Birth of a Living Museum

Walking into the Museo Viviente Otavalango in Otavalo, I heard voices.

We had not been greeted and there was no one there. But the voices of workers who once toiled in what was the San Pedro textile factory were loud and clear. The past emanated from the corners of the silent rooms. Footsteps of artisans hurrying to work made the old wooden floors creak once again, echoing my own.

My friend and I found the Museo by accident. Quite literally. We had been looking for it, but the “ten minute walk” promised by the tourist office in town had turned into 30 and it was nowhere in sight. On Google maps, the museo is on “Unnamed Street.” Big help. We found a friendly local woman who offered to lead us. Then we bumped into a man and young boy who pointed us in the opposite direction.

Finally, we found it. Another couple was just getting into a taxi when we arrived, leaving us the only visitors on the property.

What a property. The 200-year-old shell of the former textile factory still stands. Only one of the three large buildings is still empty. Woven between them are tiny homes of some of those who have vowed to preserve the ancient culture of the Quechua.DSC_0102DSC_0094

DSC_0116We were soon met by José René Zambrano Cachimuel, the president of The Otavalango Living Museum. As a young man, René worked in the same the buildings now housing the museum. It is because of René, and his determined wife Luzmila, that the dilapidated factory has been preserved, and the museum created.

Years after working there, curiosity took him back to the factory where he found it in ruins. There was very little left, and most of the furniture and antique looms had been stolen. René began the several years’ process of rallying support for an indigenous center. He ever coerced his wife into writing the president of Ecuador to ask for his support. That letter led to the president soliciting a bank to loan funds to the project.

In 2011, a company of twenty Quechuas, also known as Kichwas for their language, from Otavalo became the first indigenous owners of La Fabrica San Pedro. Together they fed the dream promoted by René and Luzmila, joining to find and preserve artifacts and ancient stories.

The Otavalango Living Museum is an interactive classroom, showcasing traditional games, dances, and ancestral tales. Groups schedule meetings in the renovated classroom and teachers offer regular classes in the Kichwa language.

DSC_0111My friend, Carol, and I were a captive audience. We marveled at the talents of seamstresses who create elaborate costumes. René explained the traditional Otavalan clothing that began with two versions before the Spaniards arrived and two more after they occupied the land.

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We learned about ceremonial weddings during which the couple remains on their knees. They are blessed by herbs and antique artifacts, and the event ends with the woman braiding the man’s long, black hair.

There are masks and traditional costumes used for celebrations blessing the sun, moon and earth. René playfully dons one mask and takes a few steps, leaving us all laughing.

We hover over the display of Kichwa burials. We are enthralled with the tiny casket surrounded by toys. It’s part of the Incan culture passed down that encourages those left behind to populate the burial ground of loved ones with the things they will need in the next life.

DSC_0132René does his best to make the displays come alive. There is another man in the weaving room, who begins spinning yarn as we enter. It isn’t enough for our tour guide who drops to the ground to operate a back strap weaving loom.

Our private tour ends and our senses are full. We are so thankful we chose the museum as our last stop in Otavalo.  René’s passion is infectious; he found converts in both of us.

Museo Viviente Otavalango is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s important to call ahead at (593)062.903.879, especially if you come with a group, to ensure an English-speaking guide. Advance notice also gives René an opportunity to gather members of the community to set up live demonstrations.

Admission is just $5. The official address is Vía Antigua a Quiroga #1230. But just ask for the Antigua Fábrica San Pedro. The Museo Viviente Otavalo hasn’t quite stuck – yet.

ContactMuseo Viviente Otavalango at museovivienteotavalango@hotmail.com or http://www.otavalango.org

Falling for Peguche

DSC_0041I chose the path that got us lost.

And once we found the grand entrance, it was a challenging admission to make.

Nonetheless, we had lots of laughs and a grand adventure finding the Las Cascadas de Peguche, tucked into the foothills of the Imbaburu volcano in Otavalo, Ecuador.

My buddy Carol is a good sport. She followed me dutifully. We skated down slippery, muddy slopes. We tiptoed across barely-there wooden bridges. When we lost all signage, we confidently walked the animal paths along the edges of the mountain.

The unmistakable roar of cascading water led us there. Frothy foam and churning liquid is spell-binding. Falling from 50 feet through the jungle foliage into the Peguche River, the scene was all the more mesmerizing.

It was well worth the walk – and the detour!

DSC_0036Peguche is one of many waterfalls throughout Ecuador. But it holds three distinctions: It’s found inside one of the most beautiful forests of northern Ecuador, it’s easily accessed from the main road through Otavalo, and it’s an indigenous ceremonial site.

Inside a 40-acre protected forest known as Bosque Protector Cascada de Peguche, the falls can be reached in 20 minutes. That assumes you go through the front gate. There is no charge, but donations are accepted inside the interpretive center. The waterfalls  originate at the foothills of the volcano, at the northern tip of San Pablo Lake, about two and a half miles south of Otavalo.

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Peguche is considered a sacred place in the indigenous culture because of the native people’s relationship to nature. Villagers from throughout the region visit the falls to perform purification rituals in the days before Inti Raymi. Inti Raymi is an Incan-based celebration of the sun and harvest, traditionally set for June 24.

Like many ancient sites, the falls are also the stuff of legends.

We rested outside a cave leading behind the falls, but neither of us had any interest in, or equipment for, crawling through the mud into the inky blackness. Later I heard one of many folktales: There is a cauldron of gold guarded by two black dogs deep inside the cave. The devil sits next to the cauldron, according to the legend, holding a plate of sand. The falling water washes away the sand in the plate, little by little, until the plate is empty. At that point, the devil snatches the soul of whoever has entered the waterfall at the same moment.

No problem there. We weren’t in the purification mood. And while the mist felt rejuvenating, the icy cold water was not appealing.

Hikers in the area need to look pat the ever-present, shameful graffiti, to appreciate the forest foliage and an abundance of birds. While we didn’t see most of them, I’m told the lush vegetation houses doves, owls, Quindes, hummingbirds, reptiles, frogs and various other species.

