Postcards from Ecuador: Otavalo roses, the Cotacachi volcano and a powerful speaker

Day two saw the expedition leave Quito to head north to explore the sights and sounds of the high Andean plateau surrounding the city of Otavalo.

In this region even the lowland valleys below the mountains sit at more than 8,000 feet above sea level, while volcanic peaks such as Cayambe, along the group’s route but wreathed in clouds, loom to more than 19,000 feet, more than 8,000 feet taller than Mount Baker.

The group’s first stop after leaving the city was a solar clock that rests exactly on the equator. A presentation showed students how the ancient pre-Incan cultures used these devices to track the seasons based on the solstices, the movements of the sun and stars, and by marking where the sun rose and set along set points of the Andes.

Next the group stopped at a rose plantation not far from Otavalo. Roses are one of Ecuador’s chief agricultural exports, and roses from the plantation the group visited are cut and shipped to arrive in stores at their biggest markets, chiefly in the Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, within two weeks of being harvested. The region is dotted with such plantations, some of which have as much as 150 hectares of greenhouses under cultivation.

After a delicious lunch in the picturesque town of Cotacachi, it was time to put on our hiking boots for an in-depth lesson on pyroclastic flows and lahars from Scott Linneman, as the group hiked up the slopes of Cotacachi volcano and its caldera lake, reaching the height of more than 10,000 feet.

The group traveled to the volcano and its national park upon a road built directly on top of a former lahar – a violent type of mud and debris flow spawned from a volcanic eruption. This lahar is now mined by locals and used in the creation of cinderblocks, one of the chief building materials of the region.

The last event of the day was a presentation after dinner by Maria Virginia Farinango, co-author of “The Queen of Water," one of the pieces of requested reading for the course. Farinango’s life story formed the basis of the book, which is based on her struggles as an indentured servant to a wealthy local family in Otavalo and her eventual escape from a dead-end existence through education and her own force of will.

Farinango is now a successful psychologist, and brought a first-person perspective to the students through a question and answer session following her presentation. Her central message: “Never stop growing, and never let anyone tell you that you can’t be who you want to be,” resonated strongly with the students, faculty, and staff.

“Hearing her talk about how she overcame so much and somehow turned her anger to forgiveness was just incredible,” said Syd Castro, a Psychology major from Bellingham.

Delphine Maurer, who will be a sophomore this fall and who hopes to major in Biology, agreed with Castro.

“What is amazing to me is how she has taken all these experiences and used them to help other people,” she said.

Braden Brask, a sophomore Marine and Coastal Science major from Bellingham, said her ability turn her dreams into the power to move her life forward was inspirational.

“What is more powerful than that?” he said.


See images from the trip in our photo gallery.


Students gather in the greenhouse of an Otavalo rose plantation.
Students line up on the stones of the solar clock that rests exactly on the equator.