:: pasochoa paramo ::

It is abnormal to start a hike at almost 12,700 feet. The air is fairly thin, there are no trees, and the wind can howl like nobody’s business.  This is not terrain for a leisurely stroll, which was good, because we felt like a proper hike up a mountain.

Pasochoa is one of the smaller mountains in the Ecuadorian Andes, but it is also one of the more accessible.  It is overlooked by the riches of the Andean Sierra, with seven higher peaks visible from its summit, including Cotopaxi and Antisana, both of which are close to a mile higher.  At a mere 13,800 feet, or 4,200 metres, it is a fairly easy, non-technical climb.

Instead of climbing from lower down the mountain, which most people do from the northwest side, we drove up through the fields, cattle gates and onto the paramo from the west side.  We had been staying on a lovely farm and this access point was just a few minutes up the road so it was ideal.  We didn’t expect to be able to drive as far up as we did, but we were grateful given the inclement weather and additional weight of our 16 month old on our backs.

The paramo is a universal ecosystem up in the high Andes and is evident from the tussock grasses, empty spaces and large birds of prey circling above.  It is kind of like moorlands and certainly without good visibility, one could easily get lost in the fairly featureless expanses.

It was a fairly cloudy day so many of the peaks were mostly hidden, but we still enjoyed being on the lookout for the larger peaks.  Really we just wanted to get out and stretch our legs and finally have the chance to summit a proper Andean peak. The open expanses in all directions were quite stunning, it is hard to believe that when you stand atop the summit, it is only about twenty or thirty miles from the centre of Quito.

Fog seemed to roll in from all sides, but especially up from the crater of Pasochoa.  An extinct volcano, it’s thrilling to see how previous eruptions have moulded the landscape and provided fertile ground for unique high altitude vegetation.

All four of us made it up to the top, though Piper was the only one really exhausted from the experience! As you can see – climbing mountains is hard work!

:: a hidden paradise in the cloud forest ::

With the sun creeping over the mountains and the soft sounds of birds and insects in the surrounding plant life, the slow sweep of the hammock was about as simple a pleasure as one could find.  We all search for those perfect little experiences, the moments that make your heart and soul happy and put your brain at ease.  We were lucky enough to find such a place that encouraged moments like these on the outskirts of Mindo in the Cloud Forest.

The cottage is a wonderful little wooden oasis surrounded by luscious gardens and plentiful birds.  Clemencia and Jaime Beron have created a slice of natural beauty and tranquility that lets you feel a thousand miles from anywhere.  Their home is not expansive, but it has a comfortable seating area leading out onto a covered deck complete with hammocks, morning sunshine and enough peace to make you forgot even the worst that life can throw at you.  From the bench, chairs or hammocks you have to only release your inner tensions and let the birds come whizzing past on their morning foraging trips.  It is truly a magical little locale.

If the house builds an inner peace, the gardens are a created beauty to rival some of the most famous botanical gardens. Over the last 22 years, Clemencia and Jaime have crafted through a labour of love and deep natural knowledge, a fantastical mixtures of flowers, fruit trees, stands of bamboo forest and colours galore.  They will quite willingly give you a little tour, showing you the unique varieties of plants and letting you see their creation through their eyes – like having an artist explain their masterpiece in minute and loving detail.

If the natural setting seems to be their just for our enjoyment, the constant chorus of a wide variety of birds quickly dispels that notion.  They are everywhere – flitting towards the feeders and cut up bananas that Jaime puts out everyday.  Though a contrived feeding, being able to sit quietly and watch the different breeds come and go is quite something.  At times even the fresh bananas can’t entice them to come depending on what is currently blooming in their expansive gardens.  The hummingbirds in particular are beautiful, elegant, and nearly impossible to photograph!  They come, go, drink and hover all as if they are on fast forward, but to be mere feet away and to be able to see the blurred movement of their wings up close is a privileged experience.

