April 24, 2013
America is, as we’re told, the land of the free—and for tail-wagging, four-legged travelers that were born to run, road-tripping across our vast country of fields, mountains, forests and campgrounds might seem like a dream vacation.
But visiting America’s most treasured parks and other places of natural heritage is not so easy for people with their dogs in tow. Leash laws and full pet prohibitions are so ubiquitous that for anyone hoping to tour America’s national or state parks, it may be easier to check the pets into a kennel before hitting the road than trying to bring them along on vacation.
This seemingly draconian crackdown on man’s best friend is not without good cause, however. Off-leash dogs may harass, chase and even attack and kill wildlife of all sizes and sorts. Deer, moose, birds and many other animals are regularly hounded by free-running pet dogs. Just a few examples: In 2010, an off-leash German shepherd killed a pair of fox pups just outside the Trout Brook Valley nature reserve in Connecticut. Also that year, a dog that had escaped its home in rural Colorado was seen chasing elk and harrying the animals into the middle of a river until a wildlife officer shot and killed the pet. Last spring, dogs near Talkeetna, Alaska, attacked and injured a newborn moose calf—a common occurrence in the Far North. In Florida, uncontrolled dogs are a frequent cause of death of the protected gopher tortoise, while in the Southwest, desert tortoises have reportedly been chewed on by free-roaming dogs. Uncontrolled pet dogs have also attacked endangered bighorn sheep in the California desert. Domestic dogs—whether fully feral or simply pets off-leash—cause huge losses for the livestock industry, too. In 2009, dogs killed roughly 60,000 sheep in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture and the American Sheep Industry Association.
Other times, dogs off-leash are injured or killed. In November, a relatively rare Florida black bear attacked and injured a chocolate Lab that had been let into the woods to run by its owners. A similar encounter with a bear almost resulted in the death of a golden retriever in Massachusetts last year. Mountain lions, coyotes and even deer have also attacked free-roaming dogs. In national forests and lands of the Bureau of Land Management, dogs are often allowed to run off-leash—but hunters may also use these areas. In January, a pair of pig hunters in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara shot and killed a 40-pound mutt named Billy, who was running off-leash. Pet dogs have also stepped into steel-jawed traps, which can be legally placed on national forest lands in some places, like the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.
The problem is global. Off-leash pet dogs attack swans and deer in England. In parts of Australia, dogs on the loose are one of major the predators of koalas. A poodle recently came trotting home with a mortally wounded kangaroo joey in its mouth. In the 1980s, a single off-leash pet dog in New Zealand killed between 600 and 800 kiwis out of a small population of 1,000 in just six weeks. A recent study in Tasmania found dogs to be the second-greatest source of wildlife mortality after cars.
In the United States, the problem is reportedly growing worse every year. Attacks on other dogs and people occur, too, and for these reasons, authorities have been cinching up leash laws. Virtually no state or national park allows dogs to run off leash—not even in backcountry areas. In San Francisco, the vast urban parkland of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), for example, has been ground zero of ongoing bickering between leash law proponents and dog owners bent on letting their pets run and romp. The thing is, the park, while potentially a haven for off-leash dogs, is also a refuge for native wildlife—like the threatened Western snowy plover. Numbers of these birds have long nested in the dunes at San Francisco-area beaches and, as discussed in the Outside blog Adventure Ethics, may be chased off by uncontrolled dogs.
Brent Plater, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Wild Equity Institute in San Francisco, says just last week two goslings were killed by off-leash dogs at Crissy Field, a beach area within the GGNRA. Plater has been working for years with several other groups to help the Park Service develop a leash law plan that seems fair to everyone, and he notes that the GGNRA has “some of the most generous leash laws of all the national parks” in spite of being home to several threatened or endangered species. At this point, Plater feels the best proposal would be to enclose off-leash dog areas with fencing. That, he says, would be “the perfect compromise and solution” to a battle that pits “a handful of dog owners against everyone else.”
The controversy, he adds, is not simply about people and dogs and whether both have equal rights on public lands.
“It’s about whether we want to take a precautionary approach and avoid problems before they happen by fencing off dog areas, or whether we want to take a reactive approach and punish people after the fact, and hopefully fix the damage [their dogs] cause,” he explained.
Julie Young, a federal wildlife biologist and also an assistant professor at Utah State University, has studied the impacts of feral and off-leash dogs in the United States and in Mongolia, where she analyzed the impacts (PDF) of domestic dogs on an antelope called the saiga. Young says the impacts dogs have on wild animals are far greater than most pet owners realize.