We passed through a Quichua community on the way to the falls (or on the way out for those who follow signage). We were a bit early for business, but the villagers living there are dedicated craftsmen. Still weaving in the traditional ways, they produce blankets, ponchos, bags and other textiles. They offer photos with a fully outfitted llama for a price and refreshments in a small café.

There is public transportation available in Otavalo to get to the waterfalls at Parque Central Simon Bolivar. Buses leave every 20 minutes from there. Taxis are readily available and charge about $3 one way.

If you are planning your trip from Quito, there are buses from the main station every 5 to 10 minutes. The Terminal de Buses de Carcelen is on the north side of Quito. The two-hour ride costs about $3.

Just a reminder. Look for the main entrance. You can still have the adventure but maybe a little less stress.peguche-entrance

Conserving the Condor

Getty ImagesIn 1963 I was scarred for life.

That was the year Alfred Hitchcock delivered one of his most iconic, frightening, horror films; The Birds. The BirdsFrom that day forward, I had no interest in being anywhere near a bird.

Then a college friend decided it would be funny to let her parakeet fly around her house every time I visited. And every time I visited, it dive-bombed me. How did it know?

As a seasoned adult, I find myself a bit more understanding, even appreciative of these majestic creatures. Especially when I moved to a country that is home to some of the most spectacularly plumed birds I have ever seen.

Now, I am championing the Andean Condor.

In Ecuador, where the condor is a national symbol and part of the country’s coat-of-arms, the dramatic birds are critically endangered.

I have yet to see one in the wild. I was fortunate to see albatrosses in Antarctica earlier this year, which have the largest wingspan of any bird at 11 and a half feet. But the magnificent condors are considered the largest birds in the world by combined measurement of weight and wingspan.

The condor, a species of vulture, has a black body and, especially in the male, large white patches on the wings. The bird wears a ruff of white feathers around the base of the neck. The head and neck, otherwise featherless, are a dull red, which sometimes changes color in response to the bird’s emotional state. In the male, there is a wattle on the neck and a large, dark red comb on the crown of the head. Unlike most birds of prey, the male is larger than the female.

The condor is primarily a scavenger, feeding on carrion. It prefers large carcasses, such as those of deer or cattle. Only one or two eggs are laid every two years. It is one of the world’s longest-living birds, with a lifespan of 50-70 years.

On a recent La Yunta tour, we were joined by a local conservationist, Adrian Aguirre. He took us to an area above Susudel to see what will become Ecuador’s 12th, and newest, national park. Its primary goal is to protect the condors’ habitat.

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About 20 percent of Ecuador’s land is dedicated to national parks and reserves

Called Acus National Park, Aguirre said the research on the condors and survey of land were done. “It is now in the hands of the authorities,” he said.

The park will comprise nearly 80,000 acres, becoming the last protected area in Southern Ecuador. Its sheer canyons of basalt are perfect for condors, which generally nest on inaccessible rock ledges as high as 16,000 feet. The birds require access to massive areas of land as they routinely fly almost 200 miles a day in search of food.

In 2017, just 100 to 112 condors were identified in the entire country. A majority live on the slopes of the Antisano Volcano near Quito, where the government committed 7000 acres to their conservation.

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DSC_0124In the canyon above Susudel, Aguirre tells us, the first condor known to have been born in the area was named Arturo. Shot when he was just a few years old, he is memorialized by a beautiful sculpture in the center of town. The artist, architect Fausto Cardoso Martinez, is the same man who led the design team to create the dragon in Cuenca’s Parque de Dragon.

For Aguirre, the Acus Park is a dream come true. “I spent a lot of time up here as a boy. My grandparents were from Oña,” he said, and the canyons were his “playground.”

He was educated in tourism and international management, and then worked on the new park project for the government for three years. Representatives of the environmental ministry, the municipalities of Oña and Nabon, workers from Cajas National Park and even international collaboration with a German conservancy group.

The park, when completed, will have an observation point, a visitor center, and interpretative center and possibly, cabins.

“The main thing is the preservation of the habitat,” he said. “Then will come opportunities for local people to work in the park and create tourism.”

And when will that be?

“It’s in the hands of the authorities,” he reminds me, throwing both hands into the air. “We can only hope.”

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The Low Down on a Slow Down

DSC_0599Cool, crisp air crushed me as I hurried to a nearby pool.

There, steam rose in a puffy cloud from the gurgling, blue water. Its wispy tendrils framed the great, snow-capped, Antisana Volcano towering above me.

Ah. There’s something about taking a dip in a hot thermal pool on a quiet, chill morning. Surrounded by abundant vegetation and serenading birds, it can take your breath away.

DSC_0561Luxuriating in a shallow bath in the tiny town of Papallacta, south of Quito, seemed almost decadent. With few fellow bathers, it was serene, peaceful and soothing.

I was at Termas de Papallacta, a lodge artfully constructed of stone, wood and concrete. Nestled into a valley high in the Andes Mountains, its grounds are immaculate. The landscape is well-populated with dozens of plants and flowers I have come to associate with this verdant, lush country of Ecuador.

How could I not know about his place? My preferred tourism expert in Quito, Amanda Mena of Ecua Touring, casually mentioned it as a possibility for a recent girl’s trip.

Never heard of it, I said.

As they say, once you have heard something, you can’t unhear it.

Termas de Papallacta is permanently on my Quito layover list. It was born of a dream in 1994, when a group of six Ecuadorians combined their love of nature and healing waters to launch the project. Two years later, the first five hotel rooms were built. In 2014 it received its first World Travel Award as Ecuador’s Leading Spa Resort.

Just an hour from the city’s airport, it is doable in a day. Day passes to the spa range from $15 to $23. There is a lovely spa that rivals any in a major U.S. city, offering services such as a heavenly hot stone massage for $59, a sleep-inducing facial for $45, and a variety of wraps for $45 to $60.

