The plan was to take 2-3 days and hike the Lloa to Mindo trail, I had read about the hike but there was very little in the way of detail on what to expect. I’ve had plenty of experience doing 2-3 day hikes and so I made some assumptions. The biggest one being that this was just a hike.
For the most part it was just a hike, there were, however, a few “features” I bring to the attention of those who are thinking about adding this to their itinerary while exploring Ecuador.
The only outline as to what laid in store for us on this hike was the following book, “Ecuador: Climbing and Hiking Guide,” by Rob Rachowiecki and Mark Thurber. In the book was a very generic map that we accepted not to be to scale, although there was a scale in the lower left corner.
Also, the book was a bit lacking in a few, what I may consider, crucial details.
Overall we had a 30,000 foot snapshot of the hike.
Distance: 45 km
Altitude: Start about 3,000 meters and drop down to 1,300 meters
Time: 2-3 days
Rated a moderate hike that ideally should be done between June and December.
You start in the cloud forest and drop down into the rainforest along the Rio Cinto, which is a fast moving, rapid-filled river.
Day one: It was a fantastic day in Quito, we had breakfast with some new found friends who themselves were off on their own adventure into the Amazon region for a few days. Kate and I agreed to spend the $20 for a 40km taxi ride from our hostel to Lloa, a town which is surprisingly close to Quito yet very removed from the congestion of the big city. Lloa sits on the other side of Pichincha volcano just SW of Quito.
The taxi dropped us off in the center plaza around 10:45 a.m. and there was absolutely no one around, not even a dog to greet us.
We headed to the main road out of town and started toward Mindo.
After about 2 miles, a pick-up truck stopped and a friendly woman offered us a ride. Our Spanish, still in its infancy, and her English, equally limited, made for difficult comprehension. What we could make out was she wanted to give us a ride, but to where we did not know. We threw our rucksacks in the back and jumped in. After a bit of challenging conversation, she pulled off about 1 mile up the road and down another dirt road to what we understood was her dairy farm. She called her daughter in Miami and Kate had a conversation with her on the phone. What our driver, Maria Agusto, was trying to tell us was, it was a long and difficult hike to Mindo and if we had any trouble or needed help, here was her farm and we were welcome to stay if we needed help or shelter. Maria showed us which farm was hers and then dropped us off on the main road to continue our hike.
At this point it was very hot, but we had a wonderful dirt road, our spirits where high from such a kind gesture and the scenery was spectacular.
We eventually came across the “gravel mine” as indicated on the map provided in Rachowieki’s and Thurber’s book and continued onward to Palmira, while enjoying panoramic views along the way.
While we continued to descend down the trail, the vegetation around us become thicker and the clouds rolled in. In just an hour we were walking in a cloud with virtually no visibility – from this point on, Kate and I and everything we owned became and stayed wet.
Passing through Palmira was uneventful, we could hardly even see the “village” with the thick clouds so we decided to continue on. It was after Palmira when the road became steeper and started to drop more rapidly, and after 4 hours of hiking we finally reached Rio Azufrada.
For those preparing to do this hike, if you started early you could very easily continue on. However, we decided to camp here, above the river before the sprinkle turned into rain.
At this point, the map shows a dotted line indicating “Trail.” So that you are not confused, when you cross the river it is still a dirt road.
Day two: We woke up and started our hike around 7 a.m. You have the option to walk across a man made bridge, which is nothing more then two logs laid down over the river. We decided to simply walk through the water as it was only about a foot deep.
It was another great morning, sun was high, we could see our surroundings and we had a nice conversation.
The next note on the map stated “difficult crossing” at the Rio Crystal. In about an hour we reached the rio and the water was in fact intimidating but not alarming.
It should be noted we were carrying EVERYTHING we had as this was a one way trip for us. With food and water, Kate’s pack weighed 65 pounds and mine was 75. We where carrying 8 liters of water which in itself weighed 18 pounds. (9 pounds each).
At this crossing we found a log that was placed as a support to help you cross. At the time of crossing for us, the water was about 2 1/2 feet deep with a noticeable current. We made the crossing without incident. In fact, we wondered if that was the “difficult crossing” or if there was something that had a bit more meat to it as it seemed we came to it much sooner than we had anticipated – based off the map we were using that wasn’t to scale.
After the “difficult crossing,” we passed a few farms, saw a couple of men with machetes clearing land and in about another hour the road ceased being a road and became, what I would consider a proper trail. I mention this for a couple of reasons. If you plan on doing this hike, keep this in mind because the map states the “trail” begins back where we camped at Rio Azufrada. But, the map also indicates the “End of old road” is on the other side of the Rio Cinto, which is approximately 3 kilometers further down the trail.
Once you find yourself on the trail, you will see a sign to your left that says “A Mindo,” and you will enter your first section of light forest. The sign was comforting to see as it’s the first time you are assured you are going the right way. The fact is, the trail is self evident.
Another hour maybe and we stood face to face with another sign reading “Mindo” with an arrow pointing left. The map shows there is a “Refuge” here. I didn’t see a refuge, we did however see many structures that very well could have been the refuge, all behind barbed wire fences.
Soon we were at the banks of the Rio Cinto, a wide, rapidly moving river that would be extremely challenging to ford across, as Rachowieki and Thurber suggest is possible. I wouldn’t consider that an option without proper ropes and knowledge in fording rapid rivers. The map does show what I thought was to be a bridge. There is no bridge, so don’t look for one. There is however a cable crossing about 100 meters downstream. It’s a manually operated rope chair on a pulley system. Kate went across first, then we sent the backpacks over one by one, then I crossed last. If you don’t look at the severely frayed rope, which supports the whole system, you should be able to enjoy the ride across the river.
