Lessons From a Strike

Idyllic doesn’t mean immune.

The past two years have been the most peaceful, calm and stressless of my life. But for the first time in my experience, reliance on public transportation literally brought my life to a standstill.

Last Thursday, transit unions statewide responded to Ecuadorian President Lenin Moreno’s austerity policies with a statewide strike. The policies, enacted in response to the International Monetary Fund’s requirements for economic belt-tightening in exchange for billions of dollars in loans, increased the cost of gasoline and diesel to record levels almost overnight.

In response, transportation unions across the country called for a work stoppage. Thousands of taxis and buses were idled, or left blocking major streets.

Lesson #1. The strike reminded me, even in paradise, isyllic does not mean immune. The snake exists. I no longer feel insulated or untouchable, but more aware and educated. Not a bad lesson for anyone, anywhere.

Lesson #2. I live in a walkable city, but the vast majority of Cuencanos are dependent on public transportation. Like no city I have lived in, a transportation strike affects every resident. Even if you are blessed with a car in Ecuador, you have nowhere to go. If streets aren’t blocked, your favorite restaurant is closed because its employees could not get to work. The pharmacy remains shuttered, if not for the same reason, then for fear of looting. Garbage accumulates as drivers wait for roads to be cleared. Regularly scheduled events – for us, a breakfast, a dinner and an evening concert – were cancelled out of an abundance of caution. We now have a gas shortage because delivery trucks cannot cross barricades across major roads.

Lesson #3. Freedom of speech is taken literally here. We talk a good game in the U.S., but there is blatant censorship and rules attempting to dictate when and where we speak. Surprisingly, there is little recrimination in the U.S. for libel without costly court battles. In Ecuador, there is an immediate legal response that most often sides against the perpetrator.

Lesson #4. Demonstrations are a regular, healthy part of life. There is unspoken respect between marchers and authority figures and there are no barriers to public protests such as applying for permits. The first day of the transit strike was an exception to the status quo, when a small group of young rabble-rousers chose to bring stones and paintballs to the party. That led to a disintegration of respect – and dilution of the message – as police lobbed tear gas throughout the city.

The second day of the strike saw more peaceful protests. Students sitting in the streets, hands and backpacks raised to signal their harmonious intentions, were met with silent watchfulness from officers stationed at barricades.

We had the weekend off, with a return of transportation and “normal” activities. However access to Cuenca from most every point in the state is impeded by blockades set up by the indigenous residents of Ecuador. The blockades also are preventing travel and the delivery of such staples as food and gasoline.

Lesson #5. Responsibility is an individual commitment. Many of us stayed home. Most expats will not feel the weight of new and pending economic reforms other than a pinch on coin purses when paying for public transportation or gas. But we are not exempt. As guest citizens, we have a responsibility to peacefully engage in the discussion without inserting ourselves into violent actions. We all want to preserve Ecuador as the tranquil retreat we have grown to love.

Lesson #6. Tear gas is serious stuff.

Having been caught off guard by approaching demonstrators during a lunch date, I was surprised by a sudden increase in violence.

It was my first encounter with tear gas, which was fascinating to a writer, but brutal as a human. My burning eyes filled with tears, uncontrolled as they spilled down my cheeks. My nose burned with more ferocity than any horseradish I ever tasted. My throat was scorched by an abrasion I had no way of soothing. Worse, my face burned. I never knew the chemicals settling onto my exposed skin could cause a stinging sensation akin to a first-degree sunburn.

My friend and I were holed up in a favorite small restaurant. We were unaware the block had become the center of violence until the smell of tear gas crept through the small eatery entrance. The restaurateurs were experts. They herded us into the kitchen, at the back of the restaurant, where the tear gas had not permeated. They boiled herbs – including lemon grass – and put the steamy concoctions between us on the table.

As the demonstrators and police clashed outside, the restaurateurs dropped metal shutters across the entrance and sealed us in. The gas passed, and we were able to enjoy our lunch.

When it was time to go, the restaurant owner somberly shook his head. The metal shutter covering the door would not be lifted. The conflict gained new life just outside and tear gas, again, was leaking into the restaurant. He herded us back into the kitchen, replaced the boiling herbs and served us a glass of wine.

Finally, we got approval to escape through a side entrance.

The eatery owner smiled at us, handed us a cloth to cover our noses and mouths, and said, “Run!”

We laughed, thinking he was overreacting, and stepped out into the bright sunshine. We looked left, toward home, and saw advancing demonstrators, so we turned right. There, ahead of us, were police in riot gear, stretched shoulder-to-shoulder across the road, armed with tear gas cannons. Behind us, protesters started throwing rocks. Ahead of us, police raised their shields and tear gas. We ran!

