We had a little more than 24 hours left before we came to the end of our South American adventure returning to work, school, life and (thankfully) the dense and over-abundant air of the Midwest. We’d had our fill of coca, ceviche, and chubs and were properly terrified as we saw our lives flash before our eyes with each encounter of death up on the mountaintops of the Andes. Still… we weren’t done yet. Determined to squeeze out every last drop of our time, and to fully fray our nerves and test the extent to which our hearts would go without implosion, we booked a day-tour of hiking and biking through the Condor sanctuary and stratavolcanic Antisana Reserve. If all went well we would be back in Quito with enough time to shower, and grab a bite to eat before heading to the airport to catch our midnight flight back to Chicago.
The day started early with a 7AM meet-up at a local bakery where we met the other riders, one of which was a fellow RAGBRAI-er (what are the odds?!). There were six riders all together plus our guide, a crotchety Dutchman whose time in South America far outweighed his time in the Netherlands. Leah and I were the only females, and the youngest ones by far. We wrapped up our breakfasts and were led to a dilapidated jeep who looked to have been as old and cantankerous as our guide. Adorned with mountain bikes on the roof, and gutted for more seating inside we hoisted ourselves into the jalopy and chugged our way onto the highway.
During the drive, the Dutchman was fabulous, offering tidbits about the local culture and geography, sharing stories and listening to our own. The entrance to the reserve is guarded by passport control, so after completing the required paperwork we set on the road that led us up, up, UP. It’s important to remember that our starting altitude in Quito was a little over 9,000′ – and while we had indeed acclimated (more or less) to the environment, that meant in no way, shape or form that we were ready to merrily skip around at 14,000′ – the altitude we were climbing straight towards. Thankful to be riding and not climbing all this way, we were smitten with the glacial-peaked volcano that had come into view.
We stopped for a quick photo-op and were reminded of the harsh environment that comes along with being 14,000 feet in the air. It was bitter cold, and a maddening paradox of wicked and persistent winds all while there was no air to breathe. No place I’d like to pick-up and move to anytime soon. We were well past the timberline making it easy to see for miles on end. Wild horses, dogs and strange looking birds dotted the landscape. They weren’t the best looking animals I had ever seen, but they had somehow managed to adapt to the environment and survive in such an extreme landscape.
We would not be climbing up Antisana herself (thank god!), as she is Ecuador’s fourth highest peak sitting at just shy of 19,000 feet and is touted as being one of the most challenging climbs in the country. No gracias! Instead, we did a short hike up one of the neighboring mountains which gave us some spectacular views of Antisana and the surrounding reserve.
I would be remiss to lead you to believe that this snippet of a hike was anything short of exhausting and uncomfortable. We were back up into thin air, facing gale-force winds and arctic temperatures. The only respite given was that it was indeed a short climb, and we summited within 45 minutes. Phew!
I’m pretty comfortable on a bicycle, having been an active rider for several years and done RAGBRAI (500 mile ride) the year before. I’d even done a similar volcano ride down Haleakala in Hawaii several years prior. Needless to say, I was very much looking forward to hitting the open roads on two wheels. We were each sized and equipped with some rugged mountain bikes and a helmet before the “don’t go too fast or you may veer off the road and most certainly fall to your death” speech.
I’d read the paperwork we signed, and was fully aware that we were taking a considerable risk by biking down actual mountains. Hell, usually at LEAST one person dies every year on RAGBRAI, and our hike in Peru was no less dangerous, so by this time I was pretty much unfazed by the “you may die doing this” waiver. My thinking was simply, I’m not dead yet so bring it on!
The ride started out easily enough with an ever so slight uphill climb as we passed Antisana. Having unobstructed views, we were able to see the road for several miles ahead, and though we were coming into an uphill climb to crest a neighboring mountain before we started with the downhill, it didn’t seem too bad. I’ve ridden up much steeper hills back home – however, I did not factor in the oxygen. Again, the altitude kicked my ass. I quickly fell to the very last in the pack, and struggled to stay upright as I moved at a glacial speed. Infuriated does not come close to how I felt at those moments. Biking was my jam, and yet again I’m on the verge of passing out because of the lack of air. There wasn’t any back-up oxygen tank, pack mules or magic oil for me to use, so I had to take my time and slowly inch my way up the incline.
Finally, FINALLY, I mad it up and over the mountain. I could see the other riders far below as they coasted down the switchbacks with glee. I caught my breath one last time, then kicked-off and rode down the mountain like a Peruvian bat out of hell. To say I flew down the mountain would be an understatement. I TORE down that mountain! It was only a matter of minutes before I had caught up with and went charging past my fellow riders gleefully calling out, “ON YOUR LEFT.” I kept up like this, soaring at (what I am guessing) was around 25-30 miles per hour, taking the switchbacks at around 10, and I was loving every single second of it. Before too long, we all pulled off and had a scrumptious homemade lunch – courtesy of the Dutchman’s wife.
After everyone had gotten their fill, we were back on the road. Once again, I fell into a state of utter abandon as I shifted all of my weight into propelling me forward at faster and faster speeds. We had come back down below the timberline, and were beginning to spot large birds flying overhead: Condors! A viewing outpost was nestled against the road, and we all pulled off to try and get a glimpse of the monstrous birds. Lucky for us, a birder was there with his big, fancy telescope and let us each take a peek as two of the Condors were mating on the mountain directly across from us.
After everyone had gotten a chance to view the copulating mega-birds, we were back on the bikes and headed into volcanic territory. The road changed from black pavement to red rocks and dirt, as we were no longer riding through mountains but lava fields. The loose gravel put a considerable damper on the free-flying speeds, but it forced us to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Shortly after the lava fields, we came up on the entrance of the reserve marking the end of our ride. With grins plastered across our faces we were loaded back into the jeep and taken back to Quito. We did it! We survived yet another ‘extreme adventure’ and were leaving South America having utterly exhausted our time, energy and nerves.
Though it was only a little over two weeks that we spent together, the experiences Leah and I shared will live on for the rest of our lives. We laughed together, learned together, lived and almost died together, and for that I am forever grateful. I learned more about Leah in the past two weeks than I have in the past 11 years, and it turns out she’s pretty great!
We live on an amazing planet, filled with wonderful people, and I’m honored to have met some of them and experienced their countries. When returning from a trip I’m often asked, “what was the best part?” Kissing the heavens on Salkantay? Eating haute cuisine from Cesar and Rene? Learning how to shrink my own head? No. Thinking about this made me go back to the third night of our Salkantay hike. Leah and I fell into a fit of hysteria over an unfortunately located bug bite (the bum) that happened during dinner. I made eye-contact with Leah as she shot-up from the table and mouthed to me that she had a situation. Though I’m sure the bite was quite uncomfortable, the untimeliness and location of the bite and the way in which she communicated it to me across the dinner table was enough to send us both over the edge with laughter. So hard and raucous was our fit that the rest of the table took notice and wondered what was happening. Not wanting to embarrass Leah and not able to talk through the laughing we couldn’t tell them.
“Obviously it’s a sister thing,” commented one of our fellow hikers.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. The best part of that moment, and of the entire trip, was that it was just that – a sister-thing.