The hot springs that feed Termas de Papallacta bubble up through layers of volcanic rock and ash at temperatures ranging from 86 degrees Fahrenheit to 158 degrees Fahrenheit. The pools are kept at 97 to 100.4 degrees. Far from my understanding are the elements that make thermal bathing “healthy.” The springs are said to be rich in sulfates, sodium, calcium, chloride and traces of magnesium.

I was a bit disconcerted that the first three items on my welcome information involved the availability of doctors. But I guess with the resort at 10,660 feet, the extreme temperature of the pools and the availability of alcoholic beverages made this a prudent offering.

Meals are available at the public pools (there are five hot pools plus a polar pool), at the spa, and inside the hotel restaurant. We didn’t get a chance to dine at the pool or spa, but the hotel has a diverse menu of Ecuadorian and international cuisine. Most dishes are made with fresh ingredients and vegetables grown in the hotel’s own gardens.

After dinner, take time to relax in the hotel’s comfortable, rustic bar. We found it to be a great conversation center and enjoyed the fireplace as the evening cooled off.

DSC_0597Rooms at the 10-year-old lodge range from $158 to $200. You can include breakfast on your reservation. And breakfast is a lovely display with eggs cooked to order, a variety of cereals, fruits and breads, plus juices and coffee. There are family bungalows for $246 a night and a separate area of cabins for the same price as hotel rooms.

The 32 hotel rooms are cabin-like, made of preserved wood, with a homey feel. And, surprise! The bathroom floors are heated by the same thermal waters used for the pools. What a treat to walk onto warmed tile floors with cold, bare feet. The hotel rooms are grouped around shallow hot pools that are open 24 hours a day, to overnight guests only.

If relaxing in thermal pools, warm sun and during therapeutic treatments isn’t enough, the hotel has a well-though-out interpretive museum and five hiking trails. Termas de Papallacta owns a protected area of just under 500 acres, called Canyon Ranch, located at the entrance of Cayambe Coca Natural Reserve.

The easiest trail, a self-guided walk along the river, is free to hotel guests and $2 for day-trippers. It is one of the most beautiful one-hour walks I have ever taken in Ecuador. The circuit ambles along the Loreto-Papallacta River through a primary forest and grasslands. Throughout the route are multiple varieties of orchids and other flowering plants, as well as the beloved paper trees. The route offers multiple river crossings on sturdy, well-constructed bridges as well as viewpoints to enjoy waterfalls.

The two most challenging hikes scale the mountaintop and require a local guide. Hikers are charged $2 to $15 depending on which path they choose.

Termas de Papallacta. Easy to get to, blissful hot baths, heavenly spa, substantial food and drink, and a wide variety of breath-taking hikes. What are you waiting for?

 

https://www.termaspapallacta.com

https://www.ecuatouring.com

The Art of Life

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Who knew weaving was pure poetry of the soul?

Monica Malo Piedra did. And soon, the rest of us at IdiomArt’s weekly Art Salon understood as well.

The renowned Ecuadorian artist and CIDAP award winner recently took a group of weaving newbies on a spellbinding anthropological and history journey. It’s safe to say; those in attendance will never look at a square of fabric or brilliant tapestry the same again.

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The native Cuencana has been creating fabric masterpieces for more than 30 years. She learned first, from her mother, who taught herself to shear sheep and researched designs from magazines to incorporate into weavings.

But Monica wanted to create her own designs. She began to teach herself, experimenting with materials and observing others. Eventually she moved into the jungle where she spent five years embracing the history and talent of the Schuar people.

“It was like my soul connected with their weaving,” she said, through translator and host Berenice Cárdenas, a local art historian and curator.

In the jungle, Monica had a woodworker create her first loom of four simple sticks. She learned new ways to weave and began experimenting with colors. A Uruguayan

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Monica Malo Piedra

professor later taught her loom weaving techniques and she began to “play,” she said.

Monica read constantly. She absorbed all she could about techniques, fabrics and dyes, and found herself drawn to history and anthropology. She deeply believed that to understand and create textiles, she had to understand the indigenous people’s history, and their way of living and thinking first.

For the next 15 years, she lived a simple life in Susadel. She began to work with the women of the community, many of whom had given up the skill of weaving to men. While the women gathered and prepared the materials from animals and plants, it was primarily the men who were using the threads to create woven textiles.

“I needed to recover the ancient memories,” she said, by reminding the women of their pre-Colombian roots.

Still, the collective self-esteem of the women of the village was so low; it took time to convince them to experiment with the threads they created. Soon, the older women were recounting history, remembering their grandparents, recalling childhood incidents and sharing their histories with each other. Young women joined the group and even men participated.

“It was very interesting to see what the women did in their weaving. Houses, flowers, domestic things, encrypted in ancient symbols, began to emerge through their memories,” she said. “The men created condors, large animals, donkeys, all images they worked with in daily life.”

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The project blossomed as Monica and a friend raised money for looms and hosted workshops to share techniques.

“It was an empowering process for the women,” she recalled.

Monica continued her mission when she left Susadel and moved to Riobamba. There she created weaving groups of all ages of women who were “recovering their essence” through their work.

For the next hour, Monica taught us about plants and insects that produce vibrant dyes. She educated us about how lunar phases and water affect plants to such a degree that the same hue is rarely replicated. We learned the differences between threads woven of the hair of llama, alpaca, vicuña, and even bats. We found that, with keen observation, we could identify the heritage of any indigenous group simply by the woven clothing they wore.

Ultimately, she said, textiles are not just a piece of cloth.

“When you see a tactile piece, look beyond the image, colors and fabric,” she said. “Think about the raising of the animals or plants that produced the thread.”

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Consider the relationship of the work to what surrounded the artist, she said. For instance, an evening star to a Navajo weaving friend was the North Star, but that same celestial sight is Venus to Ecuadorian artists who do not have the same night sky.

As a young girl, a wise man told her: “Those who know how to weave know the art of life.” She never fully understood that sentiment, Monica said, until she spent years among indigenous populations absorbing their craft.

