Monday, April 2, 2018

Top Five Most Memorable Experiences from the Ecuadorian Andes


Ecuador's gorgeous Cajas National Park

In September, Tad explored the Ecuadorian Andes and the famed Avenue of the Volcanoes with Tropic Ecuador’s director Jascivan Carvalho and a group of North American tour operators. TROPIC is always looking for creative ways to explore lesser-known paths while connecting their travelers to local people and engaging communities. Below are Tad's Top Five Most Memorable Experiences from the Ecuadorian Andes. 

Visiting Miguel Andrango’s weaving workshop outside Otavalo

Miguel in his workshop
Most visitors to Otavalo arrive just for the day to visit the “market” (though most never make it past the Plaza del Ponchos)! Several years ago, TROPIC pioneered the lodge to lodge trekking concept to Ecuador, first in the Cotopaxi region and then later in Otavalo. Exploring Otavalo on foot opens up a myriad of experiences in this beautiful and diverse valley. One of the highlights of the day hike through the Otavalo valley is visiting master weaving Miguel Andrango’s workshop in the small town of Agato. Miguel and his family are working to preserve the tradition of weaving on a backstrap loom. They welcome visitors into their home for a demonstration of this vanishing art form. Miguel is in his 80’s and he’s clearly slowing down physically. But mentally he’s very sharp and loves to tell stories and jokes. His eyes twinkle with mirth and wisdom. His smile and laugh light up the room. He is clearly a master artist. I feel lucky to have met him. These days, his daughter and son-in-law do most of the actual weaving and their work is equally masterful. This is a far better place, in so many ways, than the Plaza del Ponchos to buy authentic, hand-woven, high-quality weavings.

Nuna tasting menu at Chilcabamba Lodge in Cotopaxi

The beautiful and delicious food at Nuna
Chilcabamba, TROPIC’s mountain lodge in Cotopaxi, was the lucky home of chef Alvaro Reinoso’s culinary creations for most of 2017. And our TROPIC FAM group had the opportunity to experience his inspired tasting menu called Nuna. Reinoso, an native Ecuadorian, honed his craft in Spain’s world-renowned Celler de Can Roca and the nighly regarded Maní, in São Paulo (Celler de Can Roca has topped the World's 50 Best Restaurants List multiple times and Maní is in the Top 10 of Latin America’s best restaurants). In the shadow of Cotopaxi, he used Chilcabamba as an Ecuadorian test kitchen, where he could put his international experiences and techniques into an Ecuadorian and Andean inspired menu. And wow, he truly created something magical. His residency at Chilcabamba was so well-received and successful that he’s now opened a “pop-up” restaurant in the Quito suburb of Cumbaya called Elements. This uber-exclusive experience will be on offer Thursdays - Saturdays and is bookable via TROPIC. In addition, TROPIC guests will have the exclusive opportunity to meet and learn from chef Reinoso Sundays - Wednesdays. Think cooking classes, private events, and more!

Learning to paint from a Tigua master artist

Not quite master artists' finished products
About three hours from Chilcabamba in Cotopaxi, is the otherworldly crater lake of Quilotoa. This lake sitting at over 12,000’ has a dramatic setting, nestled into mountains with steep cliffs cascading 1200 ft from the viewpoints on the crater edge to the mysterious and serene mirror-green lake below. The lake itself is stunning, very memorable and a great day trip from Cotopaxi or enroute between Cotopaxi and Riobamba on the Avenue of the Volcanoes. But what stood out that day for me was our surprise painting class with a renowned local artist named Alfonso Toaquiza. Alfonso is son of Julio Toaquiza,  pioneer of the traditional “naif” style of Tigua region - vibrant and colorful compositions depicting rural mountain life and ancient traditions of the Kichwa people in the Ecuadorian Andes. Alfonso has been painting since he was seven years old under the guidance of his father. While many tour operators simply stop for a quick shopping trip among the many galleries lining the road up to Quilotoa, TROPIC arranged for a private painting class with the master Tigua artist himself! Some of us were more naturally talented than others but hey, art is in the eye of the beholder, right?! 

Learning to cook Zuleta-style with Jose Maria and Carmelita

Budding chefs
After spending the morning hiking through the beautiful Zuleta valley on the second day of TROPIC’s Otavalo Cultural Trails lodge-to-lodge trekking, we arrived in the community of Zuleta and the home of Jose Maria and his wife Carmelita. Jose Maria was a chef at the amazing Hacienda Zuleta for many years and he now shares the secrets of his considerable culinary skills with TROPIC guests! You don’t have to spend the morning trekking to visit Jose Maria but it certainly helps work up an appetite! Jose Maria and Carmelita gently instruct and assist in the preparation of a delicious, authentic Zuleteno cuisine! We helped prepare (and then devoured) quinoa soup and fresh avocado and lupine salad to start; baked trout stuffed with local cheese and topped with freshly made aji for the main course; and flamed babaco (an Ecuadorian fruit related to the papaya) for desert!

The Devil’s Nose train

The breathtaking path of the Devil's Nose train
I admit it. I’m a train nerd. I’ve ridden on the shinkansen bullet train in Japan, the TGV in France, the maglev train in Shanghai and the trans-Siberian railroad across Russia. Yep, like I said, train nerd. Hence, I was greatly anticipating the famed Devil’s Nose train ride, one of the must-do excursions while traveling along Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes. And it did not disappoint. Yes, it’s a bit touristy and the commentary by the well-meaning guides hard to hear/understand but the 2.5 hour experience is worth it simply for the stunning views of the narrow river gorge below as the train slowly naviates the nearly vertical canyon walls through a series of switchbacks, descending nearly 1500ft in 7 miles! In true TROPIC innovative style, their guests can choose to ride the train round trip back to Alusi as most visitors do or instead, hike an hour uphill to the Pistishi viewpoint which offers a spectacular view of the Devil's Nose mountain itself!

Bonus: Cajas National Park

Wow, what a surprise this little-known national park was! It is located 30 miles west of Cuenca on the western edge of the Andes, just before the the mountains plunge (and I mean plunge!) 10,000 ft down to the Pacific coast. The mist draped moors and crystal lakes nestled below dramatic, craggy peaks transported me right to Middle Earth. It’s a great stop for stretching legs on the drive between Cuenca and Guayaquil or as a half or full-day trip from Cuenca. Unfortunately, we only had time for a very brief photo top and the weather didn’t cooperate. But I left vowing to come back and really explore!

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