Posted by: ktzefr | November 4, 2010

Memories in the Autumn Smoke…

I write about Ecuador now because…the autumn scent of wood fires reminds me of nights curled up by an adobe fireplace in the Andes with a eucalyptus log sizzling on the fire and the flicker of candles sending shadows dancing around the room — one of our best journeys as a family.

We got there…on a plane that nosed up briefly in the last moments of descent before coming to rest at 10,000 feet in Quito, a strange and beautiful city in the clouds.  The next day we boarded a recycled school bus and headed north, leaving the Pan American Highway near Otavalo for a dirt and cobblestone road that passed through tiny villages huddled at the feet of snow-capped volcanoes. (Double click on photos to enlarge; be sure to use the “back arrow” to return to post.)

Woman herding sheep -- and a pig -- in the Andes

A boy and his baby pigs near Cotacachi in Ecuador

Biggest shock…to see crushing poverty overlaid with amazing beauty and brilliant color.  Women dressed in turquoise, purple, or cranberry-colored skirts (according to their village tradition) tend their sheep in the fields.  Open-air markets sell everything from quality rugs and sweaters and local art to pigs and chickens and local junk.  Emerald valleys loop around silver lakes beneath skies that swirl at sunset with Easter-egg blues and yellows and pinks.

Poncho Plaza, the Otavalo marketplace

I’ll always remember…the sea of dark fedoras floating in the marketplace, women with gold-toothed smiles and babies on their backs, the way streaks of sunlight fell across the terraced slopes of Imbabura Volcano.

We stayed…in the big house at the end of the road.  Hacienda Cusin in the village of San Pablo del Lago is a 400-year-old, thousand-acre ranch turned tourist inn with pretty gardens and meals served in the family dining room.

Hacienda Cusin near Lago San Pablo, Ecuador

Our favorite snack stop…was at a roadside vendor in Guayllabamba for just-picked cherimoya that we could break apart with our hands.  The sweet, cotton-white flesh of the fresh custard apple doesn’t taste anything like the stone-hard or overripe fruits that make their way from this fertile volcanic soil to our local produce bins in DC.

But nothing tasted better than…the soup.  The people of the Andes make the best soup in the world — mazamorra with ground corn and cabbage, sancocho with platanos, fanesca with everything (fish, cheese, vegetables, and all the grains you can think of, but no meat).  The best of the best?  A creamy concoction made with quinoa.  The Incas considered quinoa to be sacred, a miracle grain.

(Check out a ton of recipes for great South American soups HERE.  Be sure to give the pages a few extra seconds to load — yummy!)

Most touristy activity…straddling both hemispheres at the Equatorial Line Monument on latitude zero.

I got used to the sounds of…crowing roosters and barking dogs; church bells, birdsong, and panpipes in the marketplace…hearing El Condor Pasa, a tune born long ago in the Andes yet capable of calling up a flood of memories to the minds of Americans who first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s version in the 70s.

The most rewarding activities were…visiting local artisans in their homes and being amazed by all the beautiful handicrafts (there are weavers and panpipe makers, woodcarvers and leather workers),  and rummaging for folk art and novelties in Otavalo’s marketplace — one of the largest and oldest open-air markets in South America.

In the Andes men and young boys are the primary weavers

We especially had fun…hiking up the slopes of Cotacachi Volcano and picnicking above Lake Cuicocha, an icy blue crater with water so clear you can see the caldera’s sides plunge down into the depths…and riding horseback into the mountains at sunset.

A "forest" of new eucalyptus trees with lake in the distance

We had been warned about…our proximity to Colombia with its drug lords and elements of the ELN, FARC, AUC and any number of other machine gun and machete-toting folks known by their acronyms.  We didn’t see any of the above.  Instead, we were met everywhere with a smile and a helping hand…and a lot of beautiful children.

The worst problem we had was…the initial throbbing headache that often comes with adjusting to higher altitudes.  It was gone by the second day and the only residual altitude issue was that everything happened at a slower (but much more enjoyable) pace.

We got to experience…three seasons every day.  Mornings are spring-like, midday temps hit the summery 70s, and nights drop sharply into the 40s.  We enjoyed the crackling fire in our room after dinner and the thick, woolen blankets at bedtime.

Didn’t have, didn’t miss…television, telephones, traffic.


Looking for a great family adventure?  Check out the best in the business — Thomson Family Adventures (the #1  company selected by National Geographic for the 2nd year in a row).


Two things every autumn take me back to the Andes — the aforementioned scent of wood fires and the receipt of a  small catalog that comes in the mail about this time every year.  It’s called The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World and it’s sent by a program called Heifer International.  Heifer International has been around since 1944 providing livestock to millions of impoverished families around the world, including a number of projects in Ecuador.  Check out their site if you’re interested in buying a share of a heifer or a goat, pig, sheep, llama, a bunch of rabbits, a flock of chickens, or a hive of bees. (For $10, for example, you can buy a share of a pig for a needy family in your child’s teacher’s name for Christmas!)  Older students and adults might also be interested in “traveling with a purpose” by visiting Heifer project sites around the world.  Click HERE for details.



  1. Beautifully written and looks like a wonderful place to visit but I’ll never get there because my fear of heights kicked in the second you mentioned the descent to the airport.

    I get that catalogue and I have purchased chickens and goats other years.

    • Yes, Heifer Int’l is a great way to help people, especially in rural areas. They give training in how to take care of the animals to make them more productive, etc. The programs that either educate people or provide ways for them to make a better life for themselves are always better, in my opinion, than those that only offer something for the here and now.

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