This is the third trip report from my recent visit to the Galapagos and the highlands of Ecuador. Parts one and two can be read here and here.
From the Galapagos, we returned to the mainland and headed into the highlands of Ecuador. From Quito, we drove into the Andes along the Pan-American Highway. Our destination was Hacienda Cusin. This Spanish style hacienda dates back to the 17th century. The hacienda covers many acres and is adjacent to a self-contained monastery. The grounds are beautiful and do a wonderful job of reminding visitors about the history of the area.
The Andes in the highlands of Ecuador.
The next morning, we headed through the mountains to visit a local school project that Thomson Family Adventures is supporting. The school is located in the upper reaches of the Andes (over 9,500 feet above sea level) and has 100 students enrolled. With financial support, the school is expanding its facilities to include a dedicated kindergarten classroom. The program is set up so that materials are provided through money raised by local tourism companies while the local community provides the labor. Despite being on summer vacation, two families dropped by the school during our visit to welcome us to the area and to proudly show off the ongoing projects.
New kindergarten classroom at local school, Ecuador.
Ecuadorian family greeting us at local school.
From the school, we continued our trip through the Andes on foot. For two hours we walked along dirt roads with breathtaking scenery in every direction. With the mountains as a backdrop, we passed agricultural fields filled with barley and corn. On several occasions we passed goat herds supervised by children no more the eight years old. Our guide, Tomas, became a quick friend to anyone who passed by as he was quick to share his bag of plantain chips.
By lunchtime we reached our destination, Hacienda Zuleta; a 16th century hacienda once owned by Galo Plaza Lasso, a former president of Ecuador. The hacienda is situated on 5,000 acres and beautifully maintained. In addition to being a tourist destination, it is a working hacienda with over 300 dairy cows, 2,000 seep, a massive organic vegetable garden, cheese production facilities, and agricultural fields. Also on the grounds are 130 Caranqui mounds created around 1200 A.D., before the rise of the Inca. We were fortunate enough to visit one of the mounds as it was being excavated by archeologists.
Archeological excavation of Caranqui mound.
From the excavation we headed up the valley to view the captive Andean Condors that are kept on the premises. Former pets, these Condors now serve as educational stewards for visiting school children. There is also the hope that breeding will occur with the young being released back into the wild. During our visit, we had the good luck of observing a wild Condor perched on top of the enclosure as he visit with his captive friends.
Andean Condor spreading wings.
Our second full day in the Andes began with a horseback ride through the countryside. Like the previous day’s hike, we were surrounded by amazing scenery in every direction. I am happy to report that Norma conquered her 20-year fear of horses and mounted up with us. She did a great job. After returning to Hacienda Cusin, Tomas filled a special request by scheduling a tour of a local rose plantation. Ecuador is one of the world’s largest exporter of roses. Greenhouses abound, with Ecuador exporting hundreds of millions of roses each year. Our guide lead us through the greenhouses where the plantation harvests 6,000 roses EVERY DAY! From the greenhouse, roses are brought to a central processing area and divided into groups based on color, stem length, and how open the flower is. It seems different countries like their roses delivered in different ways. In the United States we prefer partly open roses. In France they like their roses to be closed at the time of purchase. In Russia, they want the flowers to be in full bloom. Also, stem lengths vary, with Russian markets wanting six-foot stems on their roses.
Roses packaged for shipping.
After being sorted, the roses are packaged together and moved into a walk in refrigerator where the temperature is kept just above freezing. They are then shipped in refrigerated trucks to refrigerated cargo planes, which take them to distribution centers in Miami. From there, roses are shipped around the world. From initial cut to final sale takes less then 5 days.
Our final day in Ecuador involved a visit to the second largest indigenous market in Latin America (apparently there is a larger on in Guatamala). Each Saturday, the central square of Otavalo is converted into a massive outdoor market, selling everything from vegetables to traditional clothing. For several hours we wandered throughout the stalls, visiting with the locals and testing the limits of how many bags we could carry (my limit is five). Deals were abundant, with hand weaved shawls going for $9 and large alpaca blankets for $15.
Lady selling shawls at the Otavalo market.
Fresh fruit at the Otavalo market.
Colorful blankets in Otavalo.
Masks at the Otavalo market.
After completing our mission to stimulate the Ecuadorian economy, Tomas took us to visit local crafts people who were kind enough to demonstrate their trade. We learned how the textile process works and how traditional musical instruments made. In each case, the artists were eager to share their passion with us.
Following our adventures in Otavalo, we headed back down the Pan-American Highway and returned to Quito and our flight back to the states. I believe I speak for everyone on the trip when I say that Ecuador is an amazing place both for its wildlife and its cultural heritage.