The drive to the Andean highlands was stunning. On this nearly cloudless day (a rare occasion during the rainy season), we enjoyed unobstructed views of many of the mountains and volcanoes surrounding Quito. After traversing valleys and hills, we arrived in Otavalo, a highland town nestled at the feet of several towering mountains. It is famous for its extensive market filled with countless native goods.
Our trip to the market presented a chance to practice our bargaining skills—and help out the local economy. Alpaca blankets, scarves, and sweaters, belts, artwork, soccer jerseys, musical instruments, and more.
After shopping, we traveled a short distance to have a traditional Kichwa lunch of chicken, rice, potatoes, beets, salad, and juice. Sidenote—the Ecuadorian juice has been incredible. Almost every place we have traveled, we have been treated to fresh fruit juices. So good. Our appetites satisfied, the afternoon was spent in Cotacachi, a nearby town famous for its fine leather products.
That evening, we made our way to the homes of various families in the Cotacachi area for another homestay. Among the various homes, members of our group spent the evening playing soccer and games with local kids, helping our host families in their gardens, and talking with our hosts to learn about life in Cotacachi.
Your co-bloggers—along with Alex, Max, and Ross—stayed with a woman named María Carmen, her husband, and their daughter. After an intense game of soccer against some local boys at the school across the street, we helped our hosts prepare dinner. The first course was a traditional quinoa and vegetable soup. This was followed by a plate of chicken, rice, beans, and a salad (composed of avocado, tomato, onion and lemon juice), which was all accompanied by freshly-squeezed lemonade. We were amazed to learn that everything on the table (except the rice) came directly from the family’s garden. They also have pigs, sheep, corn, and many more products. María Carmen explained that everything they produce is used for the house—none of it is sold in markets. This sustainable type of agriculture seemed fairly common in this area, but it is much different than the large, monoculture fields we have seen in some other parts of the country.
We were up early the next morning to help with breakfast and make our way back to Casa Foch. One day in Quito was all we had before departing for another highlands area the following morning (our last in Ecuador): Antisana.
The path to Antisana: A narrow road wound its way up the hillslope. Due to the nature of these roads, subject to wear from earth-moving vehicles and gravel trucks, and ever-twisting from the shape of the mountains, it was a bumpy ride. As we neared the reserves we passed through a small town with a chapel of San Judas Tadeo, the patron saint of lost causes. Last January I visited a biological research station named after Santa Rita, the female patron saint of lost causes - I suppose that both biologists and subsistence farmers dwelling near these wilderness preserves have some justified concern for the future.
We made a winding ascent of Antisana volcano, one of three large snow-capped volcanoes that skirt the city of Quito. We drove past the violet-gray stone of its old lava fields (now gravel quarries) via bus, discussing how the volcano formed, and how human activity had altered the face of the land. Farmers had attempted to control erosion by planting pine trees, the shallow root systems of which had the unintended effect of worsening erosion, while the oil-rich needles formed a layer of earth that stifled the growth of other native plants.
Upon arrival at Antisanilla Reserve, we scanned the barren vault of the cloudy sky but failed to observe any Andean Condors on the guano-spattered cliffs that indicate the cave mouths where they nest. We did, however, spot several individuals of the Spectacled Bear, an incredibly rare creature that our guide had only seen 3 times prior, and never at this site. We saw 3 individuals - a solitary bear, and a mother & cub, each wandering on a grassy hillslope between a forest and a rocky escarpment and cliff-face.
Then, as we prepared to depart the site, somebody saw a speck soaring above us, and in short succession, a second was sighted. Condors. Real Andean Condors, in the flesh. By the end of the day, we would see 12 in total (some experts have estimated the wild population of Andean Condors as being in the 70s, so we may have seen fully 1/6 of all wild Andean Condors, a rather sobering thought). In our drive to the next site, we would see 5 condors circling above a place where farmers sacrifice cattle to keep condors well-fed through harder parts of the year.
Following this, we journeyed to Antisana Ecological Reserve, where we enjoyed a brief hike and detailed examination of local vegetation in one of Ecuador's many ecosystems, the páramo, a neotropical montane grassland. The most common species we observed were varieties of bunchgrass, cushion plant, lichen and moss (all bear adaptations to drought, for the páramo has strong winds which strip the soil of moisture). As far as animals are concerned, we saw the Caracara, the Black-Faced Ibis, the Andean Gull, and the Andean Lapwing, and something our guides grew quite excited about - the White-tailed Deer... In South America, this tends to be a very rare species, and we all had a little bit of a laugh considering how a single night's walk across Luther Campus would contain several.
At this point, we departed for the airport to fly home to the states, wishing that our stay in Ecuador could have been longer.
It's been a pleasure blogging for you, and we wish all of you the best.
Jed Nixon & Matt Lagus