“The yarn – the warp – is like a house without structure. The weaving creates the strength of the structure. And, like life, you can change it, take it apart, and rebuild it,” she said.

Part historian, part anthropologist, and all artist, Monica ended her presentation with a poetic philosophy. Clearly, for Monica, weaving is a metaphor for life.

“Words are threads wove between human beings,” she said. “Society is an immense fabric made from the need for communication, equal reception and solidarity among individuals.”

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Monica’s new gallery is expected to open mid-month in the San Sebastian neighborhood. IdiomArt’s weekly Art Salon features a wide range of art-related talks and presentations each Friday at 10:30 a.m. IdiomArt is in El Centro, at Presidente Cordova 1-77 between Manuel Vega and Miguel Angel Estrella. Art Salons are $10 and reservations are not required. Contact studio@idiomart.net for more information.

Queen of Cuenca

I couldn’t help myself.

“Ciao mi reyna,” I whisper, gently kissing her soft, powdered cheek. Cecilia Toral’s long, slender fingers grasp my hand. Her sparkling gray eyes find mine, and we share an unspoken regret at parting. She purses her rose-lipsticked lips.

“Hasta luego,” she answers, pulling me in for a hug.

dsc_0284Our group had just spent nearly two hours under the spell of one of Cuenca’s reigning matriarchs. Toral has lived all 72 years of her life in one spot – a majestic mansion on Calle Larga, one of Cuenca’s busiest avenues.

Most of us have passed by the elaborately decorated stucco home. A few of us may have stopped in the “Sumaglia Folklor Antiguedades” – an antique shop on the ground floor. Even fewer have paid $2 and continued up the stairs to inspect one of Cuenca’s most famous patrimonial homes.

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While Toral has preserved every inch of her portion of the 120-year-old family home as it was, she is saddened it is no longer intact. Half of the home – where Toral was born – was handed down another side of the family that sold it off in 1952. Still, the 42 rooms under her care are a time machine. The home is one of the best-known hanging houses along La Barranca, facing the Tomebamba River.

Toral receives our group in a sitting room like a queen, as her attendants silently slip away. She is simply dressed, wearing black pants, a turquoise sweater and gray suede shoes. She wears no jewelry. Bits of gray frame her elegantly styled red hair, and as she speaks, she absently shoves a wisp behind her ear with a single, manicured nail.

dsc_0217The matriarch comes from a long line of local “royalty.” Her relatives include Cuenca founder Remigio Crespo. Her father was accountant Homero Moscoso and Adolfo Vázquez Moreno was her great grandfather. On her mother’s side, her great-grandfather was a senator and her grandfather was a banker.

She sweeps a delicate hand across the room, pointing out antiques and artifacts from long ago. She is particularly proud of the tin walls and ceilings imported from Germany in the mid-1800s, when the house was built.

The home was furnished by her grandparents from countries all over the world. We admire German tile work and furniture from France and Austria. The original handmade glass, blemishes and bubbles intact, grace most windows. Delicate chandeliers from Holland are original, although retrofitted for electricity. French wallpaper adorns some walls; an Ecuadorian mural is splashed across another. There are 19th century trunks pushed under elegant tables, all used for family travel years ago.

Every piece has a story and Toral is eager to share her past.

Briefly married in 1973 to a man from Holland, Toral recalls meeting her husband-to-be. She was 33 and working in the family antique shop on the ground floor off Calle Larga. Her father introduced her to the dashing archaeologist who flew around the world to various digs. It was love at first sight, she assures us with twinkling eyes. He was generous and loving, and they married after knowing each other for only six months. Sadly, he died soon after in an airplane accident in the Himalayas.

Toral ran the antique shop for 40 years. A majority of the items were from her father’s collection of archeological treasures. She inherited four rooms full of these, although she never understood them. In the late ’60s, she also studied the business of museums. She directed the Las Conceptas museum and also El Centro de Reconversión in Cuenca.

She lives alone and rarely has visitors, although she still has a sister, as well as a daughter and two grandchildren. Her only brother died at 64 of lung cancer.

Someone asks if she has visited the United States. In a soft voice, she begins naming the states she has seen – in English. She also speaks a little Italian, she says, and that reminds her of her first trip to Europe.

For a moment, you glimpse the 20-something girl she must have been, courageous, outgoing and maybe, a tiny bit mischievous. In a group of more than a dozen friends, Toral traveled through Italy. She dressed as a chola Cuencana, she says, grinning, and even purchased a wig with two braids in Italy to complete the look. She received her first kiss in Italy, met Pope Paul VI and opened “four boxes” of champagne along the way, she adds.

She is ready for a reprieve and waves us into the dining room to explore on our own. She reminds us to look at the carved chest from Holland that once held all the family’s silver. The murals in the room are not that old, she says, painted in the 1920s.

Toral is already seated in the ornate living room overlooking Calle Larga when our group makes it there. The walls feature gold leaf floral patterns and the ceiling is clad with brass plates. There are dolls and nativities, paintings and mirrors, 19th century furniture and an old English rug, all filling the air with a sort of reverence.

“Our home was built during the Republican period of architecture,” Toral says, referring to the period between 1860 and 1940. “People were tired of Spanish influence” and sought out French and other European touches.

She describes the original French curtains, delicately framing the windows, and points out a crystal chandelier from Venice. It is original too, she says, “but of course we converted it from candles to electricity.”

Of course.

Cuenca did not receive electricity until 1910. But the family’s home was among the first to gain service.

dsc_0272She remembers cooking being done on a wood stove and taking baths in a tub brought from France. Along with the family, four servants lived in the home, and several more came in during the day. The only animals in the house were dogs, and a photo of her favorite – Oso – holds a prominent place among the framed family photographs.

Our group prepares to leave – at least twice – but is quickly drawn into a new tale. Toral sits erect, seemingly energized by her inquisitive guests as she holds court.

