A silvery wisp of mist circles through the air in a curl around my nose, sneaking in a through the part in my lips- to fill the deepest corners of my chest. The kids exchanged sidelong glances as the mystic clouds rose far above our heads. They crept into the sky before falling heavily over the mountains like a mysterious, opaque cloak.
We strung our fingers together and whispered into the silence of a forgotten place. Even the dogs paused, just a few steps before us, looking back with hesitation. Our presence filled the air with the sticky hint of intrusion, as if an ancient spirit hovered nearby, warning us to head back.
We stood at the top of the trail pretending we could not feel the any sense of ominousness. The valleys and canyons dropped in vast blankets of green below us, and we felt in awe of the remote surrounding. To look so far into the distance, without a hint of civilization, nearly tricked us into believing we might be last souls on the planet.
Our soft, cautious footsteps echoed far beyond our boots, revealing the secret of our arrival to whatever entities reside on the mountain. The mysterious dark peaks of the Illinizas Volcanoes loomed overhead, slipping in and out of visibility behind taunting billows of fog.
We had been led to this place by another impossible mud road lacing itself dangerously close to the cliffs on the path. It wasn’t the first destination like this in Ecuador, and it surely wouldn’t be the last. These secret, hidden locations are the prize of locals in the small, unknown villages quietly resting between jungles and pastures and mountains. They patiently wait for someone, anyone, to ask the right questions, with the right attitude, and a good agenda. And then, with lights in their eyes they relish in elaborately dishing out impossible directions to precious pockets of nature. If you dare to go, like we often do, the rewards are places like this…where few go and the locations feel like carefully crafted scenes in the best fantasy novels.
Deep steps, primitively carved into the soil, caught the soles of our feet as we cascaded through mossy patches of carpet and half sunken natural embankments. We willfully descended onto trails clearly disappearing into a thicket of cool, dense forests. It could be a dismal agenda, to commit ourselves to a path that could very likely be en route to a dragon’s lair. But, the effects of a prize not sought seemed much worse than the unknown.
Fallen limbs covered in fluorescent lichen, and mysterious large, crumbled rocks dotted themselves along the trail. I wondered to myself how long it had been seen another had trodden here. I tried in earnest not to imagine the nocturnal beasts that might be hidden in slumber nearby.
We hiked along in silence, carefully sloughing through the narrow, damp path that drove us farther into to the jungle. Tiptoeing in our rubber boots, we inched along a foot bridge made of carefully placed logs. Below the wood, drifted the first trickles of dragon’s blood, or so it seemed. A mysterious, steaming liquid; as orange as the sun on the ocean at sunset.
We came into a clearing where the land had leveled out, and we stopped to listen as a steady, thunderous purr vibrating through the blank edges between the trees. It was the unmistakable music of a waterfall nearby, filling the air with the rhythms of nature. We were lured back into the brush, to follow the sounds that would lead us to a magical place.
We huddled together for support, each helping the others to cross the slippery rocks that replaced the previous dirt trail. The trickle at our feet gradually widened and with it, the path narrowed even further, as if only inviting the deer to come in. Warm water filtered past our toes and up to our ankles, clear as glass, but leaving behind a vibrant orange dust at the base of our boot sleeves.
The kids looped their elbows together and pressed their cheeks side by side, as whispers of wonder to each other escaped their rosy lips. They giggled with merriment as the dogs splashed past, freckling their noses with colorful droplets. Ahead of them, my husband suddenly paused, turning sideways and stretched his arms, as if opening the gates to the last sacred place on earth.
High above our heads, the mountains had carved for itself, a spectacular black pitcher covered in an ornate, ivy green damask pattern. Decades of lush moss and foliage delicately displayed against the cinder, volcanic rocks. From the spout, poured a steaming citrus-colored potion, like hot tea for a dragon. The strangest waterfall I had ever seen.
We stopped to poke our fingers into the warm water, letting the subtle scents of iron drift past our noses. Allowing the magnitude of raw, undisturbed beauty sink into the deepest levels of our senses. We couldn’t hover here for long, as this was just the first stop on our adventure, and we had a mountain to climb and descend before nightfall. But, a few moments were all it took to imprint this place on our memories forever.
The aura of the scene had calmed our inner spirits, and had removed our jitters for the unknown. We kept on through the jungle, even letting the dogs pave the way, disappearing around the loops that went up the volcano. It seemed as if they were anxious to be the first to see the next grand thing. We followed the trail as it snaked back and forth through the strange mountainside, subtly suggesting a likeness to a special reptile tail. We ascended the spiny ridge, carefully climbing through enchanted forests, rolling meadows, and paramo grass covered overlooks.
Just past the halfway point, the limbs of our children finally tired. They begged for bread and bananas and a soft spot to rest. We nestled them together on a fuzzy rock, just as the sky gave way and gave a clear view of the horizon and the valleys leading to them. Wild lands stretched for miles and in that moment we realized how far we had hiked. We must have reached this clearing somewhere near 10,000 feet.
My husband swelled with pride as he looked down at our kids. This trek was quite impressive, especially for the tikes who are nearly 3 and 4.5. If we had known before, we would have assumed that they were not capable of the feat. But, they are proven their abilities and they were as eager as we were to reach the reward we’d been promised at the end of the trail.
Just as quickly as the clouds had cooperated, they changed their minds again. Big, dark curses hung overhead, urging us to keep going. We quickened up our pace, and my Carlos hauled the kids up to his shoulder and his hip, lugging them the rest of the way up.
I peered at the peaks ahead and raised my eyebrows with suspicion, disbelief, and doubt. From our viewpoint, it looked like no-man’s land crouching below grey, puffs of the dragon. It didn’t seem like there was anything here, especially not what we had been dreaming of. But, I didn’t dare voice my doubts and kept my hesitation tucked beneath my throat.
Soon, we started to emerge into the misty rocks that had been mocking us from long below. And just as I was sorting my words of objection, we stumbled around to the final boulder that had been blocking our view. More enchanting that anything we could have imagined, lay the natural thermal pools we’d been eager for. This was indeed a dragon’s lair, if there ever could be such a thing. A perfect, remote hideaway to secretly lurk above the world.
One again, that same ironic orange stained the stones and trickled into the pools from a quieter part of the falls. We waded through the curtain rushing as our backs, to enter the lapping, effervescent pools. The air was cool and we quickly tossed our towels at the frothy edges before testing the water with our toes. And one by one, we sank ourselves up to our chins, into the dragon’s cup of steaming tea.
These natural spas of nature were the holy grail of any trekker’s quest. The views from up there were like the photos in luxury travel magazines. Only it was just us, soaking for free, and cashing in on one of nature’s greatest gifts. JUST us, our kids, our dogs and the wide, wild world beyond us.