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

Antarctica – World of its Own

DSC_0722The silence was deafening.

Our first morning in the frigid waters of the Atlantic, I peered out at rugged, forbidding mountain peaks capped with snow. My wide eyes were met by visions of ages-old glaciers looming large; deep crevices winking steely blue eyes and ice crackling all around. Antarctica. Truly, the frozen continent.

Breathing deeply, I inhaled the fresh, crisp air that knows no detectable pollution. I listened to the silence. The quiet was overwhelming. Broken only by an occasional chirp of the “super birds” that live on this lonely planet, the silence embraced me, alone in this majesty. I was the only soul standing on the frozen deck of our expedition ship.

It was never on my bucket list. Or any list.

Antarctica was some far off notion, a passionate dream my mom had and never realized. But, my adventurous daughter found a group of like-minded women on Facebook called Girls Love Travel and Antarctica became a reality. For both of us.

Antarctica-Map-With-Countries-Simply-Simple-With-Antarctica-Map-With-Countries-830x1024For 12 days we lived aboard Oceanwide Expedition’s M/V Ortellius in glacial polar waters. The ship – small at 123 passengers – was warm. Outside, temperatures averaged between 32 and 37 F, but the winds of 11 to 31 mph made it feel colder.

Even now, I am filled with wonder and awe that this land exists on the same planet that I live on. Having left noise, pollution, people, cars, and busyness, I was blanketed in a net of quiet beauty beyond my imagination.

I didn’t expect to see rocks. Yet there, they were, craggy mountaintops lining the shore. I did expect to see penguins. And they overwhelmed us, by the thousands, in their curious community groups. I did not expect to fall in love with this no-man’s land that the majority of the world’s population will never see. Yet I did.

DSC_0731Getting there isn’t easy, whether you come from the United States or Ecuador. A full day’s travel with an overnight brings you to the southernmost tip of South America: Ushuaia, Argentina.  We had two days there, but others tacked on time at the end of the cruise, which I highly recommend.

Ushuaia is a small town of 68,000 people. It has many attractions of its own, primarily involving trekking in national parks, a main street for shopping, good restaurants and comfortable hotels. Passing through security will make you smile: a quick glance at a paper that indicates you are a passenger on Ortellius, and a short unescorted walk down the pier with a detour through an empty security station featuring silent screeners.

Once on board, you are quickly shown to your cabin.

381X250_tw_windowThe 53 cabins range from a superior double with two windows to four bunks with a porthole. The beds are comfortable and the bathrooms have ample storage.

The ship is a tough icebreaker that offers little in the way of entertainment except for a common lounge/bar area and extra seating on the top deck for the few days warm enough to enjoy it. But this isn’t one of those cruises you take to be entertained aboard the ship. Weather dependent, we were looking forward to mountaineering, kayaking, snow-shoeing, hiking and camping on the continent.

DSC_0285 (2)The route to Antarctica is as arduous by sea as it is by air. You float through the beautiful Beagle Channel where you can spot the elusive Magellanic penguins. You can sometimes see Fin and Humpback whales, and there are always flocks of Giant and Cape petrels soaring across the sky from one side of the ship to the other.

Then it’s time to batten down the hatches. Drake’s Passage famously becomes Drake’s Shake – the world’s worst amusement ride – or, if you are lucky, Drake’s Lake. Our crossing was somewhere in the middle. Armed with seasick bands, Dramamine, lavender oil and, finally, giving into scopolamine patches, we made it.

Drake’s Passage is named for the famous British explorer and sea captain, Francis Drake. After he lost a ship sailing the west coast of South America, he proved the existence of a convergence of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as well as the Southern Seas. What makes the Drake Passage so infamously rough is the fact that currents at this latitude meet no resistance from any landmass.

We spent the next two days preparing for landfall. When we could leave our beds and staterooms without being tossed from wall to wall, we attended lectures on birds, mammals and photography. And because introduced organisms are a significant problem in Antarctica, we attended a “Vacuum Party” literally vacuuming our clothes, boots and parkas.

Finally through the Passage, we awoke on the third day to chunks of ice floating lazily past the ship. We even saw a huge mesa-like iceberg that seemed miles long and clearly had floated miles from its host. Antarctica’s surface, of which we would see only a tiny fraction, is about the size of the United States and Mexico put together.

Interestingly, it is governed by a treaty signed by more than 30 nations. The Antarctic Treaty was signed in December of 1959, but wasn’t in force until June 1961. The treaty established Antarctica as a zone of peace and science. There is no official language, capital or currency.

Our first Zodiac cruise took us into Orne Harbor, home of the only known colonies of Chinstrap penguins. We spotted blue-eyed cormorants, snow petrels, snowy sheathbills, and Antarctic shags and terns. We were thrilled by Weddell seals, skuas and humpback whales. We viewed endangered species like the grey-headed albatross and the fin whale.

