Along this journey of life, I’ve come to believe that sometimes the Universe conspires in our favor making things happen for a reason.  It was a Tuesday in the middle of January when I was introduced to another English Professor at the University.  While chatting, I learned she lived in Pimampiro.  I had only been through that small mountain village once before, so I didn’t know much about it.  However, I did know that it is the access point to a mysterious lake high in the mountains… which only heightened my desire to see it!  I nonchalantly mentioned to her that someday I’d like to hike to this lake.  Three hours later, she sent me an email with an advertisement for a camping tour at the lake that very weekend.  
But I don’t have a tent?  Margarita gave me theirs.  But I don’t have the $45 tour fee?  My Peace Corps site mate loaned me the money.  I had no other excuses.  I guess I’m going camping!  I had everything else on the packing list except a pair of rubber boots…”What on Earth do I need these for?”, I wondered.
Soon it was Friday, and I was on my way to Pimampiro to meet a group of strangers ready for a weekend of adventure.  Ofcourse, it’s usually when I’m sitting on the bus heading off into the yonder when I start to wonder, “What have I gotten myself into?
The first night was all about gathering, signing official wavers in Spanish and English (very impressive for Ecuador!), and heading off to our campsite which was really the mowed lawn of a hostal high up in the mountains.  Perfect.  At breakfast over eggs and bread, the tour participants started to get friendly with one another.  To my relief, there was one other woman on the trip, Andrea.  She and her boyfriend Carillo had driven over 15 hours from Bogotá, Columbia for the weekend.  There was also a Dad, Romero, and his two young sons, Gabriel and Sebastian.  The rest of the group composed of local friends of the leaders/ owners of the tour company, Pimampiro Extremo.  Over the two days, I learned that four young friends who love the outdoors decided to start this tour company to generate more tourism opportunities in their remote community.  So far, they have developed hiking and mountain biking trips.  They all have side jobs.  For example, Gabriel is a professional photographer/ videographer in Ibarra (and you’ll see some of his photos in this post).  Henry works for his family’s agricultural business in Pimampiro, which delivers tomatoes and peaches to a big-chain grocery store every day.  Daniel, currently lives and works in the United States (and he texted me in perfect English the night before the trip to make sure I had all my questions answered).  
They were all so nice, so professional, and so eager to make sure my needs were met.   
By 6:00am, the sun was up, and we were at the trailhead.  Gabriel, Carillo, Andrea, Diego and I were excited to get started.  “Little” Gabriel was my best hiking partner throughout the trip.  From the first minute at the trailhead, he taught me that I needed to take out the insoles of my dry shoes and add them into my rubber boots for more support.  I’m learning that Ecuadorians, more often than not, hike the backcountry in rubber boots.  It didn’t take long to find out why.  
We are just coming to the end of a particularly wet rainy season and the trail really showed the impact.  I have spent many years of my life teaching others about low impact and Leave No Trace camping and hiking methods.  Unfortunately, Ecuadorians have never heard of this idea, and so we plowed through, and trampled around making wider and wider swaths of each mud hole.  I realize now, the mudholes in these pictures are harmless.  It’s the ones with standing water that are more dangerous.  By this time in the hike, I was taught the skill of walking with a stick, and using it to probe for the bottom of the puddle.  Once you found the “piso”, that’s where you could step.  Two inches to the right or left, and you might be dropping into the goo up to your mid-thigh.  It was cold, and shocking, especially on my knees, and my hips when I had to wretch myself up and out of it.  
I watched this hiker seal his pants to his boots with a role of packaging tape.  I think he was the only person in the group who arrived to the lake with dry feet! 
Plodding through the mud, I had a lot of time to think.  I mostly thought about the 
amazing system of trails we have in the United States.  You don’t need a guide 
to traverse them, you just need a map.  We have the ability to access our National Lands 
quickly and so, so easily, using well-built and well-maintained trails.  Ecuadorians that want to explore their mountains or coastline have never seen a built or maintained trail.  
They’re all just animal paths widened by years of footsteps.  Next time you’re out, 
take a moment to appreciate those nice trails for me.
Every once in awhile, the trail was a little drier and I could stop to gaze at the 
beautiful mountains and the rushing Pisque River.  We were deep in the wilderness 
of the Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve. 
With the urging of the others, I had left my pack at the trailhead, and pretty soon, I saw it coming up the trail on a horse with our two trail guides close behind.  This is the first time I’ve had an animal carry my pack, it was such a luxury.  But after about an hour, the horse was stopped and I was told that it doesn’t go any further.  That should have been a clue as to what lie ahead.  I shouldered my pack and carried on.
During the whole trip, everyone kept talking about the Pantano, and how hard it would be
to cross.  After several hours of slogging through the mud, we came into a large clearing.
Here it was…a high-elevation wetland or marsh.  And the “trail” went right through it.
It didn’t take long for the guides to offer to carry my pack, and the packs of others.
It was obvious that we were going to get wet in this section.  It was also getting late in the
day and we needed to hurry, so they figured we could move faster without the weight.
This was the trail, through the marsh, and I wasn’t shy about asking the guide to teach me where to place my feet.  “Step on the root wads of the rushes”, was about all he offered.

