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

Nabón’s Hidden Treasures

Mike had no interest in a tour that included a stop to admire antique dresses.

What we didn’t know is that these dresses were no ordinary antiques.

The main square of Nabón and the village church.

We were touring Nabón, a small canton about 71 kilometers, or 44 miles, southwest of Cuenca. We had already admired the centuries-old millhouse and spent a memorable lunch at Laura’s Casa y Arte, better known as “Chinita’s Wonderland.” Now we were stopping in town to admire the unusual plaza filled with architecturally shaped trees, visiting the nearby church in Charqui and exploring a local orchid farm.

A mountainous chain of peaks just over 9,800 feet above sea level surround the lush green village of Nabón canton. Less than 13 years ago, the town was declared a National Cultural Heritage. The Ministry of Education and Culture that awarded the title cited the area’s unique, rustic landscapes and historically based roots as the seat of pre-Hispanic societies. Indigenous roots are still present in most of the canton, such as the Chunazana, Shiña, and Rañas, who still speak their indigenous languages.

Nabón also is home to archaeological remains of settlements for the Cañari and Inca. During the Inca Empire, Nabón became Tambo (Place of Rest), as a stop of the chasquis, Peruvian messengers who ran with messages and information from Ecuador to Cusco in Peru.

Predominantly Catholic, the canton houses several churches that honor patron saints. In the 120-year-old Charqui Capilla, we are introduced to the Virgen Del Rosario, a title given the mother of Jesus. The church is a living museum, housing the most important of the hundreds of intricately sewn gowns used to adorn the Virgin Mary and the baby she holds during annual festivities. Other smaller communities nearby also serve as storage houses for the dresses. The gowns are changed weekly, with the exception of the 40 days leading to Easter when the Virgen is stowed away.DSC_0369.JPG

The 120-year-old Charqui Capilla where the Virgen’s dresses are stored.

The tradition of providing the antique dresses began in 1949. A family, known as the prioste, is selected to prepare a celebration for the village. The main religious celebration is celebrated in honor of the Blessed Virgin of the Rosary on the last Sunday of May or the first Sunday of June. The prioste, along with the parish priest, is charge of the organization and celebration itself, including contracting for fireworks, providing games, dances and other cultural events

The family also is charged with creating a dress for the Virgen. In the early days, the dress was created by the family members, painstakingly sewn by hand, each bead and sequin carefully placed and stitched in place. The tradition continues today, although most families contract the work.

Some of the dozens of handmade gowns hanging inside the church.

Surprisingly, these intricate and priceless dresses are hung throughout the church. Some, including the oldest one, are placed on benches near the altar. Others are stuffed into an old wooden wardrobe at the rear of the church. All are available for handling. They range from velvets to satins, adorned with beads, sequins and complex lace designs. It is an honor to be chosen, our guide tells us, and a challenge to create the next beautiful gown.

Somewhat chastened and very much in awe of local tradition, we left the church and headed for the orchid farm.

Laurie and Mike inside the Nabón Orquideareo.

The Nabón Orquideareo is a small, thatched roof building housing more than 200 species of orchids. The architecture of the Botanical Garden “Orquideario” maintains ancestral values, which is why its construction is composed of typical materials from the village, such as quarry stone, wood, straw, and reeds.

Visitors are invited to stroll among the gorgeous blooms, each more delightful than the next. One thing we have come to love about Ecuador is its appreciation for these fragile flowers. With its location on the equator and temperate conditions year-round, Ecuador is a perfect place to grow orchids.

Some of the exotic varieties of orchids in the garden.

We finish the tour with a trek to the mountaintop above the orchid farm. The views are breathtakingly beautiful. On one side of the mountain, the village of Nabón sprawls lazily from one end to the other, as far as the eye can see. On the backside of the mountain, a more pastoral scene emerges, farming plots dotting the landscape into the valley.

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Mountaintop view over Nabón.

It is another successful foray into Ecuadorian living for us. Even if Mike didn’t think he was interested in antique dresses.