Author: cora and cw

:: 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.

:: 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.

:: baños ::

There is something in the water in Baños, a small town in the middle of Ecuador.  Some people will tell you it is holy.  Others say that it has minerals that lead to better health.  Others don’t care about the water because they are too busy throwing themselves off bridges, swinging over cliff edges, and ziplining across river gorges, and quite frankly the water wouldn’t help them even if it did have magic properties!

Nestled in a peaceful river valley and guarded by the 5,000 metre high, and rather active, Tungurahua Volcano, Baños is a destination with a little bit of everything.  It is a common stopping point on the backpackers circuit, but it also attracts lots of local Ecuadorians for the spa baths and laid-back attitude.  It is a place that can tempt someone to visit for three days and then never leave – as evidenced by many of the hostel and restaurant owners!

With our 14 month old Piper in tow, thereby limiting the amount of white water rafting and mountain biking we could do, we opted to go for a lovely hike along the fields and hillsides overlooking Rio Pastaza.  We were hoping that Tungurahua would show itself, but it remained mysterious and shrouded in the clouds.

We wandered along a winding path up into the small fields and rampant plant life of the area.  The moisture that comes up out of the Amazon region and the lower altitudes makes the whole region from Ambato to Baños a prime fruit and vegetable growing territory.  We saw lots of tomate de arbol trees, also known as tomarillo (a fruit commonly made into juice here), maracuyas,  or passionfruit in English, (another fruit that makes an even better juice), and normal tomatoes as well.

In fact, we had a lovely little exchange with a family harvesting their tomatoes as they stood on the other side of the small river valley from their greenhouses.  They were using a tarabita – a small metal cart that hangs off of a metal cable operated by a pulley system.  Using this simple mechanised transportation system saved this family hours of hauling wooden crates of tomatoes down and then back up the steep slopes of the river gorge.  Cora helped to unload a few crates, gaining bemused looks from the family which was clearly not used to gringas moving their tomato harvest!  We exchanged a couple of cereal bars for fresh tomatoes – so good we enjoyed them right there as we hiked!

Back in Baños we wandered into churches and past cafes.  We saw a small local festival, admired the local graffiti and watched people at the ubiquitous candy shops pulling the equivalent of taffy in the doorways.  It was odd to see so many of these shops all offering their version of the same thing and literally standing mere feet from each other as they pulled long strings of the light brown sticky substances off of pegs.  Wrap and pull, wrap and pull, and at some point determine it is ready!

An unexpected find was a classic Italian trattoria, owned by a native Italian!  Carpe Diem had fantastic handmade pastas and a casual setting away from the main area of town that made it perfect for us.  We are not huge connoisseurs of Italian cuisine, but this was truly wonderful home style cooking.

A common outing from town is to hire bikes and ride the road down the river valley heading towards the jungle.  Along this road are a series of waterfalls, the most famous of which is El Pailon del Diablo or Devil’s Cauldron.  This thunderous waterfall carves its way through a narrow gorge to dramatic effect.  To truly experience it, you can walk down into the river gorge on a fairly well built path and then slink your way under and around rocks to stand virtually under the flow (bring a change of clothes).  It is loud, wet, and intense but well worth the effort to get so close to a true spectacle of nature.

A trip to Baños wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the baños, the thermal baths.  The main baths were in the centre of town at the base of a waterfall.  We opted to go as night fell to experience these magical waters under the stars.  Every afternoon they empty the pools and refill them from the source so we were treated to a lovely clean and hot thermal bath. Though we arrived early, soon the baths were full of people enjoying their warmth and healing.  It was a great experience seeing people of all walks of life relaxing and enjoying the waters.

