Archive for August, 2010

Cafe Rio Intag

During our time in Pucara, we had the amazing opportunity to visit one of the more successful community economic development projects in the region – the Intag Coffee Cooperative.  The Intag valley, a gorgeous mountain landscape northwest of Quito, is home to one of the most biodiverse zones in all of Ecuador (and all of the world – it’s said to be one of the 10 most biodiverse regions on the planet, due to its extreme elevation change – sea level to 11,000 ft in only a couple dozen miles).  In addition to its one-of-a-kind forests, flora, and fauna, the region is also home to a wealth of valuable minerals and ores beneath its lush surface.  A number of mining companies are in pursuit of digging rights, and many locals are tempted by the short-term financial returns promised by the mining companies.  Without a financially viable alternative, the region is doomed to be exploited and destroyed by the mining industry.

Step in Asociacion Rio Intag, a group of coffee farmers and producers dedicated to preserving the Intag landscape through local and sustainable economic development.   A fair-trade cooperative based out of Apuela, member farmers are producing organic coffee for distribution within and beyond Ecuadorian borders.  The group of over 100 local farmers are very vocal about their mission – growing and manufacturing top-quality, organic, fair-trade coffee to support traditional and sustainable farming in the Intag region, providing economic benefits to local people while preventing the destruction of their landscape by proposed mining activities.

Our friend Peter Shear is one of the local growers, and is heavily involved in sustainable agriculture education (among many other things).  He gave us a tour of the Cafe Rio Intag production facility, which was fascinating to say the least.  The tour took us from the coffee plants in Peter’s farm, to the bean extraction, drying, sizing, sorting (did you know that every coffee bean you’ve ever consumed has been hand-sorted!?!), grinding, and tasting. 

The Association also has a research division with university-trained agronomists who are testing all-natural pesticides in laboratories and in the field (a project funded by USAID).

The Co-op is thriving, with demand exceeding their current supply (50% of the coffee is currently purchased by 1 buyer in Japan, the remaining 50% is sold locally and in select markets in North America and Europe).  Co-op members are looking to expand their capacity by adding additional farmers into the organization (in order to qualify, new farmers must undergo a detailed audit process, demonstrating their avoidance of banned chemicals and eventually resulting in certified organic status).

The Intag Valley (and most of rural Ecuador) is faced with a growing number of challenges in an increasingly globalized economy.  With the majority of the younger working class fleeing traditional farming for greater financial opportunities in urban areas, Intag residents face an uncertain future.  While the proposed mining project would bring short-term returns to these poor regions (local jobs, mining subsidies, etc), the long-term environmental impacts would be disastrous.  The Intag Coffee Cooperative is one example of a successful alternative sustainable economic development model that could bring similar benefits to the local population.  But it’s going to take a lot more than coffee to beat the mines.


Here, we begin a set of posts dedicated to the funny, interesting, crazy, and outrageous ways of life we encounter along the road.

Extension cord

The Wheels on the Bus go Round and Round

I had been promised that bus rides in South America were quite an experience and not for those that value personal space so I was surprised on our first bus ride from Quito to Otovalo. We arrived just in time to purchase tickets and when we got on the bus, only one other person was on board! However, between when the bus left it’s parking place and when we actually started driving, we picked up 5-6 additional stragglers as well as a host of vendors selling everything from ice cream cones to newspapers. They’d come on the bus, try and pitch their wares and then get off a hundred yards later – it was quite entertaining.

Our second bus ride was absolutely nothing like our first. We were headed to Pucara with our friend Peter and as he lives in Pucara part of the time, he was bringing back some supplies for the house he is in the process of building. He was also traveling with his newly adopted dog, Princessa. So there we were, 3 gringos, two big packpacks, a dog and 4 large sheets of glass trying to get on this nearly-full bus. Luckily, Peter had purchased us seats ahead of time or we would have been standing the whole 2.5 hour bus ride to where we were going. As Peter and I finagled our way to our seats through passengers, vendors, kids, old women in their traditional dresses, etc., Ted was outside trying to store our backpacks and hold onto the dog. In hopes of helping him out, I was sandwiched between a large-breasted woman selling limonadas and the glass Peter purchased while taking Princessa’s leash from Ted and holding onto her while leaning out the window. It was absolutely overwhelming and hilarious at the same time. Eventually, Ted gets on the bus, as does Princessa, the vendors make their final sales and we’re off!

