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Pinan & Trout

Ecuador has so many wonderful facets for adventure…one I am looking forward to this winter is hiking and riding the high Andean lakes…isolated but not far from Cotacachi. I asked Steve to go take a look and here is what he reports.

Highland Adventure – Piñan

By Steve

Gary , do you remember how we can stand on the third floor at El Meson outside the suite and see the Andes stretch out to infinity before us? I know you do because I’ve seen you and Merri sit outside with your laptops enjoying the sun and the view. To our right and slightly closer than other mountains is Volcan Imbabura, and to the left a chain of volcanoes and mountains start with 16,000 foot Volcan Cotacachi to the left and then they stretch to a blue haze where clouds rise on vents up through a gap that leads down to the western cloud forests.

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Here is that view of the Western Andean range from El Meson, haunting us with prospects of adventure.

We have often heard of a high, remote, virtually un-inhabited paramor moorland behind the chain of mountains to the left as we look out from the El Meson balcony. It’s rumored there are highland trout lakes and deer and coyotes, even puma and spectacled bears. Well, in the name of discovery and adventure I decided it was high time to put an end to rumor and discover the truth about this ‘mystical’ land.

I asked José our neighbor to set the trip up. He would be responsible for the camping gear and transport, I would provide first day sarnies, camera and dinero. As I write we have entered the rainy season but a week ago I was anxious to set off before the weather changed. I knew that being on moorland at 12,000 feet would be an entirely different proposition once the first rains start; to the extent it might not be possible to even arrive there, so when I woke up at El Meson the day of our departure and looked out of the window I was happy to see the sky was a blue white Andean quilt; fluffy white cumulus pierced by equatorial sunbeams.

José hired a 4 x 4 pickup and he jumped in the back with his son, camping gear and my fishing rod. I sat up front with the driver. I had thought the rate quoted was a little on the expensive side but within twenty minutes we were off the local road that leads to Chachimbiro hot springs and on to a farm track that must rate as the most bone-jarring road I have ever ridden down, up or along my entire life – so the fee was entirely justified! And this continued for two hours, straight up the side of a mountain.

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A track to aid digestion!

The track snaked ever upwards past the gate of Hacienda Hospital , a working hacienda with a full time manager and hundreds if not thousands of cattle. I tell you this because from this point onwards and upwards all we saw belonged to the hacienda. We had spectacular views back down to Ibarra and encountered indigenous ladies on horseback riding down from the community of Piñan far above us. They had been riding since six in the morning and it was already 10.30 a.m as we crossed paths. They happily paused a moment to chat and let me snap a couple of photos.

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Indigenous horse lady.

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Babies go places too of course!

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Looking back to the provincial capital, Ibarra, in the distance.

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Just the minutest part of the very large Hospital hacienda.

For another hour and a half it was only a bumpy ride up. Twice we rounded sharp corners to see white tailed deer in the road but they fled before I could get off a photo. We left behind any semblance of vegetation and the landscape took on forms that I last saw in the Scottish highlands, only more luxuriant.

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The Scottish highlands here in Ecuador !

Tussocks of oatmeal color moorland grass flourish everywhere; sometimes it is knee length and in other places waist height. We were done with the climb now and to my astonishment I saw boundless flat moorland at 11,000 feet. Wild horses and cattle roam everywhere and all of this is a National reserve yet also legally owned by the hacienda far below. These cattle will at some point be slaughtered for meat if they are not first picked of by more natural predators such as coyotes and mountain lions.

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Wild grasses.

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Wild cattle and horses.

We motored gamely on, another ninety minutes over a marginally better road. The vast landscapes surprised and delighted me. I had no idea that behind the distant mountains lies a mostly flat area of tens of thousands of acres. Finally, flanking Volcan Yanahurcu, we saw far down below, the village of Piñan , the end of the road and the start of horse trails. Piñan is hardly a village, just a community of 30 families totaling 200 folks. Virtually everyone is engaged in agriculture, working directly for the hacienda owners or involved in subsistence agriculture raising beans and potatoes and the like. The village is semi-famous in these parts for its organic cheese. These products are trucked down to the villages and towns 4,000 feet below twice a week. Essential groceries are brought in the opposite direction. The analogy with the Scottish Highlands strengthens a little; there, isolated island communities communicate weekly with the mainland.

Piñan like many crofters villages has thatched roofed cottages and just a single school – all laid out alongside a mountain brook . Perhaps some village in Scotland should consider adopting these folks; they’d have much to share. Children run free and wild everywhere and a glass of cola is a rare treat.

Piñan

Watching you watching me.

Fun without TV.

Washing dries in mountain sunlight.

José negotiated for horses. We would need three to make it to Laguna Donoso ( Lake Donoso ) and the village elders obliged us to use a local guide to help the local economy. This is standard practice in many parts of South America . Luis would be our local guide, a young fit teenager who knows these moorlands like the back of his hand and also how to care for the horses.

