Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pululahua and Pucara Rumicucho

Driving Down into Pululahua

Pululahua is Quichua for 'Smoke of Water' or 'Cloud of Water', which refers to the clouds that roll in to fill the crater every afternoon. The fog provides water for this very fertile oasis surrounded by arid hills and mountains. I am terrified of the drive down to the bottom of the crater, so for thirty minutes I am sure that I am going to die. I am afraid to look over the side of the dirt road, but when I do there are only clouds and some glimpses of the green crater floor far below. Once on 'terra firma' we are drenched in green, with orchids and bromeliads and moss covering the trees. There is more than one microclimate in the crater, with cloud forest along the edges and very fertile agricultural land across the bottom. The volcano last erupted about 500 BC and is currently inactive. Most craters have lakes covering the caldera, but somehow there was a route for the lava to exit, so fertile soil was left instead.

Green and Fertile in the Caldera

We were told that the Incas settled the crater, and later Dominican priests, but most impressive are the Yumbo tunnels, which are deeply eroded steep pathways embraced by thick underbrush. We rode horses through the tunnels running throughout the crater. Eric informed me that when riding horses, he spends every moment anticipating the end of the ride, so he worked on his computer in the groom' s house while Maya and I took our three hour ride. It was supposed to be four or five hours, but we trotted and cantered and galloped whenever it was possible and were back far too early. The day started hot and sunny and by the time we returned around 2 PM, the fog had rolled in and the temperature plummeted.

Maya on her Horse 'Brea'

Maya and Eric both decided that they wanted to buy a place and settle in this entrancing place, so close yet so far from the bustle of Quito. But driving in and out on the treacherous road ( the only way to drive) is too stressful for me. There is a walking path that local people take in and out of the crater, but it is incredibly steep and exhausting to climb, so it is not a reasonable option. Inhabitants are truly isolated in this magical escape from the world outside. Our guide lives in the crater, an hour or so by horse to and from work every day. She finds it peaceful and perfect for her at this point in her life, except that it feels a little creepy when the electricity is cut off for hours at a time.

Riding Home

Crater Floor

More Clouds as we Leave Pululahua

'Cloud of Water'

Since we finished so early, we had time to visit Pucara Rumicucho, a massive Inca Fortress nearby in San Juan de Pichincha. I had seen it about six years ago, when it was difficult to find and poorly preserved. We struggled again to find it this time, but I have no problems asking for directions, so we found ourselves battling battering winds at the top of the fortress, with a commanding view to the north and the south.

'Pucara' means fortress, 'rumi' means stone and 'cucho' means corner in Quichua, so all together it means Stone Fortress. It was built by the Inca invaders over a pre Incan structure. It was mostly a military outpost serving as an offensive and defensive guard post in their struggle to subjugate the resistant tribes of the north.

View From Rumicucho
Dry Hills

Rumicucho is built of five stone terraces in a pyramid shape, so there is a suggestion that it was also a gathering place to worship. The buildings align with the mountains in such a way that the sun crosses during the equinox, and of course the Incans were very much in tune with astronomy, so most of the places they chose to build were high with access to the stars and aligned in a way to capture the sun during the equinoxes and the solstices. My impression was that work had been done on the ruins since the last time I had visited. We did not stay for long because the wind threatened to carry us away. Most remarkable was the incredible views both north and south, and how incredibly dry the landscape was, so much in contrast to what we had seen at Pululahua.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Ancient Quitu Walls

Rumipamba park is a 32 hectare complex located on the grounds of a former hacienda now in the heart of the city of Quito. I had seen the sign for it next to the Casa de la Musica when Maya played a concert there at Christmas, but could find nothing about it in my guide book. It made sense to me that there would be some archeological evidence of preColumbian Quitu culture in Quito, since they were the original occupants of the area from 2000BC until the arrival of the Spaniards. Evidently the name Quito originates from the people who once occupied the place.

Flora and Fauna at Rumipamba

Rumi means stone and pamba means pampa or plains. There are remains of huge stones from the last eruption of Guagua Pichincha volcano, which occurred in 1660. Scattered throughout the grounds are excavations of walls and houses and tombs and roads dating from 500 to 1500 AD, with Quitu ceramics shown in the hacienda. The grounds are extensive, so I imagine there are many more structures to be excavated under our feet. The Banco Central is planning to open another complex with a museum nearby and there was evidence of further work to uncover more remains.