After a little while of hopping along, I did get our guide to talk some more.  His name is Juan.  He was born and raised in this valley, but then moved to Spain for ten years to work a variety of jobs.  He missed this corner of Ecuador and the lake called to his heart to return.  So now, he lives with his family on a farm at the trailhead, and he offers guiding services to the lake.  He has everyone who walks the trail sign a registry.  He reported that about 1,500 people visit the lake each year and he has personally hiked this trail over 100 times.

Later, Henry let me know that access to this lake is in large part because of Juan.  He has spent most of his life trying to improve the trail by hand and educate others on the lake and the environment.
He recently applied for some help from the Ministry of Environment to help clean up the lakeshore and improve the trail.  But building trail, gabion walls, and installing drainage ditches or culverts are not in the Ecuadorian vernacular.  I wish I could send Juan to a National Forest Service training to help him know how to better improve the trail, and protect this fragile high-elevation environment in the process.

While we hopped root wads and talked, a few of us found a lot of holes to sink in.  
Poor Gabriel, his boots were too big and the mud was constantly sucking them 
off of his feet.  We all did a lot of laughing – what else could you do?!
Once we left the Pantano, everyone in the know said “we’re really close”.  What they failed to mention was the steepest, muddiest section was yet to come as we climbed up, up, up 
through a thick, wet, forest.
This was not the longest hike I’ve been on, nor was it the steepest, highest or hardest.  But it was definitely the most mud I have ever seen in my life.  It was exhausting to climb up and out of it with every step.  At one point, I asked Juan if this trail is so muddy during the dry season of July or August.  He told me that “No, the trail is much drier then”.  So, “Why,” I asked, “are we hiking this now?”  He said he wondered the same, but “these young men wanted an adventure – and you signed up on a tour with a bunch of young men!” 
Finally, wet, cold and completely muddy, we arrived at the edge of the lake 
where a rattle-trap terabita helped us cross the outlet creek.
 And there it was: Laguna Puruhanta 
Our ceremonial “We’ve Arrived” photo…. really, they had all been waiting for me.
Laguna (Lake) Puruhanta embodies a special mystery for the locals of this area.  Many people never attempt the trip because they hear of the distance or difficulty.  But more than that, when I told people I was going, there was a little awe in their eyes- amazed that I would be so brave.  When I inquired further, I was told about the family who disappeared in the lake in 2012 and authorities never found signs of their bodies.  I also heard that the lake is so deep and so dark, that divers and scientific equipment have never reached the bottom.  One story even included a mysterious unidentified flying object.  Luckily, I didn’t see any of that.  
What I did see, was a beautiful lake with a lot of environmental impact.  Lots of food garbage, food packaging and pieces of clothes that hikers didn’t want to carry back to civilization.
Once again, I felt so grateful for all the workers and volunteers that clean up the mess of others in our
National Forests and Parks.

I also learned a lot about the state of camping in Ecuador.  My tour mates generally had good hiking packs, rain jackets, hiking shoes and tents.  But I saw a lot of wool blankets instead of sleeping bags or sleeping pads, and their pads (like mine) are cheap pieces of foam.  It’s hard to get really good hiking gear here.  There is one store I see in the big cities selling outdoor gear, but it’s like an Eddie Bauer in the Mall- really flashy and expensive, but not super rugged for this kind of adventure.  Some of my tour mates said they order equipment from other countries and have it shipped to a post office in Colombia, which has less restrictions on getting packages through customs.  And when I pulled out my Cliff Bars (especially brought from the US for this occasion), their eyes lit up.  Protein bars don’t exist here, and energy goo is prohibitively expensive for a tiny package.  Nuts and dried fruit are really pricy, too.  Furthermore, they don’t have any experience or training in how to pack.  For dinner, I was surprised when I was served chicken and french fries.  Who carried that up the trail?  Around the campfire that night, they passed around a GLASS bottle of hooch.  And the next morning, a soup of potatoes and pasta from a cast iron pot.  Carrying the weight of a cast-iron pot and potatoes, can you imagine?  My favorite was during lunch when someone pulled out a large plastic container of peach jam for everyone to share.  He had over half of it left to carry.  So sweet!  But so heavy!  I would really love to give these guys a lesson on powdered soups, oatmeal and dehydrating their own fruit!  

In the waning hours of daylight, Diego faced the wind and tried to fish.  All he came up with
were tiny little trout which he grilled on a little stick.
When the sun set, the stars came out for just a little while.  It was amazing.  
It’s one of the reasons why I hike up, away and beyond.  
The next morning, we were up and out early.  A rainstorm was threatening to cross the lake and we didn’t want to face the mud after even more rain.  So, we headed back down through the forest, and across the pantano.  Sometimes, we had to scale a cliff of roots.  Other times, a ledge was as high as my chest and one of the taller men would scramble up and pull me up, too.  Over and under huge fallen trees, and around active landslides.  By this time, the guides were carrying my pack again.
Down into the river valley….
 …and through the endless mud.

Have I mentioned the mud?
And finally, after about 11 miles in over 8 hours, we came to Juan’s house and a lovely trout dinner cooked especially for us.   I remember when I was in my 20’s, milkshakes and hamburgers were the treat at the end of the trail.  Here in Ecuador, they definitely do things differently!

Henry, Gabriel and Francisco enjoyed their trout. 
“Little” Gabriel and I had a great adventure together. 

Huge shout-out to the guys at Pimampiro Extremo for adopting me into their hiking group 
and Gabriel Mayorga and his photography company, Entero, for all the great photographs.  

And thanks to everybody else on the tour who made it such a wonderful experience.