A Travellerspoint blog

Faces and places of Ecuador

The road south

semi-overcast 12 °C

Impressions of this beautiful country of extremes and contrasts are many. I include a few of the images I managed to capture, although they are only pale imitations.

Kenneth Williams Llama
'Que bonita!'
Churned up earth, Chimborazo region
I took the famous 'devil's nose' train from Riobamba (the name is a mixture of Castellano and Quechua, from 'Rio', river, and 'bamba', the Quechua word for 'plain'). The ancient train rattled and ground along the slowly ascending track south. It was freezing on board, and the temperature dropped steadily as we climbed higher. We passed Chimborazo, the highest volcano in Ecuador.
The word 'majestic' seems ordinary in comparison to the awe-inspiring sight of the mountain, whose icy winds sweep down on the town of Riobamba. From my carriage, I saw much of the landscape and the lifestyle of the people unfolded before me. Train travel is a wonderful thing - you feel you are right inside the countryside, that you are privy to secrets the road does not yield. People always stop what they are doing and acknowledge the passing of a train, particularly an old, slow train like this one. Some lean on their tools and just watch; others wave or nod and smile; children always race alongside for as long as they can, hoping for a treat thrown from the window. There was a man on board, selling sweets and lollies for that precise purpose. I was not immune to the pleading little faces, dirt and snot streaked across their mouths and noses, raggedly dressed but full of life and joy. Lollies were purchased, and lollies doled out... P1010739.jpg
Elderly couple, Chimborazo - these people are hardy and healthy - happiness is in their eyes

This little girl was hanging fiercely onto a lolly I gave her
This girl mother was no more than 15

The patchwork land

A face of character

No dentists here

The train went by a busy station, set up deliberately as a market for tourists. I stayed on board, preferring to take pictures from my open window than experience further wheedling to buy the local artisans´products. You need a will of iron in order to cruise a line of stalls and not succomb to the selling skills of the indigenous women. To engage at all is fatal - consider it sold. So I stayed where I was and caught some faces in the crowds.
Three different styles of dress. meaning three different tribes, but they all speak the same language..

This hat is made of boiled wool, placed on a mould and the damp felt beaten to its bowler shape

The colours and shapes vary from community to community, but the basics for women are skirts to the knee or long, ornate blouses, heavy wool shawls, fastened in front with a pin, and of course, a felt hat

The Caparina indian men of the Quichua speaking communities of the Chimborazo region south of Riobamba wear red ponchos and wool hats. They look fantastic

This stunning baby was being carried on the strong back of his mother, who wasn´t slow to ask for a dollar in return for a picture. The people make a business out of photo opportunities from snap-happy tourists, be it with their babies, a colourfully decked-out llama or even a black lamb. And who can blame them?

These huts on the high sierra of the Quilotoa loop look like haystacks from behind - the door is on the side most sheltered from the relentless wind

These children appeared out of nowhere - they seemed to be made of the grass itself. The tiny girl was adorable, like a doll. She smiled hard for the camera, knowing a 'propino' was forthcoming

We stopped in a village, where I visited the oldest church in Ecuador. It had beautifully carved doors, depicting saints and stories, and cloistered gardens with stunning plants. The village itself was an oasis of calm, the evening sun warming the white walls of the houses.

Finally I left the train and caught a bus further south towards Cuenca, my destination. However, the mountain roads in the Andes are littered with uncertainties...
An everyday occurence in Ecuador. A large pipe was being laid in the middle of the day - it took an hour and a half to clear the road. We got out and hiked till the driver caught up with us

The following day I found myself in a jeep travelling across the high terrain of the Sierra, that vast area between either side of the double ridge of the Andes, the backbone of South America. Here the wind was bitingly cruel, despite the enticing play of light and shadow on the coloured landscape. I kept asking the driver to stop, so that I could get out and breathe in the astonishing quality of the air, the wind, the light which came and went, changed and played with the undulating land, stretching away into distant shapes. Of all the places I´d been, this was the most moving in a way I can hardly explain - it was a magical place.

This mountain on the Quilotoa loop is known as the sugar loaf, and is revered by the local people


Posted by Eleniki 07:20 Archived in Ecuador Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Moving on

Leaving La Hesperia

sunny 26 °C

Reserve laneway

When I arrived at La Hesperia in September, the end of November seemed very far away - in fact I almost wondered if I had made the right decision when I chose to stay for 10 weeks. It ended up being 9, because I wanted to stay a week in the beautiful colonial town of Cuenca, taking spanish classes in a very good school there. But right from the start I had loved my temporary home, and as the weeks went gently by like the clouds drifting through the treescape outside my bedroom, I felt great sadness that my time was coming to an end in this extraordinary corner of the world, where time really stands still, and the landscape is constantly alive with the sounds of birds and insects.