“If your dog chases a deer, and it’s near a popular trail, it’s probably not the first time that deer was chased—maybe not even on that day,” Young told Off the Road.
Young says a paper published in 2008 in the Natural Areas Journal reported that off-leash pet dogs in Colorado had driven deer and bobcats away from popular hiking trails where they had once been known to occur. In Utah, Young says, sage grouse and mule deer can be common targets for harassment by dogs. Other times, pet dogs kill livestock—and this, says Young, “can have a secondary effect” of bringing wrongful blame upon coyotes—or wolves—in northern states and Canada.
Maureen Hill-Hauch, the program director of the American Dog Owners Association, takes a surprisingly stern approach to leash laws and believes pet dogs need to be kept on leashes anytime they’re outside of a confined private area.
“We’re all about responsibility, and a responsible dog owner keeps their dog on a leash and collar,” Hill-Hauch said. “If you want to let them run, then let them run in your backyard or at a tennis court, where you can lock the gate.” Very few state parks allow dogs off-leash, Hill-Hauch says—”and rightfully so.” She believes dog attacks on people and the harassment of wildlife are more than enough reason to require that pet dogs be restrained at all times when on public land.
“My dogs have never been off their leashes,” she said.
So, where can travelers go with their dogs? Almost everywhere—for dogs are allowed in most parks, state and national. However, rules here are strict and, if you’ve entertained ideas of boundless romping in the woods with your pet, you may be in for a serious letdown. Consider Yellowstone National Park, which prohibits dogs in the backcountry, on trails and on boardwalks, and requires that they be leashed at all times, if not caged or locked in an attended vehicle. In Yosemite National Park, they are likewise prohibited in the backcountry and most trails. They are permitted on paved trails and paths, and most of the park’s 13 campgrounds allow dogs—though only on a leash six feet long or shorter—and, yes, a person must be holding the leash.
Want to go hiking? Figure you’ll just tie your dog up in camp for the day? Sorry—but that’s generally forbidden. In other words, driving through a park with your dog shouldn’t be a problem. But if you hope to fully enjoy the woods and wilds with your best four-legged friend, a national park may not be for you. Note that Acadia, Shenandoah, Grand Canyon, Cuyahoga and Great Sand Dunes national parks have been named as among the dog-friendliest of America’s national parks, mainly for their relatively lax leash laws.
Want to go backpacking? Dogs generally aren’t allowed in the backcountry of national parks. However, national forest land is often a romping ground for pet dogs. In developed areas and developed campsites, leash laws are the norm, but in the backcountry, your dog can, at last, run free.
Resources on pet-friendly travel destinations provide a rough breakdown of the rules.
April 8, 2013
The concept is alluringly simple: Leave your home, your television, your laptop, your job, put on a backpack and walk from Mexico to Canada.
That, in a sentence, describes the experience of walking the Pacific Crest Trail. Usually called the PCT, this epic foot trail meanders 2,650 miles through three states, from Campo, California, to E.C. Manning Provincial Park, in British Columbia. Many thousands of people walk some portion of the trail each year, whether in California, Oregon or Washington, while several hundred attempt to go the full distance. Hikers intending to do so must be fit, brave, ambitious and—at least for a while—unemployed. They must also undertake some serious planning as they begin what will likely be the greatest outdoors adventure of their lives. The PCT is one of America’s three great long-distance north-south hiking trails, along with the Continental Divide and the Appalachian trails. The PCT passes among the world’s largest trees, some of the most fantastic rock formations and one of the driest deserts. It crosses one of North America’s largest rivers, and traverses a wide range of climates and landscapes, from low-lying to deserts to craggy high country to well-watered, mossy forests.
Most people who hike the PCT walk south to north, and for them, the adventure is about to start. Most will depart before May. This allows them to begin when the desert temperatures are still mild and progress northward rather in sync with the warming weather. The April-May start time also works out especially nicely by putting northbounders at the south end of the Sierra Nevada just as the high country snowpack really begins to melt, and if they stay on schedule they should pass through the Pacific Northwest before the first autumn snows.
Jack Haskel, a staff member with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, told Off the Road that several thru-hikers are already a few hundred miles into their walk.
“It’s been a low-snow year, which makes it a decent year to get an early start,” he said.
Hikers must handle some paperwork before they begin—but, happily, bureaucratic obstacles are quite minimal. The PCT Association will grant a PCT Long Distance Permit to anyone planning to walk at least 500 miles of the trail. This document is free, takes two to three weeks to process and paves the way for a hiker to walk every inch of the PCT.
