Living in the Andes has forced me to rethink everything I know about what drives weather and shapes climate. I come from a country where it’s always winter in December – no matter where you are. In Ecuador, people will change their minds about what season it is depending on what’s happening right outside their window. Also, there is such wide variation in ‘season’ and climate from one valley to the next, from the east slope of the Andes to the west. Two hours in a car, descending thousands of feet, can take you from a cool, cloudy mountain climate to a desert. Last week I visited the Yunguilla valley – an hour away from Cuenca – but another world entirely.
The Yunguilla valley is dotted with small towns and lots of farms. At this time of the year, the warmer, drier air, and the absence of noxious black clouds from city buses, help you dial down a notch on the stress level from city life. That’s not to say it’s a pastoral paradise. I get the sense that wherever you go in Ecuador, you will hear car alarms and motorcycles. Out in the countryside, you may only hear them a couple of times in the morning, rather than every few minutes.
To get to our B&B, the Santuario Hibiscus, we hired a driver from Cuenca. This was mostly so we could have a stop at El Chorro de Giron on the way down the valley. This waterfall is one of the biggest attractions in the region.
On a Thursday morning, we were about the only visitors at the falls, and with all the recent rain, it was raging! Tourism at the falls is critical for supporting the people who live there. In fact, as I write this, the president of Ecuador is visiting the nearby town of Giron, after a visit to the falls this afternoon. (On the day we visited last week, we were told that there were already snipers positioned in the hillsides, preparing for the president’s visit). Unfortunately, there are plans to dam up the river that feeds El Chorro and build a hydroelectric power-plant. With the president in town, the locals are staging some major protests today. (Apparently, they’ve blockaded some of the roads.)
What effect will a new dam have on this little spot? Obviously, that will be the end of tourism. And when it comes to ecologic impacts, it’s anyone’s guess. Despite the fact that Ecuador makes international news with progressive pro-environmental gestures, the thought of doing environmental or economic impact studies doesn’t seem to occur to anyone. Or, if it does, there’s no money to do such a thing.
At Santuario Hibiscus, about half an hour down the road from Giron, we were the only guests, and were spoiled by hosts, a Swiss-American couple, Dan and Franziska. Dan and Fran have build a little piece of paradise in Yunguilla. A beautiful little B&B, and a large fantastic garden, full of fruit trees and flowers. They’ve managed to develop a pretty effective grey-water recycling system on their property, and try to operate in a sustainably conscious manner as much as possible. They’ve been in Yunguilla for 5 years, and as they shared stories of their experiences renovating an old villa and building their garden, I was reminded of other stories I’ve read about people who renovate homes in foreign lands (namely, Under the Tuscan Sun and A Year in Provence). It’s never easy to relocate so far from home and try to build something new and innovative in an entirely different culture. I really admire what they’ve been able to do.
Visiting Yunguilla, and learning more about the people and life there, I realized that I’ve developed a rather limited view of life in Ecuador, having spent so much time in Cuenca, with little opportunity to leave the city. I spend my time interacting with some of the most highly educated Ecuadorians in the country, and in general, people in the city tend to be more open and more aware of the world. You see poverty in the city, but it’s harder to see the contrasts. This is one of the things that struck me about Yunguilla. There are large villas with beautiful swimming pools, inhabited only on weekends, while a couple hundred meters down the road, you might find a family of 8 living in a small cottage.
It’s hard to see such wide disparity. And I realize I’m a part of that, by visiting this valley. It’s also difficult to see what’s happening here to the environment, as misinformation, misconceptions, and poor education are propagated from one generation to the next.
The world is changing very rapidly. And the tropics are a bellweather. Our hosts at Santuario Hibiscus told us how they’ve seen a shift in bird and frog populations over the past 5 years – everything moving upslope as temperatures warm gradually, and as people continue to use the land as they’ve always done. They do this in part, because they don’t know any better, and in part because they are entrenched in their old ways, and the switch to something new – water conservation, for example, is too much of a stretch. It’s absolutely terrifying to see the inability to adapt on such a small level, and more terrifying to know that things aren’t much different back home.