About thirty years ago four friends decided to go to the mountains near Vilcabamba to the glacial lakes in Podocarpus National Park. They didn’t make it there. Feeling coming old age and lack of strength, they decided to go there once again to fulfil the drams from the youth. They took their families and six guides-carriers and went to the mountains. Besides the guides, only five persons made it to the lakes. The others stayed lower on the trail for the night and went down the nest day.
‘So, how many kilometres are from the river to the lakes?’ I asked.
‘Six kilometres? How could one not be able to walk six kilometres? And since when does it take an hour to walk a kilometre?’
‘You’ll see. I know you’re going to make it there, but you’ll see that it’s not that easy. Go now, because the trail is open’.
I took a taxi to the last occupied house. From there, I had over to hours of walk to the river. First by the road, then by more and more narrow path. With each step I walked further from the civilisation and went deeper into the wild.
I crossed the river before eleven o’clock. On my way there I’d found a stick. A decent stick. Later I realised that the little fork on its and was a blessing – where a straight stick would just plunge in moss and plants, the fork stayed on the surface and let me use it effectively.
I climbed on thickly overgrown slope up to the ridge. In front of me a sign with the name of the park and coordinates. A metal sign. Someone took it up there in 2009. Amazing.
I looked down the river. Somewhere there lay San Pedro. On the sides of the valley there were some houses. They seemed to be close, but getting to the nearest one would take me few hours.
A short break and more walking. Then another break – to take the camera out of the backpack and photograph the waterfall. I refilled a handy bottle of water and continued walking. At two o’clock I checked my position on Google Maps. About two kilometres away from the lakes in a straight line. I knew it meant about two hours of walk. Further into the mountains, further from the civilisation. I understood people who didn’t make it, I understood why it takes so much time.
I understood it even better, when two hours later I still had about a kilometre. When I almost crawled on steep, nearly vertical muddy path. When I had to step on a shelf on the level of my waist while bowing to go under the tree branch hanging on the level of my eyes. The jungle. Mountain one, but still, the jungle. Not a long time before coming to Ecuador I heard, that walking in the jungle is like walking in the shrubbery. I’ve never heard about shrubberies growing on such steep hills.
Every step was a struggle. A fight against mud and branches, pushing me away. And bugs. Big yellow flies. None of them bit me but endless buzzing all around my head wa driving me crazy. I couldn’t stop. No option. Because of ny pride, stubbornness and the fact I had only half a liter of water left while the lakes where I could refill it.
It wasn’t a challenge for the body. Well, it was, I hadn’t been so exhausted marching fifty kilometres a day. What was even more difficult, was mastering my mind. Horrible morale. A fight against a profound desire to lie down and sleep. And a fight against the time as the Sun sets down at six everyday.
Four past six. At that time I tried to send a message to my friends with whom I stayed to let let them know that I reached the lakes. Four hours after the moment I should have walked only two more hours. I reached the lakes just before the sunset. Because of the high altitude (I reached 3300 meters from 2360 meters on the begging of the ridge) the day was slightly longer. Long enough to find a place to sleep. I knew there was a cave somewhere, but I didn’t know where exactly and in my exhaustion I didn’t feel like walking all around the swampy land in the dark.
I found two bonfires. Probably traces of the camp of the group that was there few days before. On the saddle between two lakes. I found a big relatively flat mossy rock. I chose it for my bad as all the grass around was soaked like a sponge and let the water out of it with each step. I left my backpack, took bottles and a flesh light and walked down to a small lake. Water was clean, drinkable. I filled my bottle and went back up, collecting dry sticks from the bushes. I had water and some wood. Only a tent left. I didn’t have one. I hung my raincoat over the bushes and my walking stick. In the case of the rain I would probably have to curl up but, at least, I had something over my head.
The fire wasn’t easy to light. Swampy terrain, sticks not fully dried, little oxygen in the air. But I succeeded. Few years of scouting experience paid off. I sat on the rock and put my feet on the both sides of the fire so it could dry my boots. I ate a chocolate and a banana. From the East a storm cloud was coming. It was white, it shone gold for a short moment when the Sun was setting down and stayed white for the rest of the night. It was also visible from San Pedro de Vilcabamba. It looked unusual, all in golden and orange hues, floating through the sky as a ship on the sea.
Through the hole of my sleeping back I saw the sky with its stars. A memorable view. From constellations on the evening southern sky I can recognise only the Orion’s Belt. The Crux raises later before dusk.
I wouldn’t sleep the whole night through if not for a space blanket I used in addition to my sleeping bag, polar jumper, polar fleece blanket and a poncho. It happens to be cold in the mountain. Not as cold as in Polish mountains, but still the temperature drops to few degrees centigrade.
In the morning – a breakfast. A mango, two bananas, an oat cookie with chocolate. I left my camp to dry and climbed with the camera on the opposite side of the valley. The tectonic plates boundary and the drainage divide. To the East lay only the Amazonia and the Atlantic drainage.
The view on the Lagunas de la Banderilla, as the lakes are called, was amazing. Banderilla is the spear the matador sticks in the bull’s back. The name of the lakes comes from the shape of the ridge one walks to get there.
I gave up the idea of walking down to the big lake. Later I learned that it was, in fact, a good decision as it can take even an hour – and I still had to go back. I tried to swim in the small one. I walked near the strange holes on its shores. The holes with clean, transparent water, inside of which I saw the tunnels turning after few meters.
I took of my clothes and stayed naked. There was no one to see me within few kilometres. I put my foot in the muddy bottom and stood on it. It went a knee-deep into the mud. I pulled my leg out of the slush and gave up the idea of swimming.
I filled the bottles with water, broke camp and went down the ridge. Te way was easier. The branches I had had to struggle with when climbing, were slightly slowing down the movement facilitated by the gravity. I wasn’t losing so much energy, so on the more open spaces I was able to walk faster. The path still wasn’t easy, though. Maybe it had been opened by about fifteen people few days earlier, but open doesn’t mean clear as I had thought in my naivety before going to the mountains. The previous time someone walked that path could had been months before.
I reached the river after less than four hours. Half the time I had spent the day before going from the river to the lakes. I undressed and washed. The water was cold but clean. It was coming from the big lake. I knelt, bowed over the water and drunk. Wonderfully refreshing. Then walking again for two hours to the place I called a taxi.