Les Trois Escargots

A growing family of snails.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Black Sheep Inn, Ecuador

After 7 hours on several cramped Ecuadorian local buses, the pressure was really on for my surprise to be worth the discomfort. Albane had no idea where we going as the bus rattled along dirt tracks into the mountains, steep hill sides smothered in mist and drizzle forcing the driver to use his wipers. As we stumbled out of the bus at the Black Sheep Inn, just outside the remote village of Chugchilan, I hoped that my brownie point total was about to go ballistic.

We were welcomed by Michelle, an American who, along with her boyfriend, had set up the Inn over 10 years ago. Aimed at bringing ecotourism to the region, they recycled, collected water and had composting toilets. Michelle gave us the introductory speech about how to poo properly, what we could do and reminded us that the half board was entirely vegetarian. I gulped. Four days would be the longest that I had ever gone without eating meat. Our room was cosy with a small wood burner in the corner. Anyone who knows Albane will know that my brownies went sky high when she realised that she could have a fire in her room.

With the afternoon rains settled in, we read until the communal dinner at 7pm. The food - some kind of vegetables - was great and I stuffed myself before roasting my belly by the fire. The next morning, we hired a small, old local man called Miguel who led us up the hill to the cloud forest. We followed the old boy, dressed in wool slacks and wearing a waterproof, for an hour to the ridge, panting as he scarcely seemed to breath, before dropping into the dense forest. Like something from Lord of the Rings, the trees were clad with epiphytes, hairy mosses, seaweed-like liches and delicate orchids. We twisted between the gnarled trunks spotting plants of interest in every direction before exiting abruptly into the open farmland. We ate a packed lunch watching the cloud rolling in from the Pacific before heading down in heavy rain. Another afternoon by the fire with a book. Guiltfree.

The next morning, we hired a truck and were driven an hour west gaining height as we passed through villages and fields of maize planted on impossible slopes. Llamas and goats and sheep, herded by young girls, bolted as the truck bounced past. Dropped in a small car park,we walked up a couple of steps andf ound ourselves on the rim of an enormous crater.Perhaps a kilometre across, maybe more. The Quilotoa volcano had blown itself up leaving a deep crater, now filled with a lake of the most intense chemical green. We snapped photos, failing to capture the scale, before following a trail along the edge, undulating here and there, always watching the crater and the lake as our viewpoint changed. After an hour and one final glance, we dropped down the flank of the volcano, across fields and eventually reached a small village populated entirely by chidren being grown ups. Boys stood in door ways, kicking footballs and looking at the girls as they chatted in small groups on the ground. Wise to the weather, we made it back by early afternoon and read as the rain fell again. Wet season was coming.

After more food for dinner and more food for breakfast, we felt ready for more exercise and descended from the Inn to the valley bottom passing villages and scrubby woodland on the way. With a few tethered sheep grazing and the river running a chocolate brown colour, there was something biblical about the valley. No roads, no powerlines and no human influence other than a path running along the right bank. We sat in the sun pondering the future before eventually dragging ourselves up the hill as the afternoon clouds started to gather.

At dinner that night, we pondered how to get back to Quito. The local bus passed at 3am and the milk truck apparently passed at 7am. Neither was particularly appealing, but Pachamama (the Andean Mother Earth) must have been smiling on us because we got talking to an Italian couple touring the area with a driver and they offered us a lift to Quito. They had a whole minibus for the two of them, so we had plenty of room and enjoyed a scenic return to the capital. A relaxing few days and some wonderful glimpses of the Ecuadorian countryside.


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