Logistically speaking, now comes the fun stuff—bears, food supplies, dangerous terrain and running out of water. Haskel says there are, in particular, two waterless distances of about 30 miles in the Southern California desert where hikers must tote gallons at a time.
Once hikers reach the Sierra Nevada, a simple water filtering pump can be used at any of hundreds of lakes and streams along the way—but rations now become the biggest priority. North of Kennedy Meadows, hikers cross not a single road for about 200 miles and, unless they trek off-trail to a town, may need to carry with them some 60,000 calories of food a person. Such deliciously laden hikers are gold mines of goodies for black bears, which don’t pose much of a physical threat to people but may easily rob hikers of their supplies if they leave them unguarded—even for just a few moments, whether day or night. Bears, Haskel warns, can be especially problematic near the Rae Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park and in Yosemite National Park’s Lyell Canyon. In places, a plastic bear canister is required—and hikers would be wise to carry one of these bear-proof food containers throughout their journey.
About 1,000 people apply for thru-permits each year. Between 500 and 800 individuals attempt the journey. Fewer than half of them finish each year. The average thru-hiker will take about five months to walk the entire trail, averaging 20-plus miles a day after factoring in rest days. Haskel says many hikers begin at a pace of 16 or 17 miles per day but, by the time they reach Oregon, “are basically doing a marathon every day.” He says the PCT is “an amazing workout” and that thru-hikers can expect to arrive at the finish line “skinny” and, perhaps, fitter than they’ve ever been. Thru-hikers, by virtue of their lifestyle, become voracious eaters, burning 5,000 calories or more per day and, when they’re able, regaining this energy through glorious, face-stuffing feasts. Fortunately, hikers will encounter towns with quality stores and restaurants every few days for most of the PCT’s length. The PCT Association’s website offers guidelines and strategy suggestions for resupplying along the trail.
One need not be starving—just bored of couscous and curry—to stop and eat one of the most famous meals along the entire PCT, the Pancake Challenge at Seiad Valley Store and Cafe, on the Klamath River in Northern California. The Challenge consists of putting down five one-pound pancakes—a feat that perhaps only a thru-hiker (or a black bear) could ever manage. Walking Man Brewing Company, in Stevenson, Washington, is a popular watering hole for PCT hikers. Haskel also recommends Paradise Valley Cafe, near the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California, popular among hikers for its burgers.
A small fraction of PCT hikers—perhaps just several dozen people—hike the trail north to south, starting at the Canadian border and walking to Mexico. Such southbounders often opt for this route plan due to their calendar schedule; if they cannot break away from school or work until June, they simply can’t begin the journey in the desert, where June temperatures can be crushing. They will also have a poor chance of reaching the Canadian border before winter if they depart from Campo in late June. But hiking in this direction introduces some unique challenges. Most southbounders start after June 15—but even then, much of the trail will still be covered with snow. Southbound hikers can expect not to see the trail itself for snowy sections as long as one mile or more. Thus, getting lost is likely, and many southbounders carry GPS devices for this reason. By July and August, the high country snows will have mostly melted—but October will be just around the corner, and the highest passes of the entire journey lie very much toward the end of the trail, in the Sierra Nevada. Forester Pass—at 13,153 feet—is the giant of them all. It stands 780 miles from the finish line, and southbounders generally aim to cross this beautiful but potentially perilous obstacle before October.
From here, much of the remaining country is desert, which by autumn is mild, dry and beautiful. Many southbounders slow to an easy pace here, Haskel says, as the race against winter is over. Fifteen to 20 miles a day—child’s play for hikers who have come all the way from Canada—brings them in a month or two to the Mexican border at Campo, where a taco—plus a dozen more and a few beers—may never taste so good.
The trail runs 2,650 miles.
The trail leads through 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks and three national monuments.
The trail’s midpoint is at Chester, California, near Mount Lassen.
The highest point along the way is Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada, at 13,153 feet.
Fewer than 200 hikers finish the PCT each year.
About 5 percent of thru hikers walk north to south, considered the more challenging direction.
The first person to thru-hike the entire trail was Richard Watson, in 1972.
The fastest time was set in 2011 by Scott Williamson, who hiked north to south in 64 days 11 hours, averaging 41 miles per day.
A few speed hikers have finished so-called “yo yo” hikes, reaching the end, then turning around and walking the entire PCT again in the opposite direction.