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46485856_10157948386743626_5609345894097879040_oThe next zodiacs took us to Cuverville Island to seen Gentoo penguins. And boy! Did we see Gentoo penguins!

DSC_0528Thousands of penguins lined the shore and stretched as far back into the snowy mountains as we could see. We scattered, carefully crossing over the penguin highways and finding spots to sit. Time stood still as we watched the penguins play, fight, mate, swim and slide through the snow. They seemed just as interested in the bundled humans as we were in them, as they marched down the smooth ice highways, unafraid of the strangers so captivated by their antics.

The next five days were filled with exhilarating – and sometimes frustrating – challenges, as well as unforgettable experiences. We survived engine trouble and massive ice floes, storms and heavy fogs. Some days, all activities were cancelled, and we spent time marveling at the quiet beauty around us; the only ship within miles.

We visited research stations – the Argentinian Brown and Britain’s Port Lockroy. There are more than 40 permanent research stations on Antarctica, belonging to 30 nations. Antarctica has no indigenous inhabitants or permanent residents. On average, the larger research stations house 1,000 to 4,000 people, depending on the seasons.

DSC_0810I tried sports I had never experienced in my six decades and found I loved mountaineering and snow shoeing. I passed on the polar plunge and delighted in kayaking with my daughter.

Our final night on land was a camping adventure. Having hurt my wrist, I was little help to my industrious offspring as she prepared our site for both of us. The staff picked Leith Point, a flat cape jutting out from a steep mountain into crystal blue water. We dragged our equipment onshore from the zodiacs and pulled them through knee deep snow to our designated spots. There, we dug grave-like trenches in the snow, packing the excess around the edges to protect us from the wind.

We were given three sleeping bags each to stuff inside one other, the outside a waterproof covering to protect the bags from moisture and to cover our exposed faces. There was little sleep, especially since dusky daylight lasted throughout the overnight hours.

I loved the quiet, the expanse of stars with zero competition from earthly light pollution, and even the curious penguins that wandered through the campsite. But most of us were already up, packed, and ready to get back to the ship before the promised 6 a.m. wakeup call. It was an experience for the memory banks, but not one I need to do again!

With the ship heading back to Argentina, we were able to visit Deception Island. This famous underground volcano resembles a large donut with a bite taken out of one side. The 1800-foot opening is where small ships enter the flooded caldera. Still active, its last eruption was between 1967 and 1970.

The island once was home to a British Antarctic Survey base. No longer operational, the buildings remain, as well as those belonging to the Hector Whaling Factory that operated between 1906 and 1931. We trudged in deep snow around the abandoned buildings, eerily emanating a sense of historical tragedy and triumph.

Before clambering aboard the last zodiac ride of the trip, we even found time to have snowball fights and pose for human penguin pictures.

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To take our minds off the approaching Drake’s Passage, the ship planned presentations and exchanges of photos.

By far the most interesting was a discussion on ice.

Antarctica comprises over 84 percent of the world’s ice. Greenland has just 12 percent, with the remaining percentage located in other polar regions. What we see at the surface is about one-seventh to one-tenth of what lies below the water. We learned ice has names, like the bergy bits that glide through the water and growlers, larger chunks of floating ice.

And why is ice important? Because 75 percent of our fresh water storage is in ice. It is the climate engine of the earth. From 1979 through 1992, researchers saw a significant loss of ice in the arctic regions and a surprising small increase in the Antarctic, which was seasonal. Still, researchers find that, overall, peninsular ice is shrinking and the continental ice shelf is melting away.

Surprisingly, Antarctica is considered the driest of all continents and the largest desert on earth. I still could not wrap my head around that, being surrounded by glacial waters, mounds of snow and craggy mountain of ice. But my chapped lips and dry sinuses certainly attested to the fact!

With an uneventful docking and long flight home, I had time to process the experience. Back at home, I was asked many times to describe it. I found I couldn’t. Not really. I used words like surreal. Spectacular. Majestic. Phenomenal. Peaceful. Serene.

I could go on and on. Suffice to say, if you can go, don’t miss the opportunity. It is unlike any experience you will ever have.

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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

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.

Tale of the Whales

Humpback whales deserve their own blog.

I’ve been a scuba diver more than 30 years and have yet to encounter a whale underwater. On my honeymoon 35 years ago, Mike and I were treated to an occasional tail flip by the North Pacific Humpback and sperm whales off the coast of Maui. That was thrilling enough; until my visit to Puerto Lopez on the Ecuadorian coast.

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Photo not credited but taken from a Puerto Lopez tourism site. My dream scuba trip one day!

