The magical, mystical Andes…….

This past week we set out on a journey south through the Ecuadorian Andes to discover more of this stunning landscape and the people who inhabit it.  As we wound our way around incomprehensibly deep gorges, steep mountain passes, and through high altitude villages, the landscape shifted and changed, but the mountains stretched on and on as far as the eye could see.  As we drove in and out of the clouds, much closer to the earth’s atmosphere than most of us have been, we imagined what it would be like to live with our fellow human beings in this place…

Our first stop, far to the south of Quito was Cuenca, originally the home of the Indigenous Cañari, and then the colonial capital of first the Inca and later the Spanish.  Cuenca is a beautiful city nestled beneath a rugged mountainous national park, with four rivers flowing through the city.  Cuenca is full of history at every turn, with Cañari and Incan ruins, and European influences notable in the architecture and structure of the city.

After a few days exploring Cuenca, we headed back north to explore Ingapirca, the ruins of a Cañari and Incan temple where Cañari and Incan rulers used to worship their moon and sun gods. It is the Ecuadorian mini-Machu Picchu.   Included in the complex was part of the Inca trail that used to traverse the entire Incan empire from southern Chile to southern Colombia, almost the entire breadth of the Andes.

After leaving Ingapirca, we headed further north to an indigenous community high above the city of Rio Bamba.  It was a difficult terrain to traverse and the community was hard to reach as are many indigenous communities in Ecuador, but it was well worth the trip.  Upon our arrival, we were treated to a meal prepared for us by the community which included locally grown Orange Potatoes, Melloco (a uniquely tasty tuber), huge Fava Beans, Chicken and Potato soup, Cuy (Guinea Pig), and Yellow Potatoes.  After the meal, we were warmly welcomed by community members as they introduced us to their isolated village.  They detailed the challenges they face as a community battling to survive amidst the impacts of globalization and invited us to partner with them in finding solutions.

After leaving the indigenous community and heading down into the city of Rio Bamba for the night, we awoke to a stunning view of Ecuador’s tallest mountain, the snow-covered Chimborazo, towering over the city.  Upon leaving Rio Bamba we resumed our trek back north, once again winding through impossibly deep gorges, surrounded by clouds and mist.  As we turned off the Pan-American highway south of Quito, we threaded our way through the “Paramo”, a high-altitude tundra, above where most trees can grow.  Our climb through fascinating craggy peaks ended when we reached the breathtaking turquoise crater lake in the Indigenous community of Quilotoa.

After an afternoon and evening of hiking, kayaking, and enjoying the beauty in and around Quilotoa, we awoke the following morning to resume our journey back to Quito.  As we wound our way back toward the south of Quito, we were greeted with an unusual and beautiful sight, the volcanic peaks known as the “Illinizas” bathed in a fresh coating of snow from the night before.  As we wound around these beautiful mountains, we were treated to another unusual sight, a fully uncovered Volcan Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second-highest mountain with its glaciers and ash creating a surreal scene.

Amidst the beauty of this mystical place, we reflected on the regional and global forces that create such a breadth of daily experiences in the lives of everyday Ecuadorians.  From cities utilizing modern technologies to a rural agrarian existence that has remained relatively unchanged over the course of hundreds of years, Ecuadorians are a diverse people indeed.

More than anything, SST continues to challenge students’ perceptions of what they “need” and “want” as they reflect on what the structure of their lives after college may be.  There is nothing like experiencing the uniqueness of the scope of human existence firsthand to open one’s eyes to all the world holds…..