A Travellerspoint blog


Sacred Sueños

permaculture in practice on a degraded mountainside

all seasons in one day 72 °F
View To the equator and beyond! on tltisme's travel map.

Vilcabamba, Ecuador: an odd assortment of established ex-pats, transient long-term travelers, vacationing gringos, and locals both catering to and trying to ignore all the foreigners. This eclectic jumble of people have all been drawn to this beautiful valley in southern Ecuador (or were born here) yet groups remain largely divided, each with their own jaded views of the others. National Geographic published a story around 10 years ago 'discovering' not only the natural beauty and sublime climate of this area but also that many locals lived more than a century. Foreigners began flocking to the 'Valley of Longevity' and many bought land in the surrounding hills to build their retirement dream homes. Yves (pronounced Eve) arrived in Vilcabamba just before the article, looking to put down some roots and begin his own farm after spending a number of years traversing the Americas. He and his partner had moved from farm to farm through the WWOOF and word of mouth networks, working and learning about permaculture, animal husbandry, and organic gardening. Through a series of events, some lucky and others unfortunate, Yves ended up owning 30 or so hectares of a mountainside on his own. He had wanted a challenging place to test his agriculture knowledge and he certainly got it. Hacking trails through the dense undergrowth, cutting steps into the alkaline clay soil, digging contour ditches, and macheting down hectares of yashepa (head-high ferns) to build terraced garden beds, Yves began the long process of restoring the soil and sculpting the ecosystem into a sustainable place for flora and fauna (including a few humans).
Eight years later Yves, a lively red-headed Canadian, has put not only his time and money, but his heart and soul into carving out a habitat for himself, his animals, and anyone interested enough to haul themselves up the rugged 8 km trail to the haven known as Sacred Sueños. It turns out over 100 volunteers spend time on the mountain every year, and with Yves' guidance and positive attitude, an amazing place has been created. Snaking out from the main kitchen/library/dining/lounge building, a network of paths leads one past terraced garden beds fighting to remain seen among the encroaching undergrowth, chicken tractors hard at work, numerous fruit bearing saplings and vines being encouraged by thick layers of mulch and humanure, compost pits and piles, and greenhouses and nurseries nestled into the slope. Many paths end at habitations from canvas yurts to tree high platforms for yoga and mosquito-net bedrooms, all with glorious views of the valley below. Other trails wind along to a peaceful waterfall or climb upwards over rough earthen stairs to the ridge and pine forest; some disappear completely, left incomplete by a wayward volunteer or simply reclaimed by the vegetation and forgotten.
Amy and I spent only a week in this beautiful place but it seems far longer based on the friends we made, experiences gained, stories shared, and projects completed. We arrived with Kendrick, a skinny kid from Oklahoma who was talkative and smart but inexperienced and naïve about manual labor. Waiting with lunch cooked for us when we made it up the mountain at last with our trio of pack animals (Bonnie the aging donkey and the two horses Joe and Two-Socks loaded with buckets of fruit, veggies, and other scrumptious vittles for our weeks cooking and eating content) was Fabian, the calm and merry dreaklocked traveler/writer from Switzerland. Matt, an intriguing Pittsburg native clambered down from his usual library loft perch and joined Yves, Kendrick, Fabian, Amy and I for a hearty lunch. Later that afternoon Emily, a jovial Quebecois biologist, and Ellen, a friendly and particular science teacher from Germany, returned from their hike in the nearby Podocarpus National Park laughing about how long it had taken due to countless photo ops. Ellen had in fact been the very first volunteer to help Yves build the first structures and gardens eight years ago and had at last returned to see what had become of her friend and the mountain. Our diverse group all spoke English quite well and we shared some great times working in the rain, relaxing in the sun and shade, and dining and playing cards by candlelight.
Our first day was an orientation to the gardens, greenhouses, orchard, kitchen and compost systems, and current projects as well as some guidelines for community living (treat others as you want to be treated!). Due to the severely depleted soil on the mountain (ph of around 4 and mostly clay, very few of Yves' first plantings produced anything) returning nutrients to the earth was of utmost importance. Compost from the kitchen was sorted into 5 different containers: horses/donkeys, chickens, standard, coffee grounds for mushroom growing medium, and hard to break down citrus peels. After the banana, mango, avocado, and other peels were processed through the powerful digestive system of the horses and donkeys, the manure was brought back and layered with standard compost and hay or grass for microorganisms and decomposers to thrive in. After just three or four months this concoction was turned into rich, fluffy, compost ready to be used in the nursery and frugally applied to garden beds. Human excrement was also used for its nutrients, simply mixed with sawdust and