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Trekking in Ecuador’s Andes

Meeting my horse

As the sun dawned on the beautiful mountains of Vilcabamba making them look Golden, there was an excitement among a certain family who had certain kids who today would ride a horse for the first time. Those kids happened to be my brother Lalika and I. After a quick breakfast and many excited shivers of delight, The Kaponay Family walked downstairs and met our Adventurous Mountain Horse Guide “Jaime” (pronounced Hai-me in spanish). After five minutes of discarding our shoes and putting on Rubber Riding Boots and a Cowboy Hat each, we set off to our horses’ home. They resided only a couple of blocks away, but every step I took made my body tremble with Excitement! I wasn’t the only one. I love horses so much and today I would finally be able to ride one!! Then as we turned the corner, there they were! Five horses getting tacked up for their big ride ahead! I could hardly contain myself! They were all so beautifully sleek and looked so patient and calm, completely the opposite from their new riders. As we went closer, one particular horse caught my attention. He was darker than the rest of the horses and had two light patches of brown on his back. I took an immediate liking and the feeling seemed mutual.

Jaime got on this horse and showed us the basic techniques with the reins and he rode a little showing us how to kick our heels to go and how to pull the reins gently to stop. After our brief tutorial, we were introduced to the horses and one by one given one. Mum got a light colored mare with a white stripe on his forehead; this horse went my the name “Coyote”. Dad got a more willful horse who liked to lead because dad had a little more experience; his horse’s name was “Mandango” (this is the name of the sacred mountain just outside of Vilcabamba, the town where we are). Lalika then got paired with a lighter coloured horse called “Avientura” meaning Adventure.

Then it was my turn. I got my beautiful dark coloured horse. My horse’s name was “Increide”, which in Spanish means a sort of Angel. The moment I came into contact with my horse, I felt a deep connection of peace and at that moment I felt so exuberant I couldn’t stop smiling. After all of us tested out the reins and gears, we set off, filled with anticipation for our whole day of riding. As we started off I must have looked a little nervous (for the get go had been quite sudden), but Jaime immediately told me that there was nothing to worry about as the horses had done this walk about a thousand times so they knew what to do and Jaime also added that Increide was the “El Padre de Experiencia” – The Father of Experience, so just to sit back and enjoy the ride. So in that one moment I forgot any fear and enjoyed the journey whole-heartedly.

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Riding for the first time

We set off on our Energetic horses taking the quiet back roads to the start of our Mountain Trail. This gave us a chance to get used to our horses and how we could control them with the natural aids which consists of the reins, stirrup, whip and bridle. The horses trotted that first part and only once kicked their legs up for a canter, which left the hairs on my skin standing straight up. But by the time we reached the start of the trail, I think all of us “Newbies” were ready for the mountain challenge that lay ahead of us. Jaime quickly told us that we were starting now to head uphill, so to assist the horse we had to lean forward in the saddle when going up and to lean back when going down. He also said to keep the reigns loose as the horses know what they are doing and need to have some control. So after this quick stop we were a little surprised to suddenly turn around the corner to a swiftly moving river.

I think we were even more surprised as we sat in our saddles and watched as the careful, surefooted horses walked across the river confidently. Sure enough, once we all reached the other side of the river safely, the trail immediately sloped upwards. I was so Amazed! These horses simply walked up on this trail, which was so slippery, muddy, rocky and dangerous and yet they stepped so confidently with no doubt at all. After this ride my appreciation and respect for horses just deepened, they were just such wondrous creatures. Slowly the dense, forest track cleared into a rocky, canyon ravine. We had to put our complete trust into the horses here and let the reins loose as this part was a little dangerous.

For the next hour and a bit, we were treated to awe-inspired views of the landscape. Pink canyons, murky red ravines, deeply set gorges surrounded us and the backdrop for all this majestic beauty were  the sublime mountain views that were breathtakingly beautiful. Many a painter could lose themselves in this world of total beauty. As we left the small town of Vilcabamba behind, we embraced an experience never to be forgotten. As we climbed higher and higher the canyon-y ravine slowly drifted away and instead, there were mountains of lush green valleys and trees, so many trees making up huge forests both of which we passed over for the next two hours. Now after more than three hours, we began to close in on our rest stop for lunch. This final part was a little tricky, but we still made it through. Our only two mishaps were when I bashed my head into a low leaning tree branch and Lalika’s horse “Avientura” slipped on the wet moss and began to neigh and buck frantically. This spooked Lalika a little, but he and his horse recovered and all of us got to the National Park Podacarpus rest-stop unharmed.

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Lunch

As the midday sun beat down upon our backs we made our way to a shady clearing that looked nice to have our picnic lunch at. We stopped our horses and TRIED to get off them. Our legs were so stiff after our morning of riding that I felt like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz! However our guide was clearly undisturbed; he rode EVERY day and no longer felt stiff at all. After Jaime secured a nice quiet place for the horses to eat their lunch of cool grass, he unpacked ours. Our lunch consisted of “Pan Integral” (whole wheat bread), “Queso de Casa” (homemade cheese), Guacamole and for a drink, a juice or more of an ice tea that was made up of 30 different medicinal herbs brewed into a delicious syrup! Talk about rejuvenating – that was one of the best drinks ever and that bread, cheese and guacamole – they were so delicious, everything homemade by our tour guide’s brother’s wife. We enjoyed talking with Jamie and eating our appetizing lunch. After our meal, we packed up the small remains and bid goodbye to the horses, only for the next couple of hours that is. We set off on our walk to the Magnificent Cascadas (waterfalls).