“I don’t go out very much,” she acknowledges, “but I love El Mercado,” she says of the Calle Larga institution just down the street. She enjoys the corvina – without sauce – and just a tiny bit of wine. Her eyes are gleaming as she holds up two fingers to demonstrate how much she will drink.

“Any more than that, and I would be…Oh!” she laughs, shaking her head and throwing both hands up into the air

The queen embarks on a mini-lesson on how to enjoy wine. She holds an unseen glass and her thin hand flutters above it, guiding an imaginary aroma toward her nose. She takes a sip, then another. “Drink it slowly, and eat appetizers. Never toss it back,” she says.

dsc_0275Someone asks what her favorite experience has been and she doesn’t miss a beat.

“Traveling. I have always been friendly and very curious.”

Another question is posed by our tour leader.

“How many boyfriends have you had?”

She grins at the man’s naïve impertinence. “That’s a question you don’t ask.”

dsc_0310We all laugh and Toral giggles. It seems like a good time to end our visit. We all rise reluctantly.

I can’t help myself. “Ciao mi reyna,” I whisper. Hasta pronto. Until we meet again.dsc_0308

Horses, Me and the Andes

 

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When I was a kid, I would race home after school to our 100-year-old country farmhouse.

Throwing on old clothes, I would hurry to the stables behind our house in search of my favorite horse, Cissy, a tall, red thoroughbred. Sometimes I would take time to saddle her, but more often than not, we would head out into the plowed fields with me riding bareback.

In those days, we were surrounded by onions and cotton, but few homes. It was a peaceful escape from the busy world. Exhilaration surged through my bones as Cissy and I raced against the hot El Paso winds in peace and freedom.

When I threw a leg over a saddle at Rancho Patococha not long ago, I was pleasantly surprised to rediscover that old sensation. The uncontrolled grin spread across my face as I shifted to allow Pato, the caretaker, to adjust my stirrup. The spirited polo pony beneath me was stomping the ground, ready to hit the trail.

Rancho Patachocha is a jewel hidden among the Andean mountains less than an hour from Cuenca. Operated by Santiago Malo and his family, the ranch offers occasional weekend rides for just $50. The price includes transportation to and from Cuenca, a two-hour ride, and lunch.

Groups are accompanied by two experienced riders and the ride conforms to the riders’ abilities. With three other experienced horsewomen, I recently made the trip deep into the mountainside with high expectations.

Just when we were beginning to wonder how we would navigate the winding, dirt road if the seasonal rains came, we turned into a driveway. We were awed by the sprawling, charming ranch house before us.

Piling out of the car, we shuffled on to the wide, open verandah. Rockers, sofas and comfortably padded chairs beckoned to us. Slumping down into the nearest spot we could only gasp at the beautiful vista. Horses were snorting nearby, ready to ride; cloud-tipped mountaintops beckoned on the horizon; and the peaceful quiet settled over us like a warm, alpaca blanket.

DSC_0627Inside, we were offered coffee, tea and a restroom break. A collection of cowboy hats was laid out for our choosing.

Back outside, our host, Santiago’s son Sebastian, and Pato, matched us to our horses. They adjusted our equipment, snapped a group photo, and we were off.

We headed through the mountains on a dirt road. Seemingly never-ending, the road wound several miles into lush, fertile landscapes, miles away from traffic and population.

DSC_0580The horses sauntered through the hushed countryside. Occasionally, we encountered smiling residents working their fields or tending their houses. Once a pack of dogs disturbed our solitude, but the ponies were left unfazed. We took a shortcut up a mountainside through a lovely wooded grove. We paused at lookouts over unendingly verdant valleys. We chatted and we marveled – in silence – at the gift of unblemished nature.

DSC_0604We were fortunate to have Sebastian as our guide. He shared memories of growing up on horses and his current passion for rodeo riding. A former bull rider, he now is more interested in roping and steer wrestling. He hopes to gather interest for local rodeos soon.

The family also is active in polo. The horses we ride are well-tended, spirited polo ponies. The ranch is home to more than a dozen, as well as several young foals.

Two hours later, we returned to the ranch house. We were tired, but pleasantly satisfied as if we had just finished a delicious meal. My horse, ironically named Amy – the same as my little sister – had done all she could to revive some of the best memories of my life.

DSC_0608Yes, we all had a case of the “short legs” upon return. There is something about riding a horse that makes you feel like you have lost half your height when you slide off. I noticed pain in places I never experienced as a young girl, riding bareback in the Southwest. OK, it’s true that I am three times older than that young girl now, but still…

Horseback riding is a highly physical activity. And, just like spending an intensive day at the gym, it can leave you with sore, achy muscles.

I decided to do a little research on the exercise of horseback riding. Here’s some interesting information I found from the blog https://enell.com/blogs/blog/5-reasons-horseback-riding-really-is-a-workout.

“Anything where you are keeping yourself from being bounced off is going to primarily use your core and your legs,” explained Kelly Turner, a certified personal trainer and fitness journalist. “Riding a horse supports core strength, which includes your abs, lower back, and obliques. In order to ride well, or comfortably, the rider must keep her core engaged, thus protecting the spine and keeping herself upright.

“Because you hold your position for an extended period of time, rather than having constant motion like you would in the gym, riding becomes an isometric workout. After 30 or so minutes of riding, your legs will be burning just the same as they would on leg day,” Turner said.

This is especially true for experienced riders whose horse is trotting or running, where Turner explained you’ll find yourself in a perpetual squatting position, working the glutes.

“As you bend the knees to absorb the impact of the horse’s steps, you are pulsing the muscles.”

Your thighs get one heck of a burn during a ride, too. Just the squeeze required to keep yourself perched in the saddle will awaken every ounce of thigh strength you possess. “Pinching your legs together to put pressure on the horse to increase the speed or just to keep yourself mounted is also going to target the inner thighs,” explained Turner.

Of course basic control of the horse also calls on arms and shoulders. Whether you are vigilant in keeping the horse focused on the path ahead, or reacting to his sudden urge to drop his nose and munch some grass, you are in for an upper body workout too.

