When I posted these photos on Facebook the other day, with the caption “Culebrillas Lake at 4000 meters,” I meant to add “breathless,” which is how Michael and I felt hiking around this spectacular landscape earlier this week with our friend, Lynn.
It always takes us awhile to adapt to the altitude here (Cañar is at 3,100 mts. or 10,170 feet), but we normally wouldn’t attempt 4000 meters (13,123 feet) within ten days of arriving. However, the road to Lake Culebrillas is notoriously bad, and only during the dry season can a four-wheel-drive vehicle safely traverse the two hours of pot-holed, rocky, rugged, heart-stopping-drops, landslide-vulnerable track called a road. For days, we’d been watching the clear views of the high mountains from our north windows, the same you see at the top of this blog. The lake lies behind the highest ridge, in an intermontane valley, and is the site of the myth of origin of the Cañari people. When we called Lynn to suggest that we take the opportunity of good weather for a day trip, she agreed, driving up from Cuenca with her dog, Ariel, to spend the night so we could get an early start.
Michael and I haven’t been to this lake for years, but it played a part in our very earliest years here, when we organized an overnight camping trip with our first Cañari friends, my photography students and their spouses and siblings. We were a group of about ten. The truck we hired couldn’t make it all the way, so we ended up walking overland. The Cañaris (with their big lungs and oxygenated hearts) leaping over the páramo grass while carrying a large tarp, pots, food, our packs (mine with a heavy Hasselblad camera and gear) and even a bass drum, while Michael and I, carrying nothing, were on our knees every few yards, gasping to catch our breath. We slept by the lake, under the tarp, where our friends built a fire while playing music long into the night. The next morning, a bit sick from carbon monoxide, we walked around the lake and Michael and the boys tried their luck fishing.
It was a wonderful time – a significant moment then and an evocative one now. Antonio, one of my students, died last year, and his wife Edelina, died ten years ago, and the little girl in the photo below now works in a nail salon in New Jersey. Another couple is separated, and a young woman, unmarried but hopeful at the time, is now a “migrant widow” – one of many Cañari women left in marital limbo here, raising children, while their immigrant husbands in the U.S. make new lives, some with new families.
The bottom right photo is the only one I could find in my digital files from that original trip to Lake Culebrillas – the boys looking for fish with Michael’s net – although the other images were taken around the same year, 1992.