From June until September, as many as 2,600 Southern Humpback whales arrive in the 70-degree Pacific off the coast of Ecuador. They have traveled three to four months over 4,000 miles from the frigid waters of Antarctica in search of warmer waters in which to mate or to birth calves. The humpbacks that feed in Antarctic waters and travel north to breed off Ecuador, Colombia and Panama make the longest confirmed migration of any mammal. The whales travel that far because young calves cannot survive cold waters until they develop sufficient fat. The calves typically nurse 6 to 10 months, but within three or four they are ready to travel back to Antarctica.

Mike and I were on the coast to enjoy a stay at Villa de los Suenos in La Entrada, a secluded bed and breakfast run by expats Marsha and Shell Spivey. Whale-watching is offered as a daily activity option and was my primary purpose for making the trip. In nearby Puerto Lopez, you can grab a tour on any number of small boats for about $25. After motoring 30 to 45 minutes out into the blue ocean, you may encounter one to as many as eight whales swimming in a pod. The tours last about two hours, with boat captains following spouting whales at a respectable distance.

We begin to look for blowholes – which, by the way, are not water, but the whale’s exhalation released into lower-pressure, colder atmosphere, condensing into water vapor. That white splash you see from a distance can also be caused by water resting on top of the blowhole.DSC_0492

Our tour guide takes opportunities between whale spotting to educate us. We learn the humpbacks are baleens, which, like the blue and gray whales, have two spouts on their heads. These Southern Humpbacks from Antarctica are generally more light-colored than their Hawaiian cousins, the North Pacific Humpback. A third variety, called the North Atlantic Humpback, has mainly white flippers in contrast to the other two types, which have darker colored upper flippers. All have bumpy heads, nodes called tubercles, which are used in a sensory capacity, much like a cat’s whiskers.

We spot a pod of gracefully lumbering, curved black backs at the surface. Humpbacks are named for the manner in which their curved backs arch when they leap above the water. These are magnificent creatures! Adults are 40 to 50 feet long and weigh almost 80,000 pounds. Their fins alone extend up to 15 feet.

The males sing to attract the females and slap the water with their fins. I nearly jumped out of my skin when, facing the opposite direction, everyone pointed behind me as a giant whale was just diving back into the water and slapping his tail.

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Photo of a lifetime! Not taken by me, and not credited by local tourism agency.

Being that the reporter’s blood still flows within me, I wanted to learn more. I read about the Humboldt Current, which is largely credited with the humpback whales’ migratory path from Antarctica to the South American coastline. The Humboldt runs near the coast of Ecuador, stirring up the plankton and krill humpbacks and dolphins thrive on. An adult whale can consume up to 3,000 pounds a day!

The Humboldt also is the reason the coastal areas from Chile to Peru produce a fifth of the world’s fish.  Interestingly, scientists believe the changing climate is changing the current and the ecosystems that depend upon it.

DSC_0526The Humboldt Current is already stressed by the El Nino and la Nina events and is producing the most significant minimum oxygen zone in any of the world’s oceans. The oxygen free water under the surface forces the fish to live closer to the surface where they can breathe, but as fish and other organisms die, they fall to the sea bed where they simply are deposited in sediments rather than being part of the food chain. It is thought that the impact of the changing climate is causing the minimum oxygen zone to expand, and for this part of the ocean to become more acidic.

Without getting too technical, there are climate changes and currents that are largely dependent on a delicate balance of cold and warm air and water.  If the Earth warms too much, it’s possible that certain currents could collapse entirely, new research says. That would mean frigid winters for countries along the North Atlantic, expansion of the sea ice in the Greenland, Iceland, and Norwegian seas, and a shift in rainfall across the world.

Meanwhile in Antarctica – which happens to be my next adventure this winter – is melting three times faster than it was just ten years ago, shedding 200 billion tons of ice into the oceans every year. The World Wildlife Fund says warmer ocean temperatures and melting sea ice in the polar regions may jeopardize the ecology of the Arctic and Antarctic feeding grounds of many large whales. The bowhead, narwhal, and beluga, which live in Arctic waters year-round, are in particular danger.

Climate changes, depletion in the ozone layer and the related rise in UV radiation may also lead to a fall in the population of krill, a primary food source for many marine species, including these spectacular whales off the coast of Ecuador.

I’m captivated by these gentle giants slowly rising and falling with the waves. I feel honored to indulge in an afternoon in their presence, knowing that, ultimately, we may be responsible for their destruction.DSC_0564

The guide leans over to tell me individual whales can be identified. Their flukes are distinctive compared with any other whale species; the black and white markings and scalloped edges are as unique as a human fingerprint, allowing experts to name thousands of individuals around the world. The wavy edged flukes are raised during dives, enabling researchers to keep track of individual whales from year to year.

Silently, I entertain myself by naming a few that persist in swimming near our boat.

Who knows? Maybe that pod of seven that so easily enthralled me in Ecuador will see me again in Antarctica when I get there in November. Hmmmmm.