If you have never hiked in the Andean Highlands, you have missed the experience of a lifetime. There are several locations more easily accessed than the hike at Cerro Puntas but none have the same dramatic impact. On one side of the mountain are grasslands endemic to the high paramo of the Andes and immediately on the other are steep mountainsides of ancient volcanic rock.
After driving the back farm roads for a couple of hours, my friends and I were more than ready to get out of the car. We parked in a flat spot where several faded car tracks met – a central hub of sorts. Though we could have driven further on any one of them, none seemed to lead up towards the rocky mountaintops that were our goal for the day. And we were very ready to proceed on by foot.
Because weather in the high Andes is unpredictable, at best, we came prepared for all kinds of weather. The day was sunny but not warm. It meant that sunscreen for my face was a must because my trusty hiking hat with wide brim was just not practical for the day. Between the wind, which forced the brim to bend and twist in ways that just weren’t comfortable to wear, and the cold which demanded a warm hat, sunscreen was the only option to protect my face from the harsh, equatorial sun. My pale skin can burn within minutes and I’ve learned not to take the chance. Neither should you.
Layered clothing provided warmth. We were hiking in August, one of the sunniest months in the high Andes of Ecuador. But the sun is out because the wind blows away the clouds. And the wind is anything but warm. I forgot to pack gloves, which was a big mistake. But hat, scarf, and fleece helped make up for it. A layer to break the wind that can double against possible rain is a good idea as well. I never got warm enough, even while hiking up hill, to completely remove any layers.
All of us brought plenty of water. Between the sun and the wind, it is very easy to become dehydrated at altitude. In fact, I recommend hydrating heavily the day before any planned hike in the mountains surrounding Quito. Being well hydrated is a preventative to altitude sickness – it won’t guarantee you won’t get sick but it can make the difference between a mild headache and one of near migraine proportions.
And we brought snacks for the hike. None of us really eat a meal when hiking this high. Our stomachs just don’t require that much food but high energy snacks, like dried fruit and Ecuadorian chocolate, provide the calories needed to hike steadily and to keep our stomachs on an even keel. Yes, another side of altitude sickness is nausea. Bring your favorite remedy, like candied ginger, and it also might help.
And of course, I brought my camera. This place is made for photos. Grasses blowing in the wind, clouds racing across blue sky, dark mountain peaks contrasting with golden terrain… I couldn’t get enough of it. We hiked a fairly even trail across this beautiful place before hiking up to the rocky terrain above.And then we were met with such striking beauty that it literally took my breath away. At the rocky edge, the mountain gave way so that we could look into the valley beyond. The land dropped away at an amazing rate and straight down was an olive green valley of velvet grass. Directly across were more of the Cerro Puntas. The line of jagged mountaintops that I can see from my house was not a line at all. The mountain top is shaped more like a horseshoe and we were on one side looking towards the other.
The wildness of the place was evident – not a sign of a single building, nor a road, not even a footpath could be found on the other side. The panorama reminded me of the sweeping vistas of New Zealand that make the Lord of the Rings movies come alive on the large screen. Yet here I was, looking directly at grandeur en vivo.
The view was marred by the gale of wind whipping up around and between the high mountain peaks. Every time we looked over the edge, the wind attempted to carry us away. It was an incredible sensation but one that kept the wary part of me away from any edges. A gust at the wrong moment in time could spell disaster.
I couldn’t just walk away immediately. I found a small protected spot of patchy grass with a view of the golden hills we had just hiked. Sitting there, I watched a small falcon glide in and out of the rocky peaks. I watched the wind speak a kind of sign language using the grass as its fingers and hands. The wind told me that there are special places on this planet that can never be replaced and that I was experiencing not only a moment in time but a memory of a lifetime.
I love the hidden corners. I love to write about them. But in some ways, I also want to keep them secret and to make them hard to find. I understand why some Ecuadorians are buying up land and turning it into private reserves; I understand why National Parks in Ecuador are not always places that are easy to explore; if all the beautiful places become easy to see, then a part of their beauty is lost.
So it is with mixed feelings that I tell you about this place. If you have the opportunity to discover it, enjoy every second of the opportunity. Because once it is better known, the experience will never be the same.