Author: cw and cora

:: 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!

:: 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.