Cyclists may attempt a bike-friendly, 2,500-mile parallel route called the Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail.
March 8, 2013
I had only $40 in my wallet, but cash doesn’t help a person much on the freezing Andean tundra. Instead, my most valuable assets at the moment were two beers, some quinoa and two avocados for dinner—plus a riveting book about the hunt for a man-eating Siberian tiger by John Vaillant. Tent-bound life was good here in the high country. My hands were numb, but I was camped under the roof of a sheltered barbecue hut, and I dared the volcano to give me all the weather it could muster. The mountain seemed to answer. Wind and clouds swirled off the white, freshly dusted slopes, and rain began to fall as darkness crept on, but I stayed dry and cozy. It seemed very strange that millions of people dwelt just a few miles away in Quito, Ecuador, yet I was the only person on earth camped that night in Cotopaxi National Park.
The next morning was foggy and bit with such cold that I couldn’t get moving until past 9. When blue patches of sky gleamed with the promise of a warm day, I started cycling, and by the time I had reached the foot of the mountain, the sun was out in force, though the wind ripping across this barren plateau remained bitterly cold.
A group of Germans stepped off a tour bus at a roadside trailhead, aiming to spend the morning hiking around Laguna Limpiopungu, a shallow lake on the high plains just under the summit. When they learned I had biked to this remote spot, they gave me a round of applause. I was a bit confused and embarrassed, and I deflected the gesture with a wave of my hands.
“I met a Mexican man in Quito who had spent a year on his bike,” I told them. “And I met a British couple in Cuenca who were halfway into an 18-month trip. And I met a Colombian man in the Amazon who was walking to Argentina. I have been here two months, and my trip is about over. This is nothing.”
Cotopaxi National Park is barren and wildly beautiful but not very extensive. Sadly, I was out of the park by 1 p.m.—but more volcanic giants and frigid high country remained ahead. There were the massive peaks of Antisana, Cayambe and Pichincha, lands where camping was free and money good for only the barest joys of life—coffee, food and wine. I rolled north via a dirt road, which shortly turned to cobblestone, and as I came slowly over a rise, I abruptly saw my final destination in the distance: Quito, that beautiful but monstrous city encased in a basin by classic cone-shaped volcanoes. After weeks of traveling through rural, mountainous country of similar stature and poise, I had to wonder how and why the village that once was Quito had ballooned into such a behemoth.
With permission from the owner—plus a payment of five bucks—I camped that night in a soccer field in the Quito suburb of Sangolqui. I had $35 left—then $20 after buying food and wine the next morning. I set my sights on Antisana National Reserve and I started again uphill, against the rush-hour traffic flowing toward the capital. The scent of the city faded, and quietude returned as I ascended into the high, windswept valleys and plains that sprawled beneath the landscape’s centerpiece, the three-mile-high Volcán Antisana. At the park entrance, an employee assured me, after I asked, that I could camp at the end of the road. When I arrived, however, a group of bundled up men at the Ministry of the Environment refuge said the opposite—that there was no camping here.
“Why did that man tell me there was?” I asked, frustrated beyond my ability to explain in Spanish. I was 20 kilometers from the nearest designated campsite (Hosteria Guaytara, outside the park) with the sun slipping behind the peaks and my hands already numb within my alpaca gloves. The men recognized my dilemma. “It is not permitted but we can let you stay,” one said. He offered me a cabin of my own—but I chose to camp under a thatched roofed shelter in back. I was half frozen by the time I slipped into my sleeping bag and put my quinoa on the stove. I uncorked a bottle of Malbec from Argentina, and sweet, sweet coziness set in. I was camped for the first time in my life above 13,000 feet—13,041, exactly—and it was the coldest night of the trip.
At just past dawn, I was pedaling along the gravel road again. Like some wretched tramp in a Charles Dickens story, I jumped off my bike and pounced on a 10-dollar bill in the road, jammed against a rock and ready to sail away with the next gust. What a miracle! I was back to $30. I descended to the main highway, turned right and started uphill toward Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, which would be my last dance with the high country. At sundown, still below the 13,000-foot pass and fearful that I might be sleeping in the rain behind a roadside gravel heap, I stopped in at a restaurant at kilometer 20, in Peñas Blancas, and asked if I could camp. The landlady took me to the balcony and spread her arms across the property below. “Wherever you like,” she said. “Can I pay you?” I asked. She waved the back of her hand at my offer. I went down and scouted for a spot amid the mud, gravel, dog poop and broken machinery, and, when it was dark, slipped into a relatively clean shed. A large animal was busy at some task in the attic, rattling the corrugated metal roof and a pile of lumber, and I zipped myself into my tent. For breakfast, I bought coffee and carrot juice, thanked the woman again and headed onward up the grade—with $23 in cash and no ATM for miles.
