Written by Claudia Flisi
There were four of them and seven of us -- four wild bulls with mature horns and an unfriendly posture, eyeing the seven of us, five greenhorns and two chagras (Ecuadorian cowboys) on horseback in the Ecuadorian Andes. We had been in the Cotopaxi National Park less than an hour, and we weren’t feeling settled about the 13,000 foot elevation . . . or the welcoming committee.
“Don’t worry,” our tour leader Gabriel reassured us. “Four bulls is no problem. ONE bull might be a problem.” His chagra trail hand Hugo nodded in agreement, although Hugo didn’t speak a word of English. But the five of us -- my husband Fernando and myself, a French woman, and a French/English couple -- must not have looked convinced. To make us feel better, Gabriel suddenly took off after the bulls, flapping his red bandana with one hand, waving a lasso with the other. The bulls obligingly scattered at the sight and the rest of us sighed with relief.
This was not our only animal encounter in Cotopaxi. Ecuador ranks as one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, and has the greatest biodiversity of land vertebrates per area. We came across wild llamas, feral pigs, a wolf (at a distance), condors cruising above us, and dozens of herds of wild horses. To see the latter grazing in the paramo, as the high-altitude mountain region of Ecuador is called, was a thrilling experience. So was the sight of Inca ruins in the park.
Cotopaxi is named for the 19,348 foot queen of this valley of volcanoes. The word “Cotopaxi” comes from the Quichua words “cutu” (neck) and “pachi” (broken), because the mountain’s shape is that of a headless neck with a white snow poncho. It is the second-highest peak in the country and the most-climbed, as well as the highest snow-capped active volcano in the world. From its cone, dominating the 82,500 acre park, a cigarette wisp of smoke is visible when conditions are clear.
Cotopaxi was the high point -- literally and figuratively -- of a six-day horse trek Fernando and I took in Ecuador, part of a one-month stay that took us (literally) up and down this small country. We started at Hacienda La Alegria, Gabriel’s family home, and followed him and his red bandana through the Valley of the Volcanoes, an area of towering peaks and sub-tropical jungles located an hour south of Quito, Ecuador’s capital.
Our trip had been planned to supplement a Galapagos cruise, which, I assumed (correctly), would provide great exposure to wildlife but very little to the host country. From a website listing horse riding options in Ecuador, I had chosen Hacienda La Alegria, about 30 miles south of Quito. My choice had been based on the emphasis the hacienda placed on the quality of its horses and equestrian experience. Fernando and I are not advanced riders, but we didn’t want robotized hacks and an amusement-park stop-and-go expedition. Also, La Alegria was willing to customize a vacation around our riding abilities and time available.
We were picked up, as agreed, at Quito Airport by dark-haired Patricia (Paty) Espinosa, wife of Gabriel. About an hour later, we arrived at Hacienda La Alegria, a 300-acre working dairy farm with 80 milking cowsand 27 horses.
The main structure was built in 1910, and is full of family photos of Espinosa ancestors and the couple’s three daughters, plus horse memorabilia-- a traditional saddle here, a picture of Gabriel riding one of his polo ponies over there. I felt as if I had wandered onto the set of “The House of the Spirits”, with its combination of coziness and kitsch.
Gabriel came out to greet us. He has fine European features and bright blue eyes, and is sometimes mistaken for a tourist instead of a native Ecuadorian. He is in his late 50s, and a third-generation horseman. He bought this dairy farm in 1992 and bega
n accepting paying guests 10 years later. Although the hacienda can accommodate 24 guests, Gabriel takes no more than 10 riders at a time. His clients are 40 percent from the UK, 30 percent from therest of Europe, and the remaining 30 percent from North America.
Our first day’s lunch in the formal dining room was an indication of the trouble I would have keeping my weight down during my stay: broccoli soup, smoked pork chops, broccoli and new potatoes, rolls, Brie and queso fresco (fresh-made cheese from the hacienda’s dairy cows), an apple strudel the Espinosa’s chef-daughter had prepared for us, and chocolate ice cream.
After our meal, we rode for about 90 minutes, so Gabriel could choose our horses appropriately for the following week. I was on a reliable little Criollo, and Nando had a handsome pinto. We rode over cobblestone roads around the hacienda with views of open sky, cultivated fields, and a sense of space unexpected in a location so close to Quito.
Next morning we changed horses and saddles -- no problem, as Gabriel offers a choice of five different saddles: North American “western”, English, McClellan cavalry, Chilean, and Ecuadorian style. We met the other three riders in our group and headed out to Viudita, a “widow” more than 12,300 feet tall.
We rode up in bright sunshine and back in a cloud of rain, typical this time of year. Ponchos are standard equipment on our horses, so we were draped in yellow on our return, like a flock of Andes canaries.
The impact of the altitude was strong. When we stopped at the top of Viudita to enjoy the view -- eight of Ecuador's volcano giants are visible from the summit, as well as high pastures, humid forests, and the city of Quito -- we all had trouble dismounting and walking around. We had to breath heavily and move slowly. Remounting was even more of a chore. While on horseback, our bodies sought to compensate for the difference in air pressure by . . . expelling gas. Fortunately, our horses were doing the same.
That ride was the warm-up for the next day’s 12-mile ride to the extinct volcano of Pasochoa, a six-hour excursion across the Valley of theVolcanoes, through forests of wax palm, bamboo, eucalyptus, and aliso. We had plenty of opportunity to run, as well as long trots and easy ca
nters on country roads and mountain trails then and all during our stay.
