Exploring Nabon: The Last Great Stone Mill and “Chinita” in Wonderland
Laurie Paternoster and Mike Churchman in Nabon, Ecuador.
Nabon, Ecuador, is a quiet village just 70 kilometers from Cuenca, where history and fantasy meet.
High in the Andes Mountains, in a bowl surrounded by 9,000 foot peaks, Nabon offers a quiet, simple life. A small canton of about 16,000 people, it is known as a “matriarchal village,” as most of its male inhabitants historically have left to find jobs in bigger cities, returning home after weeks or months away.
Like most Ecuadorian towns, the square is the central meeting spot fronted by a historical church. On a recent trip organized by local businesswoman Sole Riquetti de Gould, we met colorful residents, explored a historical mill and had lunch at a secluded mountaintop home that challenged the imagination.
So how historical can a grist mill get? Try 400 years! The old mill house is known for producing sweet flour that is used to make some of the best-tasting tortillas around. And it’s run by a pair of 80-somethings.
1. Las Hermanas Maldonado. 2. Power source for mill. 3. The 400-year-old millhouse.
Known as Las Hermanas Maldonado, the sisters are the last of the family that has run the mill since 1618. Like their ancestors before them, the sisters ground grains carried in from the nearby road into flour. With no direct descendants to run the mill, they worry about its future. It is the last watermill-powered stone mill in Ecuador.
For now, a lone young woman traipses the 700 meters from the main highway with loads of grain. She opens the gate from the nearby fast-running stream and urges the lumbering mill into action. Millstones come in pairs. The base stone is stationary. Above the base stone is the turning runner stone that actually does the grinding. Grain is fed by gravity from above down between the stones where it is ground. The flour exits the stones from the sides where it is gathered up and bagged.
Once again I am entranced with this country’s age. Gristmills used to grind corn, wheat, and other grains into flour and meal were a common sight in the early United States. But the first recorded North American gristmill wasn’t built until 1621, in Jamestown, Virginia. There are still operating grist mills in at least 30 states.
The sisters walk gingerly around the old millhouse, showing us where the water flows from the stream directly under the mill. They apologize for not opening the gates to show us the aging millstones at work. The sisters say they are too old now, afraid of falling or getting hurt. They take us to their nearby hacienda where we sit and visit. Soon, it is time to leave the idyllic setting and move on to our next adventure.
1. Mike examines the grain shoot. 2. Water turns the wheel under the millhouse. 3. An ancient wheel.
That adventure is lunch in Fantasyland. In fact, it is known as Laura’s Casa y Arte, but it might as well be known as “Chinita in Wonderland.”
The owner of Laura’s Casa, Chinita Vintimilla, is a bundle of energy.
Five years ago, Chinita and her husband decided to leave the noise, bustle and vehicle-polluted streets of Cuenca for the peace and quiet of the Andes Mountains. There they found seven acres of green, fertile land ready to receive her vision.
That vision is a playful approach to life. Their home, shop and assorted out buildings are decorated with found objects and others lovingly handmade. Every tree boasts a secret surprise, from heavily planted wooden planters to tinkling mobiles singing in the breeze. And they are no ordinary planters and mobiles. Look closely to find miniature figures tucked among the greenery. The mobiles might be made of utensils, shock absorbers or even keys, depending on the artists’ whim.
Laura’s Casa y Arte, with two of the whimsical touches on the grounds.
And whimsical she is. Strong and seemingly serious, Chinita’s weathered face creases into smiles when visitors compliment her handiwork. “It keeps me busy” she says brightly.
Visitors are welcome in her fairyland daily from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. For $1, you can stroll throughout the property to your heart’s content. Then, there is a possibility of a delicious meal – in our case an incredibly hearty chicken soup with a variety of homemade sauces. To top it off, we enjoy luscious ice cream, with an apple fritter and chocolate sauce.
We walk through the garden, past the massive wall of nesting pigeons and under the low-hanging, flowering arch to a sitting area overlooking the mountains. From that point, we see the Chasqui tambo, or meeting point, in the distance. We hear about the Nabon area’s importance as a communications crossroads for Peruvian runners hundreds of years ago. These runners, called “chasquis,” were the messengers of the Inca Empire. Agile, highly trained and physically fit, they were in charge of carrying the quipus, messages and gifts up to 240 kilometers per day through the chasquis relay system. Quipus were devices carried by the runners and consisted of a main cord, with attached varicolored, knotted cords. They were used by the ancient Peruvians for calculating and relaying stories or information.
The tambo is the bump in the mountain, center of photo.
The tambo we can see in the distance is a high mountain featuring a large concave rock peak. The relay station was one of many along the South American route used for the chasquis to stop at and transfer messages to the next chasqui. There were different sizes and levels of tambos and each one was assigned a different use. The use of the tambo – such as meeting place or shelter – depended on what route it was on and who was allowed to use it, but the majority of them were just to pass the messages along.
We leave the sitting area to explore the grounds. Just beyond the lookout point is a tot-sized table set for imaginary tea time. The trees are filled with whimsical bird feeders and plant holders. Nearby, there is a door ajar, leading into a round hut. It beckons the visitor to explore. Inside are hundreds of dolls – all types, materials, colors and sizes – whose clothing, and sometimes bodies, all are handmade by Chinita. There is still more to see.
Above and below, features found at Laura’s Casa y Arte.
Outside there are rock-paved pathways, plants of every description, handmade critters tucked among the shadows and hand-carved benches strategically placed at viewpoints. Even the fencing appears artistically arranged, using rough cut wood poles at odd angles.
Finding our way back to the main house, we are struck by the assortment of iron implements tacked to the walls. Inside the randomly attached buildings, every corner is filled. Antiques are stacked high on shelves and in corners, hand-crafted keepsakes strewn across tables and inside cupboards. Old, musty books fill shelves above and racks of toys crowd shelves below. Everything is for sale.
There is a small chapel, too, its doors flung open to visitors. Inside, with space enough for a few, there is an altar and a place to pray. There are dogs and ducks and chickens and roosters vying for attention and mingling underfoot. Chinita’s home is charming. Her world is enticing. The experience is one that should not be missed.
When our eyes have taken in as much as our stomachs, it is time to go. It seems fitting that, as Chinita waves goodbye, there is a giant rainbow spreading across the sky. We found the pot of gold.