Tree beard
Our veggie garden at La Hesperia

My last weeks in the reserve were tranquil, as my neck was acting up. I had elected to take over the medicinal garden after Marissa, my Californian friend, left. She was concerned that it would be cared for, after the weeks of nurturing she had put into the beds and the compost, and the research she had done on the plants themselves, in preparation for a new system of signs.

So I had a project, which is something I enjoy, and, armed with Marissa's scraps of paper, I set about creating a logbook for the medicinal garden, with a map, lists of the plants' names, an updated diary of work carried out and future plans for the garden. With the help of a small team of volunteers, the beds were thoroughly weeded, the compost turned, a new pile made (I did love following the cows and the horses, to collect both dry and 'fresh' manure - picture that: me in the fields with my shovel and my sacks, being watched blankly by a herd of heifers), and the many empty places in the beds were filled with transplants from other sections of the garden. It was time to begin work on the new signs. These were to be hand 'crafted' (I use the term advisedly) from the only colours available in the work yard: white, red and yellow. Obviously, these 3 colours can combine to make other shades, but sadly, we had no blue. Still, I think we did ok.

Once we were started, there was no stopping us - inspiration flowed, and the medicinal garden became fondly referred to as the medicinal 'gallery' for over a week, with the 'artists' working overtime every day.


Even the garden's permanent resident seemed to approve.


So, on my watch, the med garden was completed. It was a satisfying feeling - I even got Raul to cut the grass! Future ideas for the garden include a bench under the cypress tree, as it really is a calm and restful place.

For my last few days, I resumed everyday work in the nursery.


The nursery, or vivero, is fundamental to the main object at La Hesperia: it is here we bring the collected seeds from the forest; here we plant the seeds in beds or in small bags, here the seedlings are planted on into bigger bags and brought on; and here the saplings are eventually transplanted to carefully chosen sites, or 'lineas' (reforestation lines) around the reserve.

Chris working in the vivero


The areas we are replanting were once used as a sugar cane plantation, and are therefore 'secondary cloud forest', ie. terrain that was deforested and reforested (an ongoing process in many parts of the reserve). The wonderful and increasingly unique thing about La Hesperia is that it comprises a significant amount of primary cloud forest, ie. virgin forest that has never been touched by the destructive force of the human hand and is vital to the survival of thousands of species of animal, insect and bird and plant.

Caterpillar chain
This forest is so dense and unknown that we never venture into it, for to do that would be to destroy parts of it. The old Yumba and Inca trails, which are still used today, avoid going into the real depths of the upper reaches of the cloud forest, following the ridge of the reserve only.
The percentage of primary cloud forest left in South America

But there is hope..

Meanwhile, there were many events which stand out in my memory of my last weeks at La Hesperia. We had another 'tremblor' - a stronger earth tremor than the first one I experienced. It happened on the same night as the Chile earthquake which measured 7.4 on the Richter scale, but apparently it was unrelated. I was in bed again as it was late, and this time it was as if somebody was shaking my bed quite roughly; the door latch rattled loudly and the volunteer house shook. This lasted for less than a minute, but was pretty scary.

Then Izaskun, Chris and I found a snake in one of the toilets when we were cleaning the bathrooms. She was hidden in the door frame, seeking out a dark corner - her markings were beautiful and she was small. As to whether she was venomous, the jury remains out - many smaller snakes are more poisonous than the big ones, but it seems that the shape of the head is an important factor when identifying a poisonous species.
I of course felt the need to help the little creature find her way back to the safety of the undergrowth (remember, our bathrooms are outdoors), so, ignoring some bizarre advice to kill the snake (even if I´d wanted to, I couldn´t help wondering, with what?), I herded her towards the scrub with a brush handle.
She was pretty quick - she was terrified of course - and after some further coaxing from under the sinks she slithered off into the greenery, accompanied by the screams of my wussy companions, who were not helping combat the reputation we women have when it comes to creeping, crawling things.

There were spiders too, some small, some really huge, although not as big as I think we will see in the rainforest. I had a small red spider friend who lived above my bed - I often wondered if she would try to drop in on me, but my net would have got in the way. But she was content in her own little net, and lived happily in her web for my entire time at the reserve. I liked to see her there, spinning away and catching the little flies she loved and I hated.

However, some spiders were more impressive in their appearance - I did find one about this size under my pillow one night, and was thankful I had made that last minute torch-check.

She has quite large eyes and antennae - her torso is almost the size of a matchbox and her legs longer than our fingers

I often found Tarantula spiders when I was working in the soil, proving the point about wearing gloves (and rubber boots) at all times. They are shy, nocturnal creatures and like to snooze in warm cavities in the earth, so any digging would invariably dislodge one or two. They would scurry off as fast as they could, terrified. Again, our Tarantulas were small in comparison to those found in the Amazon, where they can grow to giant proportions.

