04/06/2015 10:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Trek Through Ecuador's Cloud Forest: 7 Countries, 7 Months, 3 Kids

As an avid traveler most of my adult life and a Marine for nearly 7 years, I've been to some interesting places and experienced some unique things. However, I can say without a shadow of a doubt, that I've never done or seen anything like this before.

The expedition began at 5:00 a.m. on the steps of the Cotacachi Cathedral. The dim, orange glow from the street lights and a handful of workers waiting at the bus stop were my only company on a cool, overcast morning. My guide, Nelson, and his brother Arnold, arrived shortly before 5 in a small, two-door pickup, opened the door to confirm it was me, and shuffled me in without really coming to a complete stop. Off we went, three amigos crammed in the front seat of this pick-up ($60 a day to rent - pretty good deal considering four-wheel drive pickups are hard to come by here), bags in our laps, bumping through the dark streets headed north toward the Intag Valley. The Intag is a remote, partly mountainous area in Cotacachi Canton named for the Intag river that runs through the valley. It includes the Intag Cloud Forest Reserve, which would be my home for the next two days. At over 1,800 meters (5,900 ft) above sea level, this unique climate is home to subtropical rainforests and the rugged Andes Mountains. It also includes an area with the highest biodiversity on earth and is home to numerous endangered species, including the spectacled bear and jaguar. While I didn't see a bear or jaguar on this trip, Nelson was careful to point out a spot to me later that day where "the lion sleeps during the summer". Yikes.



Cotacachi Cathedral in the early morning glow

The two-hour drive was filled with broken conversations in English and Spanish about family, hometowns, and the cost of different foods in the U.S. and Ecuador. Light rain and grey clouds followed us most of the trip until we reached the very small town of Lita, on the northern end of the Intag Valley. To give you an idea of how far north we were...Colombia was a short hour and a half drive due north. Nelson made sure to ask me here if I needed any food or water because it was going to be a while before either were available. I said I was all set ( I filled a 3L Camelback with water that morning and had a backpack full of nuts and trailmix), so we turned off the main road and headed south on a muddy, switch back path for another 45 minutes. As the structures disappeared and the rain and clouds picked up, we finally reached what Nelson called, "the end of the road" and said it was time to get out. As I could still see more road ahead of us, his comment was a little concerning, but I obliged and got out anyway. I paid his brother for the truck, swapped my Merrells for a pair of rubber boots, grabbed my backpack, and began up a 45-degree muddy slope in pursuit of Nelson.


From the "end of the road"

My intro to the cloud forest

It was less than 10 minutes later that we reached a wooden structure on pier and beam at the top of a hill. Through context clues and my limited Spanish, I discovered that this was Nelson's friend's house and we were here to borrow a couple horses for the ride into the property.


Our amigo with the horses

While waiting for the horses to be saddled (more about this in a minute), Nelson brought me a 1-liter Coke bottle filled with a dark liquid...or so I thought it was liquid...and asked if I wanted a drink. Trying to be polite, I unscrewed the cap and took a glug...not liquid and the sweetest thing I'd ever tasted. As I looked up, my mouth still filled with liquid sugar, I realized the property around the house was lined with sugar cane and what I was drinking was sugar cane syrup cooked right here over a fire behind the house. It turns out this syrup is used throughout Ecuador as part of a medicinal healing drink, typically mixed with some hot water and lemon.


Boiling sugar cane syrup

Back to the saddle. It wasn't actually a saddle at all, it was a hard plastic shell shaped like a saddle with a few plastic sacks underneath and a cushion on top for padding. I have to admit, I've ridden about four horses in my life and this was about to be the fifth. So to say I was a little apprehensive about riding a horse through the jungle on top of a cushion "saddle" with no stirrups is fairly accurate. None the less, my spirit of adventure overtook my fear of falling off the horse into an unknown mystery jungle plant and on we went. The next two hours were filled with breathtaking views of the jungle through thick clouds and light rain. We traversed up and down steep banks, hacked our way through thick, lush vegetation, and even managed to feed some local cows off a make-shift salt lick.



Following Nelson on the first leg on the trip


Virgin rain forest at its finest


Deep into the jungle we go...


