:: finca not so far from home ::

Sometimes you just need to get out to the campo.  Or at least if you are like us you do.  We get our energy from being out in nature and so a quick little weekend away on a farm near Cotopaxi National Park was exactly what we needed.  An AirBnB find a mere hour plus away from home couldn’t have felt further from the city once we arrived and settled in.

Our hosts, Carmen and Guillermo, were extremely welcoming and made us feel like part of their family from moment one.  Their farmstead, La Campiña, sits above the Rio Pita valley and directly faces the north face of Cotopaxi.  From their house they can see Cotopaxi, Sinchalagua, Antisana, the slopes of Pasachoa, and to the north Quito, Pichincha and even Cayambe.  With lovely farmland all around, it is a bucolic location perfect for slowing down and feeling the embrace of nature.

Their land encompasses two houses, a caretaker’s house, and a semi-stables building.  Semi-stable because they have four horses and eight to ten cows, but they live out in the fields and only come to the building for milking and grooming.  In fact, for humour, there is little better than watching a city slicker try and milk a cow!  The caretakers will watch on with bemused looks of somewhat disdain as we harmlessly, but incompetently pull on the cow’s udders!  But with kids especially, it’s a great experience.

Beyond milking cows you can also feed the cuy (guinea pigs), collect eggs from the chickens, and pull carrots and cedron from the large veggie patch.  The latter is perfect in hot water with some honey for when you are feeling a little poorly. Doubly so in front of a fire when the wind and rain are crashing down outside!

We have now gone to this lovely spot five times – enjoying it with family and friends.  Kids get horse rides around the house and a chance to really experience a small farm, without the true headaches of farm life!  Adults get to relax and go on some lovely hikes.  Or just drink whisky in front of a roaring fire!  The views will spoil you, as will the hammock and jacuzzi tub – though so far only children have enjoyed it.

The location really can’t be beat with hiking at Condor Machay, a canal along the lower slopes of Pasachoa, Pasachoa itself, and of course Cotopaxi all very close.  It is exactly what you want from a weekend escape – convenient, different, and beautiful.  We haven’t been back in a while, but we will be once more before too long!  Thanks Carmen and Guillermo for always being the perfect hosts, and thanks to all our friends and family who have enjoyed this beautiful place with us.

Scenes from the farm La Campiña

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:: captivating cotopaxi ::

It is a constant in our lives.  We see it from our bedroom, on our commute, and from the embassy.  It sits quietly in the near distance, yet that potential for catastrophic eruption persists.  It is impossible to be in Quito and not be drawn to its beauty.  Cotopaxi is an iconic volcano, one that occupies a central part of Ecuador’s identity as a destination of natural wonders and adventurous spirits.

Reaching nearly 6,000 meters into the sky, Cotopaxi is the second highest peak in Ecuador and one of the tallest volcanos in the world.  Unlike the ‘active’ volcano of Pululahua, Cotopaxi was actively erupting from September 2015 until January 2016.  This most recent eruption cycle caused mass evacuations of nearby towns, extensive emergency preparedness drills, and not a few ruined car engines from the ash clouds.  Luckily a full fledged eruption didn’t occur, but the national park was closed at the time and the summit remains closed.

Eruptions of Cotopaxi would be disastrous due to the lahar mud flows that would follow.  Basically an eruption would flash melt the glaciated peak and the resulting fast moving mud would engulf all surrounding areas, especially along the various river valleys.  Past eruptions have twice completely destroyed the provincial capital of Latacunga and lahar once even made it to the Pacific Ocean more than 100km away!  Most scientific models show the lahar flowing in the river valley immediately below our neighbourhood – about 50 km from the summit of Cotopaxi – with enough force to do significant damage.  It is a form of nature that we would rather not see or experience.

Cotopaxi is a temptress though.  It is a mountain with sacred ties to the indigenous cultures in the area – including beliefs that gods lived at the summit and it being sacred as a form of rain producer.  That reputation for rain is not unfounded.  A completely clear day, all day, around Cotopaxi is exceedingly rare.  There are constant changes to clouds and light conditions, with rain, wind, sleet, hail, and snow all being common occurrences in the same day.  The best conditions tend to be first thing in the morning or around sunset.  Because of this we commonly inform guests that if the volcano is visible at first light, and clearly so, then we will rouse them and get them in the car by 7am in order to get to the park in time to see the summit properly.

