Condors in the clouds: A cold morning in the Cajas turns into a blessing

Nov 26, 2019 | 9 comments

Text and photos by Jeremiah Reardon

Brrr! When I stepped off the bus in the Cajas Mountains this past September, I freaked! I couldn’t believe how cold it felt. It was the coldest I’d been in the dozen times over three years I’d hiked in the Andes. I just wanna get back to Cuenca, I thought. Instead, steady rain got my attention and I sought shelter.

A couple of days earlier, I had emailed invitations to go hiking. No one showed up that morning to catch the bus at Terminal Terrestre on Avenida Espana. With an hour’s wait, I read my book while observing travelers rush to and fro.

I looked up to follow a family dressed in indigenous outfits, the women wearing
embroidered green velveteen skirts billowed out by petticoats, topped off with brown
fedoras. My curiosity got the attention of a woman seated next to me, “They are
Canari,” she explained.

“Yes, I visited Canar once, traveling on the bus in the morning from Quito. They have
beautiful farms on green hillsides,” I replied. She nodded in agreement.

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After an hour’s ride, about ten of us exited the interprovincial coach to explore
Parque Nacional El Cajas, an important reserve of Ecuador’s flora and fauna. Topping off
at 14,600 feet, the vast park is Cuenca’s source of water, perhaps the best in South
America.

I flung my backpack over my shoulder and trotted downhill to the park ranger station.
A small restaurant offered hot food and drinks. First, I detoured to Centro de
Interpretacion, the environmental center, to dig clothes out of my backpack for warmth.

I put on a second jacket, waterproof pants, hat and gloves. Is that a recording? came
to mind as a loud voice dominated the gallery which displayed maps, hiking charts and
color photographs of animals, birds, and plants native to the park.

Soon, a tour group entered led by an Ecuadorian guide. Satisfied with my additional
layer of clothing, I exited while greeting them, a group waiting out the bad weather.

In the bustling café, I placed my coffee order and sat at a wrap-around window with
a stunning view of the Cajas. My warm breath condensed on the glass. Dense clouds
moved through the valley, obscuring mountain peaks. A handful of hikers in colorful
raingear negotiated the shoreline trail of Laguna Toreadora, the park’s most popular
attraction.

Though at ease in the café, gusts of wind vibrated my stool. The building shook as
If a New York City express subway had just passed below its post and beam frame. This
is a whole new ball game, I thought in alarm. No wonder it’s so damn cold out there!

Refreshed with coffee and food from my pack, I paid the sleepy employee who lifted
her head from the counter when I approached. “Muchas gracias, senora.” Aromas of
dishes on the stove in the kitchen behind her filtered through the chilled air.

When I exited the restroom, I noticed a deserted room fitted with wooden benches
and two flat screen TVs on which a video played. “El Cielo y La Tierra” featured the
beauty and drama of the Cajas with serene background music.

I sat and watched close-ups of llamas grazing on steep grasslands. Andean gulls
effortlessly flew over alpine meadows covered with trees and flowers. Such artistry in
filmmaking impressed me.

I want to see some of that. I’ve gone to the trouble of making the trip, I’ll just push on,
I resolved, after seeing the ten-minute production by Carrasco Cine which had caused
me to meditate calmly on my options. Yes, there’s the danger of a storm or a fall
hurting me, but I’ll be careful and trust in God. It’s only for a few hours!

My choice of a hike would repeat an earlier one I had walked with friends. I’d take
the trail in the valley to the east, which brought into view the elevated road back to
Cuenca. I exited the theater with renewed vigor to register my route at the park station.

The cabin-like room had wood plank walls and a window overlooking the lake. A
small fire in the fireplace gave off heat. An electric heater kept the ranger’s legs warm.
“I plan to hike Trail One,” I replied to his question about my visit. “I’ll take it down to
the highway near the restaurant “Casa Vieja.” He entered my data into a computer.

Ruta Uno began once I had descended wooden stairs and passed a lookout to Laguna
Toreadora, the massive body of clear water lined by sand and filled with trout. Exposed
to the wind, I pulled my jacket’s hood over my wool cap. I stepped carefully in the
diminishing rain onto squishy black earth.

Ghosts of Canari warriors floated by in gray clouds. Their descendants occupied
mountain villages to the north, accessed both by horse and on foot. Plan to spend the
night if you venture to their remote settlement.

I greeted hikers along the trail. Some had hiked from an access for Ruta Uno which
connects to a highway parking lot with its own lookout of the valley where we hiked.
Their demeanor assured me that the weather had improved. A couple of distant tents
popped out from the mist.

The rain eased and the wind quieted. Clouds ascended to reveal the alien landscape.
I glimpsed sunlight on mountains tops.

I detoured off the trail to spend time in a polylepis forest of gnarly paperbark trees.
No longer did I need gloves. To return to the trial, I slowly descended through drooping
tree branches to pick my way along a rocky creek. Its meandering stream joined Rio
Quinoas whose storm waters would swamp Rio Tomebamba’s banks in Cuenca.

Back on the trail, I looked skyward for potential pictures to memorialize the day.
Magically, an Andean condor dipped from the clouds into view. The sight astounded
me, for long had I aspired to see one. It’s black-feathered wings of six feet supported it
as it spent a minute watching me for assurance that I was all right. Probably, a juvenile,
I surmised. Adults’ wingspans measure over ten feet.

Frustrated with indecision to simply gaze at the dark vulture or to take pictures, I did
click off a few but failed to capture the moment. I gazed in awe as it arose behind the
clouds. “It’s rarely seen in our area of the park,” said Stan Young, my birdwatching friend
with whom I had shared my delight.

Jose Caceres, ETAPA biologist administrator, was quoted in a July 2019 newspaper
article, “Years ago, the rangers of this site observed between 30 and 40 condors
altogether.”

He believes that the species has lost population, numbering 20 today, due
to human predatory actions. Animals are poisoned to protect livestock. When the
condor makes a meal of one, it’s also poisoned. Also, a few have been shot.
The day had warmed to the point that I bypassed a couple seated along the trail. I
smiled at the irony of them sitting upon parkas and enjoying an al fresco lunch. How
much the day had improved, along with my luck to fulfill a hiker’s prayer.

Nearing the highway, I stumbled on loose stones. Looking skyward from where I had
fallen, the condor briefly reappeared, outstretched wings rising in thermals above
granite cliff faces.

My friend Carol who learned of my sighting repeated to me that her indigenous friend
believed that I had been blessed. And to think that I had almost turned back due to the
wind, rain and cold. O Blessed me!
_________________

Jeremiah Reardon and his wife Belinda retired in 2013 and moved to Cuenca from Monterey, California. His interests include carpentry, furniture-making, acting and photography. Together, he and Belinda enjoy the Cuenca symphony, “ferias,” the “Spoken Word,” and art gallery openings. Click here to read his blog.

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