dirt, it too became valuable compost, but confined to uses outside of vegetable beds due to the very slight health risk of consuming parasites or bacteria that had previously infected a volunteer (sounds familiar...) and survived to remain present in the compost. The two chicken tractors were yet another tool for revitalizing and aerating the soil. Laying down fresh green leaves in the chickens movable rectangular pen and feeding and watering them daily yielded not only a few a eggs a day but mulch and chicken shit were composted in place. Any waste that was safe and satisfactory to burn was collected for fires, all other waste was either cut into strips for cob building material or if it was really nasty packed into the 'skank bottle' which was then sealed and used as a building block. In these ways, nothing was 'trash' on the mountain, anything that came up was used in its entirety. It was impressive to see many of these permaculture techniques in practice but also daunting to see how impoverished the land was and what a long process it was to restore its vitality and grow enough food to support a human community.
Yves hoped that the changing guard of volunteers could keep these systems of soil replenishment and garden growing in progress while he was personally at work on his own home a twenty minute hike away. Here he had developed goat cheese recipes without the use of electricity and refrigerators, which he brought down every weekend to the gringo market of Vilcabamba for some cash income. From two goats on a well cared for pasture he received about two liters of milk a day, enough to make numerous small cheeses a week. Yves is kept quite busy tending his goats, donkeys (Bonnie and Clyde), and horses, (not to mention his cute kitten and green-eyed puppy who play like siblings) while trying to organize volunteers and had little time to work on his own home. He was very grateful for construction help and Fabian, Kendrick, and I were enthusiastic to do some work other than garden maintenance and general farm upkeep. We gained some valuable timber framing experience as we worked to set floor posts and chisel out a large cross beam to connect them. Yves did not pretend to be a builder and was appreciative of the rough construction experience I had. Despite fighting a cough, our progress on his house cheered him up considerably and Yves kept mentioning all the other fun projects there would be for me if I was only able to stay longer.
Amy and I agree that Sacred Sueños was our most enjoyable volunteer post to date. The work was flexible, interesting, and though many tasks were routine maintenance and chores, you could see the purpose in them. Yves was incredibly knowledgeable about plants and permaculture techniques and very willingly to talk about past experiences and future ideas. The library was extremely impressive for its size and included a wide range of acclaimed novels as well as a multitude of references for all things agriculture, animal, ecology, building, and community related. Though not our most posh accommodations (certainly our best views though), the living areas had a feel of history to them (perhaps too much so for only being 8 years old or less) and being there felt like we had become part of a meaningful community, not simply our own with fellow volunteers but all the Sacred Sueños members who had come before us. By far the most authentic and organized attempt at a sustainable living community we have been a part of, it was sobering to see how much food still had to be hauled up the mountainside to sustain us. Yves was thorough with his shopping and kept the kitchen stocked with the most ingredients and best variety we have been privileged to use, which was great for our cooking and eating, but reinforced the fact that the most fundamental part of sustainability, growing food, is not at all easy. Sacred Sueños certainly began with quite a handicap due to its location and soil but it is a hearty reminder that growing enough food to survive is a challenge, while having a variety of food is an immense luxury indeed. Balanced meals full of nutrients and hopefully some protein become even more important when the work necessary to live off the land is mostly hard manual labor. Yves has most definitely shown us an inspiring example of what can be done, while reminding me that a cash crop or value added product is quite important (cheese now, Yves wants to brew mead and grow mushrooms in the future), as well as proximity to a market for those products and a place to buy goods you cannot produce yourself. In other words, its no coincidence that rural farmers have been trekking to town and back for as long as agrarian societies have existed.
When the week came to an end, Amy and I had gained two traveling partners on our next leg to Peru! Emily had biologist contacts in Chachapoyas, Peru (where we were headed) and Fabian (who rarely makes plans) felt that it was a good direction to go. On Sunday we descended from the mountain and that night the four of us boarded a night bus bound for Zumba, leg 1 of 7 to cross the least traveled Ecuador/Peru border. A sun-rise truck bed ride to the border, a simple stroll across a bridge, a couple muddy Toyota Corolla hatchback jaunts, one short rickshaw ride, a speedy van stint on paved roads across what looked much like the American southwest, one sleepy driver, a final cruise through a canyon road full of fallen rocks, and 20 hours later we arrived in Chachapoyas: land of the cloud people!