Once we were in Pucara, the bus system works a bit differently. There are no tickets and few actual bus stops. If you want to get on a bus, you simply wave it down. When you want to get off the bus, you just say so and they stop. Some buses are crowded and some are not. There are a few going each direction each day so you plan your trip around these times and you’re good to go. The bus driver has a helper who gets out to help people with bags store them under the bus. The helper also collects the bus fare from the passengers and is the point of contact if you need anything. The driver just drives.

On our way home from some hot springs that we visited on Sunday afternoon, we were waiting at one of the few bus stops for our 6-7 mile trip home with 20-30 other people. When the bus arrived is was already PACKED! I was sure there was no way we’d all fit but sure enough, we were packed in like sardines. In fact, the bus driver didn’t even close the door and two people stood on that bottom step about a foot above the road. At the next stop, I’m not kidding you, they managed to smoosh on even more people – apparently “the bus is full”, is not an option.

Lucky for us, we had a short trip home however, many people on that bus were headed over 2.5 hours back to Otavalo and were destined to be standing on the bumpy, windy road the whole time!


It’s been nearly a week since our last post but we have a pretty good reason for the delay as we were officially off the grid. Last Tuesday, Ted and I met up with a tourism industry colleague/friend of Ted’s named Peter that Ted had met with a couple of times in Boulder. Peter is American however, he now lives in Ecuador and has for the past ten years. More about Peter and his work in a future post, but he was our connection for where we spent the last week living with a family and learning Spanish.

We met up with Peter in Otavalo, Ecuador which is a fairly large town (~40,000 people) known for its weekly Saturday market and a predominantly indigenous population. We then took a very crowded, yet beautiful and entertaining 2.5 hour bus ride along a dirt road (more about the bus rides in a future post as well!) west into the mountains to a community named Pucara.

Pucara is a gorgeous little community nestled in the lush Andes mountains, accessed only by dirt road and 5 daily buses.  It is one of those places that you drive by and wonder to yourself, “What do people do here?” Well, we were about to find out.

After a delicious lunch prepared for us by the shop-owner of one of the two shops in town, Peter introduced to our “sisters and brothers” for the week. Anita is in early 20s and the mother to a beautiful little 10-month old boy named Chris. Andres is her 10-year old brother and Maria is their 6-year old sister. The family lived about a 20 minute walk from ‘town’. Though there were certainly many awkward silences on that initial walk home, we, or Ted rather, was able to break the ice and make conversation. Once at home we met another brother named Victor, who is 23, and the mother/grandmother of the home named Celia. There is also another sister that is 18 but she is away at university several hours away. The family did not speak any English and I am a better listener to Spanish than I am a speaker, so the majority of the responsibility fell on Ted’s shoulders to communicate.

The family’s home was modest to say the least. When you walked in the door, there was a central room that was used as the kitchen, living and dining room. There were then four small bedrooms off the main area. Ted and I shared one of the rooms and the other six people shared the remaining three bedrooms. The bathroom was connected to the house but you had to go outside to access it and it was not enclosed. The dishes and laundry were also done outside the old-fashioned way. They did not have a refrigerator or a telephone and in fact, the only electricity they used for their cooking was a blender to make smoothie juice drinks. The cooking was done using a gas stove and a propane tank.

There was not room for everyone to eat together so Ted and I sat out in the central room with one or two other people and the remainder crowded into the small bedroom with the tiny T.V. to eat. Though the women (Celia and Anita) were in charge of all the cooking, it was a treat to see that everyone helped out with baby Chris. I was impressed to see how helpful and useful the little guys (Andres and Maria) were to their older sister and little nephew. Everyone took turns holding him, entertaining him and making sure he stayed out of trouble.

Though the language was a barrier for me, I made friends with Maria by painting her fingernails with some polish I’d brought from home and pushing her on the swing. Ted brought a frisbee which was also a popular activity with Maria and Andres and a couple other nights we built a fire and burned everything from grass and sticks to plastic bags and track pants (not our suggestion!).

Ted spotted a guitar in Victor’s room the first night we were there and after removing a broken string and tuning it up he learned that Victor didn’t know how to play but that wanted to learn. For the remainder of the week, Ted and Victor sat down in the evening and Ted gave Victor some guitar lessons.

Though it was certainly a treat to live in this family’s home it was not without its challenges for us (no privacy, bugs, tummy trouble) and for them (two giant gringos with very limited Spanish!), I’m sure. I’m thankful for the experience and the insight it provided however, I would by lying if I didn’t tell you that I’m excited to be back in a hostel in Otavalo in a comfortable bed, eating whatever we want whenever we want and going to bed confident that we will not be woken up by multiples roosters outside our window!

