This will be my last entry about the places that our family visited on our trip. I still have more stories to share about how we planned our accommodation, comparison costs per country, and what we are doing now, but the story of where we went and what we did and saw, is at its end. There are no more photos to inspire jealousy, and make you curse from your desk. If it is any consolation, we are back to the routine of sedentary life and I feel your pain. Instagram shots pop up on my Facebook feed, reminding me of where we were a year ago, and I can hardly reconcile those nomadic times with the Portland rain and school drop-offs. But, I get ahead of myself… Pushing melancholy aside, I want to sign-off on our saga, by telling you about the perfect way in which we ended our travels.
Thanks to word of mouth, we were let in on a secret. While hiking the Quilotoa loop with a European couple and another American family, we learned of a mystical destination called “The Secret Garden”. The family was headed this way for some R&R after our trek, and Nick and Sandra had also heard rave recommendations from a small handful of backpackers-in-the-know, and were trying to book their own stay. We soon discovered how popular the place was, as we were unable to confirm reservations for another week. The Secret Garden is a backpacker resort of sorts, located in the countryside near the active Cotopaxi volcano. Owned by an Australian man and his Ecuadorian wife, this was their second award-winning venture after running a successful youth hostel in Quito. It is an escape from the city (only two hours away) to an Andes landscape of horse-riding, dirt-biking, trout fishing, and strenuous hikes to waterfalls, glaciers, and mountain peaks.
We checked out the website and learned of a fantastic package stay for 3 nights and 4 days. The nightly price of less than $150 for our entire family, included transportation to and from the Hostel in Quito, our own private cabana (which could have cost less in a dorm room, or more for a hobbit home carved into the hillside), three delicious meals a day, endless tea and banana bread, access to a sunroom and hot tub to sooth sore muscles, a guided 2-hr. hike to a nearby waterfall and two half day tours (we chose a mountain bike ride/trout fishing excursion, and an intense half day trek to Pasochoa at 4220 meters).
As soon as we arrived, we were smitten. The setting was stunning, with panoramic views of Cotopaxi National Park, and all the surrounding volcano and Andean mountain peaks. Every single day, we took the time to meditate over the awesome beauty of the location, and the perfect pyramidal, snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano on the horizon. We were never alone in this appreciation, with groups of people gathering at sunset for photos, or perching themselves in front of the vista with a guitar, in a hammock, or on a yoga mat, in search of inner peace. The Secret Garden is not only a perfect place to relax and do nothing, but also an ideal location for keeping busy with physically challenging activities. Since the majority of the guests were in their twenties, impromptu games of soccer on the high altitude grassy field were expected, even at the end of a long and exhausting day.
Right when we arrived, we were taken with our new group on an exploratory hike to the nearby waterfall. This was our first introduction to the local fauna and its hidden riches. Stella and Gabriel were the only children there for our first three days, and made quick friends with the other travelers. (It didn’t take us long to calculate that those backpackers were actually closer in age to our kids than they were to us!)
Back in the common lounge, we began to befriend the staff and other guests. This was easier to do than in any other place we had stayed, because there was no wi-fi! This fact, coupled with the isolation of our location, forced people to converse or be bored. Of course, you could still hide your nose in a book or hole away in your room, but if you wanted companionship, the atmosphere fostered discourse. It was easy to enter into conversation with strangers, and satisfy your curiosity about others. The ice was usually broken over a competitive game of cards or bananagrams, where we took turns telling roadside stories. For Dan and I, it was a positive reminder of what travel used to be like before the spread of technology. We remembered our first trip in South America back in 2002, when talking with strangers and socializing was the norm. Internet cafes existed, but we didn’t carry handheld devices, that immediately linked us to a global world. For most of the other guests, I think this break from technology was welcomed, but there were definitely a few that seemed lost without the Internet. They felt they should be booking their next stop, replying immediately to unknown emails, commenting on Facebook, or posting instantaneous photos on Instagram. Separation anxiety from social media was evident in restless hands.
At the end of a communal dinner, dessert, wine, games and final good nights, we would return to our cozy two-story cabana, to find that the staff had started the fire in our wood-burning stove, and that the room was already warm and ablaze with flickering light. The chill of the night was kept at bay.
