The following is a note from trip leaders, Kevin Hopsicker & Joanie Davis:
Hola from Ecuador! We write to you sweaty with bellies full of plantains. Our two trusty guides, Reyna and Jorge, have led us through different regions of the country, bringing the destination to life. It’s hard to believe we are already one week into this wild adventure. The beginning of our trip started in the high Andes. The bus drive winded up and down the electric green mountains; it’s simple entertainment to watch the world go by out the window. April is the rainy season, which settles the dust in the evenings and explodes the mountains with color. Upon our arrival to Isinliví, our group scarfed down the first of many authentic Ecuadorian meals: Andean potatoes, local papaya and banana, and fresh eggs. We quickly understood that our tastebuds would not be disappointed. We walked 15 minutes to a viewpoint that showcased our remote location in South America. The backdrop provided a perfect place for a conversation about cultural assumptions and how best to represent ourselves during the trip. Conveniently, a local school slowly gathered at a veranda nearby and we invited them to play a game of blind dodgeball. In this game, two players are blindfolded and their team shouts directions for them to find the ball and throw it at their opponent. Now, this game is difficult enough if you speak the same language. Girls played versus boys and it was the first major opportunity for the students to exercise their Spanish and communication skills. Girls won, but the boys put up a strong fight. After another delicious meal and an hour in the hostel hot tub, we were ready to sleep and prepare for day one of our trek.
Early the next morning, we started our walk further into the Andes. We trekked through mud, tall grass and small farms that sustain the local population. Our local guide, Monica, answered questions about these remote families and explained that the younger populations are moving to the cities to explore a more modern lifestyle. This is difficult for the older generation as they are left to work the land and don’t see their children for years at a time. Sunny was especially fond of the baby lambs, horses, calves and dogs along the way and captured their essence from behind the camera. After 8 miles of hiking, we arrived at Hotel Mama Hilda, our home for the next two nights. Two brothers, their wives and mama Hilda herself built and run the hotel with the utmost hospitality. They welcomed us with hot chocolate and sincere amiability.
On day two of our trek we took the bus up to Lake Quilatoa. This lake was formed by a volcano that collapsed on itself hundreds of years ago. We walked along the high ridge of the lake examining local mushrooms, flora and fauna. From here, we trekked the 8 miles back to Mama Hilda. Once again, we passed through local farms, crossed rivers and enjoyed trail conversations. A stray dog that we named Poncho followed our group for the majority of the day. Our local guide was named Miguel and he helped explain the history of the area. Owen excitedly practiced his Spanish to thank him for the guidance and said, “gracias por la ayuda con la tripa”, which translates to “thank you for the help with the intestines.” There’s always an opportunity for laughter and learning with this group. Back at Mama Hilda we rested our feet and played cards as the moon rose behind the clouds. We gathered to talk about sustainable tourism and what that means at a local and international level. The discussion was rich and provided fodder for the remainder of our time in Ecuador. After dinner, mama Hilda offered to set up a dance party with the stereo in the dining room. Nate, eager to dance, said yes and went to gather the others as we debated which CD to pop in the stereo. Everyone showed off their favorite dance moves and Cheyenne won a heated limbo competition. Exhausted, we went to bed with tired feet and happy hearts. After a well deserved lazy morning, we practiced yoga on the lawn to stretch out from the two days prior. Rayna is a yoga teacher and she showed us a few moves of acroyoga: partner yoga where one person is suspended in the air. This was a great activity to work on communication and trust while laughing in the sun. It was a sad goodbye to our family at Mama Hilda, but many of us hope to return with loved ones in the future.
We next commenced the long drive from the highlands to the coastal region – our destination: Santo Domingo of the Tsachilas. After stopping for a traditional Easter lunch of Fanesca – a soup made up of seven to twelve different beans and legumes – we continued lower and lower through jungle canyons as we passed out of the mountains down into the jungle. Grace was especially attentive on the drive, winning all the prizes for bus bingo as she spotted hanging pigs and various monuments. We arrived to the Shino Pi Bolon Tsachila Community that evening and ate a great meal before heading to bed – the kids camping in tents in a traditional hut to keep out the bugs.
The Tsachila community has lived in that part of Ecuador for a long time, known before as the Colorados due to their red hair (hair of color rojo) and later as the Tsachilas – the true people. We stayed with community leaders Alfonso and Jose Felipe and their families, who have played a huge role in preserving Tsachila traditions and cultivating pride and appreciation among the community for their culture. Both Alfonso and Jose Felipe maintain the tradition of painting their hair red and painting black stripes on their bodies, as well as educating groups of people on how their people traditionally (and still) live.