On our picnic lunch on
the high slopes of Pasochoa at 10,170 feet, three condors circled about us, waving with their fingered wings, as we ate sandwiches and drank hot Ecuadorian coffee. The s
kies turned dark as we began our descent, and the rains came as we rode under La Alegria’s welcome sign.
Our next two-day trek to Monte Oscuro, at 11,500 feet, was more propitiously named than we could have imagined.
We left the ranch in bright sunshine and rode for two hours on a gently climbing dirt road. The sun exited lazily in the course of the morning and the gorgeous drop-off view to the right disappeared into what is called skunk fog in Ecuador. Soon the temperature had dropped below 50 º F, and the fog had blocked out everything more than 100 feet ahead.
We detoured from the “main” road at the entrance to an abandoned farmand followed an increasingly narrow trail as it descended through unspoiled primary forest boasting exotic orchids, giant marsh plants, natural ferns, and high altitude bamboo. The fog imbued added meaning to this “cloud forest”, and we were all grateful for the sure-footed stamina of our horses.
Our welcome luncheon stop was at Bamboli, a bio-ecological home in the middle of the rain forest, where the warm and hospitable Haro family received us with delicious food and d
rink. At six pm, we entrusted our horses to Gorge, another chagra, who watched over them that night while were turned to the hacienda by van in thick fog. We saw two skunks to remindus that we were in ‘skunk fog”, after all.
On the way home we stopped to drop off Hugo in the nearby town of Machachi. Machachi, a town of 30,000, is the capital of the canton andthe chagra capital of the country. It holds a big festival in late July with arodeo, running of the bulls, dances and music. Another festival is held in November with a show of chagra horses and barrel racing.
Monte Oscuro, Part II, began with a van trip retracing our ride of the evening b
efore. The horses were waiting for us, and at nine am we started out, again in brilliant sunshine. We were headed for the slopes of Corazon, a15,750-foot summit. We enjoyed the scenery for about ha
lf the climb, then the clouds rolled in, enveloping us in billows of silver.
This trail became a real machete-hacking mud-slopping ascent, testing our horses, sure-footed though they were. Gabriel asked us to dismount and lead our mounts up the steepest part of the trail. We did, but it was dangerous because our horses were more agile than we were, and could easily have stepped on us if we didn’t move quickly. Several times I tied the reins backand let my horse scramble up by himself, while I walked beside him.
The clouds were lifting as we started down from our highest point of 13,450 feet. We were literally above the clouds here. To descend we had to zigzag down the mountainto
p. If you looked straight down you would think it impossible for a horse to walk down alone, much less with a substantial weight on his back. Best to lean back in the saddle and
trust our steeds.
Our final day’s ride was to an altitude of 12,140 feet in Cotopaxi National Park, where we would spend the night at a climber’s lodge called Tambopaxi. The entrance to the park closes at 3 pm and we HAD to be there then, so we did a lot of trotting and cantering. At 1:30 pm,Gabriel decided we were close enough to our destination to take a quick picnic break. We stopped in a spectacular meadow corner-stoned by four mountains: Cotopaxi, Sincholagua (“only” 16,000 feet but a technically demanding climb), Rumiñahui (15,460 feet) and Pasochoa. As we ate, the ever-present clouds moved south and the mountains were revealed in all their lofty magnificence.
At the park entrance, we came to the aid of a group of Italian motor cyclists who also wanted to enter but lacked a permit for their accompanying van.“Get a horse,” we advised them as we trotted by.
American, Continental, Iberia, and LAN Airlines, among others, service a number of routes from London and the continent to Quito. Fares and restrictions vary depending on the time period.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 593 (country code for Ecuador), the area code and local number as indicated. Quito’s area code is 2.
All mountain locations have notoriously unpredictable weather, and the Ecuadorian Andes are no different, except for the fact that they sprawl the equator. Temperature changes are minimal: the average monthly temperature in Quito varies between 58 and 59 º F all year long. In general, June to December are cool, cloudy and dry, December to June are warm, sunny and wet. Our December visit was both sunny and warm, cloudy and wet.
All haciendas listed below will pick up riders at Quito Airport upon prior arrangement.
Riding vacations at Ecuadorian haciendas are generally all-inclusive, with lodging, meals and riding included at a fixed price. Cost is several hundred US dollars a night and up, depending on trip, time of year, and how many riders. Wine, special requests, fees for entering national parks and other expenses may be billed separately. Bring your own boots and jodhpurs; helmets are sometimes provided. Tipping is usually extra; ask in advance if a flat surcharge (normally 10%) will be added to your bill. All haciendas below can organize short rides for beginners as well as multi-day treks for experienced riders.
• Hacienda La Alegr ia
About 30 miles south of Quito, near the Valley of the Volcanoes. Well-bred and trained horses and outstanding hospitality in the high Andes.
Write to: Gabriel and Paty Espinosa, Hacienda La Alegria N4302 y Beck Rollo Edificio El Roble Apartamento 201 Quito, Ecuador
Tel: +593 9980 2526 or +593 2246 2319 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
• Ilalo Expeditions
At the foothills of the Ilalo volcano just 10 miles from Quito. Features Peruvian Paso horses with their renowned comfortable gait.
Tel +593 2 2484219Fax: +593 2 2477483
Mobile: +593 9 777 8399
• Green Horse Ranch
About 25 miles north of Quito in the Pululahua National Reserve. Owner speaks German as well as English. They run a 9-day joint trekking program with Hacienda La Alegria.
Astrid Müller Casilla 17-12-602 Quito - Ecuador
Tel: +593 2 2374847Mobil: 099 715933 E-Mail: email@example.com
To learn more: http://www.ecuadorexplorer.com/html/horseback_riding_tours.html
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