During our recent trip to Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, we signed up for a rainforest hike / horseback ride with Palo Santo travel. We had been to Isla de la Plata with the same company the day before so we were pretty excited to experience some of the rainforest of Machalilla National Park. This turned out to be a case of expectations being far different than reality!
After an interesting 20 minute drive into the hills behind town, we arrived at a small park bungalow and met our guide Rosendo. His wife Bettina was charming and showed us around their gardens with obvious pride. They had a wide variety of plants including pineapple, yucca, coffee, lemons and a wonderful range of herbs, most of whose names we didn’t recognize.
Our next introduction was to our small but sturdy horses which we would get to know very well over the next few hours.
We set off with smiles on our faces, looking forward to a peaceful day with nature in the rainforest. We weren’t exactly sure where we were going and just knew that we were being picked up in about 5 hours. Rosendo’s English was on par with our Spanish but we managed to understand one another with our common vocabulary of about 100 words.
We were quite secure on the horses as they subscribed to the slow but steady approach. Actually when they occasionally broke into a trot it was pretty uncomfortable on the western saddles as it had been a couple of years since either of us had ridden.
After a few minutes along the dirt road we turned onto a small trail leading into the forest. The path was twisted, narrow and uphill from the beginning. We felt very comfortable and loved the lush vegetation, the earthy smell of the rainforest, the raucous singing of the cicadas and the bird calls that reached us from the canopy above. This soon changed.
One of the words we had in common with Rosendo was mirador (Spanish for a view point) so we knew we were headed to a ridge somewhere, with what we expected to be a great view. We soon became consumed with keeping the horses going when the terrain became very steep and concentrated on this more than our surroundings. After about an hour of riding we were overheated and a little sore. We had been climbing steadily and eventually Rosendo had to tie the three horses together and lead them, and we had to walk as the path became too steep and narrow to ride them further.
A little further along (up!!) we both agreed that all of the walking we have done over the past several months served us well as our muscles and legs were holding up, but even so we were both winded and extremely hot. It didn’t seem to bother Rosendo in the least and he kept smiling and laughing the whole time, which amazed us!
In fact he led all three horses the final several hundred meters (up!!) while we panted, sweated and asked ourselves what we were doing! Finally we reached the top of a ridge and were rewarded with what was in fact a spectacular view. The summit was at nearly 2,000 feet and was topped by a concrete and log observation tower that Rosendo and his co-workers had erected by hand.
The views from the top of the tower were certainly impressive. A 360° panorama stretching all the way from the coast to the interior mountains lay before us. We took in the beauty of the scene as well as plenty of water.
After a rest and having our fill of the fabulous landscape we climbed down the tower and prepared for the trip back down.
The path initially was quite steep so once again Rosendo had to lead the horses and we had to go on foot. As we descended it began to rain very hard and the horses slid and stumbled their way down. The soil which was mainly clay, very quickly turned into a small mudslide. They weren’t your typical horses and more like mules which enabled them to endure the conditions. We, on the other hand, were having a very hard time of negotiating the slope. As well as being worried the horses were going to break a leg we were concerned we would end up sliding downhill out of control. We were more than a little anxious and very wet, muddy and uncomfortable by this time.
As always however, Rosendo took it in stride and somehow managed to get himself and all three horses through the worst of the steep, muddy hillside and onto firmer ground. With his usual smile and words of encouragement he came back up to help us through the worst parts.
The rain gradually eased and we soon began riding through a dried up stream bed. The rest of the trail was very pleasant as we rode through the fresh smelling forest on relatively firm ground. We could finally take in a bit of our surroundings! Even being relieved to be back on the horses, our backsides were starting to complain a lot and it was with relief that we emerged onto the road after another half hour of riding. The day ended with a wonderful meal of soup, chicken, vegetables and yucca prepared by Bettina in their modest home. We were glad when our ride arrived on time so we could relax and clean up back at our room.
As we discussed before and after our trek, it wasn’t quite what we had in mind. It turned out to be 11 kms either uphill or down on some very muddy and narrow trails. Even though we are used to the rainforest, have ridden before and are in decent physical condition, it was still very uncomfortable. It certainly would have been a nightmare for anyone with mobility issues or who was used to wide-open and easy trails.
Was it all worth the effort? We would not have done it had we known what was involved, but it was certainly a day that we will remember for quite some time and the views from the summit were undeniably breathtaking. In many respects it was similar to much of our experience here in Ecuador. The natural beauty and the wonderful people tend to balance the poverty, neglect and lack of infrastructure that have characterized much of what we have seen in the coastal regions.
Up next – the stunning Amazon Basin!