I’m thinking about the workout as we drop into our familiar places on the porch and sip a beer. We pause long enough to regain our surface legs and take some time to inspect Pato’s tack room. And man, does Rancho Patococha have a tack room.

Rows of saddles lines the walls – both Western and English. Bridles are neatly hung at the ready nearby. We are told the equipment has been collected from around the world, South American and North America to England. Of course there are polo sticks and helmets there as well for the family’s use.

It is time for lunch and we are joined by Sebastian’s family. Surprised at our appetites, we enjoy sandwiches, fresh cheeses from the family’s dairy farm and meats, olives and dips. Everything tastes just that much better in high altitude after a brisk ride!

DSC_0634The time comes to leave this idyllic setting. Our bodies are sore, our stomachs full and our souls are singing. It was an incredible journey. I will be back.

DSC_0637For information on horseback riding, contact Jane at laureles108@protonmail.com 097 907 2087 or find Rancho Patococha on Facebook.

Ecuador’s Secret Garden

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We have found the Secret Garden – Ecuadorian style.

The Orchards of Macarena, “La Macarena Jardin Botanico,” is a 12-acre tropical paradise in Guachapala, outside of Cuenca. The gardens are private, born of a dream of Carlos Julio Meneses in 2006.

f35440640Julio was a young architect who had a vision of a garden that educated Ecuadorians to the wildly diverse foliage growing in their state. Unfortunately, he died four years ago, at the age of 52, before the dream was completely realized.

The dream lives on in his brother, Manuel Meneses, who runs the gardens almost single-handedly.

Manuel is concerned.

“There is no one interested in taking over,” he said, in Spanish. “My brother’s children are studying in the United States, my older brother is a doctor, and my sister has rheumatoid arthritis.”

“If I die, I do not know what will happen to this place,” he says, his eyes losing their luster at the thought.

He sweeps his hands across the horizon, indicating the vast greenery in front of him.

“But I have hope. I will find someone. I am looking.”

The brothers clearly shared more than a passion for plants. Before he died, Julio dedicated a corner of the gardens to his younger brother. It is called Refugio Manungo, a Refuge for Manuel, whose “pet” name is Manungo.

“It is a special place of peace,” he says.

We are honored to visit the gardens on a tour with Sole Riquetti de Gould, owner of La Yunta Restaurant. She is well-known for her “slice of life” visits in Cuenca and its surroundings. In fact, her experiences have become so popular; she created Tours La Yunta to formalize the business.

Today’s visit involves a three-hour walk around the lush, verdant gardens. While there are a few flowers, mostly orchids, the crown jewels are the magnificent trees. There are thousands of them. Manuel tells us there are 500 species of plants on the property, to include the national trees of many countries, such as the U.S. and Canada.

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Manuel takes his role as caretaker – and educator – very seriously.

“Ecuador is bio diverse – number six among countries around the world. But Ecuadorians don’t study it. They don’t care. We are trying to change that,” he says.

He points out Ecuador’s national tree, which he calls the “Quina” and asks if any of us are familiar with it. It is one of the most important trees in the world, he adds.

Officially known as Cinchona pubescens, the Quina is used in the treatment of yellow fever and malaria. It is better known to English-speakers as quinine.

To our delight, Miguel enters storytelling mode. He, shoves his glasses onto his nose, and nonchalantly drops one hand into a vest pocket. He launches into what will be the first, of many, tales we hear throughout the tour.

Essentially, the curative properties of quinine were discovered in the 1640s by a Jesuit priest visiting Loja. The priest found that indigenous people were treating various fevers with juice from tree bark.

According to legend, the priest took the medicine to Peru. There, the Countess of Chinchón – the wife of Luis Jerónimo de Cabrera, the Viceroy of Peru – was near death. The priest gave her the quinine and saved her life. The tree was then named in honor of the Countess.

There are many trees, and a story for every tree.

“What tree do you see in the Rotary Plaza?” Manuel asks, his eyes sparking. It’s a trick question.

When no one answers correctly, he says the only tree you see is the “Aliso” (alder) which is the wood used for artisan works. It is the most common wood used for furniture due to its flexibility, he says.

The “rope tree” is the Araucana – Chile’s national pine tree. The gardens have three of the six varieties that exist, Manuel says proudly.

We pass a black laurel tree and Manuel stops to hug it before continuing.

“This is our sign of respect between two living beings,” he says. The laurel, once widely used in construction, was endangered. But the advent of metal stud use in buildings has created time for them to repopulate.

My favorite species is the Dragon’s Blood tree, called Sangre de Dragon. There are slashes in the tall gray trunk as far as I can see.

“People are no longer able to use this one,” he says, protectively stroking the trunk.

The cuts in the wood cause a red liquid to ooze out. Collected in jars, it is popularly used – still – to cure stomach issues and to heal cuts and abrasions.

There are willows, which contain salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. The Alcanfor tree produces camphor, which relieves pain and reduces itching. It has also been used to treat fungal infections, warts, cold sores, hemorrhoids, and osteoarthritis.

We see the Guayusa, used to make naturally caffeinated herbal teas to treat bone pain and the frightening “borrachero” shrub that yields seeds known to lead to hallucinations and lack of free will. There are more recognizable plants, such as aloe, coffee and sugar cane.

There are surprises throughout Ecuador’s Secret Garden. Benches are tucked into dense foliage, and a turn of the path reveals an occasional grass-thatched hut. There is even a Huaca Canari tumba, a Canari tomb in which the bodies were buried standing up.

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Manuel stops at one of many sculptures we have passed along the pristine woodland paths. This one is a rooster on top of a massive rock.

Time for another story.

“Eighty to 90 years ago, when Guachapala was a small town, there was an apuesto – a good-looking young man – who attracted all the girls,” Manuel begins. The man was so envied; he caused problems, so the town sent him away. No matter where the young man went, the same thing happened.