That was the only time I felt anxious – an insecurity for being in the wrong place at the wrong time in a battle that was not mine. As we rounded a corner to safety, I thought about the peaceful, informative climate change march just three weeks ago. Unlike that tranquil demonstration, this message of concern for economic well-being was disintegrating into violence perpetuated by a small gang who had more interest in divisive action than advocating for policy change.

Lesson #7. Cuenca is resilient. Two days later, all was business as usual. The sounds of braking buses and honking taxis filled the air. The sun was shining and the lingering smoke had drifted away. Conversations conveyed concerns for the future, but spread into sports and gossip and other news of the day.

The students came back, but this time, to help authorities clean up the streets that had been damaged by demonstrators the days before.

Without a doubt, something has changed. Transportation union leaders have vowed to maintain the fight despite President Moreno’s insistence he will not back down. The country is lurching into a new period of unpopular austerity measures and inevitable changes in the economy. The indigenous peoples throughout the country continue to block roads and march on the capital.

Our local supermarkets are looking like U.S. stores in advance of approaching hurricanes. Lines are growing in search of gas, which most of us use for cooking and heating water.

About 200 people wait in line to fill canisters with gas. Photo by El Mercurio

There is a lot of uncertainty about how long the unrest will last statewide. There are many issues to resolve and no clear path to compromise.

I have to believe the people of Ecuador, who have inspired and enlightened me for two years, will find a quick resolution. I am keeping the faith.

Coffee Cupping in Chaucha

Here’s a mixed metaphor for you – I’ve learned to stop and smell the coffee.

Normally I would smell the roses, but last week I had an opportunity to experience a “coffee cupping” at my new favorite daytrip destination – Hacienda Santa Marta in San Gabriel de Chaucha.

Coffee cupping, or cup tasting, is how coffee is tasted by producers and buyers around the world to check the quality of a batch of coffee. It allows tasters to compare and contrast coffees against each other, giving a better understanding of each coffee.

In the cupping process, coffees are scored for characteristics ranging from fragrance and flavor to aftertaste, acidity and mouthfeel.

Mouthfeel? Is that even a word? As we worked our way through various samples, we considered whether the coffee tasted buttery, creamy, smooth, rich, velvety, watery, oily, dry, chalky, rough, astringent, or metallic. THAT is mouthfeel.

Martha and Tony Camp led a group of Cuencano visitors through Coffee 101. The owners of Hacienda Santa Marta grow coffee on their 200-acre plantation, as well as sugarcane, orchids and enough fruits and vegetables to make trendy farm-to-table enthusiasts drool.

The couple, formerly from West Virginia, bought the hacienda nearly a decade ago. They have restored it to its more than 150-year-old splendor and recently began offering tours to educate visitors to the rich heritage of its indigenous Ecuadorians.

On this tour, we compared three varieties of unnamed coffees. We learned the proper way to slurp and spit, then ranked each with a mind-boggling lists of adjectives.

I’ve never thought of coffee as floral. But there it was. We heard a lot of votes for chocolate. Some went for fruity. And hidy. What the heck is hidy?

The best coffee is not necessarily those with the darkest grounds. And strong or bold are simplistic terms only drinkers use. Specialty coffees have so many variables affecting their taste it is “mind boggling,” Martha explains. The origin of the coffee, processing at origin, storage, and roasting techniques change the flavor.

And brewing – don’t even get her started. Coffee changes with water temperatures, the length of time the water is in contact with the coffee, the amount of coffee used and, of course, the type of device used to brew the coffee.

After smelling, tasting, sipping, and spitting, we voted. The majority found number two to be the winner – Hacienda Santa Maria’s own blend! Chaucha is quickly gaining a reputation among specialty coffee buyers as having some of the best high altitude Arabica in the world.

Unfortunately, Ecuador cannot compete in the lucrative coffee market. Martha told us thatcoffee crops are both labor intensive and a global commodity. Labor laws and high minimum wage standards in Ecuador mean that it cannot compete with the rest of the world, especially the growing number of producers for specialty coffee in Southeast Asia and some African nations where labor is inexpensive.

After the cupping, we tour the crops, where we learned how to determine the maturity of beans and how they are picked from the trees. In the greenhouse we saw drying racks for coffee beans and rows of neatly potted coffee plant seedlings waiting to be transplanted in outside fields. We learned about grinding and roasting in special clay pots over an open fire.

Our tour ended with another delicious meal prepared by Martha, showcasing a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits from the hacienda’s gardens. And, of course, delicious coffee.

It’s a three-hour, rugged drive each way between the Hacienda and Cuenca, but spectacular scenery keeps you spellbound along the way. The property has boundless trails leading down to the Rio Malacatos, where we tried our hand at gold panning, and stretching west to a series of accessible waterfalls.