Our home away from home for the couple of nights was La Casa Verde.  Set a couple of kilometres outside the city centre and right along the river, it is a quiet oasis with a very eco-friendly approach.  The hospitality from Sharon and Steven, the temporary managers, was phenomenal.  These two took a hiatus from teaching in international schools to slow down a bit and try their hand at running an eco hostel.  They did a fantastic job and had great insights on the area.  Strangely the actual owners intended to hold a lottery to ‘auction’ off the place.  For one dollar you could enter and they would pull out a winner, who would soon become the new owners.  Tempting as it was to pack it all in and move to Baños – we decided to skip the opportunity.  The world is just too big to settle down in one place quite yet, but Baños was a lovely place to experience!

:: nest of the condor ::

Sometimes you don’t have to go far to find beauty and seclusion.  A mere hour or so from our house into the Rio Pita Valley, and heading directly for Cotopaxi Volcano, we found Condor Machay waterfall.

The path to this 80 metre high waterfall takes you along the rushing river, through a green lush paradise with moss clinging to every tree and rock, tree branches overhanging the trail, waterfalls trickling down rocks and roots claiming ownership over the path.

Tucked into a deep sided gorge, you can see why the waterfall was named Condor Machay, which means ‘nest of the condor’ in the area’s indigenous language Quechua.  Here you feel as if you are a million miles away from humanity, when really you are mere miles from the outskirts of Quito.  It is intoxicating.

The path snakes across several bridges, some rather rickety, crossing the river as it cuts its way through the landscape.  After a wonderfully leisurely, and yet full, hike, you get a quick glimpse of the surprise at the end, before diving back into the trees.  Finally, the path opens into an expansive space full of mist from the water crashing down.  The scale is hard to believe without a subject in front.  With its ever changing light, the gorge feels like a completely different place.

Sitting here watching the water running off the rock face above, it is easy to feel a connection with the landscape and to ponder the monumental forces that nature can affect.  It is almost enough to wander off into the wild and just stay out there!

 

 

DIRECTIONS:

Search for ‘Rumipamba Waterfalls Trailhead’on Google Maps (and open if Waze if you want).  Be sure to go to this point and not where it is marked Condor Machay as you may end up on the other side of the gorge, or where there is no road/access.  Park at the bottom of the hill and pay the parking attendant a few dollars.  It’s fairly safe but make sure you don’t leave anything in sight in your vehicle as usual and lock everything up.  There are two trails starting at this point – to the right is Condor Machay. To the left is also meant to be beautiful but about 20 minutes in requires a wet and sometimes deep river crossing so be prepared.  It takes us an hour or so from Cumbaya to arrive, and about 1h40 minutes to 2 hours to get to the waterfall itself.  Enjoy!

:: volcanic camping ::

Mere minutes from the middle of the world sits a deep volcanic crater that is still technically active.  I say active because it isn’t extinct, but it also hasn’t erupted in hundreds of thousands of years.  So active might be a bit of a misnomer.

Pululahua Volcano and crater are now protected as the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve.  Pululahua, which means ‘cloud of water’ in Quichua, is aptly named as most days the crater is filled with thick clouds that roll in late morning.  It’s quite a magical thing to experience, but for those trying to see the crater for a brief moment from the upper viewpoint it can often be impossible.

At the base of the crater are a few small farmsteads and a campsite, complete with fire pits, running water, and for some of our friends the key selling point – flushing toilets.  Along with three other families, we took advantage of the still dry weather and spent two nights away from the city in the quite heart of a volcano.

There are two ways into, or out of, the crater.  You can either drive a rather fun dirt track with too many switchbacks to count or you can hike down from the rim.  With all our camping kit and little Piper we decided to drive.  Once all four carloads of people arrived we were quite the group of eight adults and 11 kids.

We had a great time sitting around the campfire, going on a hike, and playing bocce with glow in the dark balls!

 

We were lucky and had amazingly clear weather almost all weekend depsite the usual clouds that roll in.  Through it all Piper was a true outdoor loving camping guru – even though it was her first time.  She loved trying to follow the other kids around, slept great in amongst the sleeping bags, and generally just had a fantastic time.

All in all it was a terrific weekend with great weather, laughter and friends! Looking forward to future camping adventures in Ecuador soon!