The young man finally found a giant rock and lived there alone. A few friends would bring food to “El Gallo Macho” as he was known by then, roughly translated to the “Cock of the Walk” for the English speakers.

One day the friends found him dead. As they stood there, they were infused with the dead man’s energy. The friends then became the “El Gallo Machos” of the town.

Manuel points to the rooster on top of the rock.

“So whoever is seeking a spouse must climb onto the rooster on top of the rock to inherit his good energy,” he says. We laugh, and move on, while a few momentarily contemplate the climb.

f36435712Our final stop is for some guayusa tea and a sandwich in the old homestead. Beautiful murals are painted on walls, and the underside of a staircase. One room is filled with the antique collections I have come to expect in patrimonial homes. There are rocks and fossils, toys and old boots. Everything is carefully identified and labeled.

Outside, there is a fantasy filled playhouse for the family’s grandchildren and a small chapel.

Inside the chapel, we find the garden’s namesake. Manuel’s father brought home a painting from Spain called the Virgin of La Macarena. He built the chapel to honor her. La Macarena is hung opposite the family’s other treasure, a 180-year-old representation of the Virgin Rosario.

As we leave the Secret Garden, Manuel pulls me aside to show me his personal retreat. He points out a sign posted nearby. It is a quote by Lin Yutang.

“Half of the beauty depends on the landscape and the other half of the man who looks at it.”

f37892096It is clear, as we leave this imaginative paradise behind, that both Manuel, and his brother before him, are those men. They looked at – and cherished – the beauty of the landscape.

f37961472The garden is only open to schools for educational tours. Public visits can be arranged through La Yunta Tours. Contact Sole at +593 98 945 6551 or layuntatiendaycocina@gmail.com

San Francisco Plaza Enters New Era

dsc_0009The young child reached up to take the hand of her prim, high-heeled grandmother. It was lunchtime when the pair strolled through the Mexican-style plaza at the heart of El Paso, Texas. The girl was captivated by the looming trees and ornate, wrought-iron benches. People in all stages of life surrounded them, chatting animatedly and admiring the pool at the center of the park.

That same girl, now in the last third of her life, recently strolled through a new plaza. This time, it was a South American-styled, modern marketplace in the historic El Centro of Cuenca, Ecuador.

The years between the two experiences melted away.

As the same one who enjoyed both central public squares, I was thrilled when our neighborhood San Francisco Plaza was reopened Jan. 29. Despite the consistent, unrelenting rain, several hundred Cuencanos and a few expats turned out for the dedication.

The president of Ecuador was rumored to attend, but instead sent an emissary to brave the torrents of rain. Cuenca Mayor Marcelo Cabrera was there, presiding proudly over his newly completed project.

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The spacious, clean plaza is about three blocks from our apartment complex. It is bounded by Calles Padre Aguirre, Presidente Cordova, General Torres and San Francisco.

The rain wasn’t about to let up, so it was on with the show. Luckily we got there early enough to snag two seats under the giant canvas covering erected for the event. Still, hundreds pressed in around the edges, trying to escape the constant drizzle.

Reconstruction began on the plaza about three months before we moved to Ecuador, in August 2017.  The central gathering spot, believed to be more than 450 years old, was reconstructed for about $1.4 million. Other renovations to nearby streets and buildings, and the addition of benches and plants, increased the project to about $4 million.

One section of the reconstructed Padre Aguirre Street, between Juan Jaramillo and Sucre, is expected to become pedestrian-only,

Since the 1700s, San Francisco Plaza has been a center of commerce. Most years it served as a lively market featuring produce from country farms and goods provided by city dwellers.

Photos from the collection of Cuenca Municipality

Its history is breathtaking.  Like the fabled cat, San Francisco Plaza has had more than nine lives as a stage for theater presentations, a city bus station, a coal yard, carnival grounds, a children’s playground, and a designated site for governmental public announcements.

After the battles that briefly established Cuenca as an independent country in 1820, dozens of enemy soldiers and local traitors went to the gallows in the plaza. Later, common criminals were executed there before firing squads.

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Photo from Cuenca Municipality

San Francisco then became a general market for everything from fireworks and guns to real shrunken heads. It was also home to Cuenca’s first gas station.

Strangely enough, an architectural “window” has been left open in the new plaza over a portion of the cobble stoned street believed to be part of that gas station.

City leaders have been working on various plans to renovate the plaza since 1956. Most recently, a plan in 2010 failed after vendors and city leaders could not agree on the design. In 2016, Mayor Cabrera got the votes he needed to proceed.

Although vendors finally approved the design, some remain unsatisfied with certain regulations. One rule requires them to consolidate sales with members of their immediate families. That stipulation whittled an expected 132 merchants down to 96, each of whom leases space for about $160 a month.

But the merchants’ units are a vast improvement over the various shacks offered before. Made of steel and wood, they can be securely closed at night. Each unit features eight to 10 vendors, and all have high visibility, encircling the square.

dsc_0011Another bone of contention had been the day workers who routinely met at the corner of Padre Aguirre and Presidente Cordova to offer their services. They are no longer allowed to “loiter” in the square.

The workers have held sit-ins and continue to protest the change. But the government remains firm that they will be relocated to the Feria Libre area of town. They have been assigned to the Casa del Oberro, an area that generally houses craftsmen in construction, plumbing, and carpentry. The workers have protested, claiming they are unable to get work at the site and that there are only spaces for 60 of the more than 300 available workers.

Various complaints aside, the plaza is beautiful. It is wide and flat, with plenty of room for future festivals, celebrations and indigenous dancing. A giant “Cuenca” sign offers opportunities for memorable photos.

For me, the key element is the accessible, dancing water fountain in the center of the plaza. It features a colored light show at night and is encircled by a concrete seating area.

This is where the children will be making memories. Just like that little girl did, the one I used to be.

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Roses are NOT Just Red

All these years, it has been yellow roses. Always.

