Category: Quito

:: 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

:: 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.

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:: 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.

:: roses of the equator ::

That Valentine’s Day rose you bought recently may very well have grown in the sun and volcanic soil of Ecuador.  As the world’s second largest exporter of roses, Ecuador is enjoying the sweet smell of success of its rose industry.

Blessed with year round temperate climates, relatively sunny conditions, and volcanic soil rich in nutrients, the roses here grow tall, straight, and wonderfully robust.  Driving through certain areas north of Quito you are surrounded by acres upon acres of greenhouses growing hundreds of varieties of roses.  This industry has become so important that the site of the new Quito Airport was chosen partially because of its proximity to the rose growing centres.  It even has its own refrigerated warehouses to ensure cold chain storage for the roses on their way out of the country.

We have been lucky enough to go to one of the rose farms for a tour of their facilities and the 100 year old house.  Rosadex is considered a medium rose exporter, with approximately 25 million stems exported last year.  The largest rose farms will grow over 100 million stems every year!

These farms are almost like little communities with day care and health care facilities on site for their hundreds of workers.  The benefits the workers receive are far better than outside the industry for similar types of jobs and due to that, retention is quite high.  This is crucial for the farms as the entire process is very exacting.  From the planting and cultivating, through the monitoring and picking, to the final selection and packaging, each step has a kind of art to it.

Familiarity with the hundreds of varieties of roses, and the different market tastes globally, will ensure that your roses are selected by international wholesalers.  In the crowded field of international exports, one cannot overlook the basics of having committed and knowledgable staff.

Ecuador’s major rose markets are the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China.  Each has a slightly different taste for roses – short stems and large heads in the U.S., the opposite in Europe, and long and large in Russia.  The Chinese market meanwhile has opened up a whole new niche job at these rose farms – dying experts.  Roses dyed the most exquisite array of colours are highly sought after in China – including multi-coloured petals!  It is a precise job that entails splitting the stem and putting different parts into different dyed liquid for the flower to draw up into the petals.  It is largely trial by error at first, but once a process is honed, it becomes carefully guarded.

Each rose farm will produce a variety of roses developed by breeders.  They typically use a stock root for each plant, so it’s strong and well rooted to maximize the growing possibilities.  Each rose comes with a unique name, often inspired by the breeder’s girlfriend, favorite holiday or music group – Pink Floyd, Cheryl, Hot Stuff to name a few.  For every stem they sell, the breeder will get a small royalty, a huge endeavour to track, but a great benefit to the breeders who must spend hours perfecting each variety.

Rosadex is a family run business that started a little over 25 years ago and is on land the family has owned for a century.  It is a marvellous location complete with an old Franciscan chapel, still used for family weddings!  The creaky floors and historic artefacts around the main house take you back decades, all a mere stone’s throw from a highly modernised business.  Every room is filled with roses, and the decor has subtle rose hints all over it.  It is the type of place you would hope to find a flower farm.

Next to the house is an old barn, where the Jesuits who owned the property would keep their dairy cows and farming supplies.  Today it is a magnificent showroom, home to no less than several hundred roses at any one time and historic artefacts from the property.

So, the next time you are picking up roses at the supermarket, look closely as they are likely from Ecuador.  We even saw a delivery of Ecuadorian roses to a supermarket in Kauai when we were on holiday!  Oh, and the ones that don’t make the export market are sold here locally – 25 roses for about $4.00!

If you would like to get some locally grown Ecuadorian roses shipped anywhere in the States, check out their website.  You can often get a 2 for 1 deal, and have 25 roses for about $35. That includes FedEx shipping. You can select a delivery date and they will keep fresh for at least two weeks! Roses are shipped directly from Rosedex Farm in Ecuador! http://www.roses2give.com

If you are planning a visit to Ecuador, the Rose Farm and House will soon be open for public tours.  They offer a breakfast, brunch or lunch option.  Each visit includes a tour of the rose farm, the house, the chapel and old barn, and a homemade meal and drinks.  It’s such a relaxing way to spend a few hours, surrounded by huge beautiful roses and enjoying delicious food in a historical setting!  In 2019 they will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the house, so surely there will be some special celebrations – with roses of course!

Gracias Martin, family and staff – pups included – for always being fabulous hosts!

:: 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.

 

:: 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.