I also had a bat who lived in the wall above my bed. The most unfortunate part of this arrangement was the havoc wreaked on my clothes and net by his droppings, which look almost identical to mouse droppings - you´d just find yourself wondering how a mouse could run so far up the wall, where my clothes hung. But I grew to enjoy the nightly visits, where our bat friend went several laps of the room, often hanging out on top of our nets awhile..

I suppose life on the reserve is not for the faint of heart. There were volunteers there who had a mortal fear of snakes and spiders, but they were there to confront these fears, which I thought admirable.

But there are so many things I will miss.
Pacific Hornerids:cheeky birds who make the most awful racket
Huge tree with trailing vines
The first sugar plantation tractor, now a nesting place for wrens
Lace moth
No really, it´s a moth
Giant cicada (see matchbox below)

I have loved my time here; have felt privileged to be part of this sublime place; have learnt so much and met so many wonderful people, who will be friends for life; but that time is over and it is time for me to move on.

Primary cloud forest, La Hesperia

Posted by Eleniki 15:22 Archived in Ecuador Tagged ecotourism Comments (1)

Rappelling the cascades

Scaling waterfalls at La Hesperia

semi-overcast 24 °C

Fridays at La Hesperia are either hike days or days free for weekend travel. Every second friday, we hike one of the reserves many trails. These hikes vary in length and difficulty.
The reserve ascends in altitude from 1,100 metres to 2,040, which takes in three ecological environments: pre-montane evergreen, low montane and high montane (cloud forest). As you can imagine, this change in altitude means some pretty steep trails, and as there is a river running through the reserve, it also results in some fairly significant waterfalls.
One friday, Raul suggested the 'rappelling hike'. The vote (including mine) went in favour of this adventurous sounding expedition, and we were advised to wear our wellies and not to bring backpacks, even small ones, as they would get entangled with the rappelling harness. We set out at the usual time of 8.30am; there were five cascades to descend and the hike would take about 4 hours.
After walking for half an hour or so, Raul set up the rope beside a waterfall of some 25 ft. in depth - we weren´t actually rappelling through the water, just down the face of the rock close to the fall. It took some manoeuvering to get the hang, so to speak, of the harness, but it was very safe, with Raul taking it on and off each volunteer, and Ceri, our very tall, longterm volunteer, waiting below in case he needed to catch any falling bodies...
I loved it! The adrenelin was pumping, and the way the harness fitted around the torso made me feel well in control. We had to place our feet very carefully and control the speed of the descent by letting the rope out slowly or quickly. It wasn´t too long before I felt comfortable with the technique and really began to enjoy myself. The only regret was that the falls weren´t higher - I think the deepest one was around 35 feet. I can see how absailing has its attractions...

Some of the rock descents were only 15 feet or so, and for these we used a simple knotted rope without a harness. This was a little scary at first, but there were footholds and our arms had become pretty strong from weeks of tough labour on the reserve. We also had to scale UP rock faces - an unexpected element of the morning´s hike. Raul appeared to run up the bare face of the rock without any support whatsoever, tied the rope to a tree or around a rock at the top, and up we went towards his waiting hands! No harness here either, but Ceri was below, shoving us up as far as his long arms would allow, and the knots, which were at regular intervals on the rope, were perfect aids in our ascent, along with the natural footholds on the rockface. It had to be said that wellies were not the best footwear here, but we needed them for the river walking parts of the hike. Ceri was happy, as he said it was the only opportunity he got to feel everyone´s ass...
But, however enjoyable the rappelling itself was, the highlight of the hike for me was something completely different, which we were lucky enough to see: halfway down the biggest cascade, Raul spotted an alcove in the cliff-face opposite. He pointed it out to us, and with enormous excitement we realised that the dinosaur-sized branches which were carefully placed on the ledge were in fact a nest: it was the nest of a barred hawk! It was very hard to get a good photo of the baleful chick, sitting in solitary splendour on its giant structure, but we tried with our zooms..
The noise of the crashing water was so great that we hardly heard another sound - the anxious screams of the parents overhead, as they watched this strange and threatening procession of aliens descending past their impassive fluffball, who seemed less put out than they.
We moved on as quickly as we could, but even so, getting 14 people down the fall took an hour, and the parents were very agitated. Raul was thrilled because he said it was the first time a chick had been located on the reserve with both parents evident. This would go down in La Hesperia wildlife records.
Raul, happy with his discovery, takes a well-earned rest after his morning's exertions

Posted by Eleniki 12:50 Archived in Ecuador Tagged volunteer Comments (0)


From the plant to the cup

sunny 26 °C

P1010268.jpgCoffee beans, unripe

Halfway up the steep cobbled path to La Hesperia from the village of La Esperie on the Santo Domingo highway, a small coffee plantation nestles beneath the graceful shade of some banana trees.

