Having finally shaken the dust of Ecuador out of my boots (in fact I left them on the carousel at Heathrow, now happily re-united, thanks KLM) – I want to share and encourage other riders to try this magnificent ride and applaud Sally Vergette for her award winning guiding.
A night in the capital Quito to acclimatise to the altitude and a little culture to get into the Ecuadorian mind-set and unexpected culinary delights. A compact city, tucked in between two ranges unable to expand, it’s modern and vibrant but has its roots firmly in the Andean foothills at an altitude of 2,850m. Built on the foundations of an ancient Incan city, its colonial centre is a mix of 16th- and 17th-century blending European, Moorish and indigenous styles.
Meeting of horses, our guide Sally Vergette starts as she means to go on. 20 years in Ecuador and its detail, detail, detail. Her attention to it makes for confident, happy horses, riders, and hotel and hacienda owners. Never in question was her ability to control any situation, diplomatically and with humour.
I am starting in the beautiful Otavalo valley, soft, cultivated, historic, green, lush even. You climb the cobbled streets of the village higher and higher until the hand laid cobbles give out and you hit the trail. Everywhere you look there is more to take in and Sally enthusiastically shares her love of Ecuador and the people. You are surrounded by waving eucalyptus trees, aloe plants (sisal) the size of the adobe houses they embrace, patchwork fields enclosed by stone walled banks topped with these spikey plants to keep the sheep, pigs, goats and sometimes even the chickens in. Nothing keeps the ‘pie’ dogs in. Every house has dogs seemingly by the dozen and puppies falling over themselves to imitate their parents, lots of posturing and cacophony.
The rotational farming is explained and remarked upon for its common sense and simplicity. There is a pig tied up everywhere, happy, sleepy hairy fellows. Sally shows us the traditional Chagras (gaucho/cowboy) on the move sewing kit – stripping the aloe leaf to reveal a thread like consistency and leaving the spike, you have a needle and thread. They are also the magic trees which are used for fencing, you just stick them in the ground, they don’t rot and they grow into a barricade. High beneath the summits of Volcano Alley the fashionable quinoa, potatoes, maize, avocado and tree tomato orchards grow abundantly.
Pushing on and adjusting to the height, we ride horses born at altitude. It’s a happy mix of paces and the horses are well-schooled with English style contact, some are bi-lingual and can do neck-reining US style and you ride long in the McClellan saddles, with plentiful sheepskin seat savers. Endless questions are answered intelligently and thoroughly and our guide never appears to run out of interest or enthusiasm, and we do try her and the equally patient Chagras accompanying us, in his envy making goatskin chaps. Everything is about safety, comfort, happiness, knowledge.
We stay in mainly family owned 17th and 18th Century haciendas-hotels, including one in the Zuleta Valley that is a working dairy and fighting bull farm owned by the same family for 400 years. My room overlooks the milking parlour which makes me think I will be woken at 4, the owner Oswaldo solemnly assures me he has trained the cows to be quiet when they have guests. Ecuadorian coffee and chocolate has to be the best in the world. Dinner will be home grown steak, the best I have tasted in South America for flavour and texture. Wine flows (don’t let’s forget the pisco sours……) with the conversation and laughter around the table until in spite of ourselves, we are tucked up in our beds with hot water bottles and a glow from the embers of the wood fires in our rooms..
For the second half of the trip our aim is Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world (summit of 5,897m). The day starts early and ends late. We have some exhilarating canters which are possibly the highest in the world, at over 4,000 metres. The horses are refreshed at the many streams where they drink deeply and we carry our picnics in our saddle bags. However remote, Sally gets the tablecloth out as guests make use of the big clumps of soft grass to spread ponchos and recline pasha style, with a glass of wine. We eat lightly but not because there isn’t plenty, altitude seems to reduce your appetite.
Walking in places, to ease horse and human, we are equally informed on the flowers and fauna we encounter. The fighting bulls and wild horses for which the region is famous –are spotted; Sally and our Chagras don’t say a word but silently put themselves between the riders and the bull, we continue respectfully and at a distance. Nearly back and it’s growing dark, Sally’ urgent ‘VAMONOS’ did not register as being anything other than concern for our comfort, when in fact it was the thunder and lightning that were fast approaching and could have presented a significant danger. Thankfully, after a brisk gallop we were back at the Hacienda before the worst of the storm hit.
You end where you began, back in Quito for a small rest and some more culture if you so wish. I fell under the spell of Ecuador’s Oswaldo Guayasamín, and visited his home which now hosts his collection – he dedicated his life to painting, sculpting, collecting. His death on March 10, 1999 was marked by a day of national marches by the indigenous people (whom he spent his life supporting) He is still lauded as a national treasure.
It was more than a great holiday; it was uplifting, insightful, well executed with great attention to detail, safety, comfort and adventure. Make sure to pack for four seasons in one day.
8 of us rode with Sally and booked this holiday with Wild & Exotic Ltd (www.wildandexotic.co.uk) in the UK.
Author: Annie Lou Gibbs, with a little help from Sally Evans