A 'culunco' is an antique path constructed by the Yumbo people, who also originally settled the cloud forest north or Quito. The Yumbo were traders, and used these culuncos to transport goods between the Andes and the coast and the Amazon. When we rode horses at Pululahua, we rode through a culunco, which are carved into the earth by years of use and erosion and are covered by branches and almost impossible to detect from a distance. Maya and I ran the length of one of these culuncos at Rumipamba, which was narrow and deep and a little creepy. They are invisible from the surface, and covered with moss and overhanging branches.

The Yumbo were described as peaceful and communicative people and no traces of weapons or war were found in their archeological remains, the main one of which is located at Tulipe, about 60 km southeast of Pululahua. They were known to have existed as far back as 1500 to 4000 years ago. The Yumbo were responsible for establishing trade between the Andes and the coast, and are pictured carrying a huge basket on their backs and using two wooden poles, much like skiiers do.


Rumipamba was an oasis of peace and tranquility in the midst of the noisy, busy city, and one can almost forget that Quito is all around us. It is a sanctuary for insects and birds and small animals. We learned that when the Spaniards conquered the city there was a massive lake in the middle of the city, between what is now the airport and Guapulo. I am not sure what happened to the lake or why it disappeared.

Maya and Eric were not too impressed with the ruins and it took lots of convincing to get them out of the house in the first place, but they became more interested and enthusiastic once we started walking through the ruins. The guard later told us that on most days there are guides who provide extensive explanations about the remains and the culture of the Quitu. Unfortunately today there was a meeting of the president of city parks and his colleagues, so no tours were provided.

We will return to Pululahua tomorrow to ride horses and explore more caluncos, and perhaps see some more archeological remains.

View of Quito From Rumipamba

Friday, January 29, 2010

A Day in the Country

Clouds Dipping Low Over the Mountains

When we flew from Quito to Miami during the Christmas break, Maya was asking Eric about whether he could win the Nobel prize, and we all joked about it as we walked to the baggage claim area. We were overheard by a middle-aged Ecuadorian couple who were on their way to London, Ontario to pick up their son who had just finished his Phd (soil science or soil ecology). While I took a bathroom break, Eric and Maya struck up a conversation with the couple, and learned that the mother was head of the language program at Catolica and that Pablo was coming home to Ecuador to look for work. Information and email details were exchanged.

When Eric met with Pablo and his parents last week, he was invited to visit the family's farm near the Mitad del Mundo. I was not sure how interested I was in a day in the country, but decided to join Eric, Kathy (a professor who was with us on the student trip and spent the week with Eric in Yasuni) and Kathy's two students, Scott and Peter, for a change in scenery.

Cowboy Eric

We drove past Maya's school to the north, and after passing Mitad del Mundo, followed the road past Calacara (where the turnoff to Pululahua Crater was to the right) to a narrow valley. Most of the valley had once belonged to Pablo's great grandfather, but had been divided between four brothers, who have been fighting over the land ever since. The hacienda has been in the family for over 250 years, the house being about that old. When Pablo's father had inherited the house, it had been neglected for some time, so the roof had fallen in and the insides of the house were exposed to the elements. Pablo's father has lovingly restored the old home without altering the thick walls made of mud, reinforcing the walls and adding a roof. He has preserved the original oven and has retained all sorts of artifacts which give the house much charm and character.

Original Oven

Unchanged Rooms

The drought this year has been devastating for the farm and the animals. We had been invited to ride the horses, but they looked emaciated, due to lack of food; I did not think they were well enough to ride. Pablo's father has dug a well and discovered underground water, which is tasty and clean and has all sorts of special properties because the well is located right on the equator. He has built a treatment facility to bottle the water, and hopes to produce and sell it as a special water from the middle of the world.

