Standing Still

Our first gorgeous sunset in Ecuador
Just after crossing the border into Ecuador I turned to Trinity, "There are people everywhere! Look at all the houses!" Indeed, we learned from Lonely Planet that Ecuador is the most densely populated country in South America. Ingapirca, Incan ruins northeast of Cuenca, sits on a small outcrop of land, fenced off from the bustling agricultural community surrounding it. After camping near the visitors center and talking to a local archaeologist about the history (and the UFOs) we started up the dirt road to find the Incan trail at the end. Several times along the way we asked for directions from locals, who repeatedly said "straight" but then we would arrive at a T-intersection about 40 meters ahead. We found our way through the cows and farmland to one of the few uninhabited areas remaining in this part of the world.

Ruins of Ingapirca
Agriculture land around Ingapirca
Lugging our loads up the road just like the locals (a little lighter though!)
Trinity lunching, this cow wanted a piece!
Where the road ended, a faint trail began leading straight into the marshy grasslands beyond. We were unimpressed by this Incan Trail until we looked up to the horizon- the wide green byway was so clearly spread across these rolling hills that it would be impossible to lose. While you're in it, it is harder to make out the trajectory but from a distance it gives you perspective (is this an Incan metaphor for life? Hmmm...). We navigated through the "small lakes" jumping from grass tuft to grass tuft, past the free-roaming horses and cows and lowered to some walled ruins below a still-functioning aqueduct. We played house, setting up camp right inside the ruins- perfect to block some of the strong winds. At one point, Trinity and I even adopted Quechua names, pretended our backpacks were really just our wawas (babies) on our backs and wondered what women of centuries past talked about while they walked- Their ambitions? Food? Men? From what we know, the Quechua language (*the Ecuadorian and Colombian variety of the Quechua language is called Quichua) is much simpler than Spanish or English- does this mean they have simpler, less philosophical conversations? We pondered how life, society and nomads world-wide have changed over the years. After switch-backing up a small pass the second day on the trail, we briefly lost the super highway in the swampy valley but "thinkin' Incan" led us back to it. Over a gentle pass and wrapping around the rolling hills, the trail finally led us out of our daydreams and back to civilization.

Following the "highway" from Ingapirca
Clouds rolling in through the distant valley
Trinity hitting the ruins just before sunset
Shelley heading up the gentle pass on day two
Picturesque- looking through the valley to Achupallas.
Starting in northern Argentina, we have explored a meager portion of the cross-continental Incan "highways." Although Choquequirao and Salkantay had the "must-see" scenery and history, Ingapirca was alluringly different. Maybe it is because we are nearing the end of our year-long adventure and I am getting sentimental. Or possibly the wide open landscape that makes me feel so humble, searching for the familiar. Or the fact that we had arbitrarily selected a point "southeast" of Alausí on the GPS to approximately locate of our unmarked destination, Achupallas. Whatever the case, as we wandered along the clearly laid, but seldom used trail, I felt a sublime connection to the land and Incan pilgrims that followed these roads to unknown distant lands. I stepped deliberately, as if literally walking in the footsteps from hundreds of years ago.

The patchwork hilllsides we saw beginning in Bolivia have followed us to Ecuador
Before ever embarking on this trip, we had visions of hiking trails, dirt roads and train tracks. Finally, on one of our last treks, we were actually going to be on train tracks! We spent some time in the train station asking about towns along the way and train schedules until we realized the line between Alausí and Riobamba is being restored and not functioning. Relieved we were not going to have to dive out of the way on blind corners, we followed the tracks heading north from town. We hadn't even exited the city limits when the construction crews began and the tracks ended. Someone stole the tracks! After so much anticipation and playing out scenes from Stand By Me in my head, we were again hiking another dusty construction road.

Hiking through the fertile valleys, invisioning where the trains will go...
With all the dust flying around, we were thrilled to see the tanker spraying the roads with water!
It is ironic that in the most densely inhabited country, we have felt the most remote, the most removed, that we have felt since Antofagasta in northern Argentina. Of course, there have been some amazing legs between then and now, but the open road of the Ingapirca trek reminded us of the unknown that we began this trip with nearly a year ago. There is a certain self-discovery that accompanies travel on the untrodden trails. The lack of obligations, abundance of freedom, endless possibilities, unidentified obstacles and unimaginable memories that lay over the next horizon keep us wanting more. We expected to feel rushed and anxious nearing the final stretch of our trip, desperate to cover as much ground as possible. In reality, we feel the quite opposite. To make "every step count" we worked in an extended lunch to attempt to even out our farmer's tan lines and several good life chats over a leisurely morning coffee or a relaxing two hour long "juice break." These pauses allow us to reflect and savor every experience so that we fully appreciate this strange outdoor-enthusiasts-fairytale we have been living. Subconsciously, there is a desire to stand still for once. Maybe if we stop moving forward, northward, that if we don't reach our destination, then our journey will not really end. Maybe that is why we hiked a mere eleven kilometers for two days in a row...

Trinity in o
ne of our many introspective moments
  • The typical dress of rural Ecuador is similar to that of Bolivia and Peru- colorful skirts and blouses- but completed here with an adorable fedora-style hat (sometimes with feathers) and a cape! I am keeping my fingers crossed that this style will make its way up to the US soon.
  • In vegetarian heaven, I consistently pack too much produce for the trail. I was trying to pawn off my extra food to Trinity on every break- with one day left and I still had five bananas!
  • In addition to the abundance of fresh fruits and veggies, my pack has been weighed down recently with two thick paperbacks since I broke my (second) kindle a few weeks ago. Trinity on the other hand continues to float down the trail, taking all the ultralight weight backpacking tips to heart- she even cut her toothbrush in half a while back!
  • Following two young boys herding sheep as we descended to Achupallas- we enjoyed watching the younger one hurl himself up onto the rear of the bareback horse
  • When I pointed out the fact that we haven't done laundry since Huaraz, Trinity said, "Two weeks, that's not too bad"... our standards have definitely lowered
  • Dogs- after our encounter with the teeth-bared dog near Oyón, I have been scarred for life. Even a bark from across the valley makes me jump! I arm myself with rocks any time we pass one.
  • After a muddy trek through Cajas we had tried to wash our shoes, only to be back on another swampy trail here in Ingapirca

Every morning starts with a little music, so we decided to make an Incan Ruins dance video
Trying to capture the marshy wetlands
Shelley breathing it all in after cresting the pass to see a dozen gorgeous horses running wild
Old tracks, hanging to the cliffside
The only chance to actually walk on tracks- while they were piled on the side of the road
We might actually miss our early morning routines when we get back stateside
Trinity reenacting Austin Powers
How can you not love it- puppies and capes!?


  1. These are some incredible photos! Northern Argentina has to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

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  6. Awesome hiking pics from Argentina! Nothing like Peru though!

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