We awoke our first day with the Tsachila in the land of wild critters and fruits. A land where you can pick a banana or cacao fruit off the tree and begin to eat. The land of boa constrictors and sand flies and rainy nights and hot humid days. They have a beautiful property in the jungle by the Pi River. Open air bamboo huts with palm roofs line the property acting as the dining hall, bathrooms and sleeping quarters. The first morning we began work on a bamboo and palm structure to be used by the community as a place to sell artisan crafts. Charlie showed off his carpentry skills as we raised the bamboo pillars and roofs, quickly getting all the framing in place in order to weave the roof the following day. In the afternoon we spontaneously attended a traditional Tsachila festival close by. It was a small celebration – compared by some students to Winter Carnival in Steamboat – in order to celebrate Tsachila heritage and culture. Some of the students mentioned feeling uncomfortable since everyone was staring at the group of gringos. However, we quickly realized how the Tsachila must feel whenever they have to go to Quito or another city without shirts or shoes and wearing their traditional paint. Everyone normally stares at them. We returned to the river for a swim and then ate another wonderful meal before going to bed. The following morning we continued working on the structure, weaving the palm leaves into the roof and leaving the final construction of the tables for the next morning. We then had the afternoon free to explore, playing soccer and enjoying the river. Alexander scored the winning goal in an intense 5-4 match in which Alfonso played goalkeeper, diving all over and making saves despite being 67! August acted as blackjack dealer for cards around mealtime, while Ian challenged the group to complete 900 calf raises just in case building a casita and playing soccer wasn’t enough exercise. In the evening, Alfonso and Jose Felipe treated us to some cultural activities. We saw how they made and applied their traditional paint, and even were able to paint ourselves! There was much laughter as we all painted flowers on arms, superman symbols on chests, wedding rings on fingers, mustaches on faces (don’t worry parents – it’s not permanent!). That night Ben led us in a beautiful conversation as leader of the day, asking the group to inspire one another with words of advice we have gathered throughout life. The final morning we were able to finish the arts and crafts hut, installing some tables to display the crafts and putting on some final touches. We then participated in a few final cultural learnings. Mahala was the first to taste the big white forest worms, while others followed trying them either raw or cooked! We also were able to compete in target practicing for spear hunting and eat the cacao fruit fresh off the plant. Then, after a lunch of fresh Tilapia from the stream and plantains from the tree, we had the opportunity to see the art hut all set up with the communities’ crafts, and were able to buy a few souvenirs before saying goodbye and oh-oh (thank you).
We are now in Mindo where we can do some laundry, hike and go on a chocolate tour. The next time you hear from us we should be finishing up our homestay experience. The kids are all happy, healthy and enjoying the adventure. However, instead of hearing from us, they would like to share a little something with you themselves!
Hello mom, Russell and Griffin,
My trip is going well. I have had many laughs, a handful of bug bites, and many amazing friends. We have been traveling a lot over this past week. I have gone on a couple of long hikes and gotten to see a bunch of beautiful scenery. I miss you guys and hope that all is well back home.
This trip has been really nice so far; everything we have done has been a great experience. We first hiked a lot and have eaten some amazing food. We also got to see the Tsa’Chilla community and got to see and experience a lot of different things. The places we have stayed are so pretty and I’m making sure to take photos. Also, Dad, happy belated birthday!
Love you guys,
GS is going nifty. Everything is totally nifty. Tell tofu/Riley I love her, oh and I love you guys too. Two, to, too..lol! See you in almost 20 days. This indigenous tribe gave me dye, so now I have a fake mustache. It will last for two weeks.
GS is going pretty well. At the beginning of the trip, when we were in the mountains, I was very surprised at the geography. The mountains are not as cold as I expected and everything is very green. The whole place is so lush and wet. There are farms on all of the mountains, even on super steep slopes. The food is really good – there are a lot of plantains with every meal. The last place we were at had awesome juices with every meal, some of which I never tried before.
See you in a few weeks!
Hi momma and papa,
I’m actually having a great time despite my multiple doubts. I accidentally threw out EVERYTHING I bought including all your gifts, so now I will find some new ones. I miss you all. Love you and see you in about 20 days.
Hi dad and maybe mom,
I am feeling great about Ecuador so far. I am forging lots of new relationships and having a blast. I am doing well with my push-ups and sit ups and have missed you. We started out in a place called Insinliví. We hiked all around and then hiked to Chugchilan. There we stayed in a place called Mama Hilda’s and they were super nice and welcoming. After that we went to the Tsa’Chilla community. There we built, played soccer, and went in the river. We were building a traditional A frame and collecting materials. After we finished we got to use a huge tree swing. Now we are in a town called Mindo. I like the rooms and we have a great view. Hope you guys are doing well, Tonks too!
PS: I left my shoes in Denver. Sorry.
The trips been really fun. The food here is really tasty. We went to the Tsachila community and built a grass hut for their arts and crafts. It was really fun. Ok bye miss you guys.
Whomever it may concern,
The first eight days of my excursion have gone pretty well. Although our last location was similar to PA humidity-wise, we got to learn to make a leaf roof. Today we had a short two hour car ride and then had a night out on the town of Mindo. My gear is working exactly as planned however I wish I had brought the D3200 (camera). Kaia, mission accomplished.
Hey Mom, Dad, Morgan –
So far Ecuador has been incredible. Every moment has been something to remember. From hiking 10 miles to exploring the locals culture. We (only 1 week in) have done so much. At one point we were at an elevation of 14k ft then dropped to only like 1k. The group is actually an amazing collection of people that I am lucky to spend this 25 days with. I love you and miss you.
I’m doing good; I love this country! It is so beautiful and filled with life. This trip will change my life for the better I hope. I hope things are going well there. I, hoping this trip will make me realize how I am happy to be here and how my past thoughts were dumb and childish. I also want to say thank you for putting up with me. You are amazing and I love you!! I need to tell you that more.