Text & photographs: Jorge Vinueza
Hacienda La Alegria awakes to Mount Rumiñahui in front, and Mount Corazón, to the back, the sun’s rays filtering through the original wooden window frames that have welcomed the same light for so many years, since the hacienda was a mere family home and dairy farm. They say Manuelita Sáenz, Bolívar’s lover, “the liberator of the Liberator” slept here once… and there’s the bed to prove it.
The aromas of fruit, fresh bread and freshly-poured coffee invite us in to enjoy a family-style breakfast. Gabriel Espinosa, without pomp or ceremony, welcomes us adventurers and explains what lies ahead… He tells us where we are, and where we will venture, with a map of the Andes in hand. The rest, the mountainous geography, natural wonders and tales from the saddle, we will discover astride our steeds.
Ride to the clouds
There is movement over at the stables. Rodrigo saddles the horses, gets the ponchos ready, prepares the chaps. With his clipped mustache, boots and poncho, he arrived from the province of Carchi and found his ‘chagra’ vocation here. He’s been accompanying Gabriel for 10 years now, riding all across Cantón Mejía and beyond.
Once mounted, Gabriel swiftly shows us how to maneuver the horse for a more pleasant ride, and without further ado, we begin our journey to the ‘sound of the horses’ hooves on the cobblestone road that leaves Hacienda La Alegría. A stone bridge built in 1873 (“recemented” in 2013) is the pivotal point that changes the trip’s pace, evoking another time, perhaps that of García Moreno, who inaugurated the bridge back in the day.
Gabriel swiftly shows us how to maneuver the horse for a more pleasant ride, and without further ado, we begin our journey to the ‘sound of the horses’
The dusty road soon turns into an open field. Gabriel takes us along paths that not even the best 4×4 vehicles could climb. We stride along on our bay horses, our ‘Sorrel’, our ‘Isabela’, through dwarf forests, Polylepis (the only native conifer) forests and grasslands, catching sight of rabbits, hawks, violet lupine and valerian gardens, yellow and white patches of wheat, barley, bean, potato plantations, and most beautiful of all, the flowers of the páramo floor, all of which make up this great Andean patchwork quilt. The clouds lead the way. The snow peaks appear. Free-riding mustangs gallop.
There are many enriching, chance encounters: Oswaldo and Marta Aroat Bombolí, lonely chagra horsemen, sites like Sierra Loma and Quilindaña, TamboPaxi or our camp site, extended luxuries of Hacienda La Alegría, guarded by condors, wild horses, grazing bulls…
Gabriel Espinosa offers multiple two to 15 days options to learn the ways of the chagras, to enter their realm, the true heart of the Andes. One of travel’s noblest causes is to return to the place one left, changed for the better. That’s how we all felt, clip clopping back along the cobbles, upon returning to Hacienda La Alegría at the end of our ride.