As a biology student staring down my junior year at Occidental, there seemed to be no better place to study abroad than Ecuador and Galápagos, one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. There was the added bonus that, having taken seven years of Spanish throughout high school and middle school, I may be able to improve my Spanish as well.
After over a week of orientations, this was the first week of classes at la Universidad de San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Cumbayá, near the capital city of Quito, Ecuador. The university is beautiful and filled with multicoloured buildings and fountains that almost make you feel like you have stumbled into Disneyland. Classes in my program are special in that we don’t take five at once like students normally do at Occidental. Instead, we have “modules,” which are similar to block programs at schools like Colorado College. We only take one class at a time, for three hours a day (9 a.m.-12 p.m.), which allows for excursions such as the one this week to Rio Topo, an example of a Cloud Forest.
I started my first class, Tropical Ecology, with two normal days of classes in which we learned about the ecosystems we would encounter on our first field trip. The professor, Esteban, is passionate about his subject and knows an incredible amount about tropical ecology.
Monday morning, my host mother had off-handedly mentioned that both Cotopaxi and Tungurahua Volcanoes had been spewing ash, and I feared that it would prevent us from going on our first field trip that I had been so excited about.
Despite the ash, which is now becoming more common, we all dragged ourselves out of bed at 7 a.m. and trudged to USFQ with sleep in our eyes and heavy rubber boots on our feet to board the bus that would take us to Rio Topo. The bus ride there was pretty quiet, since everyone was trying to catch up on the sleep they had lost as a result of getting up at 5 a.m. to finish packing. Or maybe that was just me. We arrived at the lodge we were staying at and it immediately exceeded all expectations. I’d thought we would stay in a small, modest place, but this was a colorful outdoor paradise with multiple pools (including one with a bridge that crossed it), a hot tub, a sauna, parrots and a beautiful dining room. As if that weren’t enough, the room that three of my friends and I stayed in was basically a tree house with a huge two-person jacuzzi tub (which we never quite figured out how to use). Settling in, my friends and I all experienced that bubbly, giddy feeling that a 12 year old going to summer camp feels. The room even had the musty camp smell and blankets that looked like they belonged in a tent. Once we’d put all of our things down and marvelled at the hotel, we met up outside for a short hike to a waterfall.
The hike started out on an eerie, exciting note as our professor began with the story of Atahualpa’s gold, supposedly buried somewhere in Llanganates National Park. The landscape was incredible, and clearly showed why this environment is considered a “cloud forest.” Wispy clouds clung to the tightly packed trees that were only broken by jagged scars of landslides. To hike to the waterfall, we had to cross a bridge hundreds of meters above the ravine, with pieces missing from its bottom. Throughout the crossing, I focused all my attention on trying not to trip. Despite the terror of the bridge, the view was fantastic, and it only improved as we got closer. From this side, the waterfall looked like something straight out of Lord of the Rings. One could see all of the stone steps carved out of the cliff beyond the intense flow of the water. My friends and I kept trying to watch one drop as it fell, but it was almost impossible because the water was moving so fast. It was awe-inspiring.
After the hike back to the hotel, it was nearly dinner and we enjoyed an incredible meal of homemade burritos and guacamole by the chefs at the restaurant. I don’t think anyone can say they have lived until they’ve had guacamole made in South America from local avocados. There is absolutely nothing like it. The restaurant was built into the hotel, which gave the meal even more of a familial feeling as the students and I got to know each other.
Tuesday, we woke up bright and early to go out into the cloud forest to do a small fieldwork project that we would present later that day. We drove to the border of our professor’s friend’s land and we slipped and tumbled up a muddy path in the middle of nowhere in the cloud forest. As I muddied my entire body trying to navigate the impossibly slippery incline, I thought about how lucky I was to be here, in the middle of nowhere, Ecuador doing what I love with great people.
Once we reached our destination — where the edge of the forest met a pasture — we began our fieldwork, taking various measurements to see if there was an edge effect present in the location. About 45-60 minutes in, it started to pour. I, rather than keeping myself dry with my rain jacket, decided I should keep my backpack dry, and was immediately soaked. Luckily, everyone in the class embraced the rain—after all, we were in a cloud forest. Dozens of interesting bugs and seemingly millions of liters of rain later, we finished taking all of our data and began the even more slippery downhill hike back to the bus. Several falls later, we finally made it to the bus — just as the mountains emerged from the clouds and the rain stopped. Back at the hotel, in wonderfully dry clothes, we transformed the banquet room into a classroom to work on presenting our data from the wet morning. Esteban told us to make the presentation fun, so, naturally, we decided to write a rap about edge effects.
After our presentations, we enjoyed another fabulous dinner from the hotel before watching an interesting but extremely depressing documentary called “Trinkets and Beads,” which was about the relationship between the indigenous people of the Amazon and the oil companies. I highly recommend it, but make sure you have some chocolate and Ben & Jerry’s close by to sop up your sorrows after watching it. After the movie, we enjoyed the sauna for a bit, then went to bed.
Friday, after another delicious breakfast of the best granola I have ever had, we boarded the bus for a long hike before heading back to Cumbayá. On our way there, I noticed a man casually walking on the side of the road with a machete — something not entirely uncommon in Ecuador, especially in the forest. But then the bus slowed before coming to a full stop.
“Are we seriously picking up a hitchhiker with a machete?,” I said to my friend Laurel, trying to keep the confusion and minute panic out of my voice.
Luckily, we were quickly reassured that this was no murderer, but rather Esteban’s kind and knowledgeable friend, Anthony, who owned the land and who would be our guide for the hike.
This hike was unlike anything I have ever done before. All we initially knew was that it was a hike to a waterfall and that, in places, it would get muddy. From this description, I figured we would be safe and dry in our rubber boots and that it would be a nice hike with a swim at some point. I should have known from the beginning that it would be nothing of the sort. As soon as the road ended and the trail began, we were faced with our first obstacle: crossing a fairly strong river that was a meter deep in places—do we dare try to use the precarious and slippery looking log or do we soak our feet and risk falling by going through the river? In the end, most of us opted to go through the river. Those of us that went first thought we could make it across in boots without getting water in them, but the squelching of our socks for the rest of the hike reminded us of just how wrong we were. Those who came later were smart enough to take off their socks and boots before crossing. But this was only the beginning.
To reach the waterfalls, we went through knee-deep mud, more boot-filling rivers (though none as deep as the first), paths that crumbled beneath your feet and climbed the most rickety jungle steps that were almost vertical. Through it all, a sweet German Shepherd followed us—even up the steep steps. The waterfall was beautiful, but after the ordeal it took to get there, only a few were brave enough to actually get into the frigid mountain water. Their faces and goosebumps did not make me at all inclined to join them.
After a snack and solid enjoyment of the beauty of the clearing, we had to turn around and brave all the same obstacles all over again, still with the German Shepherd in tow. The dog had some trouble trying to go down the stairs and after many minutes of heart-wrenching whining trying to reach the people who had already descended, we actually lowered him down on a rope; he was incredibly well-behaved about it. Singing and stumbling, we finally made it back to the bus well after lunchtime and everyone’s stomachs were growling in protest. We enjoyed one last incredible meal at the restaurant before once again having to say goodbye to beautiful Baños.