At the blustery pass was a sign reminding travelers to beware of a local imperiled species—the spectacled bear. The animals are rare throughout their Andean range, from Venezuela to Argentina, and their numbers may be dropping. Yet they are the pride of many locals, who wear hats or shirts bearing the animal’s image—distinctive with its panda-like face.
In Pampallacta, a thermal hot springs resort town, I spent $2 on fruit, $2 on cheese, $1 on a small bag of oats and—I couldn’t resist—$8 on a liter of wine. That gave me $10 left. I would have to camp somewhere, and I returned up the highway, toward Quito, to a resort on the north side of the road. Here, in the woods, I found a Swiss Family Robinson-style compound with $5 campsites. The owner said that for $6 I could stay in a cabin. He pointed to a wooden shack in the nearby canopy—the sort of treehouse that little boys dream of. I took it. I handed him a ten, and he handed back $4. This would have to carry me back to Quito over two days—but wait! I recalled some loose change in my panniers, and later, in my cabin, I unpacked my gear and liberated 67 cents. Such money can buy days’ worth of bananas in Ecuador. I felt renewed and secure. I lay on the floor, set up the cook stove and started dinner. I spread out my map and, from Cotopaxi to Quilotoa to Baños to the Amazon, I remembered the journey. After all, there was little left to look forward to. I had two days left until my airplane took off.
Dawn arrived in a grim shawl of fog and rain. I hurried through the dripping trees to the restaurant and spent $2, and three hours, drinking coffee. $2.67 cents until Quito. If I camped in Cayambe-Coca that night, I would have to pay nothing—but I had heard from a ranger that the campsite, at roughly 13,600 feet, had no shelter or refuge. “Aire libre,” he told me. Open air. It would be freezing—and wet. I rode uphill and stopped at the same summit I’d crossed the day before. The rain showed no sign of relenting. The turnoff to the park campground was a road of mud and rock, and it disappeared uphill into the freezing mist. I said goodbye to the mountains and pushed ahead. The highway tilted forward, and away I went, downhill at 30 miles per hour.
There was no satisfaction in replenishing my wallet at an ATM in the suburban town of El Quinche. As that machine sputtered and spat out a wad of crisp twenties, the sweetness of the past two weeks seemed to melt away like ice cream dropped in the gutter. I had spent those days searching for food and places to sleep amid incredible scenery. It had been a frugal–but pure and gratifying–way to spend a vacation. Now, with money again, there was no effort, no hardship and no reward in my activity. With an acute sense of disgust, I paid $13 for a hotel room. I would not shiver at night here, and no animals would tromp about in the darkness. I would soon forget this hotel and this lazy town, and I would think nothing of them 24 hours later while I gazed out the window of the airplane upon the wilderness areas of the Andes, at the cold and rocky high country where money is often worthless, and every day and night priceless.
March 4, 2013
Ecuador has done a tremendous job of preserving its wild places. More than 20 percent of the country is protected within more than 30 parks and reserves, some of them quite vast. In a nation as compact as Ecuador, what this translates into for travelers is beautiful national parks, one after another, like stepping stones through some of the world’s most astounding scenery.
In the Andes, many of the giant volcanoes have their own namesake national park, and from south to north one finds Sangay, Chimborazo, Llanganates, Iliniza, Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe-Coca, to name several. These protected areas essentially demarcate what is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes, or Volcano Alley—and it’s this route that I followed on my final march northward, toward Quito and the finish line of the international airport.
Here, my adventure finally came alive. I had spent weeks floundering—either resting my injured Achilles tendon or, later, undergoing anti-rabies treatment at a hospital following an unpleasant dog encounter. During this time, I often lay in bed, read books, iced my heel and wished for the freedom of the hills. But I finally fell into the familiar rhythm of bicycle touring as I pedaled uphill from Puyo to Baños, a 3,500-foot climb that leads from the Amazon basin to one of the most esteemed tourist towns in Ecuador—and, even better, to the foot of Tungurahua, the three-mile-high mountain that has been spewing smoke and ash for several months. Like most of the peaks along Volcano Alley at this time of year, Tungurahua hid within a ceiling of clouds, and I only caught a glimpse of the triangular peak one night in the light of the half moon when I peeked out my tent.
