Riding above the Clouds in Ecuador
Shawn Hamilton reaches new heights on a trip to the High Andes in Ecuador
Horse Riding Above the Clouds in Ecuador
by Shawn Hamilton
My favourite aspect of a riding vacation anywhere in the world is experiencing, not only the spectacular scenery of a new country from the back of a native horse, but getting a glimpse of the true culture and everyday life. The Wild Andes Expedition ride in Ecuador with host Gabriel Espinosa of Hacienda La Alegria, whom I had found through Unicorn Trails, offered a close-up view of life in the mountains at all elevations in the High Andes.
We started our Ecuador adventure with short rides through the fertile Machachi valley near the town of Aloag, approximately forty-five minutes south of Quito. These progressed to an overnight ride in a cloud forest, clinging to the sides of mountain edges on sure-footed horses, and climbing to elevations of up to 4,300 meters while camping in villages not accessible by road.
This ride offered an up-close and personal view of the ways of life, diverse vegetation, wildlife and scenery of Ecuador. All of which was adventurously explored from the back of my comfortable gaited Criollo.
The Hacienda La Alegria
The ride began at the Hacienda La Alegria which was built by Gabriel’s grandfather in 1911. It is still the family home where they run an active organic dairy farm. The 135-hectare ranch boasts approximately 230 dairy cattle and 65 horses. The geldings are used for the rides and the mares for breeding.
“ We start with the Ecuadorian Criollo for character and sure-footedness then breed in Arab for endurance, Uruguayan Criollo for strength, and the Andalusian for bigger bone structure” our guide explained.
Rodrigo, a young Ecuadorian man in rubber boots and a backwards ball cap, arrived to bring in the horses. He had an infectious smile and is the head Chagra, the Ecuadorean word for a wrangler. Gabrielle led us to a gateway where we watched Rodrigo riding bareback on a pretty grey, using one piece of twine in the horse’s mouth as a bit and reins, and another to encourage the herd.
Our first warm-up ride was in close proximity to the Hacienda. Gabriel watched my travel mates, Ali and Heather, and I as we performed each of the gaits in the ring before getting the nod to proceed. I was given Principe, a six-year-old Paso Caminero, a gaited Criollo.
The morning’s light glistened through the towering Eucalyptus, Cyprus and Cedar trees as we rode along the Haciendas long cobblestoned laneway. Our horses remained incredibly calm as dogs ran out to greet us with seemingly ferocious barks.
That afternoon we visited a local rodeo where boys run around in a ring teasing a bull. One unfortunate victim got speared by the bull’s horns and lifted off the ground.
Next we visited the local market where with its unbelievable abundance of fruits and vegetables. Ecuador grows almost everything, and colourful fruits we had not seen before lined the tables. None of us had the courage to try the cuy asado, or barbequed Guineapig on a stick, that was offered.
Back in the Hacienda’s characteristically decorated living room, we sipped wine by the fire with Patty and Gabriel before a delicious meal. We already felt like family.
Acclimatizing to new heights
In order to gradually acclimatize our bodies to the elevation, the Hacienda is at 2900 meters, and our next ride took us up to 4,000 meters towards the Corazon volcano before descending into the cloud forest at 3,000 meters to our overnight camp. My mount was Chugo, a gaited strawberry roan Criollo and I couldn’t have been happier. The day started out with sunny blue skies as we rode directly through the town of Aloag, whose canine rooftop dwellers loudly announced our arrival. We began to climb as the town disappeared below us.
Patches of golden grass swayed in the wind as we entered the Páramo, or high altitude grasslands, beginning at around 3500 meters. The area is abundant with lupines, wild rose hip and blueberry bushes among many others. It was the perfect place to stop for our picnic lunch. The afternoon climb continued until we reached our highest point of 4,000 meters where we could see Bomboli, meaning round hill. We were literally riding above the clouds, the same clouds that blew in from the sea to provide the moisture for the cloud forest we entered.
Our horses picked their way along a slippery narrow path bordered by gigantic ferns, bamboo, orchids and bromeliads, as water dripped from the countless species of flora and fauna. The path widened to reveal a small rustic house with orchids growing from the roof. Ecologist, Oswaldo Haro and his wife, Mariana, happily greeted us with a welcoming cup of tea by the fire. They had bought the abandoned house thirty-five years previously on its 203.5 hectares with the intention to preserve the diverse ecosystems. They still remain without electricity, run a small dairy farm, and takes in tourists interested in learning more about the area. After a delicious home-cooked meal we retired to our beds which were thoughtfully equipped with hot water bottles; literally. Water bottles filled with hot water. The small joys of life!
With passion twinkling in his eye, Oswaldo took us on a morning walking tour describing how the various plants live symbiotically. He turned over a tiny leaf to reveal small orchids, then handed each of us a plant and instructed us to “dar un beso”, give it a kiss, before planting it in a new community. Oswaldo’s dream is to have this area preserved for humanity. He feels that the only reason mankind destroys such marvellous wonders is due to lack of education.