With a little help from our friends (and family!)

As many of you know, Ted and I have been dreaming about this trip for a long time. As our savings and planning came together and we realized that we were actually going to be doing this, we were both incredibly excited and amazingly overwhelmed.

Though please don’t interpret this as complaining, the last couple weeks in Colorado were some of the most stressful and emotional that I’ve had to deal with in my recent memory. The logistics and planning involved in moving, taking a leave of absence from work, organizing bank accounts, purchasing insurance, and oh, how the list goes on, is certainly complicated. And as family, friends and fun are so important to us, Ted and I juggled our insane To-Do lists with trips to Michigan and SW Colorado as well as happy hours, ‘family dinners’ and concerts with our favorite people.

For anyone that saw or hung out with us in the last month or so – thank you! We not only love and appreciate you, but you probably have done or are doing us some sort of favor!

For letting us stay at your house after our lease was up; for letting us store anything from musical instruments, a foosball table to a CAR at your home; for helping us move; for letting us borrow a truck; for making us lasagna; for taking us to the airport; for coming out to say goodbye at the Boulder happy hour and Zen Mustache show; for volunteering to drop off our car in SE Parker and encouraging us to stay and have a beer instead; for keeping our mail and bills and life in order while we are away; for picking up extra projects at work in our absence; for your phone calls and hugs and supportive words; for everything I’m failing to mention here but that made our trip a reality – THANK YOU!

Those two words do not do justice to the enormous amount of appreciation we have for the people in our lives that we love – but we mean them from the bottom of our hearts and are 100% positive that this trip would not be possible without you.

Now, come visit.

Ecuador is a cheap date

In planning for our trip I booked two nights in a hostel in Quito so we would have somewhere to stay when we first arrived. I remember when booking online how excited I was to learn that our ‘Deluxe Private Double’ would be a whopping $26/night. Not sure exactly what you’re going to get when you book online, we were pleasantly surprised/relieved to learn that our little room had a double bed, a nice-sized private bath (with hot water), and a cable TV. Our hostel also has an amazing terrace overlooking the city and a welcoming lobby full of fellow travelers, day-trip information, computers, etc. Not bad at all.

In addition, the hostel is run by a lovely couple that does everything from changing the sheets and making breakfast to calling the airlines to help travelers find their lost luggage (see previous post!).

In addition to cheap lodging, our meals here (we’ve only had two so far!) have each been at total of $3. Yep, $3 for coffee, a croissant, an egg and a fruit cup for each of us. And $3 for arroz con pollo (rice with chicken, beans and plantain) and sopa de cameron (soup with shrimp and potatoes).

I’m sure there will be plenty of opportunities to spend well beyond these reasonable prices, but it’s good to know that we can sleep comfortably and eat deliciously and remain well within our budget.

And we’re off!

After a whirlwind couple of days – tying up loose ends, visiting friends, and a bon voyage Zen Mustache show – Ted and I arrived in Quito, Ecuador (via Miami, FL) safe and sound. Sadly, our backpacks did not but we’re optimistic they’ll be at the airport tonight when the next flights from Miami arrive. We have been told that having our backpacks delivered to us is probably not going to happen so we’ve decided that a quick trip back to the airport is in order.

Upon arriving we were reminded that Quito is at 9222 feet so though it is quite close to the equator, it’s actually cool with temperatures probably in the 60s today. We also learned that South America is much closer than you would think – our flight was only 3 hours and 40 minutes from Miami. We’re on the same time zone as Chicago and Minneapolis which is crazy to think about because we FEEL like it shouldn’t be so.

We spent the day wandering around by foot and exploring different plazas, churches and windy roads of the ‘Old Town’. The ‘New Town’ is on the agenda for tomorrow.

Ted has had to quickly dust off his knowledge of Spanish and is doing quite well. We’re told that the New Town (aka ‘Gringolandia’ – seriously!) has quite a bit more tourists and I imagine English speakers will be more common there, but for now we’re getting by with what we’ve got and are quite enjoying it.

Well, I think that’s about it for now. As we continue to decompress from our last few insanely busy days in Colorado and adjust to the wonderfully overwhelming new sights and smells of Ecuador, I imagine we’ll become more descriptive and exciting bloggers and storytellers!

In the meantime, we’re safe, we’re happy and we’re excited to see what comes next!

Oh The Places We’ll Go

Welcome. Heading out on Aug 14, 2010 for the adventure of our lives. Follow it here….

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