How My Journey To An Indigenous Community in Ecuador Gave Me A Deeper Appreciation of Nature

– Posted in: Garden Travels, Sustainable Gardening

Andes Mountain

I returned this Thursday from a 2 week journey in Ecuador. Since I’m still grappling with how to use words to write about this powerful journey, in this post I’m using photos to tell a story.

The first leg of the trip was spending 2 days at San Clemente, an indigenous- owned community based project situated on the flanks of the sacred Imababura volcano.

“Imbabura is an inactive stratovolcano in northern Ecuador. Although it has not erupted for at least 14,000 years, it is not thought to be entirely extinct. Imbabura is intermittently capped with snow and has no permanent glaciers.”*

It is an ongoing threat to this highly populated area of Ecuador and has recently produced pyroclastic flows and tephra deposits.


“Covered in volcanic ash, the slopes of Imbabura are especially fertile. In addition to cloud forests, which are found across the northern Andes to an altitude of 3000 m, the land around Imbabura is extensively farmed. Maize, sugarcane, and beans are all staple crops of the region. Cattle are also an important commodity, and much of the land on and around Imbabura, especially the high-altitude meadows above the tree line, is used for grazing.” *

Tilled Soil Ready For Planting


Crops are sown based on the cycle of the seasons.

The indigenous people have a spiritual relationship to the land. Their lives are about listening and responding to what nature tells them.

Nancy and Raoul’s (our hosts) home


View from inside of host’s home looking out onto property

During our 2 day visit, we had breakfast with families followed by activities in the community, including agricultural practices including tilling soil with an oxen plow, planting/harvesting crops, and grinding corn. We also took a forest hike to learn about native medicinal plants, discussions about the Andean cosmo-vision, and a traditional feast with local foods grown in the community. Our final evening we had  dinner with our families (the food was delicious and healthy) followed by cultural sharing and celebration, including traditional Andean music.

Making tortillas for breakfast with Nancy

Passiflora dripping with buds ready to burst open


Passiflora fruit

Athough a datura bush is covered with magnificent flowers, it is a poisonous plant. It contains toxic hallucinogens, and can cause delirious states and death.



Datura in bloom



* Courtesy of Wikipedia

The trip was sponsored by Pachamama Alliance.

Now it’s your turn. Have you ever gone on a trip that left a profound impact on you?

Fran Sorin

Fran is the author of the highly-acclaimed book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, which Andrew Weil, M.D., recommends as "a profound and inspiring book."  

A graduate of the University of Chicago with Honors in Psychology, she is also a gardening and creativity expert, coach, inspirational speaker, CBS radio news gardening correspondent, and Huffington Post Contributor.

Learn more about Fran and get free resources that will help you improve your life at

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Fran Sorin
7 comments… add one

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Cathy November 18, 2012, 9:35 am


It sounds like this was an absolutely amazing experience! Even though it has not erupted in 14 millennia, the omnipresent, silent power of the volcano seems to really anchor the region both spiritually as well as geologically. I find the paradox of it interesting: it is revered akin to God, yet feared for its potential threat. If I am interpreting what I’ve read about it correctly, prehistoric eruptions resulted in the wonderfully fertile soil that supports agriculture and life there now, and is what bonds the inhabitants with nature. I sense a complex interrelationship between the people, the land, the volcano, and their sense of God/Mother Nature (or however they define it) and God’s power.

The forest hike must have been incredible! To see passiflora and datura growing in the wild, along with the myriad other flora and fauna that live there was undoubtedly a treat! I should tell you we had a gorgeous datura (that same buttery yellow) growing in a huge pot for many years. We’d put it out on the deck in the spring and summer and move it back into Steve’s office in the fall. The fragrance of the blossoms was incredible – it would perfume that entire side of the house inside and out when it was blooming. I can only imagine experiencing that on a hike.

After we adopted our youngest Cavalier, Miss Katie, out of necessity. the datura found a new home with a petless, childless friend of ours. Unfortunately, Katie has a special fondness for plants and in particular, for the few that are especially poisonous.

While I have visited many places that have touched me on a spiritual level, I can think of only one experience that I would describe as “profound” and “life changing” and that was when I took my sons to visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. in 1999. Given that my husband and I regularly tour historic gardens and homes and other important natural, historical and cultural sites, I find it ironic that it is a “brick and mortar” edifice and the contents within it that touched me more deeply than any other place on the planet to date.

There are several impressions that I carry with me and that immediately come to mind whenever I think about that trip. The first is the silence. People – hundreds of people – moved through the levels, reading, observing, studying the images and artifacts – but except for an occasional cough or sniffle (many people cried), and the shuffle of feet on the floor, they were totally silent. I also recall that everyone – staff and visitors – looked at the displays of artifacts with profound reverence. There was none of the excited chatter and questions and comments that I’m used to hearing in other historical museums. Everyone was somber and most of the visitors seemed as profoundly affected as I was.

