Waking up in Ecuador

Please note: This page will automatically load with all 9 posts on one long page - but you can also read each entry individually by clicking on the archives at left. Just click on the dates as they appear (in reverse order) in the archive list at left to read them sequentially, i.e. June 9th, then June 8th, then June 7th, etc. -Cindy

After spending a couple of months in Ecuador in early 2009, many people have asked me to tell them about what I found there. "Is it all you thought it would be?" " Is it as beautiful as the travel pictures?" "Is it a third world disaster?" "Is it as cheap as people say?" etc.

I can only speak to the one part of Ecuador that I know, but I hope you find this helpful in some way or another - and even more I hope you can go someday and experience it for yourself.

I spent my time in Cotacachi in the province of Imbabura. Located in the Andes at about 8000 feet in elevation, north and east of Quito and approximately 2 hours by car, Cotacachi itself is a small town of approximately 5,000 people; this does not include the outlying indigenous villages, however, that use Cotacachi on a daily basis, thus making it seem a lot bigger at times. Roughly 10 kilometers from town is a monument that marks the equator, so I guess you could say quite literally that with the latitude as well as elevation, the scenery and the people, I was on top of the world.

The posts are written in the order in which they happened s
o please try to read through them in the order they are listed in the column at left if you want them to make sense. You can click on any picture to see a larger version.

The last post includes some links if you would like to know more.

Love, Cindy

Getting Adjusted and Looking Around

I feel like the day I discovered Cotacachi was Day One - the first day of the rest of my life. It is magical, not only because of its gorgeous vistas, but its residents are for the most part Quechua, fiercely proud descendants of Ecuador's largest indigenous group and longest inhabitants. According to many locals, the reasons these particular people have remained tribal is that the Aztec invaders who greatly impacted the history of the region only "held" this particular part of Ecuador (the Imbabura Province) for a total of about 30 years, not even a full generation. Thus the people never lost their identity unlike most other tribal residents of Ecuador.

The first thing you should know about Cotacachi is its location. High! It sits at roughly 8000 feet above sea level and is located 2 hours by car north and east of Quito (which is even higher). Most low-elevation-lubbers like me who fly into Quito (~10.5K feet) have to get out of there fairly quickly or be prepared to do nothing for a few days while they adapt. (Rest assured this does not happen to everyone, but be prepared just in case.) Unfortunately, it took me about 3 weeks to fully adapt even to Cotacachi at 8K feet - but please don't let that stop you. It was the best wait I ever had to endure.

The first week there was spent with hubby Nick and new-found friends (see Nick and our friend Barry in the pictures here) at a business seminar which happened to include a little real estate tour. These seminars are hosted regularly by Gary and Merri Scott in Cotacachi (see garyascott.com for more info.) I've posted pics here of the some of the properties we saw that were for sale.

There was even a cheese factory for sale, quite pricey because all of the equipment had been imported from Switzerland including an expert who was on-site for several months teaching the locals the intricacies of making the cheese. Here you will see Carlos, a professional by anyone's standards, proudly giving us a little tour. And yes, the cows came with the purchase; here they are standing in line waiting to be milked.

The real estate we saw ran the gamut: a beautiful hacienda in Otovalo, small and large condos all around the province, raw land as well as land already surveyed and ready to build. Not all was reasonably priced by a long shot and not everything was all that appealing; but looking out in almost any direction, the views were fantastic.

It was late in the first week that I took a trip with several others up to view Lake Cuicocha (pronounced Kwee-ko-cha), one of the most spectacular sites in all of Ecuador at 12,000 feet. I got sick as a dog (I told you it took me awhile to adapt!) But just so you'll know, I was the ONLY person of about 30 on that bus who had problems, so you must certainly go! I learned later that your digestion slows way down at high altitudes so if you have ever had a hiatal hernia (my hand is raised!), you should plan on fasting for a day before you head up the mountain.

Cuicocha is a crater lake (see description /caption below taken from a travel site), and the island in the center is sacred to the Quechua - off limits to all but the shamans (and the wildlife of course).

The crater lake is three km wide and some 200m deep. The water is alkaline and supports very little life. The islands in the middle are lava domes, which rise over the water surface. They are well covered with vegetation and support some wildlife.

