Category: Nature

:: 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 | joseluiselbrand@gmail.com

:: cascada de peguche ::

It rains a fair bit in Ecuador.  Small streams are frequently torrents of water, thus leading to many waterfalls.  Most are hidden well out of site in the jungles and cloud forests, but some, like the Cascada de Peguche near Otavalo, are quite accessible.

The Cascada de Peguche is not a large waterfall, only a mere 20 metres or so, but there is an intensity to the water that is impressive.  And with usually only a handful of visitors it is quite a tranquil place amongst the trees.

We have been pleasantly impressed by the number of Ecuadorians who get out and enjoy the tourist sites, both natural and cultural, within their country.  On most of our visits to Peguche there were only a couple of dozen people around, enjoying leisurely walks and the falls.

During Carnival, however, we were among a thousand or more people – all of them spraying espuma (coloured shaving cream) and throwing water balloons at everyone else.  It was a very festive atmosphere but not at all conducive to quiet contemplation of nature or staying dry!

That aside, it is a lovely area with a nice easy hike through towering eucalyptus trees – at least one of which is 100 years old – along side a lovely stream.  It is very family and pet friendly, and you can find a few local vendors outside the entrance selling trinkets, souvenirs and local delicacies.

There are some small pools below the falls that are ritually important for the local Kichwa community.  Every year before the Inti Raymi Sun God Festival on June 21, people come and cleanse themselves in order to prepare spiritually for the celebrations.  I imagine that is quite a busy day as well, but more culturally significant and probably less chaotic than the espuma fights during Carnival!

All in all you can’t go wrong with a little side trip to Peguche if you are in Otavalo. The place really is beautiful and there are also some impressive traditional weaving workshops in the town itself that are well worth a stop.

:: crater sacrifice ::

Standing in a rickety old ceramic pot perched above a cliff would not have been a great idea in pre-colombian times. At the time, the inhabitants of the area around Laguna Cuicocha thought sacrifices were necessary to appease the gods. Now the rickety pot stands atop a commanding view of the crater filled lake Cuicocha and Cotacachi volcano towering above it.

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The lake is completely self-contained within the crater created by a massive eruption a little over 3000 years ago. The lake gets its name from the two small islands shaped like guinea pigs or cuy.

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The crater and area still hold sacred importance to the indigenous people and a large Inti Raymi or sun god festival is held every year on the summer solstice. The ritual baths are used and faux sacrificial ceremonies are held as well.

A short drive up from the leather making town of Cotacachi, Cuicocha stands on the very southeastern edge of the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve. A hiking trail rings the crater’s rim and along the way there are many lovely places to stand and contemplate the natural beauty of the world.

The weather invariably didn’t fully cooperate to display the occasionally snow covered peak of Cotacachi everytime, but it was always a wonderful excursion in order to sacrifice our guests, figuratively of course.

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And just for fun, here are a few of those we sacrificed over the two years in Ecuador…

 

:: imbabura ::

Up.  Then up some more.  Then straight up.  That is roughly how I would describe climbing Imbabura.

By its very nature mountain climbing involves going up, but this mountain is not like the rolling inclines of Pichincha.  No, it is a knock you in the lungs, step by step, assault from the moment you get out of the car.  But it’s truly stunning and well worth the climb!

The weather was beautiful and sunny to start as we slowly climbed up through the paramo with sweeping views of the valley and Ibarra below.  However Imbabura is infamous for inclement weather on the top and before long the clouds rolled down the flanks of the mountain and grey misty conditions became our reality.

This didn’t deter us in the least, in fact it was rather magical to climb through the ever rockier landscape with swirling clouds all around us.  Sudden reveals of steep, rocky descents were slightly off putting to our good friend Matt with his fear of heights, but they did keep us on our toes!

The climbing got a bit harder and more technical towards the top and with an increasingly restless toddler on our backs, we took the wise and well-considered decision to cut short our ascent just shy of the peak.  It had been a good, but tough, climb and we all really enjoyed the day out on the mountain.

:: 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.

 

:: pacho’s finca ::

The rich volcanic soil of Ecuador is only half the formula according to Pacho.  A man fully wedded to the soil, process, and fertiliser of his organic farm knows a thing or two about what it takes to grow exquisite produce in Ecuador.  Twice a year he opens up his finca in Pifo – out by the Quito Airport – for the curious to come and see the operation and hear him spin his tales of success.

Pacho is a super passionate individual who can talk for hours about the most minute detail of the organic process.  In fact, his favourite topic seems to be the process required to develop the best fertiliser and he talked about that at his huge compost pile for at least an hour the day we were there!  He was one of the first organic producers in Ecuador and still leads training for those trying to emulate his success.

The garden is enormous with rows upon rows of kale, spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, zucchini, fruit trees and more.  All are interspersed with grasses and weeds which help keep the bugs at bay – a nice little tip we picked up.

He brings in local vendors selling jam, bread, pottery, honey, and beer that share his love of the naturally homemade.  It is quite a scene and whilst we couldn’t fully invest the time to learn the inner workings of a compost pile, we came away with a wonderful appreciation for what is possible and the true joys of a natural garden – something that we love to replicate in our own small ways.

Find out more about Pacho’s Finca at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qC5Ig3T4NY

Check out his open house – Casa Abierta opportunity twice a year

Finca Orgánica Chaupi Molino – +593 99 824 00 47

:: hot relaxation ::

Relaxing in a hot spring with a light rain falling is truly a wonderful feeling. The extra steam that the rain causes and the mist hanging over the mountainsides make the setting feel hundreds of miles away from reality. Sitting in an area of volcanic fed hot springs, the little town of Papallacta is a perfect little escape from Quito. Only 40 kilometres up and over the 4,000 metre Papallacta Pass brings you to a place nestled amongst the eastern cordillera of the Andes.

The road is excellent and the views are stunning on the way up – with expansive hillsides giving way to the occasional view of the snow capped peak of Antisana – the fourth highest mountain in Ecuador. There are hiking trails to enjoy and the promise of bespectacled bears wandering out in the paramo, but we never saw any on our trips.

The baths themselves are well maintained and offer a truly relaxing setting. Spa treatments and lunch are easily at hand and for those that want an extra lengthy pampering session, you can spend the night and enjoy semi-private pools just outside of your room.  You can even take a break from it all and explore the short hiking trail loop above the spa.

The main pools offer a variety of water temperatures and sizes, perfect for everyone – toddlers included! Piper loved the warm water and fountains that would pour out on our heads. She even took to jumping in from the side the last time we went! For the truly brave there is a plunge pool fed directly from the non-volcanic stream. The sudden rush of near freezing water is not for the faint of heart – literally!

Whether you partake in all or some of these offerings, it is a wonderful experience to ease into the relaxing waters high up in the Andes. The peace and tranquility are hard to beat.

:: 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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:: 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!