The Camps’ next tours focus on the “campesino life,” offering glimpse into 100-year-old traditional life on the farm. Visitors will meet local artists and residents, taste foods prepared on a fogon, examine the components of traditional dress, learn Quichwa words, and hear local legends. Transportation is included.

By the way. Hidy? I had to search through a number of dictionaries online but finally got the gist. The adjective. Hidy is rarely used and means of or pertaining to hides. In coffee, it means having a characteristic leathery taste.

Contact the Camps at haciendasantamarta@gmail.com, or, for more information, see the website at haciendasantamarta.com

Cotopaxi Calls

I’m a mountain girl. I guess that’s why I ended up in the Andes of Ecuador.

When I had the opportunity to visit Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second tallest active volcano at 19,347 feet, (the first is Chimborazo), I grabbed it. I’m a hiker, but not a mountain climber, so this first visit was to check out the lay of the land.

Cotopaxi is one of the most beautiful sites in Ecuador. Its nearly perfect cone is perennially snowcapped. Often, people flying into Quito can see it peeking above the clouds. On clear, sunny days, Quiteños can see it from many vantage points on the ground. Its name is believed to come from the indigenous Quechua language meaning “neck of the moon.”

Time out for a quick geology lesson.

Cotopaxi is among the most powerful of four volcano categories. It’s a stratovolcano, (or composite volcano) composed of layers of hardened lava, tephra, and volcanic ash. These volcanoes are characterized by a steep profile and periodic, explosive eruptions. The lava that flows from them is highly viscous, and cools and hardens before spreading very far. The three other types are cinder cones, shield volcanoes and lava domes.

Since 1738, Cotopaxi has erupted more than 50 times, resulting in the creation of numerous valleys formed by mudflows around the volcano. It’s the world’s fifth highest active volcano. The last eruption lasted from August 2015 to January 2016. The park was closed to climbing until the fall of that year.

Just 31 miles south of Quito, Cotopaxi is the centerpiece of its own national park.

Our family of five was taken there by Amanda Mena of EcuaTouring (our favored driver anytime we visit Quito). Our first stop was Limpiopungo (clean door) laguna, at the foot of the extinct Rumiñahui volcano. Ruminahui – Stone Face, named after the last indigenous warrior to resist the Spanish invasion – towers 15,489 feet within the park. There is an easy hiking path around the lake with spots to stop and observe the wildlife. We were lucky to see a number of birds, including the liplig, Andean ducks and coots.

Back in the car over washboard dirt roads, we left the lagoon just in time to see some wild ponies leisurely feeding on the vast, open grassland. Next stop: Hosteria Tambopaxi, the only hotel inside Cotopaxi National Park. The hotel has a great restaurant, rooms and camping areas. But we came for the horseback riding.

Tambopaxi offers guided rides of two to eight hours across the páramo – the alpine, treeless plateau at the foot of Cotopaxi. Though we were between rain showers and promised more precipitation, we were all in. Once saddled and on our way, we had time to enjoy the vast rocky landscape, pitted with lava and multi layered sedimentary rock.

The ride was well worth our time, on well-mannered and able horses matched to our abilities.

Once back at the stable, with the skies threatening to split once again, we headed for the restaurant. There we were treated to a variety of delicious dishes, including maracuya, or passion fruit, chicken, and herb-crusted trucha, or trout.

Finally, it was time to drive to the summit trailhead. With the parking area at 14, 760 feet, the air was noticeably thinner – and colder. The trail leads to the José Ribas refuge, just another 1,000 feet higher. Also known as “base camp,” the refuge is just an hour’s walk, but at that altitude can be challenging. Mountain climbers seeking to summit the peak often overnight at the refuge before tackling the ascent.

If you can catch Cotopaxi on a sunny day, the view from this point is staggering. Seemingly still rising miles above you, it is ethereal. Its peak seems painted white, so picturesquely snow-capped it looks like a luscious desert. There are always clouds, but if you wait long enough, they move quickly to give peeks and glimpses that astound.

Cotopaxi is well worth a visit, and easy to get to on public transportation or by taxi. Buses between Quito’s southern Quitumbe terminal and Latacunga can drop you off in Machachi ($1.50, 1 hour) which is the city closest to the park or directly at the intersection to the park entrance. Buses also stop at this intersection to come back to Quito or Latacunga.

Of course, since there is no public transportation within the park, you’ll need to hire a taxi. Instead, take my recommendation and hire the English-speaking guides from EcuaTouring.

Don’t miss it!

Amanda Mena of EcuaTouring may be reached at +593 995198944, info@ecuatouring.com and https://www.ecuatouring.com

Experiencing Real Ecuador

An ooey, gooey mess dripped from finger to finger. I had to act quickly, performing delicate hand acrobatics, to prevent the sugary confection from falling on the ground. But I was in heaven.