Though the Panamerican Highway bisects the Avenue of the Volcanoes, contriving routes to avoid this congested, smoggy artery brings one, as a matter of course, into some of the finest hiking, cycling and adventuring country anywhere. The land is hilly and green, and in places rugged and dangerous. I spent one afternoon ascending from the town of Pillaro into Llanganates National Park, home to the 10,792-foot Cerro Hermoso and, at the end of the long and difficult road, Laguna Pisayambo. The asphalt turns to dirt as the road steepens near the park entrance. The wind wails here, across treeless slopes, and cyclists and backpackers will find a cozy surprise—a refuge free for public use at the park entrance, at nearly 13,000 feet. I arrived at dusk, and two employees welcomed me, fed me and offered me the use of the hot water, the stove and a bed. But I chose to camp outside, and as the cold night came on, the lights of the city of Ambato 4,000 feet below flickered and shined like a million stars. Hidden in the darkness across the valley was Chimborazo’s 20,564-foot summit—often advertised as “the closest point to the Sun”—but I couldn’t see it, and never did, for it remained buried in clouds.
The next day I crossed the Panamerican Highway and headed west, for the much-loved but little-known Quilotoa-Sigchos basin, where I would spend a week exploring what might be the best cycling region in Ecuador. Right out of the town of Latacunga, the road goes up. To non-cyclists, this may sound like the worst of possibilities, but for me and many of my fellow cyclists, climbing is the reason we own bicycles at all. It’s on those uphill grades that we feel the heat of our own blood and the pace of our hearts. Climbing, perhaps, reminds us we’re alive, while million-dollar views take shape behind us. The road out of Latacunga ascends to some 13,000 feet before leveling off on a broad plateau of Andean tundra, then descends into a beautiful valley peppered with farmhouses and tiny villages, and a camping site called Posada de La Tigua. Here, the owners may try and talk you into taking a room for $35. Just camp. It’s $3.50, and you can watch the stars of the southern sky.
Onward, and the dramatic ups and downs, the friendly people, and the green hills make smiling out here as natural as breathing. In Zumbahua, a pair of video-journalists with a Quito-based cycling club, BiciEcuador, interviewed me and asked how I liked this area.
“The best of Ecuador,” I said.
The pride and joy of this region is Lake Quilotoa. There is an adjacent town of the same name—a little community of indigenous people fortunate enough to be located on the edge of a dramatic crater. Here, travelers find a vista that makes the jaw drop and clunk against the sternum. Lake Quilotoa lies almost 2,000 feet below, and from these heights one can see the wind ripping the jade-green surface. Hikers popularly walk around the crater’s rim and may follow a trail down to the water’s edge. Here, some people camp, and I saw tents pitched on a beach straight below me. The quiet, dusty village of Quilotoa will probably become either one of the hottest, or one of the most underrated, tourist destinations in Ecuador. But in February it is a strange place. It is the slow season, and there are more hostels than tourists. Nearly every building, in fact, is a hostel—perhaps 15 of them—and more are being built. The town is clearly still developing its tourist infrastructure, for among all the hostels, and even in the large visitor’s center, there is no internet—no WiFi, and no plug-in connections. Several other establishments in Quilotoa, meanwhile, sell artisanal crafts and woven items of alpaca wool. Chilly gusts of wind sweep through the quiet streets and remind one that the elevation here is almost 13,000 feet. A pair of locally made alpaca gloves for $5 are a worthy buy.
Travelers who continue north from Quilotoa will find a downhill run to the friendly little village of Chugchilan, set on the slope of a steep and forested canyon. I took note of several hostels here, then continued through the village and took a side road uphill, following signs to a nearby cheese factory about 2,000 feet straight up, on a foggy mountaintop. The sign at the gate advertises the fact that this little operation uses Swiss technology. What? Flavorless Andean queso fresco isn’t good enough? (I actually quite enjoy the local mountain cheese.) I took away a pound of mozzarella and continued on a scenic loop that would bring me back to the village. “Did you manage to find the cheese factory?” a rusty red-faced man with a wide smile and a huge machete asked me. I had never seen him before, but he knew why I was here. He spoke with a strange accent, for he was among many folks here whose native language is the indigenous Quechua.
