We Interrupt the Gorgeous Galapagos to Bring You… Terror in the Cajas

For those of you who are easily terrified, read no more. We have no photos of our own to accompany this entry. Perhaps it’s because the memories are all too horrifying. Perhaps it’s because we stupidly brought the broken camera with us. You decide, dear reader. The tale below is real, and fraught with nature. You have been warned.

Oh, and killer llamas too.

It started out innocently enough. Some of our friends were going backpacking in Parque Nacional El Cajas about an hour from Cuenca, and asked us if we’d like to come along. As with many human stories that end in tragedy, we thought “Sure – what could go wrong?” (See: every fraternity prank ever.)

El cajas: Eleven million square miles of identical lakes and mountains

El cajas: Eleven million square miles of identical lakes and mountains

We had sleeping bags but nothing else appropriate so off we went to Coral. What is Coral? It’s where Chinese knock-offs end up when they’re not good enough for Walmart. At Coral, we bought the best tent money could buy. No, wait. That was someone else. We bought a $35 generic brand tent that didn’t even come with a rain fly – a fact that would come back to bite us later.

Pictured:  A better tent than ours

Pictured: A better tent than ours

We loaded up a car with several miscreants including:

  • Craig – de facto expedition leader, despite his insistence to the contrary
  • Mark – Keeper of the topographic maps. In other words, guy-our-life-depended-on
  • Dustin – Super backpacker, apparent proprietor of REI-Ecuador, and wilderness bartender
  • Stephanie – the only hapless female among all these guy guys
  • Me – 1st time, totally unprepared backpacker and the undisputed hero of our story (Of everything, really.)

Off we headed only 90 minutes later than we originally planned. Now, normally this is not much of a problem, but in the Cajas, it gets dark around 6:30pm. Also not normally a problem, but in our enthusiasm, we planned our trip for rainy season when it also gets prohibitively foggy by around 4pm.

A typical April afternoon in Parque Nacional El Cajas

A typical April afternoon in Parque Nacional El Cajas

We checked in with the rangers for a briefing at about 11:30am. After telling us it would take us about six hours to reach our destination for the night, the ranger then said “You’ll probably get there around 3:30.” I would blame the lack of simple addition skills on the language barrier, but this ranger spoke English. “No worries,” I thought, “We’re men (and Stephanie)! This is what we do!” He also advised us to make camp by 4pm before the fog set in.

It started out great. We had energy, we cracked jokes, Dustin admired our adventurous spirits in joining this expedition with no preparation and no decent gear. He even broke out the booze about 15 minutes in. (I had no idea that local aguardiente was a necessary part of any backcountry hiking trip.) I had set my expectations that I would be cold, hungry and wet for 24 hours, and then be home where I had fuzzy clothes and a hot shower waiting. So far, I was doing well on all three counts.

The five of us have no idea what's in store

The five of us have no idea what’s in store

After about 30 minutes, our first disaster struck. Mark slipped on the trail. It was really really bad. He got mud all over his clean hiking pants. I started resenting Dustin for bringing booze instead of Clorox, but it was too late. We kept on.

Artist’s rendering

Artist’s rendering

After about two and a half hours, our blue trail intersected with the purple trail. We were headed the right way! Twenty seconds later, we lost the purple trail and never found it again. We held several meetings that all had the same result: “Just go that way, and we should pick up the trail over the next rise.” Unfortunately, over every rise was another rise. Every lake looked like every other lake. Even the ubiquitous piles of llama droppings all looked the same.

We reasoned that over the really really big mountain in front of us, we could pick up our trail again. Mother Nature took one look at us and said “Oh no you don’t!” First came the light rain, then the heavy rain, then the hail(!), then the low clouds. We realized we were running out of daylight and doubled back. We were also running out of body heat. One look at Stephanie’s blue lips and we realized we needed to stop and make camp. We also realized our tent was just not going to cut it. Fortunately, Dustin had a super-tent, and offered to let us share his two-person tent with him.

Setting up the tent was an adventure in itself. Stephanie needed to conserve her heat, Craig and Mark had their own tent to wrangle with, and I had lost all my fine motor skills due to the cold. At last we got it together, and stuffed ourselves inside to change into dry clothes and warm up. Did I mention this was a two-person tent?

Like this, only with more limbs

Like this, only with more limbs

Dustin opened his bottomless, Mary Poppins bag of camping supplies and produced a butane stove, a battery powered lantern, and some pots, bowls and utensils. Stephanie and I had brought Ramen and lots of water, so we set dinner a-simmering. Now Stephanie is not a big fan of Ramen, but almost freezing to death has a way of making people see things clearly. Ramen – 1, Low-sodium diet – 0.

The food of the gods

The food of the gods

We had plenty of snacks, and Dustin even brought another surprise – Caja raisins. One particular raisin was loose in the tent, and Dustin, in his cold-addled state, popped it in his mouth. .2 Seconds later, he was leaning out the door of the tent spitting profusely.

Pictured:  Not raisins

Pictured: Not raisins

After filling up on hot Ramen juice and other assorted snacks, we all got in sleeping bags and slowly warmed up while we cracked each other up for the next few hours. The only problem was the bathroom. Our boots and socks were soaking wet, so when we needed to go, we just went out barefoot in the cold rain and wet ground. Other than that, sharing a tiny tent with a relative stranger wasn’t so bad. It was a good thing his wife, Laci, wasn’t with us though – she’d have had to sleep outside.

Around 11pm, there was a noise outside, and we (read: me) were convinced it was a deadly, man-eating llama. When I bravely stepped outside, there was absolutely nothing in sight in any direction.

Staring death in the face

Staring death in the face

The next morning while we packed up camp, Craig treated us to what I can honestly say was the most god-awful revolting coffee ever summoned into existence by the dark powers of hell. We struck camp, and promptly disagreed on the way to get back to our original trail. Fortunately for all of us, I was outvoted and we found the trail markers right were we had left them the day before. As we hiked out of the Cajas, we marveled at the beautiful views, the fun time we had, and most importantly, the consistent purple trail markers that accompanied us back to civilization.

We made it out to the highway and, even better, a restaurant where we had lunch and waited for our pickup. An hour later we were home, and in no time I was warm, clean, wrapped in fuzzy PJs, and snuggled on a couch with Stephanie watching a movie. (Now that’s *my* kind of camping.)

Days later, we are still welcoming ourselves back from the dead. The only odd part was a text message from Mark’s wife to Stephanie saying “I think Mark has your pants.”  Even odder, it turns out he did.

Even with all our bad luck, it was still a pretty good experience. I am looking forward to doing it again, just not in rainy season. Or cold season. Or without a good tent. Or a guide. You know what? Maybe I’ll just stay home.

Our friend, Craig made a video of the sugar-coated version. Check it out here


3 thoughts on “We Interrupt the Gorgeous Galapagos to Bring You… Terror in the Cajas

  1. In my defense, I did not make the coffee! That was your bunkmate, Dustin. Also in my defense, I was NOT the expedition leader, I merely provided transport to the drop off and printed maps. Great blog post guys! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Zero Magazine » Expats Tale: Terror in the Cajas

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