My guides make a path



Make-shift salt lick

At the end of the long ride, we finally reached what can only be described as a "horse exchange point", where we met up with Nelson's brother, Harold. We returned the first set of horses to Nelson's friend and prepared to set off again on Harold's horse. It was here where I finally dismounted the horse for the first time, giving my legs and backside a rest, and was able to grab some food. While chatting about the weather and my family's trip across South America, we snacked on crackers, tuna, and more sugar cane drink. We had reached the beginning of the 240-acre, protected rain forest property I had come to see. It is divided into several smaller-sized lots, which I was to spend the next five hours walking/riding through. I'd never experienced seclusion like this before until that afternoon. The nearest road was over two hours away by horseback, town nearly three hours, and hospital another two plus hours. I felt like there were several moments during the course of the afternoon where I could have been the first person to have stepped on this particular piece of earth in decades. The only sounds were the horse's labored breathing, the suction of the mud as it tried to hold on to our every step, and the slashing of machetes as Nelson and his nephew cleared the way.


and still deeper we go


My steed for the afternoon


No caption needed

It was nearly 5 p.m. before we reached the main structure on the property. The land owner built it with the hopes of turning it into an eco-tourism center, a place to educate young Americans about this unique environment and the vegetation and animals that inhabit it. As a missionary, he also wanted to establish it as a place of worship and medical outreach for the people that reside in and around the area. My interests in this property were very similar; a perfect place to build a secluded eco-tourism lodge and host educational jungle tours throughout the property. It's proximity to the river (less than 10m) also offers a unique opportunity for white water rafting or fishing. The structure rests on pier and beam and was built completely from wood found in the surrounding forest. The tar paper and tin for the roof were all brought in from Lita by horseback. Underground springs and quebradas (a draw between two ridge lines that funnels rain water into a location where it can easily be collected for drinking or irrigation) could easily supply water to the home. Electricity to the house was only 450 meters and $500 away. The whole place had a Robinson Crusoe feel to it, if that helps put it into perspective.


The house Robinson Crusoe would have built


Huge river less than 10 m from the house

As it was getting dark, it was time to make for Harold's house where we would spend the night. Don't worry, I was told, it's only a short 20-30 minute ride away. I knew it couldn't be that easy. What I didn't know is that Harold needed some more propane for his cook top and Nelson knew just where to find some. Where else do you get a 10-liter tank of propane...the rafters of the unfinished house of course. As I stared on, Nelson's 14-year old nephew, who had accompanied us throughout the day, climbed his way into the rafters of the house and emerged with the tank of propane. The only problem was that the tank weighed nearly 50 pounds and was extremely difficult to carry up and down the muddy terrain on your back. So, after 5 minutes and a few slips on the mud, Nelson decided the perfect place for this tank was on my lap atop the horse. I remind you again that this is the fifth time in my life that I've ridden a horse, there are no stirrups, my legs are shot from holding on to the horse all day, and there is no more rope to tie the tank onto the "saddle", even if I wanted to get off and walk. The next 25 minutes were quite the sight as I struggled to balance this propane tank on the edge of the plastic part of the saddle and hold on to the horse with whatever leg strength I had left. Needless to say and much to my dissatisfaction, I didn't make it the whole way with the tank in my lap. Nelson and I switched about 3/4 of the way there and he got to ride triumphantly onto his brother's property, propane tank in-lap.

The rest of the evening was a much needed rest. We were welcomed into Harold's home along with his two other teenage sons. I took a cold shower, put on a pair of graciously offered sandals and clean clothes, and sat down to a traditional Ecuadorian meal. Harold served us fresh jugo (sugar cane syrup diluted with some hot water and lemon), rice, lentils, fried ham, and marinated vegetables.


Dinner that evening

At this point in the evening, Nelson and his nephews discovered I was a former Marine and decided to put my skills to the test by watching a B-rated American movie called Marine 3. Throughout the movie, I was bombarded with questions about the accuracy of the movie and the reality of the ninja fighting skills possessed by the actors playing Marines. I was sure to only embellish the truth a bit. We were all in bed by 9:30 p.m. that night, just in time to listen to the rain fall against the tin roof all night long.

The morning came with more fog, a cool breeze, and a lingering rain from the night before, taken in perfectly from a swinging hammock. Harold once again showcased his culinary skills, cooking an Ecuadorian breakfast of rice, smashed plantains with a mortal and pestle, fried ham, a boiled egg from the chickens running around on the front porch, and coffee brewed from Nelson's brother's coffee farm a short distance from where we were.


Relaxing in the hammock before breakfast


Traditional Ecuadorian breakfast

After more talk of the Marine Corps and a full belly from breakfast, it was time to head home. So, I packed up my bag and we all headed down to the river one final time in the hopes we might spot a Toucan. After a short and unlucky search for the elusive bird, we returned to the house for a final picture. I then grabbed my bag, mounted the horse again (the soreness still with me from the day before) and set out for home.


Nelson and his nephews

Luckily, we took the most direct route back and were at the road again in two and a half hours. As it was raining fairly hard at this point, Nelson and I walked about a mile downhill in case a mud slide had occurred and blocked the road between us and our ride home. After a short snack of peanuts and a discussion about different sayings in English and Spanish, we linked up with Arnold and headed back to Cotacachi. I was home for dinner. I set out the day before with the hopes of simply seeing a property for investment purposes. What I left with was an experience I won't soon forget.


Until next time