Guest Blog Post by Allison Dawson

When browsing through my Aunt Becky’s list of possible destinations to visit, I was admittedly a little overwhelmed by all the options.  My mom and I were headed to Ecuador for a two-week trip and I was ready for any and every experience that would give me a glimpse into life within Ecuador, especially its natural beauty and native customs.  Next to a little asterisk warning “not for the faint of heart”, was the option for an overnight stay in an ecological reserve in the cloud forest of Intag Valley. After some Googling, I was hooked. With this travel option, we would be staying in a community called El Rosal. 

If you were to go to your favorite navigation app and search for El Rosal, Ecuador, you likely wouldn’t find it.  The closest place marked on the map is the little town of Garcia Moreno.
Sure, Garcia Moreno is quite close to El Rosal.  It’s only a 15-minute taxi ride away; a steep, winding, rocky, bumpy, incredibly beautiful fifteen minutes away.  But El Rosal is the hidden gem on the top of the ridge – truly just an anthill in this remote, lush, mountainous terrain.  Still reeling from the few hours spent winding along in a dilapidated bus with a rather cavalier driver, we pulled up to El Rosal. Becky was right to call this an adventure not for the faint of heart.  After eightish hours of travel from Ibarra to the Intag Valley, we were eager to find a bathroom and a stationary seat to relax in. 

Greeted with open arms and genuine smiles, Germania and the women of El Rosal showed us to our rooms. Expecting a home-stay environment, we were surprised by a freshly built hostal  – an amenity quite unexpected this far out in el campo.  Outside my bedroom window was a tangle of flowers and greenery, attracting all types of colorful hummingbirds. 
From downstairs we heard Germania call us to lunch.  Like a typical Ecuadorian almuerzo, the meal began with a big bowl of hot soup, followed today by a main dish of tilapia and rice.  As we enjoyed our hot soup on this equally hot day, the community members began to filter in from their various posts.  For example, someone just returned from harvesting fresh fruit for our jugo.  Thankfully, Becky reminded me that I would likely be getting a whole fish, not a filet, giving me a chance to mentally prepare for my first bone-in fish meal.  Worried my lack of culinary experience would make the meal difficult, my mind was calmed with the very first bite. It was fall-off-the-bone tender and amazingly seasoned.
When asked where the tilapia was sourced from, we found out all their meat, fish, dairy, vegetables, and fruits come from within the cooperative community and their neighbors– fish included.  A non-native species, tilapia, is well known for being low maintenance and sustainable to raise in grow ponds. For this reason, the members of El Rosal chose farming tilapia over fishing from the Intag River in the valley below.  Several varying sizes of tilapia ponds were inlaid in terraces on the mountainside, producing all the fish meat the cooperative and their neighbors could need. Our lunch had been cast-netted from those ponds just minutes before. 
Our tour of the cooperative began with Franklin showing us to his homestead.  Here, he cultivates rare and endangered orchids. Handling each plant with such care and admiration, Franklin pointed out every colorful bloom of these unique flowers.  Like a proud father doting over his children, it’s clear he is the right man for the job of trying to rehabilitate and reintroduce these native populations to their land.  As we walked, Franklin explained to us that the Intag Valley’s Cloud Forest is considered one of the most rich and biodiverse hot-spots on the planet, containing approximately 15 – 20% of the world’s plant and bird diversity.  He and the other community members recognize so ardently that their ecosystem is incredibly special and diverse, and he has made it his mission to nurture and protect it for future generations. 
My mother, Julie, and I in El Rosal

Franklin continued to show us around this hilltop agricultural community, introducing us to their pigs, their bio-gas collection pit (from what we could tell, they run completely on bio-gas from animal excrement and food waste…so cool!), their cuy pens, their various fruit trees and gardens, and finally their aquaculture ponds.  Being a bit of a fish nerd myself, I was super interested to see the simplicity of their systems and witness sustainability in action. Watching them cast-net and select the largest and juiciest tilapia to sell/trade with their neighbors put a grin on my face, despite how tired I still was from traveling.  