Ah! The horses! In general, I get by just fine on horses as long as they behave. The art of getting along with these animals depends much on choosing the right one in the first place; so when presented with a choice between Lightning, Humming Bird and Ungrateful it was a no-brainer. Humming Bird it was!

We figured a two hour ride to our campsite for the night at the lake. The afternoon sun was falling fast so we quickly bade farewell to the villagers and set off for a distant hill behind which lay the lake. Sun rays warmed my face as Humming Bird loped along what I guess was a familiar path for her. The village fell away behind us and ahead lay the setting sun and golden moors.

My new found friend, Humming Bird.


After fording two mountain brooks and climbing another 1000 feet we finally rounded a bend in the trail and were greeted by a magnificent sight. A Scottish lake plumped right down in front of us in Ecuador at 12,000 feet!

Late afternoon at Laguna Donoso.

The first beach was a little exposed so we needed to move around the lake a little. We set off over high ground, and this afforded us fine panoramic views before we again descended to the lake shore. Humming Bird was charming while Ungrateful would suddenly break into a gallop with Jose’s son, so I felt I’d made the right choice.

Readers who remember accounts of my previous excursions into the Ecuadorian wilderness will know that Gary has stressed part of my duties here involve identifying and fishing trout lakes and streams. So with that in mind I threw back the rod and cast into the depths of the lake using a fish-fly (if that makes sense). Just my misuse of the fishing jargon exposes me as a rank amateur but if enthusiasm counts for anything, I thought, I’d soon have a string of trout ready for the camp fire that José was preparing.

Luis looked at me thoughtfully but in a deadpan kind of way. He assured me that there are very large trout in this lake. Just 10 days previously he’d caught eight this size he said, spreading his hands two or more feet apart. Here though, they set line with bait over night so he was already busy preparing traps, as he called them, and expected big fish in the morning. As the horses gazed disinterestedly at us, Luis took my rod and showed an immediate affinity for casting very graceful arcs over the still surface.

Resting horses.

Luis casts for highland trout.

Night was soon upon us. A cloudless night revealed thousands of brilliant stars that lit the lake and silhouetted the surrounding hills. Highland frogs croaked and wild turkeys squawked their “good nights” to each other. José had pitched the tent on a slight slope and my sleeping bag zip broke; ensuring a restless night for me. The temperature drops dramatically at this altitude as the night passes and a howling wind didn’t make it any warmer. I could hear Humming Bird and her companions neigh softly on the hill above us.

Dawn comforted, and I unzipped the tent flap to find the rising sun illuminating the hills on the far side of the lake. José started a fire and I started casting again. A while later he called to offer a hot coffee and boiled eggs. I was keen to see the view of the entire lake and see if the horses were ok. I climbed the hill behind us and found three horses grazing contentedly.

Lake Donoso at dawn.

View from a hill.

Rested horses.

Luis had walked back to the community the previous evening after letting the horses free on the nearby hill. He arrived back at lakeside at 8 in the morning and we all watched with interest to see if his baited lines had caught a monster. Sadly, he knew just by looking that the monster trout hadn’t bitten. We packed camp and decided to head around to the far side where a small stream enters the lake. Luis felt there would be a chance to catch something there. We re-saddled the horses and climbed high above the lake to come down the other side. The wind ruffled the lakes provoking whitecaps which skated the surface. Now we saw the entire lake, perhaps two miles long by a mile across.

We dismounted at the other side of the lake and there just a trickle of a stream ran into the lake, but working our way through some undergrowth we heard excited shouts and looking down a steep bank we saw an indigenous family wading waste deep with nets in a pool that formed part of the stream. My guess is that when the rains start in a short time a torrent will rush through here. Sure enough they had caught a few trout but I was sorry to see they had caught fish tiddlers too. The reality is these people see trout fishing more as a form of gathering food than as a sport.

Netting trout.

Lunch for Indian children.

We headed back to the lake shore hopeful at least around the mouth of this feed stream there might be some trout trying to find their way upstream. I cast. Luis cast. José cast. Luis and José apologized. Nada! I’m appealing to you trout fishing experts out there … “Come and show us how it is done!” I feel like a team coach on a winless streak – I need new players and that’s you folks out there! Come down to Ecuador and show me and the guides here how to catch trout with rod and reel.

Time to head back. We were six hours from Cotacachi but only 20 miles as the crow flies. We arrived back at Piñan and I thanked Luis and Humming Bird for some splendid horse trekking in beautiful mountain country. We were offered a hearty potato and cheese soup for lunch by Josefina, a local indigena lady, with young child on her lap. “How old is your baby?” … she misheard and replied “forty”. This was her seventh child.

The soup satisfied our hunger and set us up well for the long, bumpy drive home. On arrival at the hotel I settled for steak, not trout! Steve

That’s it! Steve’s second fishing adventure. No fish yet…but this winter we plan to change that. Perhaps you would like to come and join the fun. Just let us know!

Gary