Wednesday 28 March 2007

how high is the sky?

Ecuador Trip - part three.

[Part one - Part two - Part three - Part four - Part five - Part six - Part seven - Part eight]

In which our heroes get adopted by a dog, visit the local community, get excited about some large birds in the far distance, ride some horses and attempt to play football at high altitude.....

Thursday 8th March

At yesterday’s campsite we were adopted by a dog. That might seem a strange thing to happen at 4100m, but we are walking along an ancient (pre-Inca) trail through the mountains that has been used for centuries by the indigenous people and is still used by them today. Apparently a guy went past riding on a horse with his dog trailing behind whilst Manuel and the arrieros were setting up camp and waiting for us to arrive. The dog saw the camp, weighed up his options and decided that we were the better bet, promptly deserting his erstwhile master and taking up with Manuel. Sensible dog. He’s really only skin and bones, but he’s got these great big bat ears and a winning way. I don’t think it took Manuel long to start feeding him scraps, and soon enough he was given a name: Sac à Pus (“Fleabag” in French). I wake up this morning to the sound of Sac à Pus chasing off some cows – apparently he already feels enough at home to want to protect the campsite. The camp itself is in a lovely spot – nestled against the curve of a small river and filled with the sound of bubbling water. It’s really very pleasant indeed. We’re only a few hundred meters lower than we were at the first campsite, but it looks and feels positively spring like by comparison.

Today’s walk takes place in similarly lovely countryside as we stroll the remaining 3 hours or so that it takes to get down to the Pinyan community itself at about 3200m. It’s a beautiful sunny day and I feel on top of the world, a feeling that only increases as we descend into the village itself and I spot no fewer than 5 condors, all circling together. That’s nearly 10% of the entire Ecuadorian condor population and I am suitable awe-struck. They really are magnificent birds and we watch them for a good half an hour as they circle higher and higher on the thermals above the village until they are too high to see any more. In all that time, I only see one of the birds flap his wings – once. When they have disappeared, we walk down into the village itself and gratefully flop out on the scrappy little bit of lawn in front of the school building.

the view back towards the Pinyan community

Pinyan is an indigenous village in the middle of nowhere. It’s taken me the best part of 3 days to walk here. The villagers do this walk whenever they need to get down to the outside world. They usually do it in a day (albeit they presumably don’t stop to climb up the mountains, they just follow the path around them). It’s in a beautiful setting: nestled against a gently bubbling river in a small hollow between the large hills around. The villagers don’t really like to call themselves indigenous as they see this as some kind of an insult suggesting that they haven’t really joined the modern world. The fact remains however that they live in houses built in the traditional manner – we go to visit the family of one of the arrieros, and we meet his mother who is proud to show us into her kitchen hut. This is a building that is essentially made of sticks and mud, with the roof lined with leaves. An open fire is burning in one corner but there is no chimney: the smoke is allowed to billow freely around the building and find it’s own way out as this helps add to the weather proofing (and this particular hut has been in use for about twenty years). There is a pot of some kind of stew bubbling on the fire and some strips of meat hanging up to dry. Hundreds of guinea pigs are running free around the place (guinea pig is considered a delicacy in Ecuador and in other parts of the Andes. Apparently, they consume about 65m of them a year, and they are so entrenched in the culture that there is one picture of The Last Supper in Peru where Jesus and the disciples are dining on Guinea Pig. Here they are both pets and a walking larder). Once my eyes get used to the gloom and the smoke, I am struck by quite how beautiful this ladies two daughters are. They are aged about 4 and 10 and are dressed traditionally, both sitting in front of the fire tending to the stew. They both have the most astonishing eyes and they are looking at C. and I with a combination of bashfulness and curiosity. They are adorable. Ivan acts as our translator and we learn that the meat hanging over the fire to dry was given to the family by the local hacienda owner for a full days work rounding up cattle. As these cows are able to roam freely across many thousands of acres of páramo, this naturally takes some time and is extremely hard work. We ask Ivan if the meat from the cow was a fair exchange for that work. Ivan tells us that when the cow was found, it was already dead – the hacienda owner was giving them the meat of an already dead animal, something that obviously cost him nothing. We are appalled, but worse is to come.