I thought to myself, they had said something after lunch about having freshly made coffee…  
I wonder when that will be? 

My questions were answered when we returned to the dining area and kitchen.  Cooking over an open wood cooker was a large pot of freshly peeled green coffee beans. They weren’t kidding when they said fresh!  I took a couple turns at constantly stirring the beans so they didn’t burn, but the locals had to keep spelling me and then each other.  Stirring beans is a surprisingly tiring exercise that lasts a good 3 hours at least for a quality roast. During this time, I learned how the men of this community work together to cultivate and harvest their coffee beans, selling them to a larger co-op of coffee growers from the Intag Valley, which then distribute their green beans all over the world.  
Meanwhile, another group of people, including my mother and Aunt Becky, were employed helping to make the Pan de Yuca, or Yucca Bread.  Watching the ingredients go into the bowl made me a little dubious – mashed yucca (a root not unlike potatoes), cheese, a large serving of pig fat, sugar, a bunch of butter and eggs, plus the typical dry ingredients for bread.  Boy, were we in for a treat. 
The Pan de Yuca team: Germania, Maria, Mirjam- a Community Volunteer from Austria, 
Julie and Becky
A few hours later, the coffee beans were finally finished roasting.  So much for an afternoon cup-of-joe.  Dessert coffee it is!  

While we stepped outside the kitchen and took turns hand grinding the coffee beans to powder, Germania and Maria began to cook the Pan de Yuca.  Germania decided to cook the bread in a special manner for a “different flavor”.  First, she placed the formed bread rolls into a large metal pot and placed that over a small wood fire. A jumble of burning branches were then loaded on top of its metal lid. I don’t know if it was this type of “dutch-oven” cooking method or the pig fat in the bread, but it was the most amazing bread I have ever had the pleasure to eat.  To be honest, I forget what else was for dinner besides that amazing Pan de Yuca and fresh field-to-table coffee.  
The truly memorable part of the evening was our after-dinner conversation with five of the cooperative members including Germania, her husband Ramiro, her daughter Lily, Franklin and his wife Maria. For hours we sat and discussed politics, the environment, geography, and ecotourism.  The sleepier I got, the more broken my Spanish verbal skills became, but Becky was asking all the same questions that were burning in my mind, so I was happy to listen.  Every word from every member of that cooperative, young and old, was out of love and care for the environment, working towards a prosperous future and a healthy Earth. They want to live sustainably to minimize their impact on the precious ecological biome in which they live, and preserve the cloud forests for future generations.  Unfortunately, these very forests are being targeted by gold and silver mining companies. While many citizens vehemently oppose the mining industry in the Intag Valley, the prospect of job creation is tantalizing to others. Despite the tensions, the El Rosal Cooperative continues to set the precedent and educate others on what it means to live sustainably.  I was so impressed. With a belly full of bread and a gratefulness for the experience we just shared, the three of us climbed into bed and fell asleep to the sounds of this magical forest.

The following morning we woke and enjoyed another amazing breakfast of cheese empanadas. The coffee we ground the night before somehow tasted even better the second time around.  After breakfast, we finally got a glimpse of the soap laboratory that put this community cooperative on the map. Originally, it was the ladies of this community who learned how to cultivate and harvest aloe-vera, making an all-natural soap to sell.  With a newly-built laboratory, they also make shampoo and lotions, distributing these through vendors in other countries. Of course, we had to buy some to share! Then just like that, it was time for us to load up in a taxi and continue on our Ecuador adventures. 
I could go on and on about the El Rosal Community Cooperative – but instead I’ll just link in their website so you can take a look yourself:  
and their Facebook Page: Finca Agroecológica El Rosal

Before we left, we introduced them to various travel and experience accommodation web sites such as Booking.Com and Airbnb.  I hope they expand their online presence so more people like me can experience this interesting and beautiful community. I’d give this eco-tourism lodge a 5-star rating for sure!