Just prior to the trip, I had completed research into my family’s geneology. I had finally been able to recreate most of our family tree and I knew that all but 7 of my relatives who managed to escape from Poland during the early days of the war were eventually confined in Lodz and perished in Chelmno.

Before this trip, I had read about the Holocaust and tracked down records on as many relatives as I could. Even looking at the records of family members’ deaths, it was hard to comprehend the enormity of what had happened to all of these people and what their day to day life had been like leading up to their deaths. However, as I walked through the museum, following the route that was recommended at the time – starting at the top and traveling down through each level – I felt profoundly scared, heartsick, and very sad and all of that was overshadowed by a strange sense of dread. It was a feeling that I have never experienced anyplace else to such a degree as I did that day.

When we were about halfway through the tour, there were some teenaged boys who were on a high school trip (we visited during February school vacation) and a couple of he boys were making fun of one of the photographs mounted in one of the displays. There was a large photograph of many,many women who had been forced to undress and then lie face down in a trench dug in the snow that served as their grave. Once they were lying down, they where shot and killed and buried by the soldiers. The boys were snickering and laughing over the fact that the women were nude.

Several people pointedly glared at them and their teachers, but it was my son Jake (who was 13 at the time) who went on his own and found a docent or volunteer. I learned later that he whispered to him that the boys were making fun of the women in the photograph and that it had offended him because one of the women could have been a member of our family. (This was actually unlikely, as I don’t believe that that particular photo was taken where our family is documented as having died, but Jake would not have known that. However, that gave me insight into what he was thinking as we made the tour).

Jake came back to stand with me, accompanied by the docent. I was still reading the captions and the historical information that was posted about the group of pictures in that section and the boys were still being disrespectful and loud. I’m not sure how he summoned assistance, but the next thing I new, several staff members joined us, seemingly from out of nowhere and the entire school group was escorted from the Museum very quietly and without fanfare.

After we finished touring the display area, I wanted to spend some time in the Reflection area, and while we were sitting there, the docent came over and thanked Jake for alerting him to the problem. He also gave Jake a book about the Holocaust. He had written a thank you message inside the flyleaf. The gentleman told me that when school groups requested tickets to tour the museum, they were told that any acting out or disrespectful behavior would result in the entire group being asked to leave. I don’t know if the same rules are currently in place – this was at a time when there was often a waiting list for tickets to tour the museum. I had never experienced anything like this before at a museum.

The visit affected Jacob as profoundly as it affected me. Several years later, his high school band went on a school trip to Washington where they participated in a band competition and then spent several days touring the city. One of the museums they planned to visit was the Holocaust Museum where a modified tour had been arranged. Jake refused to tour any part of it again. At first, the teachers were going to force him to participate in the tour or not allow him to go on the trip. I called and explained that we had already toured it and that he had a strong emotional reaction to it and they relented and let him wait in the Reflection area.

Although we are members of the museum and support it financially, I have no desire to return there although I probably will one day as my husband has never been there and it is on his list of places that he wishes to visit.


Donna November 18, 2012, 9:24 pm

Fran, you had a wonderful trip. I have been to Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica and am planning St. Lucia in January. I love this part of the world filled with rain and cloud forest. The vegetation and animal like is fascinating. The people are friendly and very nice. Ecuador looks like a remarkable place.

Fran Sorin November 20, 2012, 1:23 am

Although I have never been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, I can understand why it had such a profound effect on you. Beyond the history and your personal connection, I loved what you said about ‘silence’.

Your son’s reaction and action to the boys who were laughing at the photos was one that should make you proud (I know it did!).

As always Cathy, thanks for sharing.

BTW, I have been to The Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem just a handful of times over the past 30+ years. I too have no desire to re-visit.

Happy Thanksgiving! Fran

Fran Sorin November 20, 2012, 1:25 am

Donna – You are a woman after my own heart. Panama is on my list of places to go. But I first want to get to Peru and Argentina. So much to experience. I have friends who trekked to St. Lucia and fell in love with it – so much so that they returned annually.

Have a joyous Thanksgiving Donna. Fran

Barb Jones November 20, 2012, 2:38 pm

Welcome back Fran!

Glad your trip to Equador was wonderful. The pictures are fabulous and give a great visual for those of us who have never been there.

Arvind Devalia December 1, 2012, 4:35 am

Fran, what a life-changing trip!

Thanks for sharing all the photos and the heart-warming story.

My own life-changing trip happened 12 years ago in 2000,when I visited an orphanage in South India.

Playing with the orphans and experiencing their joy, exuberance and innocence changed my life forever.

I wrote about my full experience here:-

Fran, I look forward to hearing much more about your path as it unfolds…

Fran Sorin December 2, 2012, 5:36 am

Great to see you on GGW. Am going on your site right now to read about your life changing experience. The article I posted this morning is about the indigenous tribe with whom I spent time in Ecuador, the rainforest, and the struggle of keeping oil companies out. 🙂 Fran

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