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The Hike

Putting on our hats and tightening our boots we headed off down the tiny track to the waterfall. I thought this was going to be easy considering how the beginning of the track looked like. It truly goes to show, you don’t judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a hike by its track at the beginning. After only a few minutes into the hike, the tables turned very quickly. Immediately the path swerved steeply downwards with slippery mud all over the track. After very carefully walking down, we came to a part of the trail that had been so overgrown with ferns and bushes and trees that we had to crawl. After bush bashing through that, we came to another steep track caked with mud. We edged our way over this part, slowly, v-e-r-y – s-l-o-w-l-y. Afterwards we reached a small fast-flowing river which led to the first waterfall. Then we trudged up this river, getting water in my socks and rubber boots, until we finally heard the distant sound of a waterfall. After another ten minutes of walking up, we got to the waterfall. It was simply beautiful, so fast and strongly flowing. We took some photos and videos before pushing on to the next waterfall. This time we had to go uphill a little bit, using ropes to help pull ourselves up on muddy slopes, before once again trekking up a small stream and getting to the second waterfall. This one was one that truly needs to be seen, I am not sure the photos or video even reflect its true natural beauty. Any description I would give, would not do it justice. It truly took my breath away.

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A micro caterpillar landed on me here and before putting him back on a leaf, I noticed the beautiful black stripes he had on his back. They were outstanding. After taking more photos, we began the hike up and around the mountains back to our horses. We hiked up a steep ridge as the vegetation and foliage changed completely. As we poked through the canopy of forest, we were greeted with a vista that only the words “Pacha Mama” (Mother Earth, in Quechua, the native language of many Central Andean tribes) could adequately describe. Before we even knew it, we were back at our rest stop. We had hiked a complete loop around the valley, crossing the ridge above the waterfall to return to where we started. We waited anxiously as Jaime rounded up our horses from the trail below where they were feeding. Finally I could see them as they poked their heads through the dense bushes, making their way up to us. We tied on our hats, got back in the saddle and started riding home.

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The Ride Home

We started off on our horses once again, this time heading downhill right from the start. We passed the beautiful, flowery meadows and the lush green forests of shade before arriving once again at the canyon ravine. Here there was no shade from the blazing, hot, late afternoon sun, as we came down the steep and rocky slopes. There were so many spiky plants that I had to keep my thermal long-sleeve top on and the water that was in my rubber boots from our river walk started to boil, while I baked. Yet the patient and calm horses took us down the perilous canyon without complaining at all. I hugged Incriede the whole way down, whispering praises into his ears that perked up when he heared my voice. Before I realised we were back at the shady grove of trees, just before the river crossing which signalled the entrance back into the outskirts of Vilcabamba.

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Ride like the Wind

As we once again crossed over the river with our sure-footed horses, we reached steady level ground at last. We began trotting and I felt a sense of excitement amongst the horses. They were nearly home. I knew what my “Increide” wanted. It seemed, at that moment we had a telepathic connection and Jaime agreed.
With a soft kick of our boots and to the protest of Lalika, we were all off “Riding like the Wind”. We were GALLOPING!!! What a feeling!!! What an experience to race down the dirt road leading into town, with your hair flying in the wind!!! To feel and know that you are one with your horse and one with yourself. As we slowed down I felt SO amazed, excited, joyous, enlightened and just SO SO happy!!! I never thought riding a horse could make you feel this way. We galloped a couple of times more, but had to stop as we neared the Town Centre as cars were more and more frequent. As we crossed the bridge into the town of Vilcabamba, we slowed to a trot and noticing that no cars were coming, we broke into a raging sprint to the finish line, where the horses raced each other at full pelt to reach their final destination for the day.

I felt sad as I got off my Increide to say goodbye to my loyal companion, my very best horse. I’ll always remember him and love him, but now I knew it was time to go. I put arms around Increide’s neck for a hug and he looked me in the eyes as if saying goodbye in his own way. Then it was time to go. We left our beautiful horses and walked back to our apartment with Jaime. The tour centre is right next door to us so we didn’t have far to walk. Lucky, because by this time we were walking bow-legged, except Jaime of course. We took off our boots and returned our hats. Then we thanked Jaime for everything – He had been the Best Mountain Adventure Tour Guide Ever!!! After that we went home to the Cafe that was under our apartments and had a Fresh Fruit Juice and a Bowl of Ice-Cream each.
As we drank and ate, I thought of what happened that day and the smile couldn’t be wiped off my face. As I looked at my family, I thought what a Perfect end to a Perfect Day.
I think everyone agreed.

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Here is a Video we put together of our time in Ecuador including our amazing day riding horses in Podocarpus National Park:

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