There is a nice restaurant at the top for tourists, highly recommended for anyone without altitude problems! And small boats take locals and tourists out on the water for a fee. One of my new friends jumped in on a dare (this was much later in my visit), and said it was not nearly as cold as he expected (but the local who was driving the boat was aghast!).

Something should be said here about the place where we stayed this first week (and more on it later). The Meson de las Flores is somewhat of a mecca for English speakers, and though not every staff member speaks English (I found myself asked to be a translator on many occasion during my time in Cotacachi), most of them do speak at least SOME English. And ALL of them have hearts of gold.

All the rooms surround an inner courtyard where meals are served, dances are danced (we even had a conga line one night!), crafts are displayed at mini- "ferias" (fairs), and camaraderie abounds. Something about being a foreigner in a foreign land I guess -- most people want to sit and talk and find out where you've been and where you're going. It helps of course, if you know what to tell them.

Some of my favorite people in the world, all staff at El Meson de las Flores:

From left, Jose the singing taxi driver (and mayor of the village of Quiroga - he has several CDs out, and he is a fantastic singer!), Consuela from the village of La Calera (the sweetest Quechua girl in the world!), Rosita Elena (a florist as well as general helper at El Meson) and Alberto, a sous chef of the highest order - you should see what he does with quinoa! Note: Jose is one of 6 or 7 drivers that this motel will send to the airport to pick you up if you stay there.

And below are Mauricio who is getting his Master's in Tourism and is the manager of El Meson, along with Rosita, a housekeeper with a heart of gold.
And I certainly cannot forget Ma, part time resident pooch extraordinaire. (Missing are Eduardo, Alberto V., and Franklin.)

Slight Diversion (and an education)

Nick and I returned to Quito together the night before he caught the plane home. I caught a ride to another part of Ecuador (the central highlands) where the plan was to do volunteer work teaching music for the next two months for a non profit. You know what they say about "the best laid plans ..." It was not to be, and extraneous circumstances (irrelevant to the topic of this blog) led me back to Cotacachi.

Thankfully my Spanish is good enough that I had little trouble finding a private driver (all it really took was the cash!) for the 5 hour drive north. It turned out that the ride was one of the best opportunities I had during my entire stay to learn more about the country. Angel, the taxi driver whom I had approached, asked if it was okay if his wife came along. Sure! It meant that poor Angel wouldn't have to make the drive back all alone. He and Faviola talked with me the entire time and told me all about their beautiful little town as well as some interesting facts about Ecuador.

Their small town where I had intended to stay is at the foot of an active volcano called Tungurahua. Faviola and Angel were among the thousands who were evacuated in '99 for several months and defied a curfew in order to return when the volcano did NOT blow as predicted. Like many others, he lost his livelihood then, but he was fortunate as his brother helped him make the payments on their home and his taxi. The old volcano has been spewing ever since then, but the town's residents and many tourists go about their business as usual. It was a bit disconcerting for me to see the road littered with steaming lava rocks and full of so many detours (because of those rocks) that it added a good 45 minutes to the drive to get in and out of there.

Despite the threat, Banos
is one of Ecuador's most popular tourist attractions with thousands of Europeans and North Americans flocking there to go hiking, canyoning, bathe in the hot springs (courtesy of the volcano). Of course, the word 'banos' means baths or springs in Spanish. Because Banos is situated quite literally in a canyon at the foot of this volcano, its elevation is only about 5500 feet, but getting there requires driving up and over a range with remarkable vistas, albeit some of them littered with the aforementioned lava. Tourists, mostly young backpackers, flock there in droves to experience the rapids on the river that winds through the canyon. Sadly, four of them had died on that river just two weeks prior to my visit.

Angel took my pic as we left the town.

During that long drive I learned that Ecuador is a guild country - each little town has a craft or product that supplies all the others via barter or purchase ... in the old days of course, goods were transported on the backs of horses and burros and there was much more bartering than cash transfer. Now goods are trucked from place to place or quite literally hand-delivered by the very efficient bus system that connects all points within the country. The towns surrounding Banos include a "jeans town" where every major label jean-maker in the world commissions blue jeans with their own private label. And high on my list was the "ice cream town"; it would have been more correct to call it the dairy town, but helado, which means ice cream in Spanish, is much more appealing.

