21-Jul-2004 -- Website: www.bylandwaterandair.com
Incomplete: This confluence point looks to be somewhere in the dense rainforest, on a dangerously steep slope, whose ground is mud even in the dry season. It may be possible to reach with a machete, clear weather and/or extension antenna for the GPS due to poor reception in the thick (though relatively short) vegetation, insect clothing for ant swarms, and a method for maneuvering safely in steep mud. It seems likely that ropes may help with a descent down through the mud from the top of the nearest ridge, as the slope isn't necessarily too steep for navigation if it weren't for the mud. Falls without ropes are abruptly stopped (very dangerous) within five to ten feet by trees and vines. However, it should be noted that the trees in this area are far from sturdy. If a team uses ropes to ascend or descend the slope - be sure not to trust any one tree or item at a time. Also, watch for angry ants on the trees and on gear. It is likely that a pig trail will have cut most of the first two feet of undergrowth, and that required machete work may be minimal and possibly even unnecessary.
Plant life: The vegetation is short (around 30 feet tall) tropical rainforest. The understory ranges from thick patches of Heliconia to large tangles of vines, moss-covered branches and downed trees. The trees are very unstable and the frequent sounds of them crashing down punctuate the night chorus. Much care is required when choosing a camping spot - as it is important to note overhead vegetation and the direction of the lean on all trees within 30 ft. The locals remove all the trees around their houses, thus removing this danger. The village of Mariela has built a small, open-air, sleeping platform for visitors (with a banana leaf roof), and this may be used to avoid the danger of falling trees at night.
Animal life: The confluence area is near human settlements, and the people walking in this area carry shotguns for opportunistic hunting. Probably for this reason, the visible animal life in this area is mostly domestic. Pigs are frequently found in small groups and their paths (typically one foot wide by two feet tall) crisscross the forest floor. I don't know if the pigs I saw were wild or domestic. The domestic ones I met at local homesteads were less afraid of people than those in the forests, and had little shelters under people's houses. But there seemed to be many more pigs in the forest than empty shelters under homesteads. An unhappy donkey smashed its way through the forest in the middle of the night, munching on the small amount of acceptable food it could find, and knocking down many trees in its attempt to walk through the vegetation. There are footprints in the mud of other animals unknown to me, most notably ones with five small, distinct fingers that walk on four limbs. From the less accessible surrounding valleys the raucous noise of howler monkeys resonates along the mountains. The animal to watch out for, is not the tiger or snake as suggested by the locals, but the leaf-cutter ants. While they are friendly until disturbed, pushing through the forest automatically qualifies as a disturbance. A frightened colony of these ants is a terrifying sight as they swarm frantically. Each ant is able to sting around six times before running out of venom, and the stings throb like those of a wasp (they are related) for a half hour; mildly itching for a few days afterwards.
Nearest human settlements: The nearest homestead (500 meters to the West) is on top of the ridge, where the path between Pedernales and Atahualpa peaks. The family is very friendly, and called me over to wash the mud and moss from my body and clothing with their spring-fed hose. I must have been quite a sight having fallen so many times in the steep mud.
The nearest village is around three kilometers from the confluence point to the NW. Named Mariela, it consists of a small cluster of stilted bamboo houses along the main stream and a fairly large school for the children of the region. The people are friendly and like to walk along the road with whoever is going the same direction, even if that person is a lone gringa who speaks only elementary Spanish. The road from Mariela to Pedernales was a joy to walk, as most of the traffic was on horseback and liked to stop and chat with those going the other direction. The road crossed the stream many times and in the rainy season may be impassable.
The nearest town in the area is Atahualpa, (4.5 km to the SE) a grid style town of around 6x6 blocks with the feel of an old western movie. Donkeys and horses wait for their owners in front of houses and shops. The surrounding hills are blanketed in grass for cows and other livestock, all of the forest having been removed. There are frequent pickup trucks that, for a fee, take passengers between Atahualpa and the main Santo Domingo de los Colorados - Pedernales highway. On the highway junction, there is a bus stop with frequent busses passing in both directions. (There are direct buses to Pedernales from Quito that pass along this road.)
The nearest city is Pedernales, (10 km to the NW) a vacation spot for Ecuadorians wanting some time on the beach. There are plentiful hotels, a few food stores, restaurants and currently one internet café - though it seems two more are almost ready to begin competition. Pedernales isn't printed on all available maps of Ecuador but is located around GPS N 00°04.276' x W 80°03.164' elevation 24m (our hotel).