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The drive to the entrance of Cotopaxi National Park is only about an hour from Quito.  After a short drive through some evergreen forests, you enter the rock strewn plains around the base of the volcano itself.  Here there are great hikes available especially around Limpiopungo Lake or a well hidden spring fed stream on the backside of the park.

The true draw however is the road up the volcano to the carpark at 4,600 metres above sea level.  Here the dusty slopes and intense winds can make walking rather difficult.  For the more hearty you can walk up to the refugio which sits at 4,900 metres.  This is currently the highest up you can go, but it used to be the key jumping off point for climbers attempting to summit Cotopaxi.

The snow line is usually above the refugio, but after extended periods of particularly wet weather, the snow descends down to the carpark.  We had a particularly fun family outing during one of these times – complete with michelin baby Piper!

Most people drive up and down from the carpark, but there are tour operators who will drive you up and then give you a mountain bike to descend the rutted dirt road.  Some really go for it on the descent and others appear out for a Sunday ride.  Either way it looks like a great way to experience the volcano and environs.

Of course there is the option to walk, or even run down as well, and with our good friend Thierry, I did run down quite a ways.  It is only a downhill run that is possible at that altitude – going up would require excessive amounts of training!

There isn’t a ton of flora and fauna up at that altitude, but the ground is covered in a wide array of flowers, lichen, moss, and grasses.  Little spurts of reds, yellows, and blues pop out from the white lichen to add colour and texture to the plains.

There are over 800 wild horses in the park along with foxes, deer, rabbits, lizards, and of course birds of prey circling – maybe for gringos stupid enough to run down a volcano!

Beyond the aforementioned 800 wild horses, there are numerous options for horseback riding in, and around, the park.  No matter whether it is an hour plod or a full day excursion, horse riding in the park is quite something.  Cora and our friend Ruth went on a lovely hour ride from Tambopaxi, with me acting as a horse for Piper as she rode in her backpack alongside!  Although the weather was quite overcast, it was lovely to wander out amongst the undulating terrain and really feel the true size and power of Cotopaxi.  The ride took us off into some of the hidden corners and dry river beds that would be filled in seconds should an eruption occur.  It was hard for this two legged baby pack heavy horse to keep up, but all in all we had a fantastic time.

You would think a behemoth like Cotopaxi would be sufficient to capture anyone’s attention, but there are actually several other volcanos surrounding, usually easily visible from the park.  Ruminahui – a jagged dormant volcano reaching over 4,700 metres – sits overlooking Limpiopungo Lake.

Sinchalagua – an imposing 4,900 metre high peak is also easily overshadowed by its more famous neighbour.

On clear days, Antisana, the fourth highest peak in Ecuador, is also visible as are numerous other peaks in the area.

Ruminahui, Pichincha and Sinchalagua all in site from the road on Cotopaxi

There are camping sites in the park, but only one indoor sleeping option – Tambopaxi.  This haven for climbers is very comfortable and is on the track to the more rugged northern entrance to the park.  Being in the park itself means that on a clear night or morning, you can go out and experience the star strewn sky over Cotopaxi or watch the sun come up.  Both are truly magical to experience.

Outside the park borders are numerous other options – our favourite little find is La Campiña – a small little farmstead with wonderful owners (post to follow soon).

Cotopaxi is majestic and magnificent.  Not a single day goes by where we don’t look for it.  Sometimes I will wander out our front door for no other reason than to look southeast and see if it is visible.  If it is, I will usually stand and look at it for awhile, immune from the visual distractions of the neighbouring houses and suburban detritus.

The park itself is one of our favourite places in Ecuador – rugged, largely empty, and with the mountainous surroundings that feed our souls.  You can have spectacular experiences throughout Ecuador, but not visiting Cotopaxi would be to deprive yourself of the opportunity to truly experience the unique and amazing wonders of nature.  Rain or shine, make an attempt and it will truly astound you.

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Thanks to all of our friends and family who have helped us to have so many opportunities to visit this majestic beauty — Aarne, Mom, Heather, the Brooke family, the De Saint Martin family, Mom and Dad and Ruth!

:: humming through the clouds ::

On the west side of Pichincha sits a wonderful little nature reserve covered in cloud forest.  Yanacocha Reserve is not well known, even though it is mere kilometres from central Quito, and the two separate visits we have made have been all the better for it.