Other guild town
s that I became more familiar with later on produce straw mats, shoes, hats, and Cotacachi itself is the "cuero" capitol, one of the best places in the entire world to buy custom leather products. Generally speaking, each town has an institute which teaches the crafts specific to their area, but the people from the smaller villages that surround the towns do not always have the opportunity to study the crafts - and thus effort is being made to make certain they do not lose this ancestral identity. (Much more on this later.)

I also learned that Ecuadorians are far more aware than Americans of growing their food without pesticides as well as without the 'help' of Monsanto. Whereas only a small percentage of North American activists try desperately to educate their fellow citizens about the dangers of GMOs, Monsanto's Roundup, and the unsustainability of pesticides and herbicides that ultimately render soil completely lifeless, Ecuadorians are adamant that Monsanto will not get a foothold in their country. Ecuador's current president, Rafael Correa, an American educated economist, is in complete agreement. This and Correa's unwillingness to play games with the IMF and the military industrial complex is what has made him unpopular with the American government/press/media (which are the same for all practical purposes) and very appealing to people like me who are extremely distressed at the lies being told the public about our food supply when it comes to the reality behind GMOs (as well as the lies about quite a few other things -- but we won't go there).

Unfortunately, Ecuador is a rose-growing country as well, and sometime in the last 30 year
s, a large group of Israelis came in and bought up rose production facilities in various parts of the country. These enterprises use pesticides heavily and have been asked politely to stop according to Angel and Faviola, but they continue to defy the requests. Pesticide residue has now been found in neighboring avocado groves as well as in the ubiquitous backyard corn plots, angering the population as well as the government. It's unclear how or when they can be stopped. This was all verified by several other folks I met later in the trip, both Spanish and English speakers. (I'm always a bit unsure if I totally understand the Spanish, so I make it a point to check out the accuracy of my translations if it's a topic that is of importance to me.)

As a general rule, the architecture of Ecuador doesn't do it for me -- not anything like Mexico's brilliant hacienda-style adobes, curved doorways and colorful facades. But occasionally we would drive past a spectacular church or come upon a particularly picture-perfect view of one of the two dormant volcanos that overlook Cotacachi (Mt. Cotacachi and Mt. Imbabura), and Angel would stop and let me take it all in. At one point, Faviola motioned for him to stop, and she jumped out unexpectedly and ran to a roadside stand. Angel simply told me, "comida" so I knew she was hungry. But bless her little heart, she wanted me to try cho-chos, the traditional bean (something like a fava) which is marinated in vinegar and onion and sprinkled with salt. It was delicious, and I read later that the protein content is unsurpassed.

When I expressed an interest in building materials, Angel waited for the moment when he knew we would come upon a mining operation, nothing like I would have previously ever referred to as 'mining.' He stopped the car at the foot of a rocky outcrop and pointed upwards to a most unusual looking rock formation that appeared to be growing like a do-nut! He explained that the center of that particular rock contains a mineral that, when ground to powder, is mixed with mud to make the indigenous adobe bricks. He drove a bit further, stopped the car at an empty construction site, got out and picked up an adobe brick and pointed to the on-site mineral extraction pit (which was nothing more than a good spot to smash up the rock and mix it with mud). I know not all of Ecuador's buildings are made with this material, but I took heart in learning about this local and sustainable approach to shelter. (As an aside, anyone in the building trades may find it interesting to note that those who build with concrete often send laborers to the coast to get truckloads of beach sand for their concrete mix. Oooooops, not good! The salt content of the sand weakens the concrete, and building contractors that cut costs in this way are often long gone when the concrete starts to crumble!)

That long drive with Angel and Faviola passed quickly thanks to them, their patience with my Spanish and incessant questions, and their incredible unsolicited willingness to be my guides. As we pulled off the Pan-American Highway on the little road that leads to Cotacachi, I was very sad to have to say goodbye to them. What a blessing to have met them.

Back Where I Started (and happy about it!)

