Blog: Sharing an experience of the Cordillera Occidental, Ecuador – Part 2December 1, 2018
The village of Cocha Colorada sits at an altitude of 3,800 metres—a little under 12,500 feet—in an open, grassy landscape of rolling hills overlooked by jagged, rocky peaks. Cattle and woolly merino sheep dot the fields, and higher up a herd of llamas moved in and out of the cloud like wraiths.
Manuel Talahua, a leader in the village, told me that these magnificent llamas were owned by the women of the pueblo. There are twenty-nine of them in the herd, he said. His seventeen year-old daughter Janet disappeared into the mist so she could bring the llamas down to us for a better look. Janet is going to university next year to study medicine—natural medicine. She brought these beautiful, well-kept animals down from the hill and herded them into a corner in front of us so we could see them. Gorgeous animals; curious of us, and intelligent.
Manuel then took us up a small hill to a place where he has established a greenhouse. Inside there were plants and fruits it is difficult to grow at this altitude—lemon, lime, tomatoes, peas and runner beans. They were rooted in rich volcanic soil, which the farmers mix into compost with dung from the llamas, sheep and cattle. Nearby, at Manuel’s brother’s little campo—or small-holding—we explored a kitchen-garden full of medicinal herbs. There was Uvella (pronounced ‘you-vedja’), small yellow berries that are good for the heart, and Santa Maria—which we might call Camomile—for ‘purification’, and Rue, a magical plant, said Manuel, with many benefits from the digestion to the vision. It is also used as an insecticide. There were many more medicinal plants, some of which looked like weeds—but with properties medical, aromatic and herbicidal.
They’re building a little guest house at Cocha Colorada, overlooking a small lake, with cattle pasture and then spectacular mountains beyond. The walls of the building are brick and the roof is thatched, set on a solid base of wooden boards. Interestingly the thatch is similar to the thatched roofs you can find in parts of Scotland, made of what they call over there the Marram grasses. It will have ‘mains’ power when it is finished, probably augmented with solar panels. The lake is host to some resident ducks and geese, and migratory birds which pass through according to the seasons. The peace of the place is pervasive, with no sounds except for the calls of birds, and the occasional bleating of sheep. It is a retreat par excellence; a perfect little residence to write that memoir, or compose that ballad or nocturne and—for a break—take one of Manuel’s horses up into the high country.
At Hugo Redrobán’s farm at Santa Theresa some miles away, I was given a strange tasting, but refreshing, drink called ‘agua de panella’. It’s a kind of tea made from the cedron plant. The plant looks like a weed, but it has very small leaves which are intensely aromatic when you crush them in your fingers. Hugo has several cows, and a few sheep. He grows vegetables on his farm as well—mostly chard, cabbage, broccoli, and potatoes. There were lots of chickens up at the buildings—most of them hanging about the door of the cocina—the kitchen—and a very fat goose. There was also a lovely little black piglet, tied to a stick, among some grasses. I went and had a little chat with it, and it snuffled along to inspect my boots.
One thing Hugo spoke of was a type of Agave plant which grows often on the branches of trees. “If there’s no potable water in your tap,” he said, “find a tree with a parasitical Agave plant growing on it. You can drink water from that. Stand under it, pull down on one of the leaves, and you will have a shower. Look for it on lower branches that you can reach.” He said the name they gave this form of the agave is Fecundo. It provides water in this way for the tree it lives on. As it captures water, it provides a kind of trickle irrigation for its host, and feeds the tree’s roots. In the same area we came across many orchids growing in the upper reaches of trees.
Hugo’s explanations about his farm, which is completely organic, and his interest in the ecological reserve, were passionate and enormously instructive. They spoke to a natural and very old relationship between people, the rich, black volcanic soil, and the plant and animal life that lives on this land. In speaking to the people who lived off the land all over this region it was very much the same; an elemental relationship characterised by a deep understanding and respect for the natural order of things.
After lunch it was time for a meeting up at the school, and about forty of the local people came along, several with their children. The Presidente of the Communidad spoke, and then Cornelia spoke. There were one or two questions, and after a while I was asked to say a few words. Much as I had at Pambucloma I said that tourism could provide an interesting and useful aspect to the economies of the mountain villages. I explained something about the kind of market I thought would be attracted by an interest in the culture, the people, and the beautiful geography of the Region Simiatug. It was, my research told me, people in an age range of forty to sixty years or more. More than half of them were likely to be female, some of whom would welcome an element of exploration and adventure (although not too much!) in a region that was safe and non-threatening. They would come from North America and Europe, primarily from places with direct or one-stop flight connections to Quito. I added that I thought there might be a small ‘s’ spiritual aspect to the interests these prospective visitors might have; that some of them would want activities like horseback riding or climbing, hiking, bird watching and photography—and so on.
But tourism can be a fragile industry, and it can be a damaging one. I said that I thought the most important thing was that an influx of visitors should never be allowed to change the culture or the customs of the region. These things were the most precious assets that any people could have, and they should never allow them to be damaged. It was essential therefore that the people of the region—the Kichwa—should remain careful to maintain control of any tourism-related development that happened, and of the numbers of visitors that might result from any tourism initiatives. If they came to find that having visitors and sharing something of their way of life was not enjoyable, then they should not continue to do it. They should stop.
At the same time it was clear that the youth in the mountain pueblos were every bit as smart and curious, every bit as comfortable with today’s communications media as young people are everywhere else. Not all of them would be attracted to the traditional life led by their parents and grandparents. Many of them would be attracted by the bright lights of Quito and Guayaquil and other towns and cities further afield. Many of them would leave these mountains and valleys anyway to pursue opportunities for higher education in Guaranda and Ambato. A carefully managed tourist industry could do much to offer interesting and exciting employment alternatives, and help draw the young people back and ensure the continuity of family and culture in the mountains.
In closing this blog I should say that before I travelled to Simiatug I was extremely well briefed by Diego and Ana, CESO’s personnel in Quito. As well, the accommodation arrangements they had made for me were unpretentious and comfortable. Amandine, who made the travel arrangements and the various calculations and financial advances, was readily available on the phone or by email. She was enormously efficient, and a great pleasure to work with.
Each of the CESO assignments I have undertaken have been challenging, and each in their own way has been infinitely rewarding. Perhaps I have been fortunate, but every assignment has left me feeling that I have learned invaluable things from the people I have been fortunate to meet and work with; knowledge and experience that must surely outweigh anything I can possibly have left behind.