The banana trees produce an extraordinary 'flower' along with the fruit

The enormous leathery banana leaves wave gently above the coffee plants like the swaying ears of adult elephants protecting their young. It´s a good combination.


I had never seen coffee growing before, so I was happy when one of the daily jobs allotted after breakfast was to pick the dark red, ripe berries, bring them up to the hacienda and harvest the fresh beans inside.
P1010267.jpgCoffee beans ripening

The beans are very pale and wrapped in a thin protective membrane, or 'cascara', like the skin of a peanut once it has been shelled. The beans, in their protective layers, are left for up to a week to dry in the sun. If there´s a lot of rain, this can take longer. We picked some cocoa beans as well, which would be made into chocolate at a later stage.
P1000799.jpgCocoa beans

When the time came to de-husk and roast the coffee beans, it was written up as one of the day´s jobs and I was quick to volunteer. What a delight! A whole morning ahead of me, hand-processing our own coffee!

The job of de-husking was fiddly and delicate. Lola, our cook and wife of Raul, the head worker on the reserve, showed me how to use an antiquated mill, or grinder; the kind of contraption I remember my grandmother using to make marmalade.
It was difficult to get the measure of - if the wings were too tight, I crushed the precious beans prematurely; if they were too loose, it was completely ineffective, allowing the beans through, still in their thin coats. I ended up finishing the job with my hands and would probably have been better off doing it this way from the outset. I blew the husks off as they came away, eventually leaving me with a bowl of fresh, pale coffee beans.
P1000800.jpgCoffee bean husks
P1000801.jpgCoffee beans, fresh

Now came the enjoyable part. I poured the beans into a dry pan and 'toasted' them for over an hour on our ancient outdoor gas stove. The aroma was divine and it was a pleasure to watch the beans slowly darkening to a familiar and unmistakeable rich shade of brown.
Every so often, Lolita would come out to check on me, as it would surely have been a shame to have the tiny but valuable crop burnt to ashes. After some seventy minutes, she pronounced the process 'termine' and the coffee 'listo'.

I admit to a certain small amount of pride at breakfast the following morning when 'my' coffee was served up in a steaming pot. Ah, the small pleasures of life...

Posted by Eleniki 11:58 Archived in Ecuador Tagged volunteer Comments (0)


A weekend at the beach

semi-overcast 26 °C

It was a 7-hour, two-bus ride to the coast, but we had a long weekend, so we left on Thursday after work, and stayed the night in a hell-hole called Pedernales, in a flea-pit called Hotel America. Hotel America, Main Street (only street) Pedernales, north coast of Ecuador. Don't go there.
On first sight, Cañoa, our destination, didn't look a whole lot more wholesome than Pedernales, but we walked down the main street to the beach, where the Hotel Bambu stands right on the sand. It's a lovely setting, but we were just a tad un-nerved on reading the sign at the entrance.P1010093.jpg
Still, we pressed on and checked in. There was a large group of us, 11 in total, and the rooms reminded us of our semi-outdoor arrangement back at La Hesperia, with beds, windows, doors and wardrobes made of bamboo; no surprise there.
The bar was a typical beach bar, with tables and chairs in the private, sandy hotel compound. We settled in quickly with some very quaffable lunchtime cocktails. Feeling almost guilty as we realised we had a whole two days of relaxation ahead of us, we just chilled and enjoyed the sea view and the beautiful day.
The highlight of the trip for me was seeing Frigate birds sailing along the coastline, and even inland a bit. They joined the vultures near dumps, and mingled with the egrets mincing along the shore, swooping and gliding in their distinctive way, like pterodactyls of long ago.
If seeing Frigate birds is this fantastic, I can't wait to see Blue-footed Boobies on Galapagos. We have to really seek out wildlife in modern Ireland, compared to the raw, everyday phenomenan I've experienced here, without going particularly out of my way.
Some of our group braved the waves, and were pleasantly surprised to find the Pacific warm, even in this off-season time. There are no seasons as we know them here in Ecuador, only wet and dry. Sometimes wet is cooler, but lately this has not been the case, with a very dry October at La Hesperia causing some concern. Usually October is the beginning of the wet season, and the gardens are very dehydrated as a result.

We explored the little town, but it's a small place, and was very quiet at this time.
There were some stalls and shops still selling tourist items like beaded jewellery and flip-flops, but it was a little dodgy for the women in our group to walk around alone after dark, so we mostly kept to our privileged sandy cage, where there was a security man on duty through the night. This is fairly normal in Ecuador, specially in Quito, where there are armed security men on most street corners and outside cafes and bars in the Mariscal, which is the 'gringo' part of the city.

Posted by Eleniki 08:01 Archived in Ecuador Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

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