Imagine a valley tucked away on the equator where exotic birds, colorful orchids, and broad leafed plants line tumbling waterfalls. Shy jungle cats and elusive Andean bears creep through the dense foliage in search of their next meal. Meanwhile, the few residents of this region haul in huge harvests of tropical fruits, veggies, and coffee on small tracts of farmland. Oh, and clean clear rivers roil over rocky beds providing a perfect home for rainbow trout.
Hard to believe such a place exists isn’t it? Believe it or not, this is an accurate description of Ecuador’s Intag Valley. On the western side of the mountains that back our town of Cotacachi a road winds along the steep hillsides and drops in elevation until the Intag is reached. A few small towns sit among the mountains, but largely this region is left wild.
Our family spent last weekend in the town of Cuellaje where we met some of the friendliest people I’ve encountered. The town is small and holds a dozen businesses or so and maybe three times as many houses. Of course many people live on farms outside of town and it seems that everyone meets at the town square on Friday nights.
Our main purpose though was to research real estate for a magazine article I’m working on. There are no real estate offices here and very few for sale signs, but ask a local and you’ll find yourself being trucked from one plot of land to another. And when I say trucked I don’t mean you’ll be sitting in the cab. No, our friendly local had room only for one other adult in front, so the boys and I sat on a piece of lumber laid between the two sides of the bed. A tarp-covered canopy gave us shelter from the sun while we were able to look out the back and see where we had been, but with no idea where we were going.
To be honest I felt a lot like Indiana Jones in Jurassic Park. I mean really, who jumps in the back of a 2 wheel drive pickup sliding through muddy mountain roads in the middle of an Ecuadorian jungle? Oh, that’s right – I do.
We were rewarded though with astounding views and a rather long workout as we hiked our way through gullies and streams as we were shown several nice properties. Justin and Jesse hiked part of the way with us, then returned to the truck to play with the landowner’s grandchildren. Judging by all the laughing we heard when we returned I’m thinking they enjoyed themselves.
That evening David and I grabbed a couple of warm beers (Ecuadorians usually prefer their drinks room-temperature) and sat on the bench outside the store. As we sat resting our sore feet and quenching our thirst the town square began to fill.
First, several men set up nets for EcuaVolley. This is very similar to volleyball, but with a few twists. For starters the net is much higher so spiking is impossible. Second, holding the ball appears to be legal at times. One of these days I’m going to get the full rules on this game, but for now I’m content to simply watch the locals enjoying themselves.
Next, a few kids arrived with a soccer ball and began practicing kicking goals. A few more boys arrived with a homemade wooden go-cart on which two or three children sit while the rest push. Within 15 minutes of us sitting down Justin and Jesse were playing with the Cuellaje children as though they’d known each other all their lives.
David even got in on the action that evening as we were approached by a young woman and asked to join a game of basketball. I am well aware of my lack of coordination and politely declined, though I suppose I could have provided some comic relief. Despite my reluctance, David was game and quickly jumped in.
Though Ecuadorians tend to be generally friendly, I’ve never seen a town as friendly as Cuellaje. And though it was a Friday night, I noticed that David and I were the only ones drinking beer. The entire town (or so it seemed) was gathered in the town square and not one other person had an alcoholic beverage in hand. We were later told that the town decided to not open any bars either. So while I’m sure people do drink beer there (the stores carried it after all), there seems to be an awareness that many other small towns throughout the world lack.
Even though we were there two days, we barely touched the surface of all that the Intag has to offer. A new road is being put in which will make access far easier. Once that happens my hope is that ecotourism will boom and provide not only a means of income for residents, but an incentive to protect what they have.
Stay tuned for more on this region as I’m certain we’ll be back once the paved road is completed!