Category: Culture

:: tagua ::

Creativity is found in the most unlikely of places sometimes. Set deep in a residential neighborhood of Quito, a local Ecuadorian family makes a living making magic happen from a simple seed. The end result is jewelry in a mixture of fantastical colours, shapes, and sizes – all made from the tagua seed.

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Starting with a coconut seed from the tagua palm trees found along the central Ecuadorian coast, Gladys Moquinche’s family dries, peels, polishes, shapes, polishes again, dyes, dries and polishes a third time, and then drills holes to make beads. Sounds simple, until you realize that the seeds are small and hard and so it’s necessary to use high powered sanders and saws to conjure up the desired final product.

The workshop is a bit of a hodge podge mixture of rock tumblers, hole punchers, and other mechanized machinery in a series of unfinished cinder block and tin-roofed structures and rooms. It’s easy to cringe when you see them working, as they are doing everything by hand without much protection.  Their fingers and hands are put on trial daily through their work, and unfortunately they don’t always win so cuts and more severe injuries can be common.

Tagua has historically been used for buttons, chess pieces, pipes, and a myriad of other purposes for centuries and is also called vegetable ivory. Gladys typically uses the tagua to create beads of eccentric shapes and sizes. But they have also dappled in making buttons and even miniature pipes.

A trip to this family workshop is an experience of creative chaos. Any given day can see the family doing half a dozen different steps of the process and the seeds often lay strewn about the yard, out-buildings, workshop, and their jewelry making room in bags, boxes, or just the ground. Colours pop out from every corner, the result of imported Italian dyes that Gladys herself mixes into the exquisite, and unique, tints. Cooking the seeds on a gas-fired outdoor stove for an hour or even eight, the rich colours soak into the seed to create the vibrancy of the final product.

Today, Gladys has expanded her work with natural resources to include pambil and acai palm seeds as well. The designs are intricate, colorful, bold, elaborate, and unique. Pieces that would sell for ten times the cost in the US or UK are mere dollars here. The photos we have are just some snaps of what friends and family purchases and don’t do her work real justice.

In fact, many of the vendors in Quito’s artisanal market or the markets in and around Otavalo buy their beads from Gladys and then sell their jewelry for double the price. It’s best to come to the source and truly experience the way creativity produces something of true and unique beauty.

If you are keen to visit, be sure to give them a call before you go, and send our best!  Jose Luis Toabpanta Quishpe | 0995483580 |

:: centro historico ::

In the lifestyle of the Foreign Service, sometimes you bypass the tourist phase and go straight to establishing your house, friend networks, and local hangouts.  Two years is a remarkably quick time and so we waste no time in making our house feel like a proper home and finding where to go for the best local produce and a good meal.  Before you know it, days or weeks can go by and you haven’t really explored the city that you now call home.

I won’t begin to ascribe any meaningful introspection to our decision to explore Quito’s Centro Historico during our first weekend here.  It was a long four day weekend, we had very little of our stuff and limited connections yet, so a day out exploring the UNESCO world heritage site made a whole lot of sense.  Even if it did rain on us most of the time.

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We really had no idea what we would encounter on our first foray into the heart of Quito, but the short answer was churches, Ecuadorian tourists, and a vibrant mix of colonial architecture and small cobblestone streets. Quito’s historic centre was one of the first UNESCO heritage sites in 1978 and was given this honour due to its historical significance and well preserved nature.  With over 130 historically maintained buildings and the largest concentration of churches in Latin America, it is quite a place to walk around and soak up the history and culture of Ecuador.

Since that first weekend we have been back numerous times and have enjoyed the plazas, museums, and artisanal shops. We have seen it lit up and from many different angles, but we have gravitated to certain places such as Calle La Ronda, Plaza San Francisco, and La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús or the Basilica.

We frequently start at the Basilica Nacional, which has two great advantages.  First, its imposing view over the spires and ceramic tiled roofs of the old city gives you a great introduction to the whole location before you are in amidst the walls and narrow streets.  Second, you don’t have to climb up the rather steep hill to see the Basilica!

The building is faux gothic – having been constructed in the 1970s and 80s mostly out of concrete. It gargoyles are missing pieces and the two clocks in the tower don’t work, but it is an experience to walk on a wooden catwalk over the arched roof of the nave. And then the vertiginous ladders up to the tower that gives you the finest views of the city – except from the top of Pichincha!

What is always great about the centro historico is the vibrancy of the people. Yes, it is a world heritage site, but the Ecuadorians are going about their business like it is any other normal day or place. It feels like any other city centre in the country, with fabric stalls, small shops lining the narrow roads, and vendors selling all sundries out in the plazas. The regular options of chifles, ice cream, and umbrellas when the rain clouds roll in are all available – as are the shoe shine guys.

