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We Are Flying Solo

Showing posts with label Ecuador. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ecuador. Show all posts

September 21, 2010

Day 3: Traversing Imbabura

Today is our first ride from one hacienda to another. All told, we will ride for six hours. We will traverse the side of the volcano Imbabura and cross a high saddle, then descend into the valley of Zuleta to spend two nights there. It's a beautiful day and we climb quickly.

The landscape changes often. We break away from crumbling villages and move higher into a green zone. Rich volcanic soil is hemmed by neat stone walls. Mountain summits are wreathed in clouds; it is said that when they are not, when the skies are clear, the volcanoes are flirting with each other.  I guess when they erupt, that means someone got turned on.

The horses have already been going for several hours when we come to a spring in a rocky meadow and they eagerly dive in for water.

HaHA! I caught mum smiling when she wasn't looking! And Anna is riding a new horse today.  Gitano is tagging along in the rear as spare pony and the bay she has now is Cuchofito, a 26 year old purebred Criollo.  He is very proud and confident (and a cryptorchid so must steer clear of mares!) and a well put together horse.  It's easy to see why he is still sound.  Later, I learned that Sally, the company's owner, bought him literally off of a slaughter truck, starving and half-wild with fear.  It took her two years to get his feet back into shape.  Looks pretty dangerous now, eh?

As we cross to the next mountain, we pass through a small village full of children playing in the streets. Many are excited to see the horses and we are followed by shouts of "Hola, caballo!"

We must continue on and now we are in a clean, soft pine forest. Even the air smells high. As we move out of the shadows, we break out into a high, beautiful grassland and suddenly I am cantering across the breadth of the Andes.

I can tie many things around my torso at once!! Capuli and Antares just want to know when the next snack stop is.  Many people graze sheep on these high slopes and entire groups of month-old lambs spring in surprise across the trails in front of us. They freeze, then bolt back to the ewes, bleating in chaos. Slowly, we wind our way down into the valley, even passing a riotous party. Two men are completely passed out on the road, one sprawled in the pothole where he fell. Capuli and I almost step on the other, as he is huddled under a blanket, but at the last second I see feet(!!!) sticking out!

Heading down the switchback, the scenery begins to change yet again. Hillsides are a patchwork of greens, browns, and golds, fields climbing in graceful curves as far as people are willing to carry things uphill (if it were me, they'd all be within ten steps of the bottom).

Heading down a walled road, it becomes obvious that there is more money nearby. Round hay bales are wrapped in white plastic (the first hay I've seen since arriving) and green fields are serenaded by high irrigation systems. Then we see a hanging sign and we are here: La Merced Baja, and some very beautiful suprises are in store.

September 20, 2010

Day 2.2: I'm Riiiiiiiding In The Rain

Each day we ride, Gaspar and Tostado lead the way.  Then myself, mum, and Anna fall in line behind.  Bringing up the rear is Christian, a chagra (Andean cowboy), riding a bright dun Criollo/Columbian Paso cross who gaits along smoothly.  This afternoon, we are only doing a short loop of a couple of hours so everyone can get to know their horses.  After lining up five horses to cross the PanAm Highway (holy logging trucks, batman!), I follow Tostado as we climb up cobblestone streets into a village, heading for the slopes of Imbabura.

We picnic in a eucalypt grove around 3,000 meters high after picking our way through the fields and huts of the village. The horses catch a nap as we toss our chicken bones to the hungry dogs who miraculously turn up at the unpacking of saddle bags.

Here, Gaspar and Christian are readying a scrumptious lunch while we have just discovered the tasty treat that is salty banana chips. In the US, our banana chips are tough and sweet; these are much more resemblant (is that a word?) of potato chips!  After lunch though, a sudden freezing cold rain blows in and we discover a new miracle in the saddlebags -- giant ponchos!  Little Capuli would rather turn his tail to the wind and wait out the storm, but we must get down off the mountain before the mud becomes too slick for the horses.  Luckily, it's a short journey back to Hacienda Pinsaqui and warm drinks!