Incredibly, all of this is really just a side show to their main business – a pitahaya plantation.  Pitahaya, or dragon fruit, is a widely available fruit in Ecuador and looks like a white kiwi on the inside of its spiky yellow exterior.  On the slopes above the cottage and gardens sits row upon row of these fruit plants, like a vineyard, but with rather more cactus like vines and more vicious looking fruit.  A guided tour by Jaime yields a search for the sometimes elusive flower of each plant – a sole flower that blooms overnight for just one night.  We didn’t get to see a properly blooming flower, but did see some that were either about to bloom or had just bloomed.  The tangled ball of soft yellow petals, juxtaposed against the harsh, spiked fruit, showed the true magic of nature.

As if we hadn’t had enough of nature’s majesty, one night Jaime drove us up to the small pond at the top of the property and we enjoyed the simple pleasure of listening to a frog chorus.  In the nearly pitch black darkness, we sat and enjoyed the frogs making their calls and thought not of our work, our bills, or our worries, but rather of the frogs and their soft magic croaking in the humid night.

We can only say thank you so much, yet it doesn’t do justice to the hospitality of Jaime and Clemencia – so once more – thank you!  Sharing your home, your knowledge, your time and the rich breakfasts and homemade fruit juices are all more than we could have asked for.  We have returned twice more after our initial visit and each time we have enjoyed the same warmth from our fantastic hosts and the same peaceful reverie that comes for the natural beauty of their property.  We will undoubtedly return more in our time here in Ecuador and hope that others can enjoy this beautiful place too.

Check out their website to learn more about this gorgeous property: www.mindogoldenbrow.wordpress.com

To make a booking go to airbnb: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6085335.

To read more about Mindo and the Cloud Forest check out our recent blog here.

:: cloud forest ::

Some places in the world on the tourist trail can seem off the beaten path despite how well known they are.  Mindo is such a place.  Settled into a valley surrounded by lush cloud forest and small rivers rushing off the Andes Mountains, this small little town is a place to slow down and enjoy whatever nature is willing to reveal.

The town center is home to a few blocks of dusty streets, little shops, wood houses and a half-neglected town square.  From every corner you can see the clouds rolling in and out over the lush green landscape that surrounds Mindo.  Within minutes of the town center you can find yourself a million miles away, on the banks of a rushing river or on a trail surrounded by enormous leaves, tropical flowers and cascading waterfalls.

The cloud forests of Ecuador are home to an amazing array of biodiversity and birds.  Hummingbirds are such a common occurrence here that you can become almost complacent about seeing them zipping around mere feet from you – always too fast for the camera unless you are dedicated to photographing them.  The natural beauty is extremely accessible and almost hypnotic.

One of the great natural highlights of Mindo is the chance to hike in the cloud forest of the Mindo-Nambillo Reserve.  A rough hewn path traces the edges of hillsides and takes you down sharp slopes to small secluded waterfalls.  It is a trail where you will see a few people, but you can still feel as if you have the entire expanse of nature to yourself.  To reach it, you ride the several hundred metre long tarabita over the river valley below.  The tarabita can best be described as a metal cart suspended off of a solid cable that holds about six people.  Think coal mining cart crossed with a zip line run by a diesel engine.  It is magnificently simple and beautiful to dart across the open vistas on something that undoubtedly would not pass a safety check in the States or Europe.

There are other hikes around town including down the quiet road along Rio Blanco with its waters that flow directly out of the crater of the Guagua Pichincha volcano.  Or head to the La Casa Amarilla and follow trails through the guava plantations and up to a rickety perch high above town.

Of course if hiking isn’t your thing, then you can go for a relaxing tubing ride down the river or check out the Mindo butterfly farm.

Then again, maybe you need more adventure, in which case the canyoning and zip-lining options await.  The latter was quite fun as I went with our friend Aarne one morning.  We had a great time flying from hillside to hillside, sometimes upside down in the mariposa (butterfly) position!  It might not be for everyone, but I enjoyed it!

When you need an escape from all the nature, you can check out one of the local chocolate businesses in town.  El Quetzal, now famous for its chocolate tours and treats, started as an internet cafe.  The owner’s brownies were so good, and the supply of sufficiently good chocolate so spotty, that the owners decided to start producing their own chocolate.  Now you can tour the small production site and have an interesting overview of the process, and most importantly get a custom tasting of them all!  The chocolate is very good, and it is only available in Mindo, Ecuador and in Michigan – the home state of the American owner.