Yanacocha is one of ten private reserves set up and managed by the Jocotoco Foundation.  Jocotoco identifies and establishes reserves in microclimates with endemic species, especially birds, many of which are endangered. Through education centres and eco-tours, Jocotoco provides a better understanding of the importance of conservation and retaining robust eco-systems throughout Ecuador.

A short drive out of the congested valley that houses Quito, you quickly climb the flank of Pichincha and into rolling farmland.  Then a left turn onto a dirt track leads up through the paramo and up to the small administrative building of Yanacocha.  With an education centre and small cafe as well, the main focus is really on the natural experience.  And you don’t have to wait long – as usually within moments you see a hummingbird darting through the flowering bushes!

A dirt track that soon turns into a well-kept path follows the curves of the mountainside and the fog rolls up from out of the valleys or hangs in patches dotting the landscape.  All this moisture allows for a wide array of plants to grow, including some leaves that could easy engulf not only Piper, but probably us as well!

It is a mystical place with the ever-changing fog, or cloud, enshrouding the path and giving fleeting glimpses of the surrounding mountains.  And then suddenly the bright equatorial sun will power through and the full beauty of the place will be on display.  The unique biodiversity right outside of Quito is a breath of fresh air – literally – and will keep your attention as you look left and right at new plants, flowers, or crane your neck to find the birds calling in the canopy above.

There are numerous bird species here, but the real draw is the variety of hummingbirds. Ecuador has around 130 varieties of hummingbird and around 15 are in Yanacocha.  Hummingbirds are truly magical to observe with their wing speed and ability to hover in place.  The colours on display are fantastic as well.  The only shame is that the reserve uses plastic feeders to help sustain the population.  Certainly a more natural solution would be preferable, but considering their hard work to help maintain native populations, it is hard to really argue with their methods.

All in all, this is a great little day, or even half day, trip out of Quito.  It’s provides the perfect opportunity to connect with nature in a micro climate not readily available even within Ecuador.

:: a weekend on the farm ::

Living in the Foreign Service sometimes leaves you feeling disconnected from the culture that surrounds you.  Despite making a life in a completely new and different culture, you are often never truly a part of it because of the lifestyle you live and the knowledge that you are but a transient member of the place.

To combat this, we try hard to get outside of our comfort zone and find experiences beyond the normal tourist trail.  To this end, we drove south one rainy weekend to a small farm in the Central Valley where are beloved nanny Elisa was raised.

Driving into the rich agricultural farmlands near the town of Latacunga, we bounced along the dirt roads until we pulled into the small farmstead.  There we found a small walled compound amongst fields of corns, broccoli and various other grasses.  Four cows were staked in an open area and various farm tools were at the ready for our use.

We were introduced to Elisa’s mother and some family members and then set off to work, first chopping broccoli stems with machetes for the cows.  Once we dumped large piles in front of the cows, we used crescent shaped knives to cut more grasses for the resident cuy (guinea pigs) and rabbits.  Through it all Piper was ready to cut, carry, or simply run around!

In fact, Piper was adored and photographed by all.  We were a little bit of an exotic appearance in a rural area not widely visited by foreigners, and numerous relatives and neighbours stopped by to watch with bemused looks our work peeling the small potatoes that would be made into soup with fairly dull knives.  We spent a lot of time convincing them all that we could do some of these daily tasks without issue, and that we, ‘gringos’, were fully capable and interested in doing a little manual labor!

We had meant to camp but the rain was so intense that the family insisted we sleep inside.  In attempting to demonstrate that we would be fine sleeping outside, we put up our waterproof tent in the shared living room to show how easy and sturdy it was.  This was a show in itself and they all seemed quite amazed at this ‘tent’, albeit amused as well that we would opt to sleep in that when a bed was available.

We spent two wonderful days lugging ridiculously heavy aloe plant pieces, weeding a relative’s newly created flower farm, collecting firewood, cutting grasses for the livestock and preparing potatoes for meals.  We were even able to explore the local market which was in full swing on a Saturday morning.  It was especially eye-opening, being in potato land, to see just how many types of potatoes one could buy in one place.

Through it all Piper was joyful to have time with Elisa, her daughter, and the various new child friends she developed. Mosa was thrilled too and thought it was great fun to wander the fields and occasionally harass the cows!

It was a truly special weekend that we hope to repeat soon.  It allowed us to better appreciate the challenges of a rural life here in Ecuador, get to know Elisa’s family and spend some time in the fresh air.  A huge thanks to Elisa and her family for hosting us – welcoming us, laughing with us, and making us feel part of the family.

:: 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!