I was really lucky that Meson had a room for me. This hotel serves as headquarters for all of Gary and Merri Scott's seminars on Ecuador as well as their international investing and real estate tours. It can be full to overflowing at times but I was lucky there was a little break when Angel and Faviola delivered me to the door.

Though I had sent Mauricio an email to say I was coming, I hadn't stuck around long enough to get a reply. Fortunately I was met with open arms by the warm staff, all of whom I considered good friends by this time. Gary and Merri were on the beach with a real estate tour so the place was quiet.

I did not intend to stay long at all, but I got sick, really sick, all stomach related. I have a feeling it was more of the same altitude problems, and I was going to have to readjust. And I also needed to find an apartment pronto as it was going to be too pricey to stay in the hotel for any longer. I was waited on hand and foot by Eduardo (pictured at right!) who brought me oregano tea and yogurt and whatever they thought I might need. He is a truly caring person! I took some comfort in knowing that I was not the only one. It DOES take awhile to adjust here, especially for those who live at low altitude, and I had plenty of company over the next few weeks as I watched many others come down with the same stomach ailment. The quality of the food at Meson is impeccable and I am certain it's healthier fare than most: quinoa pancakes, hand churned butter (it wasn't long after this that I was making my own from fresh cream), grits, delicious soups, fresh squeezed juices of every kind imaginable... but the problem is that you can't stop eating it. And as I mentioned previously, I learned the hard way that your digestion slows way down at high altitude, and it's really best to eat sparingly until your body adjusts. Something I should have been doing!

Though there is an established gringo real estate office there, I had made contact with a couple of locals to let them know I was looking for a place. Turned out it was a bad time as Cotacachi was flooded with gringos, many looking to buy and move permanently, others intent only to rent for 2-3 months a year, every year; it was among these two groups, the locals and the renters, that I made some fast friends.

Jose is a local veterinarian and life-long resident. Along with his brother M
anuel (who just returned from five years working in London and speaks perfect English) and his beautiful wife Nelli who has her own tienda selling fruits and vegetables, Jose showed me a couple of places that I would have loved to rent. Sadly they come unfurnished, which I learned is quite common.

I soon learned of another local who often helps folks find rentals. His name is Luis (pictured here with his wife Luz and daughter Rochelle), an indigenous Quechua who also owns one of the largest grain stores in the area. Luis makes small commissions from tourists and/or locals who have spots to rent. Through him, I found Rut.

Rut ("Ruth" in English) is from Spain and came to Cotacachi to do mission work about six years prior and never left. She told me that it is the rampant consumerism that drove her away from her home country (she would NOT like the U.S.!). She is now a resident of Ecuador and with her father's help, she built a small house on the outskirts of town (about a 20 minute walk to the hotel and the main square). She lives in the upsta
irs and rents the downstairs. It had been vacated on a Friday, and Luis showed it to me on a Saturday (I took it immediately!), and two other people wanted it on Sunday. I got lucky. Rut became my landlady, Spanish tutor, and my lifelong friend.

It happened that during my stay, Rut was hosting another missionary in her upstairs apartment, a young British girl named Tracey. Only 23 yrs old, she had already visited many South American countries and is fluent in Spanish. But because I fell in love with her British accent, I never asked her to speak in Spanish like I did everyone else. Tracey is a doll (now back in England). The pic posted here is the little dinner party they hosted for me the night before I had to leave. Rut even pulled out the last of her imported Spanish cocoa, a treat and an honor that I won't forget!

I loved my little apartment on the bottom floor. Sparsely furnished but clean and QUIET, o so quiet, which as most everyone knows, is an anomaly in Latin America. I loved it. Looking out, I saw corn taller than my window one direction, horses grazing in another direction, houses of all shapes and sizes in another, all set off the small road that leads down to a gringo development. Although it's possible for a car to get to the gate, it's one lane unpaved and thus off the beaten path making it that much more perfect. Just a short walk up the road leading into town lives a woman who milks her big fat cow every morning (I have never seen a happier cow!), plopped down in the middle of her half-acre lush gre
en grass accompanied by an equally happy little dog who seemed to love the cow as much as the woman. (See the pic at right for an idea of my daily walk to and from town.) ALL of this splendor is framed by the dormant, lush and verdant volcanoes, one in each direction, towering above the whole town, shrouded in clouds, then sun, then sky colors I've never seen before, and all of this a daily gift from the gods that must surely live up there on those mysterious slopes. I must admit that I initially thought that it was this scenic beauty that made me love it here so much, but I came to realize that it was the people, not the place, that made it home for me.

