Author: cw and cora

:: 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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:: 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!

:: 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!

:: at the edge of the jungle ::

We arrived at the small car park of our resort and were greeted by very helpful staff, and a very large tarantula.  The mammoth spider was a small reminder that we were no longer in the safe confines of the mountains when it came to wildlife.  Instead, we had descended to the very western edge of the hot, humid jungle that stretches 3,000 km to the east across an enormous swath of South America.

Cotococha Lodge sits right on the banks of the Rio Napo, part of the same riverine system that leads to the Amazon River.  The water rushing past our cabana would eventually find its way into the Atlantic Ocean after flowing through some of the densest jungle and most biodiverse areas on earth.  Sitting under the mosquito net with the lights out, there was nothing but bugs chirping, leaves rustling and the sound of rushing water.  It was pristinely relaxing to walk amongst the stone paths and sit under the thatched roofs with a cold beer.

Of course one of the true reasons for venturing into the jungle to is to see wildlife – mostly on the smaller scale.  We went for a walk the first evening with our local guide Samay and he showed us more different types of ants than you could possibly imagine could live in such a small space.

There were ants you can eat that taste a bit like citrus fruit, ants that you can use to stitch a wound, ants that you can rub on your skin to serve as insect repellant, leaf-cutter ants that ride atop the leaves like old sailors in sailing ships and of course bullet ants, the insect with the fiercest bite/sting in the animal kingdom.  Then there were butterflies, stick bugs, the aforementioned tarantulas, scorpions and numerous others that we didn’t see.  The variety and ability of these animals, and the people who live amongst them, to adapt and survive was truly stunning.

Of course it isn’t just the bugs that are amazingly diverse.  Trees and plants grow in startling numbers and can be used for just about any purpose – hiding from enemies or prey, covering yourself from the rain, serving as a weapon or just adorning oneself for ceremonial purposes.  Towering trees, prickly bushes and low-level ground cover all jostle for space and light, forming a layered environment that is all things to the local communities that rely on them for food, medicine and protection.

One of the true highlights of our trip was the community visit where we experienced many of the daily routines and traditions of the lowland Kichwa.  We were greeted at the river’s edge by an elderly woman who showed us how they pan for gold.  Once used more for traditional adornments, the communities now mostly take these small collections to Tena to sell to be made into jewellery in the larger markets of Quito.  It was amazing to watch the skill and ease of effort this lady went through to unearth the gold flecks, but also how minimal the outcome was for such a task.

We were lucky to be able to witness a small ceremony in the community.  Earlier that morning Cora’s mom received a rather vicious bite from an unseen insect.  By the time we arrived at the community, she was still suffering and the ladies there sensed her bad energy.  The bite had left parts of her hand and arm feeling numb and had brought about extensive pain to boot.  The ladies took a handful of leaves and swept them through the smoke and over and around her head.  The pain was still there, but she felt much better and more positive overall, and was thrilled to have experienced a truly local method.

The local drink of yuca cooked down into a frothy bowl of liquid sustains the population for much of the morning.  It was a little sickly sweet for our liking, but Samay told us that two litres of it will see you through even the most punishing physical labour.  I struggled to imagine how I would fit two litres of the drink into my stomach and then do anything other than take a nap.  Nevertheless, it was fascinating to see how they went through the steps of making it.

Being in the jungle, you are forced to think differently about how you obtain food.  Here, they use a long pipe and blow a dart out the other end towards their target bird or other animal.  Though seemingly simple, in reality it is extremely difficult to stabilise and aim the pipe, and then blow with sufficient power to actually puncture the target.  Piper really liked the blow gun.  Just 14 months old and ready to take out prey from fifty paces!  I suspect that if we allowed her one, she would gladly play in the garden with the pipe, though Mosa would almost surely not be too happy with being a constant target!

Being close to the river means that the community has a ready supply of mud to make some stunning ceramics.  You can see the finished example above of a bowl that we used for the local drink.  The process to form and dry the bowl is fairly similar to any other type of ceramic, however they use an extremely hot fire and bits of water to make the final touches or flair to the bowls.  The bowls are then painted using brushes of their own hair and the colours come from seed pods of local plants – especially reds and blacks. The finished products are rather clean, crisp designs that make for perfect little serving bowls.

Of course Piper couldn’t resist stealing peoples’ hearts and before too long Samay and his family had been painted her face with the same seed pods that they use on the dishes!  She was very happy with the outcome!

The river is key to life in this area having long served as a means to move people and products through the thick jungle. We used the river a couple of times, once to the community and once to a wonderful waterfall hike.  The heat of the jungle made the cool pool under the waterfall all the more refreshing.  And the return trip allowed us the chance to float down the river at a gentle pace.  It was amazingly tranquil to float down the middle of a jungle with the sun shining and the cool water lapping at our hands and feet.

All in all our few days at the edge of the jungle showed us the true diversity of this amazing ecosystem and whetted our appetite for the future prospect of a longer, more in depth exploration.

:: 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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