Towering above the area is the statue of the Virgin Mary atop the Panecillo – little bread mount. This enormous status is visible throughout much of Quito, but especially so from the old city.  It affords great views from the top, but is really only accessible via car – the stairs up are long, steep, and prone to muggers.

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One of our favourite little corners is Calle La Ronda. This once forgotten part of the old city has been the focus of the city’s efforts to entice small artisans to create workshops and small galleries to display their myriad talents. It is a mostly pedestrianized area that has a few nice little restaurants as well. We particularly enjoy the honey shop Api Real which produces honey from bees that are kept on Ilalo – the extinct volcano directly across the valley from our house, and other locations around Ecuador. Our favorite, the local eucalyptus honey.

One of the key plazas has been unfortunately under construction due to the large Quito Metro project, which is quite the engineering challenge. Building a tunnel under the length of Quito, in a highly seismic zone must keep the engineers up at night! Also, having to pull up all the historic cobblestones, only to replace them exactly in the correct places will undoubtedly prove to be quite the undertaking.

Nestled under the La Iglesia San Francisco is a touristy restaurant and gift shop Tianguez. The food is pretty good, but it is the warren of tunnels and rooms leading off the main gift shop that is the real reason to venture here. Displaying traditional arts and crafts from all over Ecuador, this maze reveals its treasures one hidden turn after the next. Just watch your head!

The centro historico has so much to offer, with the Good Friday Procession, Quito Days celebrations, and a hundred more activities and venues. Even when you aren’t right in the centre it can draw your attention. Sitting on a hill overlooking the old city is a lovely little restaurant Cafe Mosaico that offers fantastic views of the sunset over Pichincha. As you enjoy a cocktail or local dish, the magical dusk settles over a corner of Quito that has seen much change since its founding in 1534, yet it retains an old world charm about it. It is a view that can be quietly enjoyed and contemplated for hours.




:: good friday procession ::

We weren’t really prepared for the intense demonstrations of faith that are an integral part of the Good Friday procession in Quito.  We had heard that the procession is an enormous event.  All through the streets of the Centro Historico, thousands of people slowly march in front of the enormous glass enclosed figure of Jesus del Gran Poder, a representation of Jesus carrying his cross on the way to being crucified.  The procession in Quito is one of the largest in the world and hundreds of churches send their penitents to take part.

It is a little overwhelming to see the commitment that these people undertake.  Each group will have one, or more, ‘Jesus’ carrying a cross, with a crown of thorns, and invariably with chained ankles.  Some of these crosses are enormous tree trunks or telephone poles and require assistants to help lift it on and off the shoulder each time there is a stop in the procession – which occurs frequently.  Barefoot, over cobbled streets, and up and down the hills of Quito – this is a show of faith that is to be respected regardless of your religious leanings.

Sprinkled in are people walking with cacti crosses strapped to their bare backs, complete with their blood dripping down. Arms tied out to form a cross, the physical pain to the shoulders must be intense.  Women and children take part, with many of the women playing the role of Veronica – the woman who gave Jesus a cloth to wipe his face on his procession to be crucified.  For the rest of the marchers, they are dressed in purple robes and tall pointed hoods and walk silently throughout.  Bands play religious music and help inspire the marchers.

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All in all it was an amazing experience, but we decided not to wait the requisite hours to see Jesus del Gran Poder – especially since we had three kiddos under the age of 9 with us!  It was another great reminder of how lucky we are in the foreign service to have these chances to see cultural events up close and in person.

:: the real mitad del mundo ::

The strangely touristy thrill of standing in two hemispheres can easily be fulfilled just outside of Quito. There is a thriving tourist complex claiming to be the middle of the world. Well the equator is a rather lengthy line and there are many places to stand on the middle. However, the true claim to understanding Ecuador’s claim to being la ‘mitad del mundo’ can be explored a little further from the touristy glare.

Quitsato is an enormous sundial set precisely on the equator. In fact, unlike the tourist Ciudad Mitad del Mundo, this measurement has been confirmed accurate using the latest in geospatial technology. Yes it is cool to stand in both the northern and southern hemispheres, but the real allure of this place is the astronomical and historical knowledge.

Since the days of pre-Incan society, people aligned themselves and their settlements to the movements of the sun. Standing within the sundial, the staff explain the annual movement of the sun and how it aligns with archeological sites scattered around the area. These sites sit on the exact lines that the rising and setting sun make on the two equinoxes and the two solstices.

Going even further, it shows that the centro historico of Quito itself was aligned to one of these lines and that the famous Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús has a special window that permits the sun to shine through and alight a piece of the altar on the solstice.

So, why the ‘middle of the world’ then? It is because the topography of Ecuador permitted the ancient people to understand the movement of the sun in a way that is difficult in other places in which the equator passes. On most of its journey the equator is over open seas or lush equatorial rainforest – not places conducive to the type of precise astronomical calculations needed to witness sunrises and sunsets.