Posted by tltisme 11:48 Archived in Ecuador Tagged mountain soil living community compost sustainable gardening permaculture Comments (1)

Why and Why Not

to live on a mountain...

all seasons in one day 77 °F
View To the equator and beyond! on tltisme's travel map.

Sacred Suenos Permaculture farm

Sacred Suenos Permaculture farm

Why to Live on a Mountain:
1. The View
2. Going down to town is easy
3. You enjoy building stairs and terraces
4. Amateur meterology becomes a hobby (there are no pros anyway)
5. You get to look down on everyone else
Why Not to Live on a Mountain:
1. Flat(ish) land must be made
2. Coming up with supplies is hard
3. Stairs must be made everywhere
4. Erosion and mudslides suck
5. Flat ground becomes boring

Posted by tltisme 08:22 Archived in Ecuador Tagged view landscape mountain stairs living permaculture meterology Comments (0)

Goodbye for now Ecuador. Hello Peru!

We’ve come to the end of our time in Ecuador, a 3-week-turned-month-and-a-half adventure through a relatively small country with immensely diverse peoples, landscapes, climates and cities. We have come to know the people and the country much more intimately here than in Colombia, perhaps because of the amount of time we’ve spent or the amount of times we have been sick in people’s homes... In any case, there has been an undeniable warmth about the people we have come to know here.

The idiosyncrasies of each indigenous community have been fascinating to experience through each community’s colorful markets and festivals. Ecuador’s food has been at once predictable and full of little surprises. Our volunteer experiences have been peaceful, but animated by an eccentric crew of international volunteers. Meanwhile, couchsurfing with a pair of horse farmers, a systems engineer, a volunteer firefighter and a Peace Corps agriculture volunteer from Texas, injected dynamic energy into our experience in Ecuador.

Highlights include the majestic Quilotoa Crater Lake in the Central Highlands and a cozy hostel-with-woodstove stay,P1010383.jpg the Spanish streets and colonial buildings of Cuenca, P1020092.jpgP1020102.jpg eating in dozens of markets, swimming in the coast at Las Frailes,P1020009.jpgP1010994.jpg and waking up above the clouds, high in the mountains outside of Vilcabamba.P1020322.jpg Most important, however, are the relationships we have formed out of working with and sharing space with strangers.
Now, we will cross the border from Ecuador into Peru at La Balsa, into a much larger, touristic country that promises more volunteer opportunities, mountainous hikes, the Amazon, Incan and pre-Incan ruins, and at least another month of travel.

We will make a long, fragmented journey to Chachapoyas, with two other volunteers we met in our time at Sacred Sueños: Emile, a Quebecois biologist, who has a 2-month run of volunteer work, and Fabian from Switzerland, a practiced traveler on an open-ended journey through South America.

The deep beauty of Ecuador has made its impression on us, but we must forge ahead… onward to Peru!

Posted by AmyERichards 21:12 Archived in Ecuador Tagged peru in end of to highlights ecuador weeks six Comments (1)

Counterfeit Cash

During exchanges with vendors here, bills are nearly always checked for authenticity, although we hadn’t felt the need to take the same precautions about the cash we were handed until recently. Aside from monopoly money, I had never had fake cash in my possession until one afternoon in Puerto Lopez. Puerto Lopez is a coastal town with access to national parks, the “Poor Man’s Galapago’s” and a steady stream of tourists. We were about to find that where there are tourists, counterfeit bills are not uncommon.

In our case, we had jumped at a long-awaited opportunity to snorkel off the coast of Ecuador, the day after arriving in Puerto Lopez. We had bargained for a decent price for a half-day boat trip to try to snorkel (often each person in a group pays a different price, and vendors or guides keep close track of what they told each person)… So we met with about 10 other people near the beach and gave the second half of our payment to the collection woman. We needed change (which tends to elicit complaints) so she opened a super-compartmentalized wallet which contained a great deal of large bills. She fished around a bit and handed us a $5 bill (Ecuador’s currency is USD) and $3 in change (they use $1 Sacajawea’s instead of bills [apparently all of that pre-credit card subway change was being funneled into Ecuador]). So we gladly accepted our change without paying careful attention to the bills.

After an enjoyable boat ride, but no snorkeling because of murky water after storms, we made it back on land. I asked the woman who took our money how they charge people for snorkeling trips when they know there will be no snorkeling… she came up with a number of excuses and more or less walked away.