Apparently the hacienda owner doesn’t like the Pinyan and wants them moved. It’s not because they cause him any bother or that he wants to do anything in particular with the land, it’s just that he doesn’t like the look of them and because he can. He wants them to be shifted away from their traditional home and a few miles further off the beaten track and out of his sight. The only road (and it’s not much of a road, frankly) to the village passes through the hacienda. The owner has put a locked gate on it: anyone coming down to the village in a truck has to ask him to come through. Ivan tells us that they are frequently kept waiting there for hours before he deigns to send someone out with the key. There’s nothing they can do because the hacienda owners are not policed and can basically do what they want. The Pinyan are powerless and at this clown’s mercy. Ivan tells us how he has been trying to work with the community to give them a sustainable future. As well as being used as arrieros on treks, the Pinyan community has been involved with the community projects at the hot springs at Chachimbiro. Ivan sees ethical tourism as the best way of giving these people the money to maintain their traditional lifestyles. Tourist dollars – our dollars – will help the Pinyan to break their dependence upon the hacienda owner. They will make far more money from people like us than they ever will from trying to scratch out a living from agriculture at this altitude. A teacher in Ecuador earns about $150 a month. The arrieros are paid $15 a day for every day that they work with us, which is very respectable indeed, and certainly a lot better than dead cow. Ivan has plans to open a lodge here, he also dreams about opening up the pre-Inca trails that lead from the back of the village all the way down to the coast. These trails are ancient and lead through hundreds of miles of untouched countryside. The people know that they are there, but knowledge of them has been lost. Ivan has high hopes that he will be able to find these trails and to use tourism to help preserve habitat that will otherwise quickly be lost to farmland. He’s a passionate man and I have to admit that I’m quite moved by his commitment to these people.

We set up base in the village school. Teachers make their way up to the community and stay for 20 days out of every 30, giving all of the kids a basic grounding in reading, writing and arithmetic. As the teacher’s drove past us in their truck as we were walking down into the village, I’m pleased to be able to report that we will be able to spend the night in their hut tonight instead of in our tent. It’s dusty and there’s no electricity in the village, but it still feels like an unbelievable luxury. The day isn’t done yet though: first we go riding up on horseback to a crater lake a few miles from the village (and I haven’t ridden a horse in something like twenty years. Frankly I’ll be astonished if I can have children after this) and then when we get back to the village, I am roped into playing a game of football with the locals. You might remember that England scraped past Ecuador in the second round of the 2006 World Cup last summer? Well, in spite of the fact that there aren’t any televisions here, all of the locals are well aware of that fact, and are absolutely delighted at the chance of a spot of revenge against “David Beckham” (as they insist on calling me, presumably because they’ve never seen me play football before). At over 3000m, this is quite hard work but it is tremendous fun. The team containing Ivan and C come out winners in a closely fought 4-3 game, but I scored a cracking right-foot curler into the far corner…. (even if at one point I was rather humiliatingly dispossessed by a five year old).

It’s another magical day, rounded off perfectly when Manuel serves us a Quimbolito for dessert. This is a delicious, delicate sponge-like pudding that arrives wrapped up in a leaf. Quite how he managed to prepare that on a gas camping stove, I have absolutely no idea. The man’s a magician – and Sac à Pus clearly agrees.

Friday 9th March

We say goodbye to Sac à Pus (who is being adopted by one of the arrieros) and head up out of Pinyan and towards the cloud forest that lies beyond. On the way we pass above another beautiful valley. Apparently the hacienda owner had tried to sell this land for damning. Luckily he failed, as the thought of this beautiful spot disappearing beneath a lake is pretty awful. Ivan tells us that he is now trying to buy this land from the hacienda owner as he thinks it would be the perfect spot for the Pinyan village and would provide them with beautiful, fertile land, plenty of water and easy access to the various trails and communication routes. I’m slightly confused as to why the hacienda owner would want to sell this land to people who he is trying to shift, but Ivan tells me that money talks and he knows that the Pinyan Foundation has some money.

We slowly walk up and away from the páramo and begin to climb into the cloud forest. This is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a forest that is smothered in cloud.

It is hot and it is humid and it is absolutely cram packed with orchids, bromeliads, exotic looking birds and biting insects. Naturally, this paradise is under threat as the local hacienda owners have been busy pushing indigenous people out of the páramo and resettling them here. In order to survive, these people are being forced to chop down the trees and try to make some farmland on the slopes. Once the primary forest is gone, the wildlife and plantlife soon follows. This is a national park. How can the hacienda owners get away with it? Because there is no one to enforce the law. We walk past the sign announcing that we are leaving the reserve, and as we look back at it, we can see that it has been riddled with bullets. We slowly begin to descend out of the cloud forest and back into open farmland.

In the course of a long day we walk about 10km as the condor flies, but about 30km all told as we climb up hills and down into valleys. Up, down, up, down, up and finally down about 1000m into a dusty little village and the end of the trek. As we wait for the Land Cruiser, I am presented with a most welcome bottle of local beer and told that a cold shower is waiting for me at our next stop. After four days of yomping up and down mountains and sleeping in a tent this sounds like a very welcome prospect indeed (as do the flushing toilets, frankly...). As it turns out, things are even better than that. We are driven the hour or so it takes to get to the Rio Intag area and are dropped in front of some log cabins where we will be spending the next couple of nights. Ivan smiles at us: “You’ve got 10 minutes to get your swimming trunks on. We’re off to the thermal pools next door”

I could have kissed him.

to be continued.....


  1. standing above the cloudline is a strange experience (

  2. Did you try the guinea pigs? I love guinea pigs as pets -so cute and squeaky!- but they also taste lovely. We tried them roasted and fried in Peru. Really good. Just don't tell my mum!

  3. I bet those thermal pools were lovely!

    Glad to hear you dad is doing well.