A month later, puffing up the cobbled track past the curious stares of campesinos, we begin to question the desire to reach the top. The altitude glues our feet to the ground and we stop often to ease the pounding in our heads. Up close, the mountain has lost its symmetry and ominous clouds race across the barren rock above. It looks a long way away.
The sound of a struggling motor catches our attention and soon a battered blue Land Cruiser pulls around the corner. Seeing our backpacks, it stops and offers us a ride. We hop in, wondering who could have heard our prayers.
The driver, Alfredo, is a seasoned Ecuadorean guide and we exchange stories of summits as the jeep whines further up the dirt track. The road ends at a thatch hut and Alfredo confers with a bewildered Quechua woman as we ready to climb. Golden pearls ring her neck and fine strands of red beads cover her arms halfway to her elbow. With a laugh she agrees to watch the jeep while we climb. Her shy children peek out at us from the shadows.
Alfredo is accompanied by his girlfriend Patricia and without a word we decide to climb together. Alfredo is a veteran to Imbabura and sets the pace up through the open meadows. The paramo is a unique landscape of strange plants found only in the fog-draped high altitude. The mists sustain life not found in the more arid altiplano of Bolivia and Peru. The ground is carpeted with hearty waxy-leafed plants and spiky fists flecked with flowers.
"Dale chicas, dale!" Alfredo screams in encouragement to Nancy and Patricia. The fields below have become patchwork quilt in tones of green. Wisps of cloud spirit by like whirling dervishes. Only occasionally can we see the trail ahead and it seems we are in a race against the weather.
Alfredo's experience bolsters our confidence and we keep on, pulling up the icy rock, watching pebbles spat from our shoes whistle into the void.
We reach the summit and share a group hug then munch on sweet bread in hopes the clouds will allow a view into the beyond. No such luck. After a half-hour we begin the knee-wrecking descent. The change in vegetation amazes us and we wonder how we missed so much on the way up. Fields burst with pink and purple bunches of wildflower. The town of Ibarra fills the valley beyond, its buildings shimmering like a treasure chest of jewels.
Exhausted and proud, we celebrate our ascent and new friendship with cold Pilsners in La Esperanza. The owner and her son sit with us as we talk of the weather and the route. Pedro, the son, listens attentively to our story, then tells us of an annual race that makes a circuit through the mountains and back to La Esperanza. This past year he walked the 57-kilometer loop in just over five hours. He says this with an air of talking about a walk up the street.
Nancy and I return for dinner and talk with Maria, the owner, for hours about her garden and tranquil life in "paradise." She teaches us Quechua phrases until a drunken bus driver enters. He downs one beer after another, leaving his bus running outside. His one passenger wanders in and out of the room patiently waiting. Between flirtatious passes at our hostess he raises his glass and salutes, "Meester! Americano!"
"Ecuatoriano!" we shout back, returning his toast. Voices pass in the darkness outside and then the world is silent but for the rumbling of the bus. Candle light flickers across the adobe walls. It's another of those moments that justify our entire journey. Our reluctance to set out again after the robbery has found its juxtaposition. We sit back with our beers and watch the ghosts of fear fade into the darkness.
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