Later that day, we went to pay for groceries and T.L. found that his five-dollar-bill had mostly disintegrated, after getting wet on the boat. He paid with some coins and when we stepped onto the street, he showed me the bill… a laughably fake disintegrating piece of paper. Counterfeit money!
My instinct was to go back to the snorkeling place and explain what had happened, but we discussed our options before making moves: go to a bank, go to the police, go to the woman who gave it to us, try to put it back together and use it, call it bad luck and forget about it. My feeling of having been wronged said no to the last two options, so we asked our hostel owner how often this happened and what he suggested we do.
He said in the past, a great deal of counterfeit $20’s would come in from Colombia, but more recently, counterfeiting $5’s had come into practice because they went more unnoticed. He suggested the only way anything might be done about it would be to go directly to the woman who had given it to us, because the police were corrupt and the banks wouldn’t do much either.

We walked back to the tour office and I announced to a group of 6 or so people that we had been given a counterfeit $5 that morning. No one moved from their hammocks or their chairs, but everyone asked me to come show them the bill. Each shook his head, affirming that “no vale nada”. They began to explain, however, that the woman I had paid wasn’t there.

After a few minutes of describing the woman and some debating about how fat she was (one of the first things people ask when you try to describe a person is if they are fat, no offense to any of the fat people in the room). They finally determined that it was Julia, la gorda (the fatty), whose mother had cheated one of the man’s mothers out of $50 ten months ago. Of course, that must be her! After a series of phone calls, they summonsed Julia la Gorda to the tour office. We sat and waited as other people filtered in and out while the others related our story and passed around the five to the newcomers.

Finally, after a bit of waiting, Julia la Gorda appeared and was directed to T.L. and I with our disintegrated cash. We explained our story and she quickly denied that she gave it to us, but under the scrutinizing eyes of her peers, she changed the five without too much prodding. She proceeded to show us the rest of her real $5’s and how to tell that bills were counterfeit, while T.L. continued to try to give the new $5 backs to her, because he didn’t understand that she was actually giving us one. When we finally had the $5 back, we thanked her and left, perplexed at the exchange. Earlier we were sure that the snorkeling-free trip cost us an extra $5 that day, but we walked out with our $5 restored.

We have no way of knowing whether Julia la Gorda knew the bill she handed us was fake, whether she was part of a larger counterfeiting ring, or whether she was totally innocent. In the end, a wet boat ride made it so the bill was taken out of circulation and we have learned to be more conscious of the bills we receive in our travels.

Posted by AmyERichards 14:40 Archived in Ecuador Tagged puerto five ecuador bill lopez dollar bills fake counterfeit duped Comments (0)

Police Corruption and Futbol Fans

all seasons in one day 70 °F

So far, we have traveled for 6 weeks in Ecuador, feeling safe in most every town or city we have visited. Still, police corruption has been a common theme in many of our discussions with Ecuadorians. We had a firsthand peak at the type of police corruption we’d heard about during an 11:30 AM Quito vs. Liga fútbol game we attended in Quito.
From the start of the game, we found ourselves entertained by a group of incoherently drunk men swaying about in the row ahead. They cheered for Quito, slopping Pilseners and spitting curses into one another’s faces (it was an intercity rival game). About halfway into the game however, the group moved closer to us, leaving their most drunk member with drool running from his chin onto his round belly, passed out from an early day of drinking. Soon enough, the men were asking about us… where we came from, why we had chosen to cheer for Quito etc. They passed 32 oz. beer cups between all of us and were happy to have us cheering for their team. Finally we asked about their tired friend. They answered, “O, he’s a cop, we actually just met him last night.”

The man’s story goes (details are hazy, as he was inebriated while relating it):

The man had been drunk driving the night before when he was pulled over by a cop. When the cop proceeded to announce his fine, the man offered the cop free admittance and drinks at any of the major nightclubs in Quito, at which he held some administrative position. The cop gladly accepted, and while on duty(?), accompanied the man and his friends to the bars for the rest of the night. The drinking continued through the early hours of the morning until the cop was finally belligerent. Earlier on in the binge, the men discovered the cop to be a Liga fan, so when sufficiently drunk, they dressed the cop in a too-small Quito jersey and they all went to the game to continue the festivities.

So the passed out man we were concerned about was a potentially on-duty police officer/Liga fan, left mostly unconscious by the drunken enemy he should have apprehended the night before.

“The police are corrupt here, very, very corrupt” the men concluded. And so there it was.

Posted by AmyERichards 14:08 Archived in Ecuador Tagged in police futbol game drunk quito ecuador corruption liga cop Comments (0)

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