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Expat Life

Boca del Pescado

Standing on the rocky jaw of the “Boca”, the author gestures toward Cuenca far below.

Three years ago, I first heard the term Boca del Pescado, which translates from Spanish to English as Mouth of the Fish. I was with two hikers who had been in the Cuenca area a couple of years longer than I. They related their story to me about the Boca.

Seems it was some far away rock formation, on a high mountain overlooking Cuenca that looked like a fish mouth. Neither of them had ever climbed up to it but they were eager to go. Their main purpose in attaining the formation seemed to be making it an addition to the list of other high places they had hiked. Problem was, neither of them could figure out how to get to the place. Access was the issue. Finding a place to start from was the real challenge.

I’ve summited past 14K feet a few times here in Ecuador, but, I’m not a peak or high place “bagger” who mainly wants to say I crossed 14,000 feet. I’m way more into the bio-diversity I find where bosque and páramo meet. I make more interesting photographs in those areas also, which tend to be in the 11,500- to12,300-foot range. Quantitatively, there are fewer visable species of flora and fauna after you cross about 13,500 feet.

You can see the formation of the Boca del Pescado high in the páramo from various places around the west end of town but getting there is not so easy. The Andes rarely give up many secrets without significant, on foot, trail time. So, the Boca continued to be an enigma as the months turned into years as they so readily do.

Another 2 1/2 years passed. Edie and I left El Centro and moved to San Joaquin, a small dairy and agricultural community. It is bordered by Cuenca to the East and the green foothills of the Andes to the West. After a couple of days, I happened to be studying the mountains west of my new digs on a sunny afternoon. I could clearly see the Boca high in the páramo. Its twin rock formations were jutting sharply upward, one created the top of the fish’s mouth and the other formation, the lower jaw. Recalling the reports of access issues, I thought little of it.

The two rocky jaws of the fish mouth frame the successful hiker as he celebrates reaching the top.

A few weeks later, I was talking with an Ecuadorian man who lives very near my home. The Boca was in view and I pointed it out to him. He related to me that he had ridden bikes there as a boy but by the look of it, I deemed that to be improbable. Hiking was clearly doable but access, as in where do you start, remained the issue. The man told me he thought he could recall his route and suggested he and I hike there together some time. I asked him how long it would take to attain the Boca from where we would need to leave my four wheel drive truck. He told me four hours. That too seemed improbable to me. I could see some neighboring farmsteads, lower on the mountains in a green area far below the Boca, that had me thinking I could do it in two hours or less if I could just start from the right spot. Months went by and nothing ever happened; we didn’t go hiking to the Boca or anyplace else for that matter.

Also, several months ago, another extranjero began to telephone me to go bike riding and hiking. He and I eventually met for coffee and he asked me to join him on a hike in an area he liked in the mountains west of my home. A couple of weeks ago, he came out to my place and we embarked for our hike in my truck, El Fantasma.

We drove for a ways, and then left the road for a poorer one and then accessed another one that was even worse. My new-found friend and I bounced along chatting as the road wound steeply upward. Back to the East, breaks in the terrain occasionally offered evidences of our altitude gain as Cuenca took on the look of a city from a child’s miniature Rail-Road-Train setup.

We stopped at a small farmstead as the road got even worse. We met a man and his wife who own 27 hectares along with a short string of dairy cows. At first we were rebuffed by the couple since we were on their private property. However, my friend knew them well and upon drawing closer, the older couple quickly recognized him. A light-hearted conversation ensued. My new hiking companion introduced me to the man and woman who greeted me warmly. We then loaded the man and some salt for his cows into El Fantasma and proceeded further upwards a short distance.

As we debarked my truck and removed the man’s salt, my new friend and the man began to visit about the last few times my friend had been there. I listened for a minute and then began to get my pack and some rain pants out of the truck. Looking up to the West, our suggested direction of travel, a funny sensation formed in my stomach as I was staring at what was likely the Boca from closer than I had ever been to it.

I walked back over and interrupted the conversation to ask the man if he had ever heard of the Boca del Pescado. He immediately pointed to the rock formations I was staring at and said, “Sí, eso es.” I asked my friend if he had ever heard of the place and he told me no, not by any name. Then he related to me that he had hiked there and deeper into those particular mountains a dozen times in the past year exclaiming as to the beauty and wild remoteness that lay beyond.

It was an overcast day and a little windy but modestly warm. I could see that the formations were no where near as high as most I’ve hiked to penetrating further west into the mountain range. I was wearing an under-layer and a micro-fleece 1/4 zip top for the ascent with a pair of rain pants. As an afterthought I shoved my Ark’teryx rain jacket into my pack, being rewarded by finding a partially unwrapped but barely sampled Pacari bar that didn’t have a lot of pack dirt encrusted on it. I figured I could wipe it off on my pants when I got to the destination and have a little chocolate while I took in what promised to be a spectacular view. I had my trekking poles in my pack but I never used them for my ascent.

Even though my friend and I stopped and visited while examining some flora on the way up, the hike wasn’t hard and I was standing on the top of the fishes rocky lower jaw in 45 minutes. Frankly, this hike was more or less easy-peasy. I slid under a couple of rusted barbed wire fences, scrambled over a couple of places where a campesino horse trail made some steep gains and after that more or less strolled on along to about 11,500 feet,  the altitude above sea level of the two rock formations that constitute the Boca del Pescado.

Because of the type of hike that I expected, I didn’t bother to bring any of my pro-body cameras with me. I would probably carry them with me while creating another adventure to this place and much further beyond. Dripping forests with a multitude of wild orchid species are likely the rule in this bio-diverse area. I’d certainly consider it worthwhile to take my professional, yet bulky equipment with me in hopes of bringing out some worthy photographs. So, in this case, I am not the photographer of record for the two accompanying pictures. My hiking companion used an iPhone 6 to make them and then I propped up the small JPEG files from his phone by adding a little clarity and exposure through post-processing in my MAC.

With rain threatening and thunder pealing in the west, we made a quick getaway through the páramo and back to a little tuft of green grass far below where El Fantasma patiently waited. When we regained the farmstead on our descent, the man’s wife asked my new friend and I to wait while she changed clothes. She was wearing a loosely stitched together woven-plastic fertilizer bag as a skirt, its makeshift hem riding the top edge of her knee-high rubber boots. She was covered in black dirt and had obviously been hard at work all day. She wanted me to give her a ride off the mountain and into San Joaquin.

Ten minutes later, she emerged from a straw and mud-brick dwelling where she had undergone an amazingly quick transformation. She sported a Flamingo pink wide brimmed hat decorated in flowers that her long black braids spilled out from underneath. A traditional white blouse and a forest-green velvet skirt with embroidered hem rounded out her garb. She had swapped those tall rubber boots for some simple pumps. I saw her hose reached only slightly above the knee as the wind gusted hard, catching the hem of the skirt and momentarily robbing a small bit of her modesty.

She seemed content, even happy, as we wound our way down the mountain headed to her place of choosing back in town. Her jaw worked slowly as I watched her and I could tell she was letting the Pacari chocolate melt in her mouth instead of chewing it. The remains of the box, wrapper and its contents rested gently in her lap between small mahogany hands. The Boca was pretty great and so was my new friend for taking me there but let me tell you something, Olga’s personality was more endearing than either. When she smiled, which was often, her charm threw a faint glow over the darkening city below as the late afternoon sun, obscured now by the Andean peaks, made its swan dive for the unseen western horizon.