From Atacames we made our way to Quito (seven-hour bus ride) to Otavalo (two-and-a-half hours) to Cuellaje (four hours) where we stayed the night at a local inn for $8/person. Cuellaje is the small pueblo and the homebase for our homestay program. A British guy – known to gringos as Ned, and to Ecuadorians as Eduardo – moved to a remote section of the Intag province in 2007, and began organizing a volunteer exchange. For about $50/week he sets you up with a local family that is able to accommodate guests with room and board. Ned, and his Ecuadorian wife Patricia, also participate in the program and are one of the families you can opt to stay with. We intended on staying at their place only the first night, but because of a few overnight landslides, and a mañana-attitude in general, we stayed for three.
In just barely three days, Dave and I could have qualified for our homesteading badges. In her downtime, the lady of the house manages to knit/crochet sweaters for her 2-year-old, make jam, weave baskets, wash clothing and cook breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sort of like a humming bird bouncing from her sink full of dishes, to her niña, to the kitchen table, she was even able to dwell on us long enough to teach us basket-weaving and knitting. We’re now the proud owners of two somewhat similar looking baskets made from local vines, and the little girl’s sweater now has a rather bunchy row of haphazard stitches that will forever illustrate my knitting prowess.
Ned, on the other hand, mostly sticks to his domain – the family’s extensive stretch of 70 hectares (about 140 acres) of Ecuadorian cloud forest. (What is a cloud forest exactly? Ned told us it was essentially a rain forest over 1,500 meters. It’s still wet and dense, but the terrain is extremely steep.)
We took a three-and-a-half hour tour of the property with Ned as our guide, who fearlessly ambled through the jungle-like terrain, stopping occasionally to admire the old-growth trees virtually overrun by mosses, bromeliads, vines and a few shy orchids. He sort of struck me as Bear Grylls’s more camera-shy cousin – still survival-minded and skilled with a machete, but too savvy and practical to ever attempt stunts like Bear’s.
And nearer to the house, Ned and Patricia also raise chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs and several dairy cows. Ned explained his aim was to live as self-sufficiently as possible, but life in a cloud forest is difficult for most vegetables and fruit trees. Still, Dave got his share of avocados, which made a daily appearance, as Patricia’s mom has a whole plantation of them on her property at a lower elevation.