Getting to the confluence area: We first tried to reach the confluence by walking south along the beach before heading east along a promising road. Nearing the equator, the main southerly highway (E15) passes alongside a small town, and then where it begins to swoop west, we found a road that lead straight toward the confluence. The newly-bulldozed, dirt track lead into a valley filled with wildlife, as the people who travel along this route don't carry guns. Howler monkeys were directly overhead and called out to people passing below with loud, long group howls. When we stopped to cook in a clearing with what had seemed at first to be a road junction, we were approached by a tan mammal about the size of a cocker spaniel, but with short hair and a large open wound on its otherwise strong, long tail. It walked right by us, less than ten feet away before passing into some shrubbery. It returned and crossed back a few more times, just as unafraid as the first pass. There were hornbills in the trees overhead, and although the junction turned out to be a loop - we were only able to reach a point four kilometers away from the confluence - it was an interesting place to have visited. We slept at the top, which was also the far end (Eastern end) of the loop. The GPS coordinates there were S 00°00.409' x W 80°02.755' elevation 328m.
There is a trail that crosses a mountain ridge from Atahualpa to Pedernales, and passes within 400 meters of the confluence point. This seems to provide the most hope for reaching the confluence. Describing the route from Pedernales (I actually hiked it the opposite direction)... Head out of town on the main southbound highway, sharing the road with other pedestrians and horses as well as normal highway traffic. Just past the "Welcome to Pedernales" signs there is a bridge over a small stream where locals do their laundry. The far side of this bridge is the start of the road to Mariela. (GPS N 00°03.863' x W 80°03.195' elevation 12m) From here, it is less than a two-kilometer walk to the first fork in the road - a place where water selling trucks take water from the stream (see photo). These trucks give lifts along this portion of the road - the tops of them are sometimes loaded with children heading into or out of Pedernales. At this fork (GPS N 00°03.386' x W 80°02.377' elevation 24m), take the right hand road to the SW. A short way after that junction, there is one more junction (GPS N 00°03.075' x W 80°02.357' elevation 45m) - keep heading straight (South). I didn't notice any more junctions on the road, but took the following point as a reference (GPS N 00°01.479' x W 80°01.073' elevation 321m) - just North of Mariela where the road crossed the river. (See photo of this location) Note the increase in elevation... After the school and a few houses, the banana-leaf roofed guest sleeping-platform is on the righthand side of the road. Soon after this point, the road becomes a steep, muddy path. (It took me two and a half hours to walk down from this point to Pedernales.) The path follows the stream for most of the way to the top of the ridge, so water is not a concern with a method of purification. The last flat spot before reaching the top (about an hour's hike down from the top if muddy) is GPS N 00°00.258' x W 79°59.917' elevation 352m. (See tent photo) (Walking down from here to Mariela took me three hours of very slow slipping and sliding.)
Nearing the top, there are a few paths that stretch out toward the confluence. They are little more than pig and donkey trails at their beginning, and I have no information as to how far they continue or where they go, if anywhere. At the top the path there are four path choices - 1. Left goes to a clearing with a friendly family living in a stilted bamboo homestead (See nearest homestead section above). 2. Straight ahead winds down the other side of the mountains and on to Atahualpa. The mud thankfully ends only a hundred GPS meters down this path, and may be an attractive option for exiting the area. The people who live directly along the path are very friendly and even helpful with directions - wanted or not. The only unfriendly person I met in the area was a very intimidating man who lives off a side trail halfway down the southern side of the mountain. He demanded money from me for any reason he could think of at the time - he tried three before finally giving up and leaving me in peace. 3. The two rightmost paths are the ones that lead the closest to the confluence from above (340 meters was the closest point I could read on my GPS). The left one looks promising, but fizzles after about 200 mud-filled GPS meters in a leaf-cutter ant area. 4. The right-hand-most path is used by people as well as animals who live along the top of the ridge, and thus quickly opens up to be a wide path that continues past where a turnoff would need to be made to reach the confluence. It looked very steep off the right of the path, and with my pack, my failed attempt in the steep vegetation of the last trail, and the setting sun, I didn't attempt a descent from this point. I had a difficult time obtaining GPS readings along this path as only at two points were there fallen-tree clearings large enough for the GPS to find satellites.
I wish anyone attempting this confluence lots of good luck and a safe trip!!
GPS coordinates mentioned above, in the order they were mentioned:
- S 00°00.409' x W 80°02.755' elevation 328m - Eastern end of loop road along the equator
- N 00°04.276' x W 80°03.164' elevation 24m - Our hotel in Pedernales, for Pedernales reference
- N 00°03.863' x W 80°03.195' elevation 12m - Beginning of the road to Mariela from the E15
- N 00°03.386' x W 80°02.377' elevation 24m - Water seller trucks' fork in the road, veer right (SW)
- N 00°03.075' x W 80°02.357' elevation 45m - Unwanted turn from main road, continue straight (S)
- N 00°01.479' x W 80°01.073' elevation 321m - River crossing pictured here on road before Mariela
- N 00°00.258' x W 79°59.917' elevation 352m - Last semi-flat spot before reaching path climax