I am two hours into a hike to Cascada la Reina, “The Waterfall of the Queen.”
The slimy, treacherous trail is often no more than two feet wide. On one side, the path is bounded by the wall of the mountain: clay, twisted roots, ferns, tiny orchids, mossy rocks, invisible little frogs that chirp exactly like home fire alarms with nearly-dead batteries, the baseball-sized hives of gall wasps, and the occasional waterfall. On the other, there’s a sheer drop into the dense, foggy canopy of the Mindo Cloud Forest.
Rainwater plasters my hair to my skull. My shirt is soaked. Mud slathers my jeans. My sneakers are football-sized mounds of muck. Perhaps it’s the altitude, but I’m as exhausted and winded as I’ve ever been.
We’re at the waterfall. Well, we’re *almost* there.
This waterfall is a precursor to Cascada Reina, the waterfall we’ve hiked so far to see. But between us and the dubious-looking stairs up to Cascada Reina is a rocky, rain-swollen stream — and the bridge over the stream is nothing more than a fallen tree the diameter of a telephone pole.
As guides go, Diego is not a Chatty Cathy. He’s a quiet guy, but when he does speak, what he has to say is worth hearing. He knows his stuff.
He’s pretty serious, too, and, at first, my dry humor puzzles him. Soon, though, he’s grinning a little white-toothed grin that lights up his whole face. Best of all, Diego is easy to be with, and when the car does fall silent, the silence isn’t uncomfortable. We can just be — and it’s nice.
He drives us out of Quito, heading northwest. As the city falls away, the land is arid. Mines loom in the hills. On the cusp of a giant roundabout, we pass Mitad del Mundo, a Disneyesque attraction centered around a monument marking the “Center of the World.”
Tourists flock to the site to have their photos made straddling the yellow line that marks the equator or to participate in the “experiments” conducted at the nearby Intinan Museum. Because this is the equator, eggs balance perfectly on end and water swirls in different directions depending on which side of the line the attendant stands when pouring it.
There’s just one problem: when the French founded this site in 1736, they got the location wrong. The equator doesn’t cross here at all — and the “experiments” employed by the Intinan Museum are really cousins to the tricks performed in dozens of gravity-defying tourist attractions (like the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, California).
But the site is very accessible, and the atmosphere is carnivalesque, and that monument they dropped here in the early 1980’s looks really, really convincing. Pointing out that the equator doesn’t really cross here just makes a guy a spoil-sport.
Diego, however, is a rock-solid driver: hands at ten and two, staring straight ahead, and negotiating the occasional traffic snarl with calm tenacity. In the end, I trust him so much I even allow myself to nod off a bit, which is unusual, since, as Clyde will attest, I’m usually too busy driving from the passenger seat to take a nap.
When we turn off the road toward Mindo, the asphalt gives way to rutted roads … and then to dirt … and then to orange mud. Things are going well in Mindo — so well, in fact, they’ve launched an urban renewal project that apparently involves pulling up and widening the streets. For now, though, recent rains have converted Main Street into wet, sucky orange sludge.
We pass even this, ending up on a twisty, rocky churt road, crossing the River Mindo via a short, steep, and improbable-looking steel and concrete bridge. Soon, we arrive at the tarabita: a small steel platform very slightly enclosed by rusty metal bars that’s been converted into a sort of open-air cable car.
Five minutes and five bucks later, we’re zipping along a single, 1500 yard-long cable, suspended 140 feet above the jungle below.
At the far end, as I’m catching my breath, Diego shows me a little map. “There are many waterfalls here,” he says. “Down this trail are six. The first one is just ten minutes or so away. But the trail is very steep, and maybe you don’t want to go that far down and climb back up.”
He flips the map over and points to a long, orange line that extends into an enormous patch of green. “Here is a trail to Cacada Reina. There are many birds, if you are quiet, and the trail is much flatter. Which would you like to do?”
Below the map are color photos of thin, athletic people splashing around in chilly natural pools at the base of enormous waterfalls. One of them, a man, rises up out of the pond, water streaming down over his chest and six-pack abs.
“Let’s do this one,” I say, pointing to Cacada Reina.
One little hiker indicates that your Uncle Al and Aunt Edna can strap on their Velcro-fastened walking shoes, bring their matching walkers, and join right in. Two little hikers indicate the route requires a little more exertion — spiral stairs, maybe, or hilly terrain. Three little hikers indicate the tour is strictly for hard-bodied, twenty-something German tourists who like to hang-glide while working out with resistance bands.
If the hike to Cascada Reina were a shore excursion, it would be rated with five little hikers: one out front, slipping off the trail and over a cliff; three on their hands and knees, vomiting; and one final little hiker twitching in the throes of a stick-man heart attack.
