Hello from the village of Cuellaje, in the remote Intag region of Ecuador! I’ve been living in the surrounding communities of San Antonio (15 km away) and Rosario (10 km away) for the past two weeks, where there is neither mobile phone signal nor internet. Hence, I’ve been completely uncontactable 6 days out of 7 (because on Sundays, I take the bus down to Cuellaje to use the internet).
I’m living in the cloudforest, about 2000m above sea level, which means that during the rainy season (which is just about to start) the clouds get really low and it rains almost every afternoon.
What happens when you live in a place that doesn’t have internet? You sleep a lot more, for one. I’ve been getting a solid 8 to 9 hours of sleep a day and it’s amazing! You spend your time in other ways – in conversation, helping out in the garden, playing with the children, helping them with their homework – the list goes on.
It makes you appreciate things you usually take for granted, like electricity and hot water (both of which I have, and for which I’m very grateful).
But to be clear, it’s not like the people here have no concept of technology, either. A fair number of people have smartphones and they (especially the kids) spent a lot of time playing games on it. My host family has cable TV, so I’ve been watching a lot of cartoons (because the younger kid, who’s 3 years old, will cry if he can’t watch his favourite channel).
How to get to Cuellaje?
Cuellaje is a 3-hour bus ride from Otavalo. There’s one bus a day, except on Sundays when there are two buses a day (8.30am and 1pm) and it currently costs $3.25. You need to buy your ticket in advance from the bus company, Transporte Otavalo (preferably a day in advance) as the bus tends to get quite full.
On the way to Cuellaje, the bus winds through the mountains and you’re treated to spectacular views.
I took the 8.30am bus because Ned would be in town when it arrived. Sure enough, the bus stopped at the Cuellaje village square (it’s quite hard to miss; there’s a very big sign saying “Seis de Julio de Cuellaje”) and Ned was there to welcome me.
We took a short walk around the village – first impressions: hot, dry and dusty. The next Sunday, it was overcast and cooler, but still dry and dusty.
This is the village square, and it’s as small as it looks. Only about 150 people live here, but people from the surrounding communities tend to converge here on Sundays so it gets a lot more lively then.
What exactly have I been doing here?
I’m currently volunteering as an English teacher at a local primary school in the community of Rosario, one of the communities surrounding Cuellaje. This is all thanks to Ned Cresswell and his wife, Patricia, who organise the volunteering opportunities and also host tourists at their home – check out Cloud Forest Adventure for more details.
All volunteers stay at least the first night with Ned and Patricia, to help with settling in and in order to discuss volunteering options. They live in another community called San Antonio, which is 15km from Cuellaje.
I stayed 2 nights with them and decided to go to Rosario on their recommendation and stay with the host family they recommended. It was really useful chatting with them. Ned showed me pictures of the school and gave me a pretty good idea of what it would be like.
Finca San Antonio
From Cuellaje, I took a taxi which cost $12. From the taxi drop-off point, it’s another 15-20 minute uphill climb to his house. There is no paved road for cars, but he has a horse which can help with the bags.
This is their dog, Benji.
They have a simple wooden house with a tin roof, and a separate guesthouse. Hot water and electricity!
I wish I had taken a picture of the food because it’s hard to describe just using words. Simple, tasty and 100% natural are the keywords. Almost everything they eat is locally produced. I had avocadoes, honey and corn (in the form of corn bread) from Patricia’s mum’s farm, and beans, milk, cheese and eggs from Ned and Patricia’s farm.
Things I did for the first time at Finca San Antonio:
- help to herd cows (sort of – a couple of them ran off and I merely opened and closed the gate after them when they returned. Cows are pretty intimidating at high speeds!)
- milk a cow (still very much a work-in-progress as I was barely able to get any milk from them!)
- pick peas (by hand! I’m not sure if there’s any other way, but after going to all that trouble for a few peas, I’m much less inclined to leave peas on my plate now)
- make a basket (with lots of help from Patricia).
She warned me that basket-making was tough work and she was spot on. The fibres are very strong, which means that I struggled with cutting them and then weaving them together. Pro tip: make sure the strips are all exactly the same length. I was pretty cavalier about the length of the strips, which meant that my basket was limited by the shortest ones.
This tiny basket took an entire afternoon!
The farmers here use these baskets a lot – they fit a lot more stuff than a bag would, for example, and there are certain things you wouldn’t want to carry in a bag. But given the time and effort involved in making these, I don’t think it would be worth anybody’s while to sell them.
On my final day with them, we went down to the community of Rosario (where I’m staying now and also where Patricia’s mom lives) and helped out at her mom’s farm – I didn’t do much apart from attempting to manually grind corn (rather unsuccessfully).
I also helped with the corn grinding machine – the corn grains tend to get stuck so I kept brushing the bottleneck with a stick to speed things up.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Ned and Patricia. Ned is the nicest guy ever and Patricia is such a sweetheart. Not to mention some kind of superwoman – there she was, at 7 months pregnant, carrying twice the weight I was and going much faster too. Anyway, they are both really lovely people! I’d have seriously considered staying with them longer if it weren’t so cold at night (being from a hot country, I have very low tolerance for cold weather).