Riding Above the Clouds
My Ecuador Expedition
By Shawn Hamilton
My favourite aspects of a riding vacation anywhere in the world are experiencing the spectacular scenery of a new country from the back of a native horse, and glimpsing the true culture and everyday life of the local people. The Wild Andes Expedition Ride with host Gabriel Espinosa of Hacienda La Alegria, which I found through Unicorn Trails, offered a close-up view of life in the mountains at all elevations in the Ecuadorian Andes.
We began with small rides in the fertile Machachi valley near the town of Aloag, approximately 45 minutes south of Quito, Ecuador’s capital. This included an overnight ride to a cloud forest, and advanced to clinging to the sides of mountain edges on sure-footed Criollo horses, climbing to elevations of up to 4,300 metres, and camping in villages not accessible by road. This ride offered an up-close-and-personal view of the way of life, diverse vegetation, wildlife and scenery of Ecuador, all explored quite adventurously from the back of a comfortable, gaited Criollo.
Shawn with Chugo, a strawberry roan Criollo Paso Caminero with incredibly soft gaits.
The Hacienda La Alegria, where the ride begins, was built by Gabriel’s grandfather in 1911 and houses the family on the still-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. Gabriel points out a one-week-old foal snoozing in the paddock next to the Hacienda’s flourishing garden.
“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,” he explains.
Riding through the Páramo high altitude grasslands.
Rodrigo, a young Ecuadorian man in rubber boots and a backwards ballcap, shows up to bring in the horses. He has an infectious smile and is the head Chagra, the Ecuadorean word for wrangler. Gabrielle leads us to a gateway where we watch Rodrigo riding bareback on a pretty grey using one piece of twine in the horse’s mouth as a bit and reins, and another piece of twine to encourage the herd.
Our first warm-up ride will be a few hours in close proximity to the Hacienda. Gabriel watches me and my travel mates, Ali and Heather, perform each of the gaits in the ring before giving the nod to proceed. I am on Principe, a six-year-old Paso Caminero, a gaited Criollo.
In the cloud forest we climb to elevations of 4,300 metres.
The morning light glistens through the towering eucalyptus, Cyprus, and cedar trees as we ride along The Hacienda’s long cobblestone laneway. Our horses remain calm as dogs run out to greet us, barking ferociously.
The afternoon takes in a visit to a local rodeo where boys run around in a ring teasing a bull.
Next we hit the local market where there is an incredible abundance of fruits and vegetables. Ecuador grows almost everything with the exception of grapes. Colourful fruits we have not seen before line the tables along with cuy asado or barbequed guinea pig on a stick, which none of us have the courage to try.
Lunch stop at a local school in the Andes.
In the Hacienda’s characteristically decorated living room, we sip wine by the fire with Patty and Gabriel before a delicious meal, always starting with hot soup. We already feel like family.
With the Hacienda situated at 2,900 metres, in order to gradually acclimatize our bodies to the elevation, our next ride will take us up to 4,000 metres towards the volcano Corazon before descending into the cloud forest at 3,000 metres to overnight. My mount today is Chugo, a gaited strawberry roan Criollo. The day starts out sunny with blue skies as we ride directly through the town of Aloag, whose canine rooftop dwellers loudly announce our arrival, the streets echoing with their warning to others. We begin to climb as the town disappears below us.
The view of Hosteria San Jose in Sigchos.
Patches of golden grass sway in the wind as we enter the Páramo or high altitude grasslands, beginning around 3,500 metres. The area is abundant with lupines, wild rose hip and blueberry bushes, among many others; it’s the perfect place to stop for our picnic lunch.
The afternoon climb continues until we reach our highest point at 4,000 metres, where we can see Bomboli, meaning “round hill.” We are literally riding above the clouds, the same clouds that blow in from the sea to provide the moisture for the cloud forest we enter. Our horses pick their way through the slippery narrow path bordered by gigantic ferns, bamboo, orchids, and bromeliads as water drips from the countless species of flora and fauna. The path widens to reveal a small rustic house with orchids growing from the roof. Ecologist Oswaldo Haro and his wife, Mariana, happily greet us with a welcoming warm cup of tea by the fire.
Leaving Hosteria San Jose.
Oswaldo and Mariana bought the abandoned house on 203.5 hectares 35 years ago with the intention of preserving the diverse ecosystems. They remain without electricity, run a small dairy farm, and take in tourists interested in learning more about the area. After a delicious home-cooked meal, we retire to our beds, which delightfully are equipped with hot water bottles – literally water bottles filled with hot water. The small joys of life!
With passion twinkling in his eyes, Oswaldo takes us on a morning walking tour describing each and every plant, and how they live symbiotically. He turns over a tiny leaf to reveal even smaller orchids, then hands each of us a plant and instructs 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 marvelous wonders is due to lack of education.
On the trail in the high Andes.
We say goodbye to the wonderful couple and mount up to head back down to the valley. The air is damp with thick fog, but I am dry in my chaps and poncho. We dismount to take a small hike through the forest to a quaint waterfall. A hummingbird whirs past us. Potato fields dot the mountainsides as we descend into the valley.