Standing at Quitsato you see the slopes of Cayambe volcano to the east – also the highest point on the equator. And as you turn in each direction there are clear hillsides that mark the solstices and equinoxes. And on every one of those hillsides is an archeological site.  Incredibly, the ancients understood the sun and its movements in a way that most 21st century humans can only pretend to understand – even with our technology. It is impressive to stand there and feel a connection to this shared human experience.

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It’s highly worth checking out their website if you can’t make a trip there in person. They have loads of information about the equator and their work, and some lovely images with local Ecuadorian dancers at this important landmark. The short video on their homepage is beautiful:  Thank you Josue and your team for always being so welcoming and informative on all of our visits with friends and family.

:: 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.

:: more adventures on the farm ::

Oh the stories the locals will have of the time the gringos came and dug a ditch!  We returned to the wonderful hospitality of Elisa’s family farm recently and could not sit idly by when there was work to be done.  We thought that we would be doing normal farm tasks like our last visit, but there were larger projects to tackle.

Unbeknownst to us, or Elisa, her family was responsible for helping on a community project the weekend we were there. Called a minga, each family in the community is required to assist in completing a project necessary in the area.  In this case, the minga involved digging a ditch for a new water pipe.  Elisa’s family had 20 meters of ditch to dig and so we went with picks and shovels and lent our not so skilled, or calloused, hands.

It was good to offer a hand to the hard working and remarkably friendly family and though they protested that we should be relaxing on our weekend, I think they were quite pleased to have our help.  We dug our piece of the ditch whilst people complained about where they had to work and how far it really was and how deep as well.  We contended with a rickety pick-axe that repeatedly broke off in the hard soil and a different water pipe running diagonally across our ditch, but we got there in the end!

One thing we were really keen to experience was seeing the whole cuy making process.  Yes, cuy is guinea pig, but it is a special meal for families in this part of Ecuador and we were honoured to have the chance to enjoy it with everyone. Mamachula – the matriarch of the family – did much of the initial preparing while we were out digging our ditch.  But we saw the remnants when we got back – intestines and blood and other bits that they would no doubt use somehow.

Once prepared, the cuy were tied onto long spits and placed on the braai – which was a gift from us all the way from Lesotho. They use the tips of aloe plants for puncturing the skin to ensure they don’t explode from the heat and leeks to brush oil onto the skin.  It is a long process with lots of turning, but we enjoyed sitting and talking with Elisa’s sisters and brothers and her dad, Papachulo – the patriach.  The final product was delicious – served with potatoes, rice and a peanut sauce.

Piper was once more the star of the weekend with everyone amazed at how much she had grown in ten months.  She was speaking up a storm and stole ‘mamachula’s’ heart once more!  She also decided to name the new farm cat ‘pescado’ – so they now have a cat named fish!

Beyond our unexpected community service we helped plant maize, choclo, and beans in the family field.  We picked capuli – cherry like fruits that make a wonderful drink – from a towering tree.  And we cleared out several large aloe plants for a new ‘driveway’ to Elisa’s brother’s house.  It was refreshing to be back in the campo under the commanding view of Cotopaxi and have the opportunity to give a little back to Elisa and her family for everything she does for us.  Piper had a blast romping in the fields with Mosa and Kevin – one of Elisa’s nephews.

We also had the chance to briefly go to the flower farm that we had helped last time by weeding seedlings.  They have expanded from one greenhouse to five and the flowers are absolutely stunning!  Competition is fierce though so the family has to consider changing crop to make it worthwhile.

It is not an easy life in the campo, but the quiet hospitality and earnest nature of all made us once again feel at home.  We will miss the opportunity to go back, but know that any future visit to Ecuador will see us welcomed back with open arms!  Thank you Familia Maigua for always opening your home and your hearts to us.  We will truly miss you.

:: 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.

:: charming cuenca ::

If there was any doubt about Ecuador’s Spanish colonial history, all you need do is look at the squares that dominate every city, town, and village across the country. The curving paths around fountains, lush trees and blossoming flowers, colorful buildings with cast iron balconies and large windows, countless domes and archways are reminiscent of the many cities of Spain.

Nestled in the southern spine of the Ecuadorian Andes, Cuenca is a city of spires, squares, and exquisite colonial architecture. It is smaller and more laid back than either Quito or Guayaquil but still a bustling place in its own way.  It’s a wonderful place to stay a few days, or even years as is the case of many expats who have decided to stay. With a nice and compact city centre that is easily walkable, Cuenca lends itself to aimless meandering walks.

If you give yourself to the freedom of having no where to be, then Cuenca exposes great little wonders from the cobbled alleyways to the small artisanal shops and colorful street decor. The simple pleasure of an ice cream cone in the park can be fully appreciated for the slower pace of life. It is what travelling is meant to expose.