The first thirty minutes are quite nice. The trail, carpeted with fallen leaves, fern fronds, and exposed roots, slopes gently upward most of the time. Small silver waterfalls cross our path occasionally, and we spend a lot of time staring across the foggy valley at the distant mountains.
But then there are the steps: wooden, rotting, slick, with rickety handrails. And the lengths of mucky trail, slathered with sucking, squishing, ankle-deep mud. And the steep slopes, going up and down, where the rocks and roots are slick as glass.
And there’s the altitude. We’re five thousand feet lower than Quito (thank Heaven), but we’re four thousand feet higher than sea level. So we’re huffing and puffing and stopping far too often to put our hands on our hips and say, “Whew! Whew! (Puff puff puff.) Whew!”
We’re standing there, just like that, bent over and sucking wind, when four lean German tourists go bounding by like gazelles.
Diego, who is, perhaps, imagining trying to carry us both back to the tarabita, looks worried. “This is not obligatory,” he says.
“How much farther is it?” I ask.
He bobs his head. “Twenty, maybe thirty minutes.”
I sigh. “At least it’s not raining.”
And then, of course, the rain comes pouring down.
Thirty minutes later — about three-fourths of the way to the falls — there comes a point where I am ready to give up.
I am soaked to the skin. My glasses are so foggy and rain-spattered I can barely see through them. My jeans are heavy with mud and water. My shoes are squishy.
“What do you think?” I ask Clyde, who looks less like his nickname (“Monkey”) and more like a drowned rat.
He just shrugs.
If I turn back now, I still have a ninety-minute walk ahead of me. Thirty minute ago, Diego told us we were twenty minutes from the falls — forgetting to adjust, apparently, for the slower speed of his two fifty-year-old charges.
We trudge forward.
Well, not the Cascada Reina, but the smaller waterfall that is the doorway to Cascada Reina. Thanks to the rain, the path onward — the only way to reach the crude, moss-laden stairs that go up to Cascada Reina — is covered with fast-moving water.
The only way across? A fallen tree, the size and length of a telephone pole. It’s greased with rain water, and slick as glass.
Four German teenagers are there — the ones who passed us before. They’ve been up at Cascada Reina, performing synchronized water aerobics in the pool there, I suppose, before gallumphing back down the scary staircase to our level.
Even they, however, are sissies when it comes to crossing the fallen tree. One gets down in the water and battles his way across with a wooden staff. The others use the same staff to gingerly tip-toe their way back across the makeshift bridge, hand the staff to us, and then go bounding straight up the cliff wall like mountain goats.
Diego frowns. “The falls up there are very beautiful, but …” He looks at the rushing water and the rain-slicked log. He puts a foot on the wood; it instantly sloshes off to the side.
“It is not obligatory,” he finally says.
Clyde wants to try it. He even takes the staff in his hand, puts one foot on the tree, and stands there, balancing like a tight-rope walker.
“Please don’t do this,” I say. “Please, please don’t do this.”
He relents, and I remember to breathe.
I have Diego take our photo here. I hold the staff, as though I’m a bold, brave Mountain Man.
On the way down, to keep myself occupied, I sing hymns from my childhood:
“Farther along, we’ll know all about it.
Farther along, we’ll understand why.
Cheer up, my brother, and live in the sunshine.
We’ll understand it, all by and by.”
Oddly, the singing lifts my spirits and even regulates my huffy-puffy breathing. I switch to classics like “He Bore It All” and “Heaven’s Jubilee.”
I’m staring down at my feet, singing “Sing and Be Happy,” when we hear the mechanical whine of the tarabita cable car just ahead.
When we arrive at the station, there is a long line of people waiting for the ride back. But Deigo, bless him, has sprinted far ahead, gotten in the line, and now is at the loading area, holding the tarabita for us.
Considering I’m wet and muddy and worn out, I actually feel really happy. Once we’re back down where the car is parked, I poke Diego in the ribs. “The next time the gringos say, ‘Let’s walk to Cascada Reina,’ you look at them, see how fat they are, notice their lack of backpacks and their ridiculous shoes, and say, ‘How about we go to the butterfly farm?'”
Diego grins that little grin.
We were just unprepared, that’s all. We didn’t really do our homework. Diego actually tried to suggest going the other route — down to just the first of five waterfalls, and doubling back — and I chose the hike to Cascada Reina.
And, oddly, in memory, the misery of the hike recedes. I remember Diego showing us some tiny white flowers that smelled exactly like vanilla. I remember the red-headed bird that perched in an orchid-covered tree. I remember finding a stick covered with tiny, translucent, bright-red beads — butterfly eggs, I’d later learn.
Soon, we’re drinking lemonade and eating grilled chicken and beef in mushroom sauce. Sitting down feels good. Eating hot food feels even better.
I turn to Diego, who is really, really into his platter of chicken. “How about after lunch, we go see the other waterfalls?”
He grins that grin. “How about we go to the butterfly farm instead?”