:: cosy cusin ::

A hacienda conjures up grandiose historical context.  The mind wanders to rolling country estates with horse-riding nobility and a grand house with Spanish ceramic tiles.  You can find this type of hacienda in Ecuador, but nestled below the glowering peak of Volcan Imbabura is a different type of hacienda.

At Hacienda Cusin you can wander through towering trees, past llamas languidly chewing on grass, and hole up with a good book in front of a roaring fire.  Sure the horses are there as well, but Cusin is a cosier feeling hacienda.

Reconstructed after decades of disrepair, the owners have recreated a historical feeling amongst the cobblestoned pathways.  First established in 1602 by a powerful Spanish family, Cusin maintained an expansive presence along the valleys on the eastern end of Lago San Pablo near Otavalo.  At its peak, it controlled over 100,000 acres, all but redistributed following land reforms in the mid-20th century.  Now it is home to quaint rooms with fireplaces spread amongst the main house and several out buildings.

The rooms each have a unique character, but it is the gardens and newly built monastery that have the most character. Trees draped with moss and bromeliads provide a canopy for various hummingbird inducing flowers.  The friendly little group of llamas ignore most visitors – except when they get close enough for a kiss from my wife!

And the monastery – which we first thought was refurbished, but later learned was actually completely built from scratch in the 1990s – offers surprises behind a myriad of doors.  Hand carved columns, handmade furniture, a chapel and beautiful altar, and even a secret door, the monastery is a fabulous place to explore!  And if you are lucky to get a sunny day, the view from the top of the tower, accessed through the secret door (if you can find it!) is stunning.

If you haven’t explored enough, then check out their little farm.  They have a few horses, ducks, chickens, cuy and once we discovered a huge bee’s nest.  They can organize horse riding adventures, or else you can just watch the baby chicks wander around and look for their elusive rabbits.

And when you’re tired of that, check out their squash court, fusbol table, ping pong table, and several movie rooms. WiFi is free in the common areas, or disconnect on a garden bench or in front of the fire in your room.

Hacienda Cusin is friendly and welcoming and we all love going there – even Mosa who plays with the property’s dog Terry.  The staff know us, especially Piper, and treat us like familiar friends.  They know of Piper’s propensity for soup in the evenings, her tendency to fall asleep at the table soon thereafter and her desire to find the llamas!

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Any old ramshackle house with Spanish ceramic tiles and some gardens can call itself a hacienda, but it takes a special feel to make such a place feel like home – Hacienda Cusin is just such a place.  Thanks Hacienda Cusin for the great experience for us and our guests, each and every time we go.

:: roses of the equator ::

That Valentine’s Day rose you bought recently may very well have grown in the sun and volcanic soil of Ecuador.  As the world’s second largest exporter of roses, Ecuador is enjoying the sweet smell of success of its rose industry.

Blessed with year round temperate climates, relatively sunny conditions, and volcanic soil rich in nutrients, the roses here grow tall, straight, and wonderfully robust.  Driving through certain areas north of Quito you are surrounded by acres upon acres of greenhouses growing hundreds of varieties of roses.  This industry has become so important that the site of the new Quito Airport was chosen partially because of its proximity to the rose growing centres.  It even has its own refrigerated warehouses to ensure cold chain storage for the roses on their way out of the country.

We have been lucky enough to go to one of the rose farms for a tour of their facilities and the 100 year old house.  Rosadex is considered a medium rose exporter, with approximately 25 million stems exported last year.  The largest rose farms will grow over 100 million stems every year!

These farms are almost like little communities with day care and health care facilities on site for their hundreds of workers.  The benefits the workers receive are far better than outside the industry for similar types of jobs and due to that, retention is quite high.  This is crucial for the farms as the entire process is very exacting.  From the planting and cultivating, through the monitoring and picking, to the final selection and packaging, each step has a kind of art to it.

Familiarity with the hundreds of varieties of roses, and the different market tastes globally, will ensure that your roses are selected by international wholesalers.  In the crowded field of international exports, one cannot overlook the basics of having committed and knowledgable staff.

Ecuador’s major rose markets are the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China.  Each has a slightly different taste for roses – short stems and large heads in the U.S., the opposite in Europe, and long and large in Russia.  The Chinese market meanwhile has opened up a whole new niche job at these rose farms – dying experts.  Roses dyed the most exquisite array of colours are highly sought after in China – including multi-coloured petals!  It is a precise job that entails splitting the stem and putting different parts into different dyed liquid for the flower to draw up into the petals.  It is largely trial by error at first, but once a process is honed, it becomes carefully guarded.