The next day, Stella wanted to hang back in the main lounge, playing with the house dogs by an open fire, and talking with the older girls about their lives and travel. Dan, Gabriel and I took off on a mountain biking trip. Our group drove to the base of Cotopaxi, stopping for photo ops, before getting geared up for a challenging ride. With fierce face winds, Gabriel and I were struggling on our bikes, and decided to hop back in the van and restart at an easier spot. When gravity and the direction of the wind looked like it would work in our favor, we gave it a second go. Dan kept up with Gabriel, as I would have been useless help, barely able to keep myself from skidding out on the rocky road. It was a rough ride, and Gabriel flew over his handlebars at least twice (thankfully with minimal scrapes). It became clear that he was destined for the van, despite his best try. After the gravel bike ride was completed by all, our next stop was a trout fishing farm. We were given Huckleberry Finn sticks and strings to catch pescado. Dan likened it to shooting in a barrel, as we each caught trout after trout without a hitch. Our efforts culminated in a fried fish feast, before we returned to the comforts of the ‘resort’.
Tony, the energetic and friendly Swiss manager, hit it off with the kids, and decided to reveal a secret hideaway to them. It was a fort of branches that had once been the playground of the owner’s children, and had evidently seen better days before being wrecked by grazing cows. He gave them carte blanche to do what they wanted to fix it up, and they excitedly took up the challenge. They quickly turned it into a “Secret Fort” complete with painted signs, and then spent the next days guiding groups of people to see their hidden clubhouse. They’d run around the property with a sign-up sheet, approaching every last guest to schedule a tour. A visit required a crossing over a dodgy log bridge, and ducking under low branches. After they finished each tour, the children would tell their guests that “tips were welcome,” and by the end of each day they had amassed a small fortune. They put half of their profits into the staff tip jar, and split the remaining currency. * This was a decision of their own making without any suggestion on our part.
On day three, I was coming down with a cold, and we all decided that a day of doing nothing and going nowhere was what we needed. We would be flying out of Ecuador the very next night, so organizing our bags and getting ready for reentry seemed like a good idea.
We still had plenty of time for light walks, reading, soaking in the hot tub, and drinking many mugs of tea. As you can see by the below photos, we discovered natural beauty every where we went. The immediate surrounds were a wonderland of trees, some barren while others were dripping in moss, and a medley of wild flowers and miniature succulents. In the tall grasses we spied bunnies, foxes and grazing cows.
For our last day, we had saved the 6-hour hike to Pachacoa. We woke early, checked out of our cabin, stored our bags, and took off with our own dedicated guide, Winnie. It was assumed that our going might be slowed with Stella and Gabriel, so we were given a 15 minute head start over the bulk of that day’s group. About half way up, it is true that Gabriel wanted to quit, but we kept up our encouragement and made it to the peak, well before our fellow hikers. Although we were feeling proud of ourselves, it must be noted that Tony, who was carrying lunch and beverages for almost twenty people, had started after everyone else, and had already passed us. This hike was part of his almost daily workout in preparation for a much more difficult climb up Ecuador’s highest peak, the snow-covered Chimborazo Volcano (20564 feet).
Going back down was easier on our lungs, but harder on my knees. Once we arrived back to the guesthouse, Tony and his staff were waiting for us at the entrance with a timer. We had completed the whole hike, including our lunch break in less than five hours. Stella and Gabriel were welcomed with whoops and applause, and Tony announced to the onlookers that they had broken the kid’s record for speed. In honor of their achievement, they were presented with a special awards certificate.
I cannot express enough thanks to the crew that was running the Secret Garden when we visited. The staff was warm, welcoming and wonderful. Besides Tony, the kitchen staff and some of the guides, all of the other ’employees’ were volunteers. They were fellow travelers who had fallen in love with this special place and wanted to stay on for several months. In exchange for their work and positive energy, they were given food and accommodation. I wish I could remember everyone’s name, because they all deserve kudos, but Winnie and Becca were especially kind to the children, showering them with attention. Our kids were on their best behavior, which Dan and I got to take credit for. We received an embarrassment of compliments, and were told by many young adults that we were an inspiration to them, and proof that traveling with children was doable. After over 11 months of travel, I have to admit that this validation felt good.
Everyone knew that our epic journey was ending that day, and were especially kind and sensitive to the relevance. After a generous sendoff, with wine and pizza, Tony gathered the Secret Garden ‘family’ for one final goodbye. We took a group photo in the cold, dark of the night, exchanged hearty hugs and sincere well wishes. Once we had finally driven away and were on the road to the Quito airport, we learned that the volunteers had secretly given money back to the kids to buy treats for the flight.
I cannot imagine a better ending to an unforgettable trip.