Walking in the Sky

Tom Jeffreys Ecuador

A small brown kestrel rises over the crest of a hill and pauses, hanging in the wind, scanning the fields below. With a tilt of its wings, it shifts vantage point twice, three times, hangs for a moment, then suddenly slides downwards, a gleam of silver under the high sun. Six foot from the ground, however, the dive is aborted and the kestrel weaves its way above the low scrub along the edge of the field. Slowly it rises again, hangs above a phalanx of young conifers, then glides away to be lost from sight against the green-brown patchwork of cultivated hillside. It returns periodically as I sit and eat my sandwiches.

I could be in Kent.

Actually, I’m in South America.

Ecuador, to be precise: a country increasingly celebrated for the diversity of its avifauna, and not just on the Galapagos. Marking a moment in this development was the publication in 2001 of Robert S Ridgely and Paul J Greenfield’s The Birds of Ecuador – Field Guide. In the foreword Frank B Gill describes how for many decades Ecuador was treated by tourists as a “staging site” for the Galapagos Islands, what he describes as “the ultimate ecotourism destination”.

Yet Gill betrays a certain sniffiness: “Yes, the wild remote beauty and tame wildlife in a natural laboratory of evolution guaranteed a remarkable experience,” he says. “We all could manage the fascinating, but minimal, avifauna of the Galapagos.” But the birds of mainland Ecuador – well that is another matter: as a cataloguing task for biologists such as Ridgely and Greenfield, “a daunting challenge indeed,” says Gill.


For me, however, it’s a little different. I saw nothing in Ecuador as dramatic as the Andean condors so prevalent elsewhere on the continent, or the bursts of brightness we witnessed in northern Argentina (the petrol blue-black wings and fire-licked bellies of the blue-and-yellow Tanager, for example). Instead, the more subtle delights of farmland ornithology: spotting an American sparrowhawk above a field of lupins; or frightening a pair tinamou (like fat brown grouse), one then the other, shrieking, rising and flapping off low towards deeper cover.

A copy of the The Birds of Ecuador is in the library at the ecolodge where we’re staying. The Black Sheep Inn is located above the village of Chugchilan on the outskirts of Ecuador’s Cotopaxi National Park. It was founded by an American couple, Andres Hammerman and Michelle Kirby, who fell in love with the area when they first visited in 1993. They bought land and moved here in the following year before receiving their first visitors in 1996.

One of the most common sights are the big bright billboards of President Rafael Correa. Where there is agriculture, it seems, there is politics.

Today, the Black Sheep Inn is run by Edmundo Vega, who was born and raised in the village and knows the surrounding countryside like the back of his hand. It was as a young child here that Vega discovered the area’s hidden ridges and valleys, and he has helped to mark out some wonderful walks. In the past twenty years, Chugchilan has become something of a destination for hikers – attracted to the nearby cloud forest and impressive Lake Quilotoa – but, for me, it is the precarious trail of Edmundo’s “skywalk” [pictured below] that provides the most exhilarating hiking.


However, despite its growing popularity as a tourist destination – two local families have opened hostels in the village – Chugchilan seems to me a strange destination for walkers, lacking both the wild, empty purity of, say, Patagonia, or the lushness and Inca history of Peru. Since land reform from the 1960s onwards, most families in the area now own their land. The result is, I’m told, increased economic security for the local population, but aesthetically you could be in south-east England (albeit 2,600 metres above sea level, with snow-capped mountains in the distance). This level of cultivation is unexpected and Edmundo tells me it is relatively recent. The area is clearly changing fast: new roads, telephone, even the internet have all arrived in the past few years. One of the most common sights are big bright billboards attributing new roads and buildings to the “citizens’ revolution” of President Rafael Correa. Where there is agriculture, it seems, there is politics.

Progress, unfortunately, is always a messy business. This is especially evident in neighbouring Peru, whose government, unlike Ecuador’s, have invested heavily in tourism. In 2012, for example, global agency FutureBrand unveiled a new “country brand” based on a spiral P. It’s part of an “off-shore promotion strategy,” claims the agency. On-shore, the road to Trujillo is lined with miles and miles of litter: not simply the tossed-aside detritus of passing motorists but the result of organised rubbish dumps made up of mounds and mounds of waste stretching through the desert. Some smoulder gently. On top of one, a pale and scraggly dog. Litter extends for miles into a once untouched desert. Big black condors circle overhead. Every so often, a wall, separating nothing from nothing else. Is this the necessary price of development?