Or, more correctly, I was back in El Paso, Texas, just six years old. I was standing on a chair in the kitchen, with my mom and brother, laughing as we pulled taffy between us. Literally, a sweet memory!

Now, I was at Hacienda Santa Marta, deep in the breathtaking Cajas National Park nestled in the Andes of Ecuador. A guest of Martha and Tony Camp, I was on a sugar cane harvest tour, savoring every moment.

The road to the Hacienda is not for the feint-of-heart. Something like Disneyland’s “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” it includes two hours on mountainous, rocky dirt roads. But on arrival, you forget the journey to embrace – with all your senses – the goal.

Hacienda Santa Marta is perched high on a mountainside overlooking verdant green valleys pocked with fluffy white clouds. As far as the eye can see are flowers, fruit trees, and the greenest of trees, all covered by an intangible blanket of peace.

Fragrances range from blooming flowers to the citrusy bite of the shot of mapanagua the 153 proof white rum distilled from sugar cane, laced with lemon juice. The feel of the woody, peeled sugar cane in your hands contrasts the subdued sweetness we sucked into our mouths.

The Camps came to Ecuador 10 years ago in search of a dream. He wanted orchids in the cloud forest. She wanted a colonial house.

They found both in an abandoned 1800s plantation in San Gabriel de Chaucha. Historically known for its Trago, or white rum, the plantation is far off the beaten path. Ironically, it was christened with the same name as its owner – Marta – hundreds of years ago.

No one is sure how it got its name, but Martha comes from the Bible, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. According to the Hacienda’s website, the siblings were among those persecuted as followers of Jesus Christ in the first century AD. The trio was set adrift on the Mediterranean Sea without paddles and finally made landfall in Southern France.

“They debarked in a small village that was being tormented by a fire-breathing dragon that torched their crops and land. The people huddled inside their homes in fear of the dragon,” the website reports. “Martha, with the power of the Holy Spirit, slew the dragon and set free the citizens to return to prosperity and fullness of life. Martha is the only female dragon slayer in history. She is also the patron saint of homemaking and housekeeping.”

The Camps spent three long years restoring the Santa Marta Hacienda to its glory. And restored it is. The couple rebuilt and created additions with handmade adobe bricks, sun-dried on site. Forgoing modern farming implements, the field workers use machetes to harvest cane, the solitary fire-tender slowly stirs sugar mixtures in a giant copper kettle and yoked bulls stamp endlessly in a circle to grind the sugar cane. 

The Hacienda produces a variety of sugar cane products: guarapo (cane juice), chicha (fermented cane juice similar to beer), miel de cana (cane syrup, and panela (natural brown sugar).

Our tour left Cuenca at 7 a.m., winding through the Cajas along the back roads. Arriving at the Hacienda a couple of hours later, we were met by Martha’s beaming smile and a taste test of sugary-based drinks and liqueurs. Afterward, we tried our hands at the machete and learned how the cane is replanted from a simple whittled stalk.

One volunteer fed cane into a central cylinder while another encouraged the bulls, used as draft animals, to power the grinder.

We were amazed by the ancient-looking, ragtag still that delivers a stream of alcohol via a cane chute.

Then we were called back to the main house to enjoy a gourmet lunch created by Martha using the vegetables, fruits and meat of her own lands.

The unique excursions are $60 and include transportation from Cuenca. The Camps are planning additional excursions soon.

Chaucha is quickly gaining a reputation among specialty coffee buyers as having some of the best high altitude Arabica in the world. The Camps’ next tours focus on their coffee crops. Visitors will have taste tests, experience picking coffee, learn about processing techniques, enjoy a gourmet lunch and relax in the orchid garden. Tours return to Cuenca at 7 p.m.

Soon, the Camps hope to offer a hike through their cloud forest in search of orchids. Tony has identified more than 100 species already. He will lead hikers along an ancient Canari road, past stunning waterfalls, and close to a local sacred site. After a picnic on the shore of the Rio Malacatos, the hike returns through the cloud forest on a mission to spot local birds.

Another planned tour will focus on artisanal cheese making. Visitors will enjoy a refreshing batido or leche de tigre and an opportunity to milk a cow. They may participate in the cheese making process and sample a variety of cheeses, before enjoying the traditional gourmet lunch.

For those wanting to extend their adventure, the Camps offer overnight accommodations. They have two guest rooms for rent, ranging from $20 to $40 nightly, with discounts for extended stays. Meals are extra.

The Camps currently have limited space available for a Sept. 20 coffee tour. Contact them at haciendasantamarta@gmail.com. For more information, see the website at haciendasantamarta.com

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