What do I do now?

Now that I had a place to live, the time came for me to figure out how to use my time here. I still wanted to help teach early childhood music somewhere (which is what I came here for in the first place); I just didn't know where. The quest was on, and I set about asking friendly shopkeepers (and they were ALL friendly!) for advice on where to go. I was directed to a local preschool, but I never once was able to connect with the person in charge. One nearby village permitted only the shaman to teach music to young children. Another and then another lead, and nothing was materializing. I soon realized that perhaps this was not what I was supposed to be doing here.

Merri Scott (owner of El Meson) is a very intuitive woman, and she picked right up on my frustration and introduced me to Lucia, a former employee of hers who now works for an NGO funded by the government of Italy. This non-profit (with a ridiculously long acronym I can't remember) funds indigenous arts throughout the world, especially big on funding projects in South America and Africa. Lucia, who spoke no English but was beyond patient with my questions, was most excited that I actually wanted to help. It was with her that I was able to travel to the outlying villages and extend a hand to the incredible people I met there. I hesitate to say "help" because in truth, I was not much help at all. I watched, experimented, copied as best as I could, and loved every minute of it (but sad to say, I really, honestly was almost no help at all!)

As I mentioned previously, Ecuador is full of guild towns. Lucia first took me to a ceramics village called Tunibamba where 7-8 women and 1 man spent one day every week working together in a community workshop with one window and one door and a big kiln outside that was broken for lack of funds to repair it. They were all smiles, loved to crack jokes with each other AND with me when they realized that I spoke enough Spanish to almost understand them. And when they didn't want me to understand them, they switched to their native Quechua, which Lucia didn't even understand. I was given the task of polishing the ceramics (air-dried clay since the kiln was broken). Again, I was little help but I enjoyed my time with them very much.

Another day Lucia and I went way up in the mountains to a town called Morlan in the province of Intag where a small group of women make the traditional fedoras (and occasionally an Indiana Jones hat for the tourists like me).

See a photo of Lucia at the far right.

Nervous about the altitude, I prepared by fasting
prior to the trip (and it was a long bus ride to get there!). For this reason or simply the fact that I was adjusted by then, I had no problems with the altitude. The most interesting thing about this village is that every single woman in the entire place is named Maria. Lucia got a kick out of telling me that it has taken her years to get them all straight, but she calls them all by their middle names: Maria Delores, Maria Elena, Maria Laura, Maria Josefina, etc. Interestingly, however, they call themselves simply Maria. So the Marias taught me how to make hats, and of course I had to buy one for myself before I left. They cackle as they work and were more timid with me than any of the other places I visited during my stay. I don't imagine that many gringos make it up their way. It was as remote a place as I've ever been.

Lucia had a series of meetings as well as supplies to purchase in Quito, so I did not get to spend nearly enough time with her as I would have liked, but I will always be grateful for the opportunity to tag along with her. This was an experience of a lifetime.

Luis and the Villagers

I mentioned Luis earlier (pictured below with his brother-in-law Byron), and it must be said that without his help, my experience in Cotacachi would not have been nearly as wonderful as it was. He speaks incredibly good English for someone who has never formally studied it, and he has a strong desire to speak it perfectly. Watching his corner of the world become a tourist destination has surely not been easy, yet he confided that the only way he can survive is to become a part of it. Like Jose the vet and others who show property "on the side", he charges nothing, just lets it be known that it is customary to give a tip of "whatever you want to pay." Wow, what a concept!

It should be noted that Ecuador is on the dollar, making it far superior to other Latin countries for people like me who struggle with instant conversion of pesos or quetzales or colones. That said, your dollars will go a long way in Ecuador, which for the time being still offers the best value for staples. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see it I guess), a number of gringo enterprises have popped up all over Ecuador that compete with locals who struggle desperately to survive in an economy that is tourist driven. The gringo prices are considerably higher of course, but they entice away the tourist dollars promising better quality and service, which is not always the case. As a result, the locals miss out.

