Ecuadorian legend has it that a woman from San Pablo was once in love with a man from Otavalo. Their families were rivals, and would not allow the two to marry; a Romeo and Juliet-like story. The man, her lover, could not bear it, and they managed to escape together. As punishment, the gods cursed the woman by turning her into the great lake at the foot of the volcano, Laguna de San Pablo. The man was so overcome with the tragedy that he gave himself to the gods and was transformed to stand all time as a lechero tree atop a large hill, to look forever down on his lost love.
It is this same lechero tree that I am now sitting next to, enjoying my lunch with a group of 8- to12-year-olds listening to our guide Carlos relate the history of this place. It takes my full focus to understand the story and translate it into English (please forgive me if the details are not all correct). As part of a week-long childrens’ camp full of games, stories, horseback riding and outdoor skills education, we were invited as volunteers to hike up to the 500-year-old lechero tree to hear the legend.
We finish eating and day dreaming about the ancient tales that seem to be alive in the geography of this place, and it is time for the group to head back down to town. Rather than follow them, we are drawn by the looming presence of Imbabura to continue our walk.
A cobbled rock road cuts between rows of beans and small homes, sharing the hilltop with the lechero tree. To our right, an elderly woman is attempting to move a 50 kilogram sack of concrete, so we decide to offer our hands. Pretending that the back-breaking weight is no big deal, we wrestle the bag across the field to her awaiting home. She is grateful, and asks us where we are headed. We point across to the towering charisma of the volcano, a deep smile spreads across her face and she guides us to a path that will take us across. We exchange thanks and goodbyes then make our way down the path to the village at the base of the climb.
Walking through a neighborhood of cement homes our eyes stay transfixed on the rocky summit partially hidden by clouds. Midway up, erosion has formed a perfect giant heart shape on the mountain’s face. I can’t help but think that it is a good omen.
At the edge of the final block we run into an indigenous man and his boy. Instantly, the man strikes up conversation, interested as to where we are from and where we are wandering. We say that we are going to walk up Imbabura and immediately their eyes light up. The man, Luis, lets out a shrill and silly laugh and invites us into his home for a pre-adventure meal.
It seems that we will have some locals joining us today.
We duck our heads below the low door into their home and sit down.
Luis’s wife, Elena, is wearing a traditional white blouse and long dark skirt. Her black hair is pulled into a pony tail and shiny gold beads line her neck. She is quiet and humble, handing us plates of rice, broccoli and fish with a look that seems to say, who are these curious people that Luis has managed to find? As we eat, there is much excitement. Spanish is our common language. We talk for a few minutes and then our group speaks English to clarify some points while they banter in their native tongue Kichwa (the language of the Inca) to do the same. Andy, Luis’ son who is only 10 years old, is loading up a knapsack with some warm clothes, a jacket and some good energy food his mother is bagging up.
Luis seems to be on the verge of uncontrollable laughter at every moment. His spirit is infectious. I let him know, for the first time, that his flashy turquoise sweat pants are the product of a legendary American football team, the 1980s Miami Dolphins. He lets out a walloping laugh, grinning the biggest grin his face can accommodate.
We tell Elena and their toddler son, Emir, “pashi” (Thank you in Kichwa) for the incredible meal, and then Andy, Luis, Kanaan, Max, our South African cycling buddy Mark and I head out towards the volcano.
Andy and Luis know these trails well, so we quickly pick our way between plots of farm land, bouncing from path to path while slowly gaining elevation.
Every couple of minutes Luis stops to show us an important plant. Holding a leaf he tries to explain its medicinal significance, and then finally resorts to a demonstration. He licks the leaf, sticks it to his skin, and says, “No mas sangre” (No more blood); a natural style Band-aid. Later, he excitedly bounds into a bush, coming back with a handful of green and purple plants. He motions for us to smell them and rub them on our body. It seems we have found deodorant!
Andy is equally trained in the search for useful foliage. He is constantly handing me berries and stalks to eat and exclaiming that we have found another patch of “comida gratis” (free food).
With our new friends capturing our utmost attention, we soon find ourselves high above the bustle of the town.
From here, the trail becomes more defined and much steeper. One foot after another, we take 10 or 20 steps before pausing to look back down at the lake and cities below.
Andy is keeping up with us without a single complaint; we comment about it to Luis and he beams, obviously proud of his son.
This, being the first big hike of Andy’s young life, seems as if we are witnessing a rite of passage. We move from the trail to a slippery slope of grass that rolls upward. It feels like we are wading through deep snow, laboring up toward the seemingly elusive ridgeline.
With the afternoon moving toward evening and our group still below the ridge, we decide to stop to eat and enjoy the view.
We will not make our goal for the day, but it does little to blemish such a wonderful walk with new friends.
As we chomp into mandarins and cheese, bread and bananas, the high clouds dissolve and leave us with a stunning view of the jagged rock summit. The continuous chatter of the walk has ceased, and we bask in the last warmth of sun, admiring the new perspective we have gained.
Andy seems to be a bit confused and bummed that we are not going to push on to the top. I do my best to explain that getting to the top is not so important; he will simply have to come back and try it again.
Going down proves to be a new kind of fun altogether. The smoothed down grass provides a nice slick slope for us to slide on back to the trail below. Bumping our bums through the tufts of grass like lost mogul skiers we quickly descend, laughing and yelling all the way down. Just as dark sets in, we arrive back at the family home.
We share a final meal and make a promise to reunite down the road in Quito. Although Luis did not say anything specific that I took to be profound, I left feeling that I had been around a wise man. Somewhere within his actions, gestures and laughs he conveyed a deep peace and happiness with his life.
I don’t think that I have ever regretted a decision to climb a mountain or walk in the wilderness. Each time, I have learned something true about the surrounding world and about myself.
This day was no exception.
I was taught about plants and foods that I didn’t know existed. I saw the love in a father’s pride for his son and I witnessed that same young boy realizing the adventures just beyond his back yard.
As for me, I realized that it is important to get away from the busy highway and our uncomfortable bike seats. I was reminded of why we are on this trip.
It is not to conquer some ridiculous length of asphalt.
Rather, it is to share in experiences with people like Luis and Andy. To trod along an unknown path open to new friends and life’s limitless possibilities.
• Chris Hinkley is a Juneau resident a member of the A Trip South crew. For more information about the adventure go online to http://atripsouth.com.