Each rose farm will produce a variety of roses developed by breeders.  They typically use a stock root for each plant, so it’s strong and well rooted to maximize the growing possibilities.  Each rose comes with a unique name, often inspired by the breeder’s girlfriend, favorite holiday or music group – Pink Floyd, Cheryl, Hot Stuff to name a few.  For every stem they sell, the breeder will get a small royalty, a huge endeavour to track, but a great benefit to the breeders who must spend hours perfecting each variety.

Rosadex is a family run business that started a little over 25 years ago and is on land the family has owned for a century.  It is a marvellous location complete with an old Franciscan chapel, still used for family weddings!  The creaky floors and historic artefacts around the main house take you back decades, all a mere stone’s throw from a highly modernised business.  Every room is filled with roses, and the decor has subtle rose hints all over it.  It is the type of place you would hope to find a flower farm.

Next to the house is an old barn, where the Jesuits who owned the property would keep their dairy cows and farming supplies.  Today it is a magnificent showroom, home to no less than several hundred roses at any one time and historic artefacts from the property.

So, the next time you are picking up roses at the supermarket, look closely as they are likely from Ecuador.  We even saw a delivery of Ecuadorian roses to a supermarket in Kauai when we were on holiday!  Oh, and the ones that don’t make the export market are sold here locally – 25 roses for about $4.00!

If you would like to get some locally grown Ecuadorian roses shipped anywhere in the States, check out their website.  You can often get a 2 for 1 deal, and have 25 roses for about $35. That includes FedEx shipping. You can select a delivery date and they will keep fresh for at least two weeks! Roses are shipped directly from Rosedex Farm in Ecuador! http://www.roses2give.com

If you are planning a visit to Ecuador, the Rose Farm and House will soon be open for public tours.  They offer a breakfast, brunch or lunch option.  Each visit includes a tour of the rose farm, the house, the chapel and old barn, and a homemade meal and drinks.  It’s such a relaxing way to spend a few hours, surrounded by huge beautiful roses and enjoying delicious food in a historical setting!  In 2019 they will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the house, so surely there will be some special celebrations – with roses of course!

Gracias Martin, family and staff – pups included – for always being fabulous hosts!

:: living in the shadow ::

Ecuador is a country of volcanos.  Tall ones, extinct ones, and iconic ones.  From Quito they are visible in every direction and they truly capture the imagination.  For the beauty and majesty of spotting a distant volcano on the horizon, there is something truly spectacular about living literally underneath a nearly 16,000 foot active volcano.

Pichincha stands ever-present above the city and is impossible to ignore in your comings and goings.  The city stretches up its lower flanks and has repeatedly been showered in ash throughout the centuries – most recently in 1999.  The ever changing clouds and light playing off the expansive mountainside give texture to the shifting atmosphere around the city.  And if the natural beauty wasn’t enough, there is the historical significance of the location as well.

On 24 May 1822, a small battle on the slopes of Pichincha between the Royalist Spanish army and the army of independent Gran Colombia, which was a pan-Andean alliance, proved to be a pivotal turning point in the history of the independence movement of South America.  Fought at 3,500 metres above sea level and lasting mere hours, the decisive engagement permitted the independent forces to control Quito and therefore united the three areas of Quito, Cuenca and Guayaquil under the independent banner of Gran Colombia.  Eight years later those three city-states would merge into the newly independent nation of Ecuador.

The historical significance is sometimes lost in the sheer grandeur of the place, but it bares thinking about as you pass the sheer slopes, thick paramo grasses, and unforeseen gullies on your way up the volcano in the cable car.  In mere minutes the TeleferiQo will take you more than 1,000 metres up in elevation and deposit you over 4,000 metres above sea level.  There, if you are lucky to have a clear day, you are treated to truly panoramic views of Quito and a dozen, often snowcapped, volcanos on the horizon.

Bring your layers, as the wind whips across the open expanse, and your sunglasses, as the sun is extra intense.  Then, wander up to the various viewing locations to see the entire 2.2 million person city spread out below.  It is an incomparable view down, but then you turn around and see the rocky outcropping of Ruku Pichincha still another 700 metres above you.

Pichincha is one massive volcano that actually split itself into two separate summits – named Wawa (Kichwa for baby or child) and Ruku (Kichwa for elder).  Wawa is the higher peak by almost 100 metres, but Ruku is the more easily accessible with a trail leading up directly from the TeleferiQo station.