Because of his strong desire to help the people in the outlying areas, Luis has formed a small tour guide service in a
ddition to his other ventures, employing his brother-in-law Byron who owns a double-cab four-wheel drive truck to show people around in small groups. He knows he's competing with some large, well-funded, slick, foreign-owned tour operators, but he is far from pretentious when he says he can show you a side of the country that you would never see otherwise.

Luis' tour lasts approximately five hours and
takes very small groups into the homes of indigenous artisans. Invariably, the artisans are rewarded with a sale (or two!) after they demonstrate their craft as Luis narrates in English. Many of these artisans are people Luis has known since childhood, most are old with very limited income, most speak only Quechua, and all are gracious and happy to greet Luis and his tourists and welcome them into their homes. I was lucky enough to go out with Luis and a wonderful couple from Alabama named Ashley and Tim on one of the days I was not with Lucia. Our first stop was in the village of Cara Abuela where the traditional floor mats are made. This is perhaps the most intriguing of all village names in Ecuador as it means "Grandmother's Face" in Spanish.

High on a hill in Cara Abuela overlooking a small lake, we stopped at the home of an old man whose wife had died the year before, and I saw true poverty unlike I've ever seen before. But it was clear why Luis brought us here - old Jose could no longer produce a mat every two days to collect the $3 price that it fetched, so he was without much income. At Luis' command in Quechua, Jose gave us a short demonstration in how to weave the dried reeds from the lake below into floor mats approximately 8 x 10 feet in size (he was only able to complete a short section for us); these serve as the typical indoor carpet in a Quechua home. A tremendous stack of these reeds stood drying in the sun all across the length of his home, giving the impression that he was a bit behind in his process. Ashley and I both immediately picked up on the fact that if we asked to take his picture, it was 'okay' to give him a tip. He did not make much, but it was more than he had seen in awhile according to Luis.

I hesitate to dwell too long on Jose because of the depressing situation he was in, but it was fascinating to me to see the difference in the generations of the indigenous population as the Cotacachi area has grown and begun to change from the very ancient Quechua traditions to the new world of dollars and tourists and "progress." Old Jose lives in a crumbling adobe, well over 100 years old, one room with a dirt floor, no windows and no light but for the wide doorway. Though the demonstration of mat making was held on his "patio" (a term I use very loosely), Luis insisted we take a look inside the adobe. There, amidst a single cot on one side of the room and a cooking campfire ringed with stones on the other, eight or ten guinea pigs ran all about. All different sizes, perhaps from different litters but all the same stock, these guineas are the traditional food of the old Indian. Though I was aware that the traditional diet centered around roasted guineas, I was unprepared for the sight. Luis explained that when he gets hungry, he simply throws one on the fire. (I was too mortified to ask if he bothers to kill it first.) Note: I had to adjust my camera to get enough light to photograph inside here.

It was clear that Jose had almost nothing else, not even clean water - unless it was delivered to him by a neighbor. Now too old to do much else, he produces approximately one mat per week, making his annual income around $156.

later in the day, I asked Luis more about Jose and if he is typical. "No," he said, "most have families that take care of them, but he had no children." And the diet? "Only the old people still eat that way. I am Quechua, and I will not eat that. It's nothing but a rat." I was relieved to hear that.

Moving on, we came to a small village of weavers (I can't recall the name). This village sits right on the lake where grow the reeds that Jose uses for his mats, so I was a bit surprised that this one was not the mat-making village instead of Cara Abuela. But after a bit of thought, it made perfect sense: the humidity in and around the lake would prevent the reeds from drying while the wind on the hill above would only aid in the process. These people have centuries of common sense at their disposal, so of course, I should have known!

The artisan family we visited here (four generations under one roof) produce beautiful shawls and belts, tightly woven, some with exotic, shiny threads that are surely imported, but plant-dyed cotton and wool from Ecuador were the most common. Surrounded by her weaver-son and her many grandchildren, the woman was happy to weave all day, stopping only to sell us a few shawls. Employing a large floor loom that looked to be handmade, the son worked on the shawls while she sat on the floor with a belt loom that was tied to her waist providing the tension.