Every so often, a wall, separating
nothing from nothing else. Is this the necessary price of development?

Chugchilan too has a litter problem. Several paths are clogged with domestic detritus – old shoes and tyres, plastic bags and unnecessary packaging. For some years now, The Black Sheep has been working to rectify the problem: the local recycling centre, built in 2006, was their initiative. But, as always, more needs to be done. One of the Black Sheep’s helpful brochures singles out education as the answer: “more environmental education needs to be taught,”it says, “in the local schools, church, health centre, and at community meetings in order to teach people the future of recycling.”

This may well be true, but it also makes me think of the dangers of certain conceptions of “education”. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of once again seeing the West as educated, civilised providers of “solutions” to the “problems” of Third World societies. It is worth remembering that litter – in its current, long-lingering, non-organic form – is the direct result of industrialised capitalism, and that the modern understanding of humanity as superior to nature is arguably a product of Christianity. The sight of so many indigenous women wearing belts emblazoned with Christian slogans is a noteworthy post-colonial legacy. By contrast, the Black Sheep points out that in Native American tradition people cannot own land; in fact the belief is that the earth owns the people who temporarily reside upon it. As the co-founders said in an interview back in 2004: “although we legally own the property, we know that it will outlast us… we will die and the land still be here in the future”.

This is one of the things that makes the Black Sheep Inn so interesting. Whilst its well-appointed rooms, organic food and splendid views mark it apart from ostensibly similar operations in the rest of the country, the BSI is not some kind of idyll of apolitical purity. Its own impact has been thought about at great length – hence the compost toilets, the solar-powered water system, the adoption of permaculture techniques. The Black Sheep is not a place apart from the rest of the country, but a part of it, actively engaged in addressing problems both local and global in scale. In some ways, then, the surrounding landscape is actually more interesting than other more celebrated examples in South America. It is not fenced off for tourism alone, not something simply to look at, but to live in.

The Black Sheep is not a place apart from the rest of the country, but a part of it.

This is precisely what ecotourism is supposed to be about, says Oswaldo Muñoz, one of Ecuador’s pioneers in the field. Muñoz started the first ecolodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon back in 1973, and in 1979 founded Nuevo Mundo Expeditions. The company – which works with the Black Sheep – was originally founded “as a way of reaching out to communities with the possibility of tourism being a complement to their other economic and traditional activities”. Tourism was, Oswaldo stresses, “never, ever [intended] as an alternative to their daily lifestyles”.

Oswaldo has long-championed an inclusive definition of ecotourism that goes beyond hiking or bird-watching. Instead, his approach draws upon the etymology of eco (from the Greek οἶκος – household or family, the basic social unit). “If we talk about the ‘local people’,” he says by way of example, “we cannot assume they are just those that life in rural areas such as national parks and nature reserves, but also those in the cities and the officially unprotected areas” – like Chugchilan.

Oswaldo’s daughter, Julieta, who is now Nuevo Mundo’s Executive Manager, agrees: “for us, ecotourism is not just visiting nature reserves or very remote areas,” she says. “What Edmundo is doing now [at The Black Sheep Inn] is… making it an educational stay without it being boring.” Even the simple act of explaining the reasoning behind compost toilets is enlightening: I confess I’d never really thought about the stupidity of Western flushing toilets, which, as the Black Sheep’s website points out, are a waste of two resources: clean water and potential fertilizer. It’s obvious, but it still takes someone else to points it out. “The great thing about tourism and travel,” says Julieta, “is that it connects people.”





Tom Jeffreys

Tom is a writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland, and editor of The Learned Pig. He writes primarily about contemporary art, and is particularly interested in work that asks questions relating to animals and the environment. His writing has been published in, among others, art-agenda, ArtReview, Frieze, Country Walking, the Independent, New Scientist, and World of Interiors. His first book, Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot, was published by Influx Press in 2017. His second, The White Birch, will be published by Little, Brown in 2021. Tom is represented by Zoe Ross at United Agents.