Eucalyptis Trees


Herb Used to Keep Insects away

We walked through part of the property, looking at the herbs and vegetables in the garden, visiting a labyrinth where standing in the middle and talking created a small echo (due to the special properties of the equator?). The land extends up a mountain, on the other side of which is the city of Quito. There is a small section of wall, presumably part of the original house on the property. Pablo's father had us all put our right hand on the wall, listen to our heartbeats and feel the energy of the wall, its past, its presence. I know I heard my heart beating. The wall was located in a 'microclimate' of low mossy trees close together and creating a maze around the orginal house.

We were fed Radish ceviche and chilfles (fried plantains) and canguil. We were invited to return, to visit for a day or overnight, to take a walk to the top of the mountain, or ride the horses. Pablo and his father were delightful hosts, interested in sharing their home and their land and their ideas with us. They were convinced that the particular spot that their home happened to be on was unique with special (magical? spiritual?) properties. It may be that Pablo had extended the invitation in the hopes to discuss job opportunities, but my purpose in going was simply to explore another corner of the country. I am not sure if I believe in the magical part, but being in the centre of the world is significant. The clouds dip low down in the valley, and the colours are muted (of course everything is dry and dying), creating an otherworldy sensation.


I have been promising to bring Maya horsebackriding again. Being so close to Pululahua compelled me to arrange for another day in the crater this weekend. I may decide to walk down rather than take the steep switchback road to the bottom. It simply terrifies me.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Santo Domingo

Plaza Santo Domingo

Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull after Columbus 'discovered' America giving responsibility of evangelizing the New World to Spain's Catholic Kings, which thus gained them the exclusive rights of discovery and conquest in America as a 'religious campaign'. The Fransiscans, Augustinians, Dominicans and Jesuits all played significant roles in christianizing the natives, and each order built churches and monasteries and convents throughout Quito. There are churches at every corner of the Centro Historico, and today I visited Santo Domingo, which sits on the square with a stature of Simon Bolivar standing in the centre. Again I had a very eager guide, who had an amazing number of facts at his disposal, and was able to share all sorts of intricate details about each painting. What made his comments interesting, were his insights about the struggles between the indigenous and the church. The priests, sometimes gently, more often forcefully, imposed their religion onto the natives, and conversion was often simply a choice for survival. Although the Europeans directed the building of the churches and the convents, it was the local people who were the actual builders and artists, and it is their work that has survived.

Tomb of a Conquistador

Once again, the courtyard of the monastery was calm and quiet, insulated from the activity outside. I could hear the students in the attached 'colegio'; the Catholic orders encouraged education, and in fact the first university of Ecuador met in a convent. The museum was full of mostly native paintings and sculptures, dark and somber, and very serious. I am starting to recognize the 'Quiteño' school and am able to differ it from the Cuzco School. The Quito colours are dark and the Cuszo colours lighter with much gold attached.

Our Lady of the Flowers

Seat Backs in the Rectory

When the European church leaders came to examine the convent, they found the gaudy baroque style of the natives inappropriate for their priests, who were supposed to be living lives of poverty and want, and had anything they deemed inappropriate moved out of the church. Thus there are paintings covering the walls of the corridors outside of the church and gold covered intricately carved altars displayed against the walls of the courtyard. In the museum are a few caryatids of men with women's bodies and women with men's bodies. The priests were horrified when they saw these statues ( the natives appeared comfortable with the concept) and destroyed as many as they could, and only a few remain.
Seat Backs

My guide explained that at one time all churches were covered in gold leaf, but only La Compania remains thus. The artists who built these churches and fancifully and imaginatively painted scenes from the bible, often expressed the way they saw their world. We see Mestizo Jesus and Maria, and landscapes with local vegetation or local sights, rather than European themes. The church leaders decided that there was too much excess in the churches and removed the gold from every surface except the altars. Except for the Jesuits, whose church is stunningly sumptuous. The Jesuits were ultimately thrown out of South America when the pope decided they were too powerful; perhaps that is why they did not alter their church.

Courtyard and Tower

Santo Domingo was used as a barracks at the time of the struggle between the Liberals and conservatives, and at one point the whole sacristy room was flooded from above and many paintings on the ceiling and walls were destroyed and required renovation.

