Saint Peter’s Valley

Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

I am guided into heaven by a man named Peter. Soberingly for the atheist in me, this Peter is a Vermonter not a saint, and we take the Pan-American out of Otavalo, north for an hour or so, rather than any gilded stairway. For two days we trek the montane grasslands as gods above the clouds, our cheeks stung to a glow by the winds of the Andean Páramo, until he ushers me downwards into a valley, a mask of dust across my face and an unholy wealth of pride on my sleeve.

For weeks Ecuador had clattered my ears like a ringer on a mission bell. As I walked the lofty streets of Quito my footsteps drowned in a sea of rubber-on-cobble and two-stroke wheezing. Climbing the Basilica stairs, the towers, upkept by my “foreigners entry fee”, chimed out the hours of the longest days on Earth. When I left the city and sank eastward into the Amazon, the walls closed in and the country rang louder. Inescapable as the rainforest itself came the bellow of the cicadas and the birds. Some sang, most screeched. Even the trees joined, yawning, cracking, snapping. 

I climbed. Westward and northward. Otavalo. The din followed. “Señor, señor!”, “amigo por favor”, “solo diez dolares”, all pounded at me from every angle. I began to self-sabotage as my stomach found its own Ecuadorean voice, angry at the glorious grease of a few one-dollar empanadas. And so, I climbed again, one last push, higher into the mountains, through a graveyard of volcanoes and the shadows of a world pre-Columbus. I needed to escape.

And now, in Peter’s valley in the clouds, I find heaven.

Irubí, he says it is called. And it is not ethereal. No pearly gates, no marble columns, it is small and grid-iron. A diminutive church hall and a grass-bare football pitch lie at its centre, the houses of South America’s most prominent gods. But no one is praying, and no one is playing. 

The field is bordered on two sides by houses, no pattern, scattered afore and back from the road like die thrown on a gameboard. There are bare breezeblocks and metal sheeting but there is nothing scruffy, only practical. All are squat, single-storeyed, yet each house is unique. Some have little crop gardens out front, while others are fronted by children’s toys or a party sign for “Lenin Presidente” (no, not THAT Lenin). 

A small shop adds a liveable varnish to the work-in-progress town. It sells little more than snacks, vegetables plucked from the gardens, eggs swiped from the roaming hens, and that most persistent of beverages, Coca-Cola. And yet, no one is in behind the iron bars on its windows and the shop is silent, its opening hours working on Ecuador’s own charming time-zone; open when open, closed when closed.

We stay on the outskirts, just beyond a knot of pines, and pitch the tents on a small verdant patch. And the rain comes. It is not the rain I am used to. 

East, in the basin, it rifles down, thuds and marches across the tropical leaves and floods the soil and lifts the rivers. In Quito and Otavalo, it slaps off the cobbles and tarpaulin market covers and brings with it a chorus of “rápido!” as vendors hurry their wares inside. Here, though, it glides. 

It is a mist, as if the clouds themselves have set up camp with us. It kisses a delicate dew onto the sleeves of my coat without so much as a breath of noise as I sit stock on the porch of a windowless house. I fear that so much as the scratch of boot on track might shatter paradise, that at the sound the valley will collapse and I will awaken, heartbroken in a Quito side-street hostel. 

It is by hunger alone that I move from my spot, lost in the peace and cooling drizzle. We have an invitation, a date with Ecuadorean hospitality.

I tap at the front door, expecting the valley to quake and echo with the harsh sound, and am greeted by a face. Not a phantom of this deep valley ghost town, but the kind eyes and dark hair of Rosa. We mirror each other’s timidness as I mumble out a Spanglish “buenos noches” and she gestures me enter her home. Inside is close and comforting, warmed by the pots stewing in the back. 

I take my plastic seat around the vinyl clothed table, and a bowl swings down in front. A cloud of steam and savoury scents is welcomed into my needing body and sent up to the gods carrying with it Rosa’s silent prayers. “Sopa”, she says, and not a word more is needed.