We were surprised to find northern Ecuador with so many transplants from North America and Europe. In the town of Ibarra, where we stayed at Finca Sommerwind, and further south in the touristy towns of Otavalo and Cotacachi, we ran into English speaking expats quite often. It is not close to the extent of Costa Rica and Panama, but definitely many more than what we were expecting. We heard that Ecuador makes it quite easy for foreigners to obtain residency. An investment of $25,000 is enough. Or, if you have a college degree you can also apply without any investment but that takes about a 6 month waiting list.
In Ecuador we are also seeing noticeably fewer armed guards and security checkpoints than anywhere else up north. The roads are in excellent shape. The gasoline is cheap – our diesel cost $1.03 a gallon.
Many people who come to northern Ecuador visit Otavalo and Cotacachi, which are a couple towns with big indigenous populations and crafts. Cotacachi is famous for leather goods but everything was way over-priced. We saw a leather rope used to lasso/rope cattle asking for 10 times more than what was offered in Colombia! We actually came here twice hoping to find something but went home empty-handed.
As for Otavalo, it is famous for its “Saturday market” which actually happens every day but is biggest and most crowded on Saturday. Unfortunately we didn’t find the town or the market very exciting. It is possible we may be slightly jaded by our long-term travels. But we remember the indigenous towns back in Mexico, like the artisan towns surrounding Oaxaca or Chiapas’ San Cristobal de las Casas, as much more captivating. Guatemala, as well, with its colorful villages surrounding Lake Atitlan. We spent a couple hours at the market trying to buy something and walked away with a cute alpaca poncho and a beaded necklace for Ty.
What ended up being our highlight in Northern Ecuador was meeting a couple of families who moved to Ecuador and started their farms. First we went to Parque Bambú, in a small town called El Limonál at about 4000 feet altitude northwest of Ibarra. We met up with owner Piet and his daughters at Finca Sommerwind in Ibarra and rode together to their farm+bed-and-breakfast an hour and a half away. Piet recently sold his vehicle to reduce carbon footprint and together with his daughters they hitchhike or take public transport all over rural Ecuador.
At his farm, there are trees, shade, giant bamboos, lots of banana trees. But the surrounding area is almost all bald and dry, a combination of the natural climate exacerbated by humans. Piet is one man trying to restore and save his piece of the earth, and he has been doing this for over twenty years, while his neighbors slashed, burned and abandoned their degraded rural land for city life. Everything on the farm is done by hand with no help from machines or animals. We spent a couple days together sharing meals and Simon worked with Piet for a day transplanting some trees. Piet is so strong in both body and mind that Simon said he had trouble keeping up. If anyone is interested, Piet has some interesting writing on ecological restoration on his website.
The kids had fun here. We had a cozy campsite to spread out in, and as usual there were dogs and cats to play with. The first night we were afraid Ty might have killed their kittens. When we weren’t looking Ty poured a bottle of dish detergent on them to give them a bath. Luckily everyone took it in stride and the kittens recovered from shock the next morning.
Next we went to Finca San Antonio. This is a place I found on helpx.net which is like a workaway or a wwoof. We tried to volunteer with them and although it didn’t work out, the owners invited us to come visit them anyway. The farm is located in a cloud forest at 6000 feet, an hour and a half west of Otavalo. On the drive in, we found the greenscape we were looking for since leaving Colombia. Waterfalls, rivers, greenery everywhere.
Then we arrived at the farm. The “farm” is almost 400 acres and much of it is preserved. The property is beautiful. There are springs, waterfalls and a beautiful river running through. Unlike Piet’s farm, there is no shortage of water here. Everything grows wonderfully. The owners, Keith and Marisol, are amazing. An English and Ecuadorean couple with their four year old girl Yakina. They grow all sorts of goodies like gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries, sugarcane, bokchoy, squash, potato, coffee beans….you name it. They keep bees for honey and pollen. I cooked vegetarian (the hosts don’t eat meat) while we stayed with them and harvested ingredients from their garden. We had plantains with every meal and Marisol made fresh mint lemonade every day. On their farm we met another interesting couple who were volunteering, Tom and Laura. They are actually property shopping in Ecuador and may very well be future Ecuadorean farm owners!
The farm has a lot of sugarcane, like many other places in Latin America. By the way, fresh sugarcane juice is awesome and should be tried by everyone. The farm processes sugarcane into panela (unrefined cane sugar) in their own sugar mill. Panela is really the best tasting sugar. One thing about this trip is our new embracement of sugar after years of being hooked on Splenda. Being on the road has made us eat much more “natural”. We still have an arsenal of crackers to keep the kids happy but gone are almost all processed foods. At Finca San Antonio we also went the longest without eating meat in our lives. Simon and I are bona fide meat eaters. But after going a few days vegetarian, we can now have the occasional meat-free meal and not feel deprived. On the road we eat everything indiscriminately and interestingly we are not gaining weight. Fatty steaks, fried chicken, lots of bread and butter, ice-cream and sweets. It’s so nice to feel the freedom to eat everything and still be healthy. It will interesting how we can keep this up when we go home next year.
After Finca San Antonio, we drove four hours staying near 5000 feet high through the mountains to another cloud forest town called Mindo. The drive was spectacular, staying mostly on mountain ridges through many farms and tiny villages. We didn’t see one other foreigner the entire time. Finally we arrived in Mindo, and back to the scene of zip lines, river tubing tours, and butterfly farms. It seems that every touristy town in the tropics has a butterfly farm. Very contrived but the kids love it. Overall Mindo is still a nice place, in many ways like a small-scale Monteverde of Costa Rica.
We enjoyed a few days here and spent our time (1) looking at real estate and (2) nursing bug bites. On the bug bites, I now know it is possible to have – no exaggeration – over 200 bug bites on one’s body, a result of letting our guard down at dusk on the river. They are from a type of black flies/no-see-ums. You don’t see them or feel them until 12-24 hours after the bites. After the “incident”, we moved from our free riverside camp spot to a hotel. The only way to not go insane at night was to cool the body down with multiple cold showers. It was hell for Ty and me for a few days. Luckily the baby and Simon were spared. On the property shopping….right, we had another bout of what-if and actually went perusing properties. The land around Mindo, like Finca San Antonio, is just so appealing, combined with a Montessori school in town got us dreaming again. We quickly realized this nice mountain town which is only two hours from the capital city of Quito was out of our price range. With that, we left and started moving towards Quito, the highest capital city in the world at over 9300 feet.