Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Ecuador – another hacienda and another massive dog

There’s clearly an unwritten rule relating to Ecuadorian haciendas – they must all have a dog as big as a donkey.
At Guachala, Mintaka the Akita struts around like a nightclub bouncer and at our accommodation today, there was an even bigger dog – Benjamin the St Bernard.
Now, St Bernards are known for being gentle giants, rescue dogs used to find pilgrims lost in the snow on high Alpine passes. Benjamin is a bit of an exception – he gets into trouble and, being a big dog, he gets into big trouble!
When Tom and Lucy first met him, he thought it would be fun to chase the llama that Lucy was riding, chewed a huge chunk of llama wool from its derriere and gave Lucy a llama ride she wasn’t expecting. When we arrived today, Benjamin was chained up in disgrace because he’d attacked and killed a calf (poor dear was probably a bit peckish).
We were staying at the hacienda Posada de Tigua, a very different place from Guachala. It’s very much a working farm covering a vast area of high mountain grassland and raising cattle, sheep and goats.
The hacienda Posada de Tigua
This was a brilliant day’s sightseeing. As tourists, we’d seen Cotopaxi in all its glory the day before and today we’d visited Quilotoa (or what is left of it after that massive, level 6, volcanic explosion in the 13th Century). Quilotoa was mind-boggling – hardcore geology at its most spectacular, but the drive up there was also pretty spectacular. From Latacunga, we’d headed west to Pujili and then climbed steeply to over 4,000 metres towards a small town called Zumbahua. This country is páramo, a terrain which lies above the tree-line but below the snow-line and is particular to northern South America.
Tom thought it was a little like Scotland and I knew what he meant. Instead of peat bogs and heather, there was coarse grass covering volcanic ash with the occasional succulent to break the Scottish spell. Some huge domes of igneous rock (volcanic plugs) rise high above to reinforce the Scottish feel.
The road is good and both Tom and I were wishing we were on motorcycles rather than sitting in a car. The surface was smooth a grippy and the many bends were sweeping and constant radius, not the bends we get at home in England where the road invariably tightens, rather than opening out because some navvy with a bulldozer guessed it wrong.
This is land where volcanic ash has fallen on volcanic ash and, where the road cuts through, it exposes the multi-coloured layers like a vast sandwich cake. In places, there are spectacular deep canyons where streams, rivers or lahars have carved through the comparatively soft ash deposits.
These are deep and crumbly and I declined the photo opportunity of standing on a pinnacle of loose rock above a 100ft drop at the deepest canyon we passed.

The roads are really quiet and towns are small, also few and far between. However, there are always people walking along the road, often small children on their way to and from school and old people. Although there are no big towns, there are little homesteads all over the mountains; huts made from breeze-block and corrugated iron, plus older ones (now abandoned) made from adobe brick and thatch. These have a few fields of crops and are often way up the mountainside.
Lucy says school is free to everyone in Ecuador, but the government is closing down small community schools in favour of bigger schools in the towns. Education might be better, but people in remote rural communities cannot get their children to the new schools.
There are a lot of community projects in Ecuador and some money is pumped into schemes where the community can organise itself and demonstrate an ability to spend and manage resources. At Quilotoa, the people there have organised a fee to park and use the viewing platforms. There are a lot of small refreshment places, but the biggest one (next to the viewing platform at the crater rim) is run by the community and profits are ploughed back in.
There's also a small market in a communal hall where Indian women were selling souvenirs and knitwear. A lot of this was tat, but there were also some nice woollen goods on a couple of stalls. If you show any interest, they will pull the whole stall apart to try to find something you want.
My sister brought several things (with Lucy's help) including an alpaca wool scarf for my birthday. As she was packing things up, we heard a noise and it turned out she had a baby strapped onto her back, very high up, but covered by a shawl. No state childcare in Ecuadore.
Posada de Tigua is very different from Guachala, much smaller and still very much a working farm. It's run by a very handsome widow and her sons, who seem to have a shift arrangement to help keep things running. We met one out on the farm that afternoon and another was helping serve the evening meal and breakfast the next day. The place is basic, but homely and the food was excellent.
During the afternoon, Tom, Margaret and I went for a walk down the valley which the hacienda stands at the head of. It was a gentle, downhill gradient and, after a mile or so down this track, we were able to cut across and walk down into a canyon, not as steep as the one we'd seen earlier, but still impressive.

Benjamin had been forgiven for killing the calf and was off his lead when we got back. Despite his fearsome reputation, he very much enjoys having his ear scratched and immediately lay down for a belly rub.