Thirty-six years later I come to find out it is the white lilac or purple rose I should have been getting from my husband. Yellow signifies friendship and joy. But the purple, ah, enchantment and love at first sight!

dsc_0299They have all three gorgeous hues at Trebol Roses in the tiny village of La Carmela, near Nazon-Biblian, just 45 minutes from Cuenca. In fact, they have every shade you can imagine in 25 varieties flourishing over 30 acres.

A group of us recently toured the farm, just weeks before Valentine’s Day. Workers had two million stems to deliver within three weeks. That explains the frenzied pace in one of the 18 greenhouses we visited.

DSC_0239.JPGWomen – and they are primarily women due to their gentle touch – each are assigned 20 flower beds. They are responsible for the health, care and feeding of blooms within those beds. At just the right time, blooms are selected for cutting – itself a learned talent.

I watched, mesmerized, as women deftly plucked certain blooms, snipped the stems and rolled them into dozens. There is an art – the product of long experience – to finding the rose that is not yet open, but will be fresh and ready to blossom at exactly the right time after reaching the consumer.

The cut flowers are wrapped and packed onto a hand-pulled trolley to get them from greenhouse to receiving room without damage. There, the stems are plunged into nutrient-filled water barrels for up to three hours until they can be processed.

Moving barrels of roses to the main floor, they are assigned stations. There, women are surrounded by shelves where they classify the blooms according to color and stem length. The sorters scarcely looked up as I passed by, intent on their work. The roses flew out of the barrels and into their proper places as the women categorized by feel and a quick glance.

Then, the roses are carefully and protectively packaged for shipping and moved into cold storage. Each package of 25 stems receives a unique barcode that allows Trebol to traces the roses all the way back through handlers to the bed it came from.

Susy and Rosana Malo, a delightful pair of Ecuadorian sisters who are fourth generation business owners, were our hosts for the day. And yes, Rosana sometimes shortens her name to Rosy, an irony not lost on any of us.

dsc_0230Rosana explained that the family business began as a Panama hat export business in 1910. A few years later, her grandparents introduced dairy cows to the land. Susy and her husband now run the 100-year-old dairy farm while Rosana and her husband direct the rose plantation, founded on just two acres in 1997.

The dairy farm has 300 cows that are milked twice a day, producing 2,000 liters, mostly sold through a Guayaquil factory under the Toni brand name. There’s a nice symbiosis to the farms as the cow manure is an important element in fertilizer for the roses.

It was Rosana’s idea to start the rose farm. She had a lot of persuading to do, especially when it came to the men in the family.

“I had to convince them that it was going to work. I asked for just two acres to start,” she said. “Even my husband thought it was a crazy idea.”

Still, they gave in to the “experiment” and Rosana took a year to learn the business. She hired 30 workers to start.

Now, business is booming. Ecuador has a perfect climate for roses with four seasons in a day. Ecuador generally enjoys 12 hours of sunlight, with the sun passing at just the right angle to encourage straight stem growth. The water is pure, scientifically rated the best in Ecuador.

dsc_0253The workers are like family; Rosana told us, as many of them grew up together, playing in the fields and attending the same school. About 150 people work the farm year-round, with another 50 hired on during peak seasons like Valentine’s Day.

Their loyalty is evident. They are working almost 16 hours a day to meet the Valentine’s Day demand. In return, the family provides the workers with transportation to and from their homes, snacks, meals and even vitamins. Rosana grimaced as she entered an area where lively salsa music is playing. “And whatever music they need to encourage working, they get,” she said, smiling.

During peak periods like January, Trebol roses emerge from the farm every evening in two refrigerated trucks bound for Quito. Buyers can send or receive roses by ordering directly from the farm and they are delivered by FedEx in just five days. By going directly from the farm to consumers, the roses enjoy a vase life of as long as 15 days, Rosana said. That compares to the four or five days roses normally last if they are bought from “middlemen” such as florists or other distributors.

Also of note, the company contributes a portion from all sales to Community Charities through social projects locally.  The owners are committed to helping the less fortunate residents in their area and both are regular volunteers in Cuenca’s soup kitchen operated by expat Bob Higgins.

So here is the burning question. Why is there no scent on a farm full of millions of roses?

“The freshest roses have no scent,” Rosana explained. “If you smell a scent, it means the roses are decaying and will have a short vase life.”

Fifty percent of the farm’s production is the popular “Freedom” red rose. Rose names are international based on established varieties. This particular crop is being babied through production with tiny brown sacks covering the buds.

“The buds need more warmth to grow larger,” she said.

dsc_0259By the way, there are no black roses. What might sometimes be referred to as a black rose is actually a dark red rose. Only one variety can be successfully dyed, a pinkish rose called Mondial. We saw beautiful examples of this process in the multicolor stems named Rainbow Tinted Roses.

The United States and Canada are the farm’s biggest markets. Russia is a close third. The Russians like the Iguazu, with long stems up to 40 cm, for its large blossom and long stems.

“Roses are a cultural tradition in Russia,” Rosana said. “With nine to ten months of cold winter, it is important to have color inside the home. And they know their roses!”

Rosana’s favorite is the High & Magic rose. It has a deep, bright color and a longer vase life at 25 days than most varieties. And what do you give the owner of a 20-acre rose farm for special occasions? “A trip to Europe?” she offered, with a laugh.

high and magicAs if the educational tour is not enough, the sisters invited our group into their beautiful hacienda for a delicious lunch. Susy also happens to be trained in the culinary arts. She used the opportunity to demonstrate her considerable cooking skills and to give a quick class in grilling vegetables.

After the delicious meal, our group has time for a quick tour of the hacienda and substantial gardens. It is time to leave the peaceful, rolling countryside.

Most of us took roses with us, as if to prolong the experience. Trebol Roses is, after all, a slice of heaven, just a short drive away.

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The next rose farm tour is a special one on February 12 at 10 AM. Find out more at http://www.ecuadordirectroses.com or Ecuador Direct Roses on Facebook. Ecuador contact is Karla at 0969041385 or karla@ecuadordirectroses.com International calls are taken at 805-259-3630.