Cascada de la Reina (no relationship to the Liverpool keeper) is the most impressive in a set of waterfalls lying just outside Mindo. Only it’s not and no one quite makes that clear to you which throws all planning and organisation into disarray. This caused all sorts of problems on the 18th of May. Let me explain.
We began our day at the god fearing hour of 6am, having been awoken by the unfettered Spanish ramblings of our hostess’ two children. I have no problem with the unleashing of children – just not around me. When I’m trying to sleep. At 6am. Later that day, one of said children ended up eating a coin, necessitating a trip into the capital Quito for emergency removal. That puts into context the level of intellect we were dealing with.
We rose a little while later to the welcome breakfast of sweetened bread, fried eggs, watermelon juice and black coffee. Across the table sat a Flemish language teacher, fluent in French, Spanish, English and Dutch. He didn’t say much. The irony was not lost on me and I continued working my way through my eggs.
After waiting for the best part of an hour, my girlfriend was finally ready. Even then, she wasn’t really ready, she just said she was. I was too numb to care and so I waited patiently in the hammock whilst Mindo awoke and a man tried to sell me bananas. I smiled and refused, swinging happily away (in the hammock – not bodily appendages).
I was coaxed out of the hammock some time later and we made our way to the Mindo mariposaria. That’s a butterfly farm to those un-cultured English speaking plebs amongst you. The museum lay some 2.5km outside of town, an exhausting walk as the equatorial sun beat down on our shoulders. On the way, we were bitten incessantly by the local Ecuadorean ecosystem which did not quite grasp the principle of enough is enough. By the time we arrived, our bites were bleeding carelessly onto our skin.
The museum itself was a treasure. We walked in unison amongst countless species of butterfly. Some small, some large, some dull, some brimming in excited polychromia. At seemingly regular intervals, we observed the transition from chrysalis into butterfly. The butterfly would cautiously step out into the world from its embryological tomb and dry it’s wings carefully. After salutating the fascinated crowd in attendance, it would beat its wings once, twice and flutter off into the enclosure in its own peculiar drunken manner.
By placing pieces of rotting banana on our fingers, we were able to coax unsuspecting butterflies from the surrounding fauna onto our grubby fingers. This excitement lasted momentarily, mostly for the duration of a photo opportunity, following which there were genuine incidents of panic when we realised – “this butterfly is fucking HUGE,” and “WHY WON’T IT GET OFF MY FINGER?” I’m not really an animal/insect person.
Following our adrenaline soaked visit to the butterfly care home, we made our way over to Cascada de la Reina, which lay 7km out of town, along red muddy rain soaked paths, winding up to the top of the jungle canopy, some 1-2km above ground level.
At the entrance to the waterfalls one is instructed to pay the obligatory $5 entrance fee and led into what is essentially nothing more than a rusted steel milk crate, hanging precariously by a single steel cable over a eye watering 1-2km drop, high above the canopy and clouds. The word is given and the crate shudders into life, tearing its way across the abyss, loosening bowels in the process.
Across the other side one is given a selection of waterfalls to choose from in terms of visitation. Lying to the left was a series of benign family friendly waterfalls, taking an hour or so to traverse there, another hour back. Opposite to this lay the dirt track to Reina, a muddy, winding, unstable affair coursing its route up and down in correspondence with the canopy. We were reliably informed that Reina lay 50 minutes away on this treacherous path. Of course – this was a lie. They are fibbing you. Having made our way at a fairly agreeable pace, it still took us in the region of 1 hour – 65 minutes. When one is tired, annoyed, disheartened and frankly slightly frightened by the threat of the falling cloud and devastating rain and darkness in the middle of a foot wide path above a gaping precipice, details become extremely important.
The experience itself was full of highs and lows, much like the path itself. At the best times, we felt like explorers, Indiana Jones as he battles through whatever peculiar circumstance to preserve some unexplained item of historical crap, in the vain interests of posterity. The views were remarkable and on occasion, when the canopy quietly opened itself to the path, miles of jungle and forest propagated endlessly into the horizon. The gentle chatter of the birds filled the air and absurdly large items of foliage swooped majestically and politely into vision, seemingly in a prayer position. It was beautiful.
