Rachael and I spent 10 days in Ecuador. We learned some things. This was one of those.
El Lechero, the magical healing tree, is neither magical nor easy to find. Also, it’s true, life really is more about the journey than the destination.
A few years ago, when Rachael and I went to Bali, we used a Lonely Planet guide book as our travel bible. We loved everything it recommended. In Ecuador, we had a different experience. The book listed outdated prices, promoted businesses that had since closed, neglected to mention key attractions, and made a big deal of things that turned out to be just meh. El Lechero, for instance.
As I mentioned before, we spent our first full Ecuadorian day in Otavalo at the market. I bought a warm winter hat. Rachael learned Spanish numbers while negotiating the price for some colorful earrings. We ate outstanding street food, including a spicy plate of fried rice and a sweet figs-and-cheese sandwich. In the afternoon, to burn off a few of those calories and stretch our legs, we decided to hike to a tree known as El Lechero. Our book heralded this tree, just outside of town, for its magical healing properties and claimed that the peaceful uphill walk there would provide fresh air and great views. It got the second half right.
We headed out of town on Piedrahita avenue, and as soon as we left the city center, the road went vertical. We followed a series of switchbacks, then some stairs, then more switchbacks, slowly making our way up the hillside (mountainside?). For maybe the first kilometer of the walk, there were regular signs pointing us in the right direction. But soon enough, we found ourselves puffing up narrow rural roads, climbing past meager homes and open fields, with very little idea of where we might find the tree. Whenever a taxi sped past, we wished we had taken one, while also taking it as a good sign, since surely those other travelers were also on the path to the magic tree.
Once, we missed a turn, walked several hundred meters in the wrong direction, and might have kept on going forever, if not for a nice local woman who pointed us back the other way. The hike was difficult, forcing us to take regular breaks to wipe the sweat from our brows and catch our breaths. Luckily, as the book said, the air was fresh, a nice change from the smog in Quito. And while we didn’t have much breath left to lose, the views were, indeed, breathtaking.
Like this one:
And this one:
And this one:
And this one:
And this one:
We kept walking…and walking…and walking, and the only trouble was, we never came to a magical healing tree. I was expecting something old, tall, and strong, with maybe some lights or birds or something. We couldn’t have missed it, could we? The guide book had promised frequent signs pointing us in the right direction, but we’d seen none in quite a while. Our guide book said that the walk to the tree should be 4 kilometers, and that if we continued 1 kilometer farther, we’d arrive at Parque Condor, which, for those of you who are exceptionally bad at Spanish, is a park for condors. Endangered Andean condors are among the world’s largest flying animals. We did see some signs for the bird park, so we followed those.
We walked past a church, a bunch of cows chomping on grass, a few kids drinking beer and screwing around on bikes. We walked past a few scraggly trees that couldn’t possibly be magical. And we even walked past a restaurant with a sign that promoted its proximity to El Lechero. We did not, however, come across El Lechero itself.
Eventually, we arrived at Parque Condor, just in time for its afternoon bird show, which managed to be awesome despite the fact that we understood basically nothing that the guide said. I spent most of the time envying the view from his office (and wondering about how we missed that stupid tree):
The birds were cool, too:
Afterward, needing to catch a bus back to Quito and not having the time or energy to walk all the way back down the hill, we had someone at the park call us a taxi. When the driver showed up, we asked for a ride back into town. The price would be $5. We asked if on the way, he might be able to drive us past El Lechero. He smiled. He said some things in Spanish that I didn’t understand, but the gist was that the tree was old and wonderful. He would drive us there, but it would cost us an extra buck. We agreed.
It turned out, we had missed an unmarked turn near the aforementioned restaurant. A rutty dirt road led to a cluster of trees, including the great El Lechero, which was not impressively tall, not impressively round, not impressive in any way. (It’s in the center of the first photo above.) The magical healing tree was marked with just a plastic sign strung from a different tree.
In the end, El Lechero was not worth the extra dollar we paid to see it. But I wouldn’t trade the beautiful walk we took to find it for all the money in the world.