With a laid back feel and nature at every turn, Mindo is a lovely little getaway.  Spend a day or a week and you will surely recharge your batteries and feel like you escaped the big city for a while.

Thanks to all of our family and friends who have explored this area with us so far – it’s been a great adventure discovering and rediscovering different parts each time!

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Amongst the many places to stay, we highly recommend the little unknown airbnb ‘wooden cottage’ set amongst gorgeous gardens and hosted by the fabulous Clemencia and Jaime Beron.  Stay tuned for more about their expansive botanical garden, pitahaya plantation, haven for the local birds, homemade breakfasts and their very own frog concert – an amazing experience overall!

:: our new mountain home ::

So Lesotho is the Mountain Kingdom, but Quito is a truly mountainous city.  We are now in our new home nestled amongst the mountains and volcanos of the Andes just a hop, skip and jump from the Equator.  Quito is a city of two million people packed into a valley 9000 feet above sea level and in the shadow of the semi-active volcano Pichincha.

To say the views are amazing is a serious understatement.  When it is clear you can see towering peaks both very close and more than 50 kilometres away.  When the clouds roll in, you catch glimpses of mountainsides affected by ever changing light conditions.  And then sometimes it is just solid cloud and you can feel as if there aren’t any mountains at all.

Cotopaxi Volcano is about 50km to the south but has a prominant place on the horizon on a clear day.  This is the same volcano that threatened to erupt last year, and experts say it is still overdue. 

We have been lucky in that our house was ready for us and most of our belongings from Lesotho arrived a week after we did, so we are already mostly settled into our home.  All we need are a few things coming from DC and the chance to hang pictures and other art on our expansive white walls.  And once our car arrives we will truly be free to explore this captivating landscape.  We have acclimated to the elevation so now it is time to start hiking up ancient volcanos, exploring little market towns and making plans to visit the Galapagos Islands and further afield.

Two years will be gone in a flash and there is much to explore.  Stay tuned for more photos and stories of our adventures in Ecuador!

:: cherry blossoms ::

It would be unheard of to live in DC and miss the annual cherry blossoms, so we took advantage of our training time in the area and went on a gray and blustery day.  The blossoms were not as bright and vividly stunning as we had hoped, but it was still a beautiful and worthwhile sight to behold.

These trees, a focal point for hordes of tourists every year, started as a goodwill gesture from the mayor of Toyko in 1912.  Since then the trees have flourished around the Tidal Basin, and other locations, giving DC a splash of wonderful soft pinks and whites every spring…

 

:: adding an adventurer ::

For so long we have been a family of three – two humans and a dog.  Both with Guinness, and now with Mosa, we have ventured out into the world to see what we could climb, swim, hike and explore. We have always been happy as a trio, but now, we are ecstatic to be a quartet!

Piper, our new little human adventurer, joined and enriched our troupe on September 29th and is already creating new adventures for us.  We had hoped she would be born in Africa, but even though her birth certificate is from Virginia, she will always be our little Mosotho girl – our Moeti.

It is daunting, exciting, exhausting and invigorating to think of what we can help her to see and experience over her life.  She already seems rather curious and calms down when we step outside, so I guess she definitely inherited some of our traits!

Here is to a lifetime of adventure sweetie – hold tight and we will go out into the world together!

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:: notes from lesotho ::

We love to spread the news about how wonderful Lesotho is.  Thanks to the wonderful network of Foreign Service bloggers, we were able to do just that.  Ania at The New Diplomat’s Wife blog has a great little side feature called Notes from the Field in which she highlights a different post around the world every so often.

Cora reached out about featuring Maseru and Lesotho, and Ania was more than happy to give us a slot.  It was great to be able to write about this fantastic place that we love so much and hopefully help other people, both in and out of the Foreign Service, to learn a little more about this hidden gem!

Check out our feature on her blog here: http://www.thenewdiplomatswife.com/2015/10/notes-from-the-field-maseru-lesotho.html