Our wheels cracked over the crumbling rocks as they smushed into the soft, rich soil beneath the Jeep. I pushed my nose out the window to breathe in the crisp, clean air. I pulled the soft, furry edges of my alpaca wool jacket closer to my ears. The door creaked open as I slid out into the strange, cold, and humid atmosphere.
I turned back to clutch two tiny hands in mine, as each of our kids tumbled from the car kicking pebbles at my shoes. Their eyes were wide and unblinking, staring hard into the distance. I watched them, as they took in our surroundings. Piles of jagged black rocks gave way to startling, desolate canyons and then climbed again to peaks on the other side. My husband stepped up next to us, taking our daughter by the hand. She looked up at him and said, “Dad, are we on Mars?” His eyes sparkled with laughter as he looked down at her and put his finger to her rosy nose. “No, my dear, we are still in Ecuador.”
We exchanged a look of bewilderment between each other. His mind read mine as we wondered how our almost 4 year old knew about Mars or what it might look like. We all turned our heads into the unforgiving wind to listen as our guide and friend started to explain what we were looking at. He was speaking in Spanish, and despite my husband’s best efforts to translate, I quickly found myself distracted. Our son had looped one arm around my ankle as he started poking at the dirt with the other. Not quite 2 and a half, he didn’t care about much except rocks and bugs. He didn’t know what Ecuador or meant, or Mars for that matter.
I knelt down beside him, curious to see what he had discovered. I was bewildered for a moment, as my eyes darted around the ground noticing large, low to the ground dandelions and daisies. Dandelions?! Daisies?! But, it’s cold and barren and the air is too thin, I thought to myself. Besides, nothing grows in volcanic rock at 12,000 feet! We were standing in the lava beds of the Antisana volcano region in the Andes Mountains, not far outside of Quito.
The lava mountains and river beds were strange and interesting, like something that should belong on another planet. But, once my eyes caught sight of the ground, I kept them there for the duration of our adventure. I was envious of our toddlers, who could naturally see all of the stunning flowers and fauna, grasses, lichens, and moss. White and yellow, pink and green, colors as vibrant as the luscious Spring season back in our previous home in Iowa. But, these flowers with similarities were much different indeed. Upon closer inspection, they housed thick, fuzzy stems and prickly leaves. They were designed by nature to thrive in this seemingly inhospitable destination.
We spent the remainder of the day, exploring this unique ecological reserve that is one of more than 50 similar parks in Ecuador. Many of the species that are found here are endemic to the area; not known to exist anywhere else in the world. Even the once endangered Andean Condor resides in these parts.
As we meandered down the mountains, we crossed through primitively fenced grasslands, noting alpacas and horses grazing happily beneath thick, bushy coats. At one point we stopped to climb out of the car and up a roadside step of Andean carpet. The plush, bouncy ground was covered in what looked like green, bow tie pasta. All four of us enjoyed hopping across the bumps, as if bouncing on nature’s mattress springs. But careful not to fall, for this high altitude grass was fluffy but pokey to the touch.
The remote, dirt road wound us through what seemed to be its own mountain range, over streams and rocks and mud until finally we rolled to a stop in the valley. The lane was flooded by shallow water in certain spots, and a natural bridge led us to a clearing between two, small lakes.
By the time we got out of the car, our littlest one had nodded off, lulled to sleep by the bumping, country road. I chose to stay close by in case he should stir. Daddy and our daughter trotted off down a trail to explore. I rummaged around to find my camera, wrapped it around my neck. Leaned against a cool, green rock at the water’s edge. The silence felt odd and in that moment, I thought this might have been the quietest place on earth. I watched the sky around me, as an eerie white mist crept in from the charcoal-ish mountains and quickly surrounded me.
I kept my eyes to the trail, pleading with nature to wait just a little while longer. Not more than a few moments passed, before a bobbing ponytail and pink boots came clonking down the path. She chattered at her father, not more than a shadow’s length behind her. I could hear the curiosity in her voice before the words reached me. She pleaded with me, to come on an investigation.
Together, we followed the sound of a trickle, the unmistakable evidence of a waterfall. I peered all around us, watching the clouds come closer as they were tempted to hug the tips of the lava mountains. We scanned the horizon and the clumpy, black walls, looking for the rushing water. But, we didn’t find a waterfall.
Instead, we knelt to the ground, laying our bellies against the soft, green moss watching the rain make spherical patterns all across the green and orange swirled lake. We wondered aloud how such clear water could have such remarkable colors. I clamored for the answers I didn’t have to the questions I also wanted to know. Finally, I decided that it must be due to minerals or moss. She was satisfied with that, and was up again as quickly as she came down.
She flitted out of site as she went around the bend, still looking for the clue to that rushing water sound. I raced off after her, in fear of the trouble she could surely get herself into. I spotted her just a few yards away, crouched next to a pile of rocks with her palms on her knees. She beamed up and me, so very proud of the waterfall she had found. I leaned over her head, her hair dancing in the wind around my face. I couldn’t help but smile as her little gloved finger pointed at a very noisy but very tiny, babbling brook.
Our discovery had been made, our investigation complete and we skipped off together to find the other half of our family. The boys sat together at the front of the Jeep, eagerly waiting for our arrival. It was time to get out of there, before the rains came harder and nature trapped us in her bowl. We sped out of the valley, much faster than we had come in, fueled by adrenaline and adventure and astonishment in its purest form.