The people in these mountains were some of the politest I’ve ever met. Turkish hospitality is famous but can be overwhelming with insistent offers of tea and food. In the Andes, it’s all smiles and hellos and respectful distances. The children, especially, are marvels of manners and courtesy. They almost never fail to call out a friendly greeting, and they have several times proven incredibly articulate and thoughtful in helping me find my way through a complicated road network to my destination.
“It is 40 kilometers to Isinlivi,” a boy said to me one afternoon on a dirt road circling through the high hills. “On a bicycle, that means you’ll be arriving after dark. You must find a place to camp before then.” He was no more than 8 years old.
I stayed in Chugchilan at the Cloud Forest Hostel (reviewed here by Globe Trotter). They offered dinner of fried plantains, chicken and rice, but I cooked quinoa and eggs in my room and studied my map, mesmerized by its language of dots, lines and triangles. There were so many route options, so many villages, so many valleys—so much to see. I was only 60 kilometers from Quito as the condor flies, but I saw that I could have spent weeks traveling the dirt roads that crisscrossed this tiny region. I had only a week left, however. Where would I go? Was there time?
Ecuador may seem little, but it’s bigger even than the imagination.
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February 28, 2013
People visit Ecuador for many reasons. Some come to see birds. Many come to surf. Others come to climb mountains. A few want to see its dynamic landscape by bicycle. But when the price of gold hit $1,800 per ounce several months ago, Texans Paul Salazar and Curt McGary came looking to make a fortune. I met the pair in Santiago de Mendez, a jungle town downriver from Cuenca, in air as thick and muggy as I always imagined the Amazon would be. Salazar, who had panned for gold and other heavy metals in Alaska and Arizona, had a good feeling about the local drainage system. He and McGary had researched ahead, using the guidance of an online gold mining guru named Stan Grist, who provides information and assistance to those seeking an escape from the rat race of more common lifestyles and, hopefully, a heavy metal fortune pulled from the earth. Grist advised Salazar via e-mail that the rivers of Ecuador could be, if not technically a mother lode, a rich and promising location for prospectors hunting gold.
“I’ve got a really good feeling about that place,” Salazar said to McGary as we all drank coffee in a cheap restaurant near our hotel. McGary had never panned for gold before but had come along in hopes of making some real money—and prospects looked good. The morning prior the pair had briefly visited the shore of the Rio Paute. Salazar panned just one scoop of dirt and came away with the largest flake he had ever seen, now contained in a vial. I would have photographed the trophy except that it was almost too small to see.
I joined the men for their second day on the river. We hailed a taxi in the plaza, and Salazar and McGary, holding a Google maps printout, showed the driver where they wished to go. They pointed to the confluence of the Negro and Paute rivers, never mentioning that they were after gold. The driver nodded in recognition of the location and turned the ignition as the Texans threw their gear—including buckets, pans and a sluice tray—into the rear of the pickup.
We drove several miles southeast through tall jungle trees wrapped with vines and thick foliage. It is said that one can walk for a mile through the Amazon and never see the same species of tree twice. I’m no botanist and they all looked about the same to me—tall and graceful beauties with glossy leaves and buttressed trunks. “I can’t believe we’re in the Amazon rainforest,” I said aloud. I asked the driver in Spanish if jaguars lived here. “Yes,” he said. And pumas? “Yes.” And anacondas? “Yes.”
It was official: This was the jungle.
We abruptly exited the dense woods on a bridge that crossed the roiling brown river 100 feet below. The banks were steep and strewn with huge boulders. Among these rocks was the dirt that might bear a fortune.
“Nobody’s mined for gold here before,” Salazar said, excitement heating up in his voice as we drew closer to the river. “This is unexplored country.”
Our driver jutted his thumb at a pair of local men hiking along the road with buckets. “Mineros de oro,” he said.
Salazar’s glimmering image of a virgin river of untouched gold suddenly sparkled a shade less—though the fact that locals hunted for gold here offered its own promise. We confirmed a 4:30 pickup with the cab driver, who pointed us down a slippery trail into the jungle, a kilometer to the river via a farmer’s property. “He’s a very nice man,” the driver assured us. We trudged into the forest, past cacao and banana trees and, finally, to the rustic homestead, a complex of decrepit shacks. Four frantic, emaciated dogs howled and ran circles around us as we called out our greetings for five minutes. No one answered, and we finally mustered the gall to march through the private residence, past a sugarcane grinder and hanging bunches of green bananas, and onward, through the papaya trees and sugarcane, toward the river.
“We’ll have to pay him a gold tax when we come back,” I said.