After a hot shower, I wander out behind the main building to explore the acres of garden paths.  It comes with its own baby llamas!!!

Just say awwwww! The gardens themselves were lovely, full of unique blooms. Ecuador, with its equatorial climate, is big business for commercial flower companies. Huge greenhouses are everywhere because apparently, flowers will bloom all year 'round here, which then can be shipped all over the world. Here's a funky datura, who has a hallucinogenic aroma (I tested it, but I was apparently immune. Maybe I should have stood there longer.).

There were lots of other lovely things to look at in the fading light.

As the clouds crept up the volcano Cotacachi, the light disappeared and it was time to make my way to the evening reception. There was a bar hidden in a cellar, bedecked with horse show ribbons (the hacienda's owner was a successful breeder of Arabians and jumping horses). We chased the chill away with a welcome drink made of sugar cane and cinnamon steeped for a day, then topped off with sugar cane liquor. That was followed by a shot of anise liquor that made my entire body tingle all the way to my fingertips. So it must be good.

Then, a group of musicians entertained us with the traditional music of the Andean highlands. It had a unique, wild, and joyful flavour to it, even though I didn't understand what the songs were about (damn my pathetic Spanish). Note the young boy who is deeply intent on shaking that rhythm egg JUST RIGHT.

By this point, I was liquor-warm and dog-tired. After a beautiful pork fritata, I managed to slither under my (400) blankets (old houses are freezing!) with my new bestest friend: Mr. Hot Water Bottle who awaited me faithfully with his foot-warming goodness. Tomorrow: we would cross Imbabura to the Zuleta valley!

September 19, 2010

Day 2.1: Hacienda Pinsaqui. And Horses!

Otavalo market was a lesson in variety.  I saw one wizened woman crouched in a doorway, proferring a live guinea pig (they are a staple meat there, called cuy) by the neck.  The unfortunate brown creature hung from her fist with dull eyes, resigned to its fate.  Around a corner was this poster (left).  Yes, it is an announcement for an international conference on the commercial production of guinea pigs.  I was most amused by the long list of "Dr.'s" listed as speakers -- I would love to say I had a doctorate in guinea pig farming.  Alas, I never did get to see a guinea pig ranch -- perhaps their cutting horses are tabby cats!

The landscape had changed dramatically since leaving Quito. In the environs of the city, concrete houses were crammed into every available space. Now, the landscape had begun to open around Otavalo, nestled next to a lake and the volcanic presence of Imbabura.


Looking toward Imbabura and the town of Otavalo:

Up to now, human development has oft resembled a war zone, no patch of land untouched by hard-scrabble subsistence living. Half-finished, crude buildings of cinderblocks with untrimmed rebar protruding six feet into the air haunt the landscape. Cattle are tethered by their horns to metal stakes hammered into the ground to forage on stubble and ribby dogs slink around corners.

So it's a blow to pull off the PanAmerican Highway into green lawns, hydrangeas, and an exquisitely maintained 18th century hacienda (ranch). It sprawls long and low, seemingly going on forever. I am spun back and forth between guilt and wonder. Heavy oak doors are painted a deep, rich blue and our room key looks like it unlocks someone's dungeon cell.

And it's finally time to meet the horses! I am about to burst from excitement as we change and then hustle down the path to the designated paddock. They are already awaiting us and watch curiously as we are briefed on the rules.

I am introduced to Capuli, a dark bay youngster (only 5 years old) with a gentle face and small fuzzy ears. He is mostly Criollo, which is the native breed of tough little horses who work at South America's extremes, and he has a little Spanish horse thrown in somewhere. He is also best friends with Tostado, who our guide Gaspar will be riding, which means that I must bend to the will of the horses and stay up front.  It's hard to take a picture of a horse when you are standing uphill, so here's the little guy with some crazy camera distortion!

Mum was matched up with a sturdy little roan named Antares (yes, after my favourite star!).  He was an excellent horse, always taking care of his person with patient experience.  Doesn't she look excited (apparently dorky grins of glee do not run in the family)!?