It was about 11 a.m. when we crossed the river and we were impressed with our time. Our hike from the first river crossing where we camped, to the first crossing of Rio Cinto on the rope swing, only took us about 4 hours. We figured we would be at the second Rio Cinto crossing by the end of the day. At least we would surely make it to Hacienda Pacay.
If you plan on doing this hike, just give up all hope of a speedy hike from this point to the next crossing.
The trail, for the next 6-8 miles, and therefor for the majority of the hike, is mud and cow shit. We are talking ankle to mid-calf deep sludge that wants to pull your boots off with every step. Note: the map says “Mixed forests and pastures” AFTER Hacienda Pacay. To clarify, these forests and pastures pretty much define the entire hike south of Rio Cinto. The trail alternates between pastures and forest, where you will go through maybe a dozen gates, and cows and horses will stare at you in bewilderment. When you enter a gate, you are entering a new pasture. The pastures are extremely challenging and you will need to navigate around long deep sections of standing water and shit that will cause you to sink up to your knees in foulness.
As for the forest sections, when you exit the gate you are entering the forest. The forest is dense, but the trail is obvious and very well marked with even more cow manure.
With that said, there are two specific details in the forest sections that should be mentioned. Had we known about them, we may have reconsidered the hike entirely.
The first challenging forest section starts when you come across a welcoming flat open field along the river. Take the time to enjoy yourself and maybe wash the manure off your boots/shoes/feet. Take a seat, have a sandwich and make a photo or two. As you cross the field you will go left, cross a creek and then hike up a steep and slippery climb at the top of which you will descend down a steep and slippery trail. Once on the other side, you are immediately presented with a 20 foot wide lake of waist deep mud, and there is no going around it. It will look innocent enough, until you fall in it as I did, and realize just how deep and thick and mucky and difficult the mud is. For this challenge, all you have to work with are a few slippery logs, about 3 inches in diameter. And just to make things more interesting, none of the logs are side by side. All the logs move and they will sink. Once you pass this section, you are back in a pasture of more mud and even more manure.
The second forest obstacle is also preceded by a wonderfully flat open field along the river. Then, you will find yourself hiking along through the dense forest and suddenly the trail gets narrower and narrower until the trail just stops at the foot of a giant rock. At this point you are standing on an uncomfortably narrow ledge above the raging rapids of the Rio Cinto. The rock above you is about 30’ high and a nearly 90 degree climb. What you will find here is a well used rope and a few foot holds. Don’t bother doing this hike if heights bother you or the idea of falling into a raging river and drowning is at all a concern. After all, you are putting all your faith in a rope that has been there for God only knows how long, tied to the trunk of a tree by a guy you only hope knows how to tie a bowline. You have no choice but to go up.
I went up first with my pack and it was a struggle, to say the least. When I got to the top, I cleared off a bunch of vegetation, took off my pack, and climbed down to the aforementioned tree, where I parked myself to talk Kate through the climb. Needless to say, Kate didn’t approach this obstacle with the same zeal. She scurried just over half way and then slipped on the final and steepest climb. The branch I was sitting on was low enough where I was able to, in a very James Bond fashion, reach down with one arm, grab her by her back pack and hold her up until she could get her footing. Once she took a few deep breaths and swore my name, I pulled her pack off and she was able to make it without further incident. We sat at the top of the rock for a while to collect ourselves, and then continued on to the next pasture of manure.
We were about 8 hours into our hike when the rain started. And when the rain started, we were somewhere in the middle of yet another shit-filled pasture. We soon came across a structure that could have been Hacienda Pacay, or it could have been someone’s farm. We yelled over the barbed wire fence in an attempt to get someone’s attention, but there was no answer. With the rain coming down harder, we found as flat as a place we could in the pasture, quickly erected the tent and crawled in. The rain came down so hard that night the tent started leaking. With pouring rain, rain-soaked everything, shit underneath and all around us, and depleted spirits, the situation was less then ideal. This was also when our camera took its last breath of life.
Day three: Early in the morning I walked back up to the structure, climbed through the barbed wire fence and found a spigot – where I filled our water bottles with what I could only hope was non-gut wrenching well water. In hindsight, we should have just camped on the flat, non-shit-filled area around this structure, but we didn’t know if it was private property or not. Either way, by 7 a.m. we were on our way, drudging through what would be our second to last pasture.
For for the next 3 hours I prayed for the bridge to appear as we dragged our way onto a dirt road. Although the bridge was nowhere in site, the road was very welcome as we were more than done with the mud and shit. In about another hour we came upon the second crossing, which was a solid bridge you could drive a truck across. We were now in the home stretch to Mindo. We stopped, ate a KIND bar and talked about how good it was going to be to take a shower and drink a beer – not in that order!
From here the map is pretty spot on except, one would assume you only have about 3 miles before you arrive in Mindo. In reality, you have 4 more hours of hiking. Plus, the “Steep uphill” is a solid 2 miles of climbing up a washed-out dirt road. Lucky for us we happen to come across a guy fixing a flat tire and asked him for a ride the rest of the way to Mindo. After a 30 minute white-knuckle ride to MIndo, we soon found a room, two cold beers and a hammock.
This was a great hike. In hindsight, I’m glad we did it. My advice: have fun, bring lots of water and purification tablets – I might even suggest knee-high rubber boots, and one more thing, watch out for snakes.