We admittedly didn’t spend a lot of time in the city itself, preferring to explore the wilds of Cajas National Park and the surrounding artisanal villages, but it was clear how one could find a quiet peace in the city; and stay.



:: an artisanal day ::

“Hola ladron.” Nothing like being called a thief to feel right at home! On a small dusty mountain road outside of Cuenca we were on the hunt for the small village of San Bartolome, home to guitar and charango (a small Andean string instrument) makers. However, the local government website had given us a rather incorrect location and so, we apparently looked a little shady to the little girl standing in front of her house.

The villages around Cuenca are renowned for their unique artisanal skills, be they instruments, silver and gold filigree jewelry, or dyed shawls painstakingly made by hand. Each one is nestled amongst the river valleys of the region, with twisting country roads, dirt tracks, sweeping vistas, cattle and local villagers working in the fields.

Our first, and most fruitful stop, was at a famous Ikat weaver. This style of weaving is done by hand on wood looms and creates wonderfully soft and delicate shawls and scarfs. The colours are vibrant and some of the designs are meticulously produced. Jose Jimenez has been doing this all his life and he is rightfully considered one of the very best.

We were led through the process that included an in depth description and demonstration of how the colours are produced. It is all natural, with rocks, seeds, flowers, and other items used to create the dye colouring. We watched as the colours changed in his hand as he added new ingredients.

Before our ill-fated venture to locate San Bartolome, we stopped in Chordeleg, which is famous for its finely produced filigree jewelry. Predominately in silver and all strangely similar in design and size, we wandered from location to location searching for the right piece. We were unable to find it and so we bought some black pottery pieces instead! The jewelry was exquisitely made and you could easily see the skill involved, but it didn’t quite do it for us.

Our incorrect directions which landed us at the home of a little girl did afford us a lovely little cultural experience as what looked to be an entire village paraded past us on horses and in very ornate traditional clothing. They were heading to a fiesta at the town across the valley and we were able to sit on the side of the track and watch them stream past us – music playing the whole way.

We did finally find the village with the guitar makers, but most shops were closed. We went into one to see the final produced, polished pieces. Once more we didn’t make a purchase, but the experience of seeing these finely crafted items in these small, basic workshops, was inspiring. It is an amazing thing to give yourself into a craft, and the people in these villages have been doing that for generations and continue to produce stunning products.

:: They are from Ecuador! ::

Panama hats are the most misleadingly named item in the world. These distinctive hats are actually made in Ecuador – and have been for centuries. The name comes from an entrepreneurial businessman who realized that the hats were perfect for the influx of people crossing the isthmus of Panama on their way to the west coast of the U.S. in the mid-19th century for the gold rush. He had a ready made market and since they were in Panama, why not give them that name, and it stuck.


Making these hats is truly an art. After the palm straw is sifted to create evenly distributed selections, it is then intricately woven by hand, never with a machine. Hours and hours later, the hats take their form.  From there, the hats are usually sent to be shaped and finished in a larger workshop. Some are mass produced for the tourist markets around Ecuador, but the true craftsmen can spend months weaving a single hat.  Check out this story of a man who is known for the world’s finest panama hat.

There are two main areas for Panama hats in Ecuador – Montecristi along the coast and Cuenca. Montecristi is the true historical heart of the craft, but it has been somewhat pushed aside by the more commercial ventures in Cuenca. Most of the hats sold in Cuenca are actually handwoven by villagers spread out around the outskirts of the city and then purchased, or originally commissioned, by the big hat vendors. We went to the ‘factory’ of one of the biggest vendors in Ecuador, Homero Ortega, to see the process firsthand.

The key thing to remember is that the process actually involves several people, not just the weaver, and each of these individuals have a special skill set crucial for the outcome. There are the people who prepare the straw, shape the finished weave, iron the brim, and sew on the ribbons. Traditionally this would have all been done in a small workshop, probably within one family unit, but now that this is such a huge international industry, the finishing touches are frequently done at centres such as the one we toured.

Homero Ortega was a nicely laid out location with a small museum area where they told us the history and showed us the more traditional means for creating the hats. Then we saw their shaping, blanching, and ironing shop. Using molds, the hats are shaped into the correct sizes and then a high heat pressurized machine sets that shape before the brim is ironed out. It is all very mechanical, but the basis of the original skill is still being applied.

After seeing more of the process, you have a chance to visit the showroom where you are tempted by countless beautiful designs. Here there were hats ranging from the traditional white, to the not so traditional pink. These hats are very stylish in Ecuador and worldwide and so the variety needs to match the market.

We each tried on several hats before deciding on our final selections. One of us in particular was super happy with our purchases.  Now we are ready for the equatorial sun!

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