Gold mining is backbreaking work. Panning is the easiest, if slowest means of finding gold, though sitting on a rock in the sun for 30 minutes swirling a saucer of mucky water is surprisingly laborious. After an hour, we had found several minuscule flakes. Salazar pointed them out in his tray and, later, in my own. Gold can be identified by the way it moves through the swirling water; while other materials lift and move about easily as the pan is shaken, flakes of gold—one of the heaviest elements—will stay put. I had a pair of flakes isolated near the rim of my pan, but I was having difficulty separating the silt from the gold. For 20 more minutes I worked on trying to isolate the flecks. They were almost microscopic, and I wondered at the seeming futility of this work.
I said to McGary, “I’ve heard that the ones who got the richest in the California gold rush were those who owned convenience stores near the camps. You guys should start a brewpub here when the gold rush starts.”
At about 2 p.m. Salazar found six flakes in his pan and, believing he had found a patch of rich soil, got out the trowels, buckets and sluice tray. He and McGary unfolded the contraption and laid it in the shallows, where just enough current ran through to carry gravel and silt fed into it at the top. A sluice tray effectively accomplishes the same task as panning, but faster and with less effort. Digging out the soil from between the boulders, however, is the hard part. The men took turns on their bellies, arms three feet down, using a trowel to scoop out mucky gravel that may not have seen the light of day in decades. Scoop by scoop, the material was fed through a colander, then carried in buckets to the sluice tray and fed, a handful at a time, into the six-foot-long metal chute. Stan Grist had advised the Texans that the alluvium of Ecuador could contain as much as a half ounce of gold per cubic yard. It seemed like it would take all day to process so much earth—but Salazar insisted that productive gold streams can reward the miner with up to $50 per hour.
“Man, I can’t believe we’re here—in the jungle!” Salazar said, sweat on his brow as he leaned back in the tropical sun. “Don’t get me wrong. I want to make money. Just a half ounce of gold and our trip is paid for. But I’m really here for the adventure of it all.”
I grew queasy in the early afternoon—a stomach illness that would persist for the next 48 hours—and I lay in the shade. “It’s because you don’t eat enough meat,” Salazar said, only half joking. “That has nothing to do with it,” I mumbled. In fact, I had been invited into a home the day before and fed guinea pig and pork—the first pig I’d knowingly eaten in a decade. I ate the meat to be polite and was perhaps paying for it now.
McGary came back from the sluice tray and picked up a pan to work a smaller scoop of dirt.
“Not exactly fast money, is it?” I said.
He laughed and shrugged. Salazar was now down the shore, taking his turn feeding earth into the sluice tray, confident there was money to be extracted from this ground. His energy and enthusiasm were remarkable, given the heavy labor inherent to gold mining, the small odds of making money and, on top of it all, the hot muggy air.
At 4, we packed it up and trudged back up to the road and waited by the suspension bridge for our ride. The Texans ached all over after six hours of labor. I felt sick. The cab arrived. In town, I went for bananas and bubbly water at the corner store, and from a passing pickup truck a bucket of water went over my head and shoulders, followed by laughter. It was the last day of Carnaval, the holiday often associated with Rio de Janeiro and which manifests in Ecuador as three days of, mostly, people sitting on the curb in their underwear and spraying each other with hoses or otherwise drenching each other.
I returned to the hotel, dripping wet. McGary, I discovered, had been hit in the back with a raw egg—another popular form of ammo on Carnaval—and had just taken his second shower of the afternoon. I sat with the men at the restaurant across the street where they ate $2 rice and fried meat—the culinary specialty of the region. Salazar was having a friendly feud with our teenage waitress, who promised to hit him with an egg later. “Tengo un huevo por usted!” she said with some sass. I thought it funny that she used the formal, respectful form of “you”—usted—while threatening to hit him with a raw egg.
Salazar still brimmed with excitement.
“To find six flakes in one pan—now that’s rich dirt!” he said. “I have a good feeling about this place.”
I rolled onward the next morning, saying goodbye to the Texans as they assembled their mining gear in the lobby. I pedaled north through the Amazon, aiming for Puyo in several days, from which town I would ride uphill via the Pastaza River canyon to the popular tourist town of Baños. Five days after I left them I received an e-mail from Curt. “Didn’t find a lot of gold but probably could with the right machinery,” he said. McGary said they were now headed for the coast, where their wives were to meet them for some rest and relaxation. But Salazar had told me he planned to walk the beaches with a metal detector, still envisioning gold—even if the flecks in the sand were almost too small to see.