And Anna, the lovely Finnish girl who made up the third member of our group, started out with Gitano, who completed the colour spectrum with his white coat (although we later learned he loved to turn himself brown with cowpies and mud).  And yes, she thwarted the Helmet Nazi and wore a hat!!  The Finns are brave and hardy souls...  Doesn't Gitano look excited too!?

At last, it was time to RIDE!!!

September 17, 2010

Day 2: The Faces of Otavalo

The Otavalo market is the largest in South America and it's where we ended up after about two hours of driving north of Quito on Saturday. A large part of the market is just the same mass produced stuff repeated about 400 times for silly tourists, but along the outer edge you see the food stalls that the locals frequent. Most interesting to me was watching people, as per usual.

In Ecuador, you generally have two ethnicities: (1) the indigenous people and (2) mestizos, who are of mixed indigenous and Spanish descent. Most indigenous folks maintain the traditional dress of their culture. I will let their faces speak for themselves.

These women are tiny -- they came up to about my hip bone.  Some older women were begging for coins with plastic bowls.  Many people in Ecuador are subsistence farmers, scratching a living out of the land as best they can.  As in many places where poverty abounds, women do much of the hard labour here, carrying massive bundles in a piece of cloth tied around their torsos.

Tables were covered in every kind of fruit and vegetable you could imagine.  And many I couldn't.  Here, our guide, Gaspar, haggles for a bag of large beans.

Chicken anyone?  Another interesting phenomenon was the sale of pork -- pigs were roasted whole and then presented in varying poses, often with celery or carrots stuck in their ears and mouths.  Sometimes, they even shared a macabre smile.

September 13, 2010

Day 1: Arrival!

*cue dramatic opening music*

We left Miami about half past four on Friday the 3rd and hopped across the gulf and the isthmus of Panama to curl south into Quito.

Long river deltas reach silt fingers into the Gulf beyond Miami and clouds hover over salty marsh systems. Before we got to Panama, though, the sun set in a blaze of fire over the wing and I didn't get to spy on that skinny little country from above.

Quito welcomed us around 7:30 pm (Ecuador is on Central US time); a long string of lights nestled between two strings of mountains. First impressions: I am a pale giant. And the first thing I see as I step of the plane is a person wearing a pair of pale blue crocs. It appears tastelessness and a penchant for ugly shoes is a global phenomenon.

Gloria meets us after we pass through customs and fills us in on life in Quito, the capital city which is her home. Traffic is typical of Latin America; signs are merely for decorative purposes and horns are used more often than brake pedals. "Passing lane" means any lane into which your vehicle will fit, whether or not you can actually see oncoming trucks. There are trams and buses at $0.25 a fare, but not enough to carry the bulging population with no room to expand within the narrow valley.

Gloria tells us that there are no jobs here in Ecuador and many have chosen to go to Spain to work. Children stayed behind, living with relatives or even on their own as parents struggled to make a living an ocean away. However, the European markets have fallen as well, especially in construction, and now there is no work there either. The government of Ecuador has offered incentives for workers to return home, allowing them to bring any goods they have acquired, including vehicles, and many are cashing in on this offer.

Our van finally (and somehow safely!) arrives at Cafe Cultura, our hotel nestled in a garden in Old Town, a section of Quito that dates back to the 16th century. As the gates are unlocked and we walk in, I stagger back with mouth open. I am sure I heard the porter giggle as I breathe, "Holy crap," unable to contain myself.  Everything is beautiful.  It is all frescoes and creaking wood floors and balconies and a Taj Majal room with gauzy curtains and a claw-foot tub and candlelight.  We eat dinner in a candlelit hush, feeling like we are in a church, afraid to breathe too loudly and break the spell.

The white doors lead to the library, where lilies set in front of a fireplace. The candlelit angel fresco flew above the fireplace in the dining room.

Our room:

Tomorrow:  we transfer to Otavalo and the adventure truly begins!!