At the beginning of the semester, we had the opportunity to spend a long weekend in the Bosque Nublado (Cloud Forest) of Intag in the Northern Sierra (mountain) region of Ecuador! On Saturday morning, 22 SIT gringos, Fabian (one of our directors), and Leonore (our other director)’s son, Nico, all piled on a bus. We drove for about five hours, an additional two hours than expected because there had been a landslide that blocked our highway. Fabian pointed out the Imbabura and Cotacachi Mountains/Volcanoes, telling us the indigenous legend of how the two fell in love and that when they have an argument, there’s a volcanic eruption.
When the bus stopped, we hopped out and tossed our bags into a truck, then started out on a walk. We walked for another hour, learning about the flora and fauna, the legends of the area, and a bit more about our plans for the weekend from Fabian. Along the way, we passed a bunch of horses tied up that were going to carry our stuff where the truck could no longer pass. There is no way to get in or out of this place without walking for half an hour, and that’s in good weather!
We arrived at La Florida, the hostería (a long-term resort-type lodging arrangement) to an already prepared, and much appreciated lunch of salad, veggie enchiladas with beans and rice, and oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies with tea and coffee! It was quite delicious; all the food comes from their fields, which operate with a very specific system of natural equilibrium. They don’t use any chemicals on the plants because it is the natural combination of distinct species that keeps weeds and bugs from taking over.
After dividing into our cabins, we were walked through the set-up.
1. Electricity: La Florida has electricity in the main building, but it is simply nonsensical to install it everywhere, so we went to bed by candlelight for a week. I definitely suggest doing this, it was a wonderful experience.
2. Toilets: There are outhouses which have different underground levels where waste is broken down. They use a human waste composting system, so the waste is constantly mixed with very specific soil combinations to aid the breakdown process, and eventually used as fertilizer. This is one of the only places in Ecuador where toilet paper can go in the toilet!
3. Water: They receive their water from the nearby river, where it passes through a natural filtration system on its way to La Florida. However, this means the water heating system is the sun. If there is no sun, which is rather likely in rainy season, the water comes out fresh cold from the river.
The cabins also had wonderful hammocks hanging outside the rooms, which we promptly piled into and chattered the evening away about the beauty of our home for the weekend.
We had a discussion with Carlos, the owner of La Florida and a Cuban-American citizen who decided to move down here after he visited Intag’s Bosque Nublado once and fell in love. He now lives with his wife, a Spaniard, and they are working to save this section from mining destruction. Japanese, Canadian, and Chilean companies all want to come to Intag to mine for copper, even though the region has only .06% copper. This is the average percentage of copper stored in the ground throughout the entire world and extracting this tiny amount would cause more damage and create more waste product than the copper’s value. However, Intag is specifically being targeted because of Ecuador’s open trade agreements due its the neoliberal policies installed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and because of Intag’s low human population density.
However, Intag has many species unique to this area, many with medical uses, and possibly yet-undiscovered species, as we learned more about the next day. After a delicious breakfast of yogurt with fruit and granola, more fresh fruit on the side, bread, and real coffee, we set off for a hike through the primary forest. We learned of the interdependence of all the living organisms of the Cloud Forest, how each species is able to thrive because it relies on another for protection, because the existence of each species ensures that no one takes over, and because human interference has not yet taken place in this area. However, many plants have been extracted to create medicines, such as the face-numbing medicine you receive at the dentist that turns you into that person who is walking around poking yourself in the mouth to make sure it’s there.
Roberto led us along, tromping across the river in our tall rubber boots to a part with many felled trees. He started hacking around with his machete until he found a specific tree, el Arból de Sangre del Drago (Drago Blood Tree). He cut a slice into it and a red blood-like substance started to pour onto his machete. Roberto then put this blood on his hand and explained that it can be eaten to cure stomach issues. As he started to rub it into his hand, the blood turned into a white cream, which can be used to disinfect and speed up the scabbing process of wounds, as well as used as a bug repellent and sunscreen. This one tree of the entire forest can be used for many purposes, but depends entirely on the existence of the other species throughout.
The next evening, we had a seminar with a local group of women who use a reed plant of the forest and natural dyes to make different products (purses, placemats, bracelets, hats). These women are also working on an eco-tourism project to bring income to the community, as well as bring attention to the situation with the mining companies. Last year, a group of German volunteers just happened to record an interaction between a mining company and some community members on their iPhones, which they were then able to use with International Human Rights groups to win back their land rights.
On my last morning at La Florida, I woke up to a bunch of commotion outside my bedroom. Silvia, a birdwatcher had come to do her biannual research on hummingbirds and they had just caught a new species for the area. Silvia walked us through the different measurements on the bird and why they’re taken (predicting the age, assuring it does not have stomach issues, checking to see if it’s pregnant), then held the little colobrí (hummingbird) up to my ear so I could hear its blood coursing through its tiny little body. It was amazing! The bird actually flapped its wings in my ear, and hummingbirds can flap their wings 50-80 times per second! What an incredible experience.