We said our goodbyes to the wonderful couple and mounted to head back down into the valley. The air was damp and wet with thick fog, but I was comfortable and dry in my chaps and poncho. We dismounted to take a small hike through the forest to a quaint waterfall. Patchworks of potato fields could be seen on the mountainsides as we descended into the valley. After an afternoon tour of Gabriel’s dairy farm and a visit to his mares and foals, we sipped wine in the Hacienda’s hot tub while admiring spectacular views.
The long trek
The first morning of our long trek began on a nice wide dirt road with a long canter before the path narrowed to three-foot walls of volcanic soil on either side, somewhat slowing our pace. The rain has begun and the trail turned slippery. Rodrigo motioned to us to dismount tie the reins to the saddle and let the horses go down the ridge first.
At the bottom of the hill children from a local school run out to greet us. They were waiting for the rain to pass before heading home. We took refuge from the rain and sat at the desks of the school with the children who chuckled to see such strangers. Ali pulled up a desk and gave a lesson on counting in Spanish. The kids showed us where Ecuador is on the Globe, and we point out North America. It was surreal and perfect!
We enjoyed the sun, the river crossings and the scenic valleys while riding above the clouds before descending into Sigchos to soak in the lovely hot tub and swim in the pool at the Hosteria San Jose, while our horses grazed on its lush grass.
The next few days were spent trekking in the high Andes. It appeared that the difficulty of the terrain was in direct proportion to the awe of the scenery! Combinations of wonderfully long canters on wide roads, narrow steep paths and trails clinging to the sides of mountain ridges, transported us to wondrous places such as the Quilotoa volcano and the turquoise waters of its three-kilometre wide crater lake.
Ecuador is filled with memorable characters. We spent a night at a stone-walled farm of Angel Parra, where a seventy-two-year-old man had graciously put up a tarp with a straw floor for us to set up our tents on. We used his utility shed as a kitchen and traded moonshine for rum shots as we spent a happy evening listening to his stories while sitting on a bench supported by potato sacks. Not your average tourist spot.
Lunches were spent in canyons eating cheese that we had bought at a local queseria that we toured, among the herds of llamas roaming in the valleys below. Visitors, such as an elderly lady missing her two front teeth, stopped to chat, Gabriel asked her age to which she responded: “they tell me I am in my fifties, but I’m not sure”.
On the trails we passed people farming on steep patches of fertile mountainsides, including a woman harrowing the land with her young baby watching from the ground beside her. Everyone greeted us with a wave and a smile. In an area inaccessible by roads and unvisited by tourists, we passed houses with straw roofs supported by large bricks of mud, manure and grass. Each, ironically, with an electrical box attached to it. Gabriel tells me the electrical poles are made of fibreglass, light enough to be carried inside if necessary!.
We shared the trail with two young girls riding what appeared to be a small mule, but which Gabrielle explained was a Paramero horse, a small horse of Barb decent. They were heading home followed by their dog. Two foxes played in the grass as we climbed to reach 4300 meters where we stopped to take in the breathtaking 360-degree views, including a valley extending to the sea.
The clouds were just starting to blow in below us as we followed small canal carrying water to the towns below. This water originated from the highest point in Ecuador, the Chimborazo volcano, whose 6,300-meter elevation makes it our planet’s closest point to the sun.
Women cleaning fish, spinning wool and tending to their livestock smiled and waved as we passed. Ali gave out stickers and ‘My Little Ponies’ to the children. One boy, carrying a half-deflated ball, grinned as Ali handed him a brand new one. The night was spent in the hot springs at Salado where we soaked under a full moon, followed by a BBQ dinner of Sirloin which Rodrigo had cooked to perfection.
The morning ride travelled through small dairy farms. At midday we dismounted to coax our horses to jump a wide canal in order to get to our lunch spot overlooking a waterfall. The clouds descend over Chimborazo, teasing us with a slight view of its peak. As we cantered down the Rio Colorado’s red dirt trail we spotted herds of Vicuñas, a relative of the llama, and believed to be the wild ancestor of domesticated alpacas, and took heed of their high-pitched warning call. The night was spent in the Posada de Estation, a Hacienda owned by mountain climber Rodrigo Donoso, which faced the Chimborazo canyon.
As we mounted for our last day on horseback we could not believe how fast the time had flown. We had experienced so much that the average tourist would never see. An elderly couple tying down the grass on their mule, and a horse tied to a cow, leading it up a hill. We passed through a town that, at the shrill blast of a whistle, halted their Saturday soccer game to let us ride through the middle of their playing field! The sun was shining on this final day, and the sky bluer than blue. When we appeared out of the woods on foot our driver extraordinaire, Jorge, unexpectedly greeted us with champagne.
Our expedition had come to an end and it was a sad moment watching the horses being bandaged up and loaded onto the transport trailer. This Ecuador experience, with the combination of quality horses, spectacular scenery, adventurous riding and the hospitality of the people, puts this ride at the top of my list of horseback adventures.
Please contact us for details of this and other horse riding holidays in Ecuador please contact:
01767 600 606
Adapted by Andrew Knapp from Shawn Hamilton’s account of her horseback adventure in Ecuador for Unicorn Trails.