We entered the church but a mass was in progress, and by the time I tried to get in after the mass, the church was closed. I wandered through the Centro and found more churches and museums to visit another day. They all appear to be closed for the afternoon hours. I found San Marcos Street, which appeared peaceful and inviting, but later I learned that it is a redlight district and not a street I ought to be wandering on. I wondered why there were so few people walking and all the establishments looked closed, and there was a moment when I did question what I was doing in an area without tourists or locals. I found myself at a corner with a 16C church next to a peaceful public garden with a fountain and well kept flower beds. On my way back to Santo Domingo, I encountered young women in green safety jackets carrying placards telling the drivers to slow down and take care of the neighbourhood.

Taking Back the Streets

Eric came home today after several days in the forest. He was in Yasuni National Forest at the Catolica Research Station. Yasuni has been in the news daily this week. The government has agreed to oil exploration in this protected area. The oil companies claim to have technology that will enable them to explore under the surface without devastating the wildlife. Of course the oil companies destroy wherever they go, so there is an uproar about this decision. Not only is Yasuni a 'protected' area for plant and animal life, it is where natives live untouched by western culture or technology. Oil drilling will mean the end of the rainforest and everything in it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

St Augustin

Fountain with Lion(strength) and Child (nobility), Augustinian Symbology

One can only feel good waking up to sunshine every morning. It is always spring in Quito, and walking outside in the warmth and brightness is energizing. I returned to the Centro Historico today to visit the church and museum of San Augustin. I pass by the church every time that I go to the old town. I take the Ecovia to La Marin station and walk past the multitude of shops and hawkers along Chile street, and the church is on my right at Guayaquil, the Plaza Grande a block further. I have been inside the church several times, but until today the museum has always been closed. I had visited the monastery many years ago with the Johns Hopkins students, but it has not been on the agenda since.

I had a very earnest young man from the Central University as my guide. He was small and dark, but had unsettling transparent eyes of an uncertain colour. I averted my eyes as much as possible so as not to be too distracted, but he kept moving closer and closer to me, invading my personal space over and over again. I believe he was intent on having me hear him and understand him, and he spoke slowly and carefully, so I did not miss much.

Main Courtyard

The monastery was once much larger, extending for several blocks, but now shrunken to only a couple of acres. It is built almost entirely of rocks from the nearby Pichincha volcano. The inner courtyard is peaceful and serene, such a contrast to the noise and confusion behind the thick wood door. The corridors around the courtyard are covered with works of art by Miguel de Santiago, the most famous painter of the Quiteño school, depicting the life and experiences of Saint Augustine. The style is dark and sombre, known for the 'chiaroscuro' technique, and an occasional incongruent detail, which my guide pointed out, suggesting that the indigenous or mestizo painters made sure to show, albeit subtly, their identity as non-Europeans.

The ceilings of the corridors in the courtyard were once intricately carved with Mudejar designs, each section embellished with a pineapple, but only one ceiling remains, the rest destroyed when soldiers occupied the convent and used the protruding pineapples for target practice.

I remember the chapter room from my visit many years ago, when I was able to climb down to the crypt underneath, but it was closed this time. There are intricately carved stalls and a Calvary altar with a mestizo Jesus (very unusual). The statues are very lifelike, sculpted by a Quiteño master named Pampite. The room was once part of the first university in Quito, and later was the sight of the signing of the acts of independence on August 16, 1809. The assassinated revolutionaries of the time were buried in the crypt.

There is a museum attached to the convent, which houses a collection of Quiteño paintings and sculptures. The wooden statues are remarkable because they are so lifelike and their shiny faces get that way by rubbing them with sheep's bladder and saliva.

I returned to the church, which I have visited before. It is lighter and airier than the usual Quito churches. with dainty designs drawn all over the walls and the Gothic arches. The altars are all huge and covered in gold, as per the usual Quito Church, but moderated by the light coloured walls. I paid attention to the door of the church, which is covered by bronze hearts, that represent Saint Augustine, 'the man with the anxious heart', and motivated wonder about his origins and psychology.

Delicate Designs

Painted Gothic


I have many more churches and monasteries to visit, but had an appointment with Amparo at my house to review medical terms in preparation for my translation work with the orthopedic surgeons, so I will be back to the Centro Historico tomorrow for more exploring.

Nave and Altar

Belltower and Facade