Back at the Hacienda, we sip wine in the hot tub while taking in the spectacular view after an afternoon tour of Gabriel’s dairy farm and a visit to his mares and foals.
A spectacular view on the high Andes ride.
The first morning of our long trek begins on a nice wide dirt road with a long canter before the path narrows to three-foot walls of volcanic soil on either side. The rain has begun and the trail turns slippery. Rodrigo motions to us to dismount, tie the reins to the saddle, and let the horses go first down the ridge. At the bottom of the hill, children from a local school run out to greet us. They are waiting for the rain to pass before heading home, the teacher long gone. We take refuge from the rain and eat at the desks of the school with the children chuckling to see such strangers. Ali pulls up a desk and takes a lesson on counting in Spanish. They show us where Ecuador is on the globe and we point out North America. It is surreal and perfect!
We enjoy the sun, river crossings, and 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 graze on its lush grass.
A typical farm in the high Andes. Huts are made of large bricks of mud, manure, and grass, with straw roofs, and each has an electrical box attached to it.
The next few days are spent trekking in the high Andes. The difficulty of the terrain is in direct proportion to the awe of the scenery. Combinations of wonderfully long canters on wide roads, steep narrow paths, and trails clinging to the sides of mountain ridges transport us to wondrous places such as the Quilotoa volcano and the turquoise waters of its three kilometre-wide crater lake. One night is spent at the stone-walled farm of Angel Parra, a 72-year-old man who has graciously put out a tarp over a straw floor for us to set up our tents. We use his utility shed as a kitchen and listen to him tell stories as we trade moonshine for rum shots while sitting on a bench supported by potato sacks. It’s not your average tourist spot.
Lunches are spent in canyons eating cheese we bought at a local queseria (cheese shop) that we toured, with herds of llamas roaming in the valleys below. Visitors stop to chat, including an elderly lady missing her two front teeth; Gabriel asks her how old she is and she responds in Spanish, “They tell me I am in my 50s,” but she does not know.
Rodrigo follows the trail on the edge of the mountain.
On the trails we pass 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 greets us with a wave and a smile. In an area inaccessible by roads and unvisited by tourists, we pass houses with straw roofs supported by large bricks of mud, manure, and grass. Each, ironically, has an electrical box attached to it. Gabriel tells me the electrical poles are made of fiberglass, light enough to be carried in. We share the trail with two young girls riding what appears to be a small mule, but Gabrielle tells us it is a Paramero horse, a small horse of Barb decent; they are heading home as their dog follows. Two foxes play in the grass as we climb to reach 4,300 metres and stop to take in the breathtaking 360-degree views, including a valley that goes to the sea. The clouds are just starting to blow in below us.
We follow a small canal that carries water from the inactive Chimborazo volcano at 6,300 metres, the highest mountain in Ecuador, to the towns below. Women cleaning fish, spinning wool, and tending to their livestock smile and wave as we pass. Ali gives out stickers and My Little Ponies to the children. One boy carrying a ball, half-filled with air, grins as Ali hands him a brand new one. The night is spent in the hot springs at El Salado for a warm soak under the stars and full moon, followed by a barbeque dinner of sirloin, which Rodrigo has cooked to perfection.
Gabriel and Rodrigo riding around the turquoise waters of the crater lake at Quilotoa volcano.
The morning ride travels through small dairy farms. Just before lunch we dismount to coax our horses to jump the 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 take long canters down the Rio Colorado, a red dirt trail. We spot herds of Vicuñas, a wild South American camelid that lives in the high Andes, and hear their funny warning call. The night is spent in the Posada de la Estación, a Hacienda owned by mountain climber Rodrigo Donoso, facing the Chimborazo canyon.
As we mount up for our last day on horseback, we cannot believe how fast the time has flown by. We have seen so much of the countryside that the average tourist will never see. An elderly couple are tying down the grass on their mule, and a horse tied to a cow leads it up the hill. We pass through a town having their Saturday soccer game; a whistle blows and the game stops to allow us to ride through the middle of their field. The sun is shining and the sky is bluer than blue.
Angel (left) and Gabriel (right) during morning prep at Angel’s farm, with our tents on straw mat with tarp overhead in the background.
When we appear out of the woods, our driver extraordinaire, Jorge, greets us with champagne. Our expedition has come to an end. It is a sad moment when the horses are bandaged up and loaded onto the trailer.
My Ecuador experience, with its combination of quality horses, spectacular scenery, adventurous riding, and the flavour of the people, puts this ride at the top of my list of favourites.
For more information on Hacienda La Alegria, click HERE.
For information on Unicorn Trails, click HERE.
For information on Unicorn Trails’ Ecuador rides click HERE.
Leaving Angel’s farm in the high Andes.
Photos by Clix Photography/Shawn Hamilton.
Shawn Hamilton is a freelance equine photojournalist based in Ontario, Canada.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.