When horses fly...

Trip Start Dec 05, 2008
Trip End Jan 09, 2009

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Where I stayed
Las Palmas Reserve

Flag of Ecuador  , Loja,
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

As it turns out out, Ecuadorian horses are bred from carefully chosen stock, consisting (Kara thinks) of a healthy dose of Arabian.  The other components are likely mule, professional mountaineer, and circus horse.  We were amazed, 5 minutes after our morning departure on a steep, insanely eroded trail, sometimes 6 feet below ground surface level, at how easily and smoothly our small horses took us up the trail. Our guide, Jorge, had JJ take the lead, probably because he sensed JJ's strong natural horse steering abilities.  Jorge brought up the rear, with Kara in the middle and two scruffy, rib-showing, enthusiastic dogs weaving among the riders. Along the way Kara provided some tips to polish JJ's formidable skills--these helped him urge the horse generally in the desired direction although not always at the desired speed....and stopping was not always as easy as those backseat drivers not saddled with the responsibility of leading such an amazing journey imagined it from their secure positions in the rear.

However, JJ got the hang of it, mostly because the horse knew exactly where we were going, all the tough spots, and most importantly, that the guide at the end of the line was a young man who does not tolerate bad behavior.  Jorge reinforced his command presence with frequent kissing noises to which the horses responded immediately (we learned from passing cowboys that making this sound is standard operating procedure, so we smootchied our way up the hill).  

For the first hour or so we climbed through meadow, patches of natural forest, and farms (a couple with small houses, but most seemed to be commuter farms).  At one point we passed an approximately 120 year old lady carrying some produce or something on her back...we were out of breath from riding the horses!  The trail generally followed the spine of a steep ridge heading east toward the Las Palmas refuge and Podocarpos National Park, and there were a couple of long gentle stretches where JJ's horse trotted and galloped happily along the ridge trying to catch another group of horses in front of us heading the same direction.  Jorge, seemed to think galloping along knife edge ridges was a sensible way to cover ground quickly, and met JJ's inquiry with a reassuring, "esta bien" (it's Okay).  We eventually caught up with the other group and chatted a little (casually, like people who always had white knuckles due to some rare skin disease).  They, on the other hand, turned out to be a honeymooning couple, the husband from Miami, but working in Quito, and the wife presumably from Ecuador, who really did look perfectly comfortable with their situation. 

After another half hour we parted ways with the other group and began up the trail that leads to the Las Palmas Reserve, which is an old farm that Charlie and Sarah purchased many years ago, and now forms a buffer between pristine Park lands and the agricultural lands below. We followed the ridge for a while longer and then reached a very steep, switchbacking descent to a forested valley.  JJ's lead horse stopped, as it had once before, at spot that was too slippery and required dismounting, but Jorge's response to this clearly impossible descent was a smiley, "esta bien," and kissy noises.  Kara has many years of equestrian experience, but her glances did not reassure JJ as we plunged down this trail.  Sometimes the horses would have to jump down stairstep-like rock outcrops only to land and make a 90 degree turn while the rider was treated to a great panoramic view of blue sky and some green trees......a thousand feet straight down.  

Arriving, somehow, at the bottom of this valley (might have been our rapid conversion to Catholicism), JJ's horse approached a fast-moving, boulder-filled, mountain stream, and much to his surprise, the horse waded right in.  JJ, of course pulled back on the reins and looked at Jorge...."esta bien" kissy, kissy.  This is a stream that, during JJ's backcountry days in the Smoky Mountains would have required some scouting, and those Smokies horses would have taken three men and a boy to coax them across.  The bottom of the stream was clearly all smooth rounded rocks ranging from fist-sized cobbles to beachball boulders.  Our horses were not fazed and slipped through the fast current as easily as if they were on dry land.....at the deepest place in the crossing our feet got wet. No idea where the dogs were but we were pretty focused on staying on top of the horses.

Up the opposite bank and upstream we went, gaining some height here and there, but mostly staying close to the stream, until it came time for the next crossing.  This one went as smoothly as the first, and now we started our long ascent to the top of a knife-edged ridge with stream gorges on either side of us.  In places, the ridge was barely 10 feet wide and covered with only bracken fern...we tried not to doze off in the saddle.  

This ridge led east, directly into the Park and is apparently the best access point along this side of the mountains except for the developed entrance point many miles to the north. It rises several hundred feet to a narrow knob, descends a hundred feet to another one, climbs again.  Each summit is a new spectacular view, and when we reached the top of one of the last major bumps we were amazed by what we saw.  Ahead of us, and in the background were three layers of progressively taller green mountains.  This scene was dissected by a the knife edge ridge that dipped directly in front of us into a swale and then back up to a gate perched on another knob about a half mile away.  To each side of us were steep gorges with tall, slender waterfalls -- a truly fantastic view, obstructed only by our own knees...  We were thinking that a photo here would have been awesome, but the camera was packed away, it would have taken at least 15 minutes to pry JJ's fingers from around the reins, and, honestly, there was nowhere to dismount to.....and then Jorge made the kissy sound, so off we went for the last, and if we had not become numb (in more ways than one) most spectacular leg of the trip. 

During this last, amazing part of the journey JJ's horse was stopping frequently for breaks and to snatch bites of choice veggies....the other horses were not exactly chomping at the bit (as they say) to speed up the show.   By the last 200 yards or so, he seemed nearly spent, but after an hour or two of rest he would be heading back down....unbelievable.  Both horse and 200 lb gringo were glad that today he would be carrying only his saddle back to the barn. Two happy looking dogs came bouncing out of the brush to meet us at the cabin, and we painfully dismounted to survey our Christmas lodging... 
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