The trail up Ruku is pretty straightforward with a series of short, steep climbs over the paramo grasses until you reach the rocky face.  Skirting the Paso del Muerte (Pass of Death), the trail leads to a wonderfully energy sapping scree slope before the final scramble over the terraced rock face to the summit.

We have summited Ruku twice – once just the two of us with Mosa and the second time with Piper on our backs.  It is not a mountain to be taken lightly as weather conditions can change quickly from lovely to atrocious, but with a good amount of fitness and sensible caution, it is one of the easier climbs of the higher peaks.  In fact, it is frequently used as an acclimatisation climb by people with plans to climb the highest peaks in Ecuador.

Our climbs really couldn’t have been much different – with lovely mostly sunny conditions the first time and cloud the second time.  And I mean cloud, because we were climbing in the cloud for the last parts.  It gave the summit a very ephemeral feel and a sense that you were literally alone in the middle of the sky.

We have been up the TeleferiQo with numerous visitors for everything from a quick look around the views near the top station to rather arduous hikes through the paramo.  Every time is a little different and unfortunately only once, when Cora was up with friends, have all the volcanos, including Chimborazo 140km away, been visible.  We hope to have at least one more chance to see that expansive view before we depart, but with the schizophrenic Andean weather we will just have to wait and see!

In the meantime, we will enjoy the views of Pichincha with snow, cloud, and sun from Quito.

:: a city garden ::

Nestled within the expansive space of Quito’s quintessential city park, Parque Carolina, sits an oasis of magnificent biodiversity at the Jardín Botánico de Quito.  This little gem of a garden offers a glimpse into the awe-inspiring biodiversity of Ecuador.

Ecuador offers some of the greatest biodiversity in the world for its size – including a whopping 16% of all bird species on Earth!  Everywhere you travel is a new biome or micro-climate offering new flora and fauna to observe.  Obviously most people flock to the Galapagos to marvel at the endemic species that led Darwin to crystallise his thoughts on evolution.  However the rainforest areas in the east of the country offer a dizzying array of diversity hotspots.

Yasuni National Park, for example, is widely considered one of the most diverse locations in the world – certainly for its size.  The numbers are hard to comprehend, but it has more amphibians than the US and Canada combined, it has one-third of all bird species in the Amazon River basin, and a phenomenal 100,000 insect species!  All that in just one part of the Amazon region.

The Andes spine of the country would seemingly offer less variety, but with the paramo regions above 4,000 metres, lush river valleys, and pockets of cloud forests along both cordilleras, there are wonderful little areas to explore and a plethora of plant life.  Overall there are about seven biomes in Ecuador across four microclimates, making each different region a unique experience.

For anyone who doesn’t have time to properly explore this ecological powerhouse, the Botanic Garden in Quito is a good place to get a snippet of the diversity.  They have done a great job of bringing in plant and tree species from the different biomes – even though the altitude and climate in Quito does not naturally support all these species.  You can wander through the towering trees of the Amazon region and explore the diversity of the cloud forests within mere metres.

One of the truly impressive areas of the gardens is the orchid house.  Orchids are prolific here in Ecuador with over 4,000 classified species of orchid in Ecuador, including over 1,700 endemic to this magnificently diverse country.  The variety of these elegant flowers is stunning to behold.  We really needed our botanist friend and flower expert Stacy to come with us and help us to identify and marvel over these extraordinarily beautiful species.

You could spend a lifetime exploring every nook and cranny of Ecuador and not see every plant and animal on offer.  So the next time you are wandering through Quito on a short trip, make a stop at this lovely little ecological oasis to better appreciate the explosive diversity of this country.


:: 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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:: fiesta de la luz ::

Every year thousands of people descend on the Centro Historico in Quito to enjoy the choreography of lights that is the Fiesta de la Luz Quito (Quito Festival of Lights).  For one week, several historical buildings get their facades lit up with a vivid array of lights. Sometimes there are just various colours and other times it is an entire light show displaying animals, machinery, and people.

It is a rather intense experience as any conception of personal space must quickly be left behind.  There are gazillions of people trying to go in every direction with the expected mixture of tourists, hawkers, and thieves.  Travel with minimal possessions and literally keep your hands on the ones that you bring!  Due to that unfortunate byproduct of this event, we only brought our small camera, but hopefully the pictures and short video still do the National Basilica and National Theatre justice.

Thanks to our friends for the lovely dinner beforehand, and the company wandering around the chaos.  It was a wonderfully memorable evening.

:: 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!