Next up was another village that is known for its weaving but that happens to have one of the most famous instrument maker families in the country in its midst. Peguche is almost a suburb of the large market town called Otovalo and is easily accessible off the Pan-Am Highway. We happened to come along just as a little concert was underway for a group of German tourists. Though we would have asked a lot more questions if we had not been interrupting something in progress, we learned that the mandolin-type instruments on the wall are made of armadillo shells, the shakers from sheep's feet, the pan flutes come from a type of local bamboo, and the guitars are handmade right there in the taller (workshop) attached to the house. The musicians sounded great, playing Andean traditional tunes, first instrumental only but then adding vocals sung in Quechua; they offered several CDs for sale which the Germans quickly bought up. As we were leaving I noticed an array of orchids hanging from the porch - the guitar player told me that the orchids are his hobby. (He's really good at it!)

On to another village whose name escapes me, this time to visit a couple
who have been weaving and spinning together for 70 years (they met at the age of 7). Take one look at them and you'll see why they were mesmerizing. LOVELY couple whose spirits filled the place and the hearts of ALL their visitors I'm quite sure.

Having always thought that alpaca wool was a product of Ecuador, I was surprised to learn that all the alpaca actually is raised exclusively in Peru. Ecuador is sheep country, and this couple has spent their entire lives shearing, carding, spinning, and weaving. Their handiwork dotted the workshop, all sorts of rugs and scarves and artistic creations. Again, how can you leave here and not support them? Ashley, Tim, and I bought at least one item each. (I can't imagine being able to afford to shop like this on any other type of tour - nor would it have ever been of benefit to the artisans themselves.) Part of the demonstration included the use of a type of cactus grown in the area used to comb the wool and soften it while it was still on the loom. I was fascinated by that bit of ingenuity, and Jose (yes, another Jose) picked up on the question. Not knowing that he spoke Spanish, I was surprised when he engaged me in conversation on the way out asking if I would like to see his small garden. He offered me beans right off the plant, and pointed to his crop of corn and quinoa to the side of the house. The smiles of this couple will forever stick with me. If nothing else had happened, I would have left Ecuador very happy.

On to Peguche Falls, an absolutely beautiful park-like setting that happens to be protected ancestral land of the Quechua. Many shamanic ceremonies have been held here over the centuries with the sound of the falls as background music. The trees are taller here, and the forest-like feel of the place was unique to this part of Ecuador. We saw school kids there looking at the flora and fauna, couples romancing, families on picnic, and a young couple brave enough to climb to the top of the falls and perch above all the rest of us like Andean gods surveying their pastoral heaven.

Clearly, this part of our little tour was a nature-lov
ers' dream, and it gave me a thrill to pick up on Luis' sense of pride as he showed us this beautiful spot. We learned that the waters that spring from the earth here are considered sacred, and many Quechua come here to fill up jugs for drinking. Gardens dot the few open areas as well, benefiting from the humidity and the rich humous provided by the year round magical forest biology. More carefully tended than most I saw, the caretakers were growing quite a lot of greens and berries, crops that I did not see so frequently elsewhere.

As you leave the Falls area, a group of vendors line the exit in wait for the tourists, selling bracelets, rugs, lamps, textiles, and sweet roasted corn. I caught some quinoa drying in the sun as we left, more colorful than any I had seen so I had to get a photo.

We headed into Cotacach
i for lunch, met up with Tim's brother Kerry - one of my renter friends - and had a wonderful time rehashing the day. (It should be noted that the tour was not really over as all but me went up to Lake Cuicocha after lunch.) It was during our meal that I learned that Byron understood every word we had said all day (I was trying so hard to include him in Spanish!) ... he explained to me he doesn't try to speak English because he doesn't have the accent right and is unsure of his vocabulary, but that he can understand it. I have a feeling this is probably true of a lot of the Quechua people in and around Cotacacachi. They should not be underestimated!

From left: Tim, Ashley, Kerry, Luis, Byron