last. I’ll admit, there were moments when I didn’t think I would be able to make it to the top. About 6km later, I was glad I hadn’t given up. We finally arrived in front of another cliff where we ate our lunch and waited for condors. When we finally saw them, they were breathtaking, just like the day before. We saw about 10 condors that day, which for an endangered species with only about 200 individuals, was amazing. We then had to hike back down the mountains (but this time was only about 4km since we took a shortcut). When we finally got back to the bus we were exhausted. We then learned we had to do a field exam/project, counting species in certain sizes of plots of land which took about another 2 hours. When we eventually got back to Tambo Condor, we had an hour break which we definitely needed. Someone found a guitar, so a few people played and others sang as we sat warming ourselves near a fire. We then heard from a local community member about his experience in the small town of Pintag and he sang us a few local songs. We had dinner then completed our field exam from earlier. We all slept really hard that night.
Wednesday was the shortest and easiest day. For our hike that day, we decreased altitude to 3200m to visit a forest in the Páramo. The hiking was more what I was used to, with rocks, roots, and shade from the trees. We learned all about the lava flow from the volcano and the conservation efforts to preserve land like this from mining. After we got home on Wednesday, I was very excited to take a warm shower and to rest a little.
Unfortunately, the Páramo gifted me with a cold so besides going to class, I’ve just been trying to get over that since I got back on Wednesday. I did get to do some really cool things last weekend though. I spent the weekend with my college roommate (who’s from Quito)’s parents. We drove to a town called Otavalo which is known for its high indigenous population. They have a market there every Saturday that fills up most of the streets of the town. On the way there, we stopped on the equator which was really cool! It was kind of surreal to stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. We also stopped in a town called Cayambe which is known for a cookie called a Bizcocho that are only made there. They tasted like a puffy shortbread. I also got to tour around the historical center of Quito, go in many beautiful churches, and go to the big virgin statue called the Panecillo that overlooks Quito.
Well, I leave tomorrow for my next excursion, the Cloud Forest! I’m super excited and I’m glad I’m almost over my cold!