Contrarily, the journey consisted of hazard followed by unending hazard. The health and safety officer must have been crying in the corner, inanely pulling what was left of his balding hair, out into greasy clumps onto the floor. The path was sodden and wet, broken into intervals by several cascades of water, mini-waterfalls which extended beautifully albeit dangerously across the path. Following the streams of water with our eyes, we could see the gorge open up below us, reminding us of just how perilously high we had clambered, as if the frequent slips on the rain sodden mud were not enough. The path itself was a petty affair, extending a generous foot across at most parts, limiting itself to nothing more than a cubit in others. Little stood in the way of yourself and a prompt demise, the result of careless foot placement.
This however only added to the fun, until that is, we came across several landslides which had crept ominously to the edge of the trail. The worst consisted of several wretched trees and mountains of soil, completely wiping the path from view and by extension – from existence. Following a bout of hysterics from the girlfriend, we made our negotiations with God and gravity and stretched our way across the fallen trunks to the other side. Very happy with ourselves, we continued along our way. Several hours later on the return leg, we noticed the wood had visibly split and separated and the entire movement of wet mud and wood had heaved itself down its unhappy path towards the bottom of the jungle. The landslide was still very much alive.
This said, having arrived at Reina, we were far from disappointed. Staggered across two levels in a mezzanined manner, a smaller waterfall sat proximally, which we scaled via a makeshift and dubious wooden set of stairs. Beyond this, the full might of Reina erupted into view and in the tiniest of crevices, lay an almighty waterfall. We stripped down to paddle in the freshwater pool and stuck our heads tentatively under the crashing water, just to see what it felt like. The jungle trek had been worth it.
Wary of the time and the crowds of clouds peering inquisitively at all sides we began our journey back to the cable car. This would have gone well but for two reasons. As we left the waterfall, we had been travelling for no longer than ten minutes when we were both apprehended by what we can only assume was a family of spiders or scorpions. We still have not quite figured out what it was that bit us, but irregardless it was a large creature; large enough to feel its presence on our skin, large enough to feel it slide its teeth into our skin, large enough for us to feel the presence of its poison. Having been the first to be bitten, I made a note of the drop into the ravine directly adjacent to the path and made my way to a relatively safe spot where I tore the creature from my skin. My girlfriend, bless her had other ideas. With the insect having landed on her, her whole world fell apart and her presence descended into a force of screams, shrieks and wails as she tore off her clothes and beat her body. At one point, so in animation, she lost placement of her footing and almost sent herself careering into the canopy. I don’t know if that would have been a good or bad thing. All I do know is that there’d be no evidence and I’d have gotten off Scott free. I digress.
Secondly, my shoes gave way completely on the return leg. Having threatened collapse on the initial journey, I took them off entirely and trekked the great majority of the journey barefoot – a dusty foot philosopher. There was something quite liberating about feeling the mud under my feet. On the way back however, the shoes entirely fell apart and dramatically so till they were nothing more than a shell of a shoe. A guise. A lie. Thoroughly disheartened and annoyed, I finally took of the shoes and threw them into the precipice to their deserved doom.
We hitched home several hours later on the back of a pick up truck and having showered in the coldest of waters, made our way out to dinner, where I ate a hearty meal of trout, rice and salad. The plan had been to make an attendance to a ‘jam night’ where we had wrongly assumed there would be guitars, drums etc and a thoroughly good time. What we encountered however was a series of hairy men and women sat around in multicoloured baggy clothing, chanting, playing a recorder and a tambourine in the most awkward of fashions. Making note of the hippy free for all, we kept our heads down and walked onwards.
The night was closed in an Ecuadorean bar, where we sipped on cocktails and smoked freely on a sheesha pipe, listening to reggae, reggaeton and cumbia. The altitude and lack of oxygen must have gotten to me and at one point, the room began to close in, in the most dramatic of fashions and I felt an odd throbbing in my eyes and my breath caught and quickened. I’d never had a panic attack and so having made note of my own symptoms I made the educated decision to leave the bar as quickly as possible. As I stepped out into the night sky and the rain beat down on my body, I immediately felt better.