A Descent Into … a Volcano

By Kirk Siegler | October 21, 2015 | Ecuador

From the rim of Ecuador’s Pululahua reserve, it’s at least a forty five minute drive (no, plunge) down a winding, bone-crushing dirt road to the floor of the crater.  But it’s well worth it.  After all, how often do you get to say you’ve traveled to what’s billed as the world’s only inhabited, cultivated volcano?

I should offer a caveat since volcanoes are very much in the news here.  This one’s inhabited because it’s dormant.  It last erupted about 2,500 years ago but the soils that were left behind in the collapsed mountain are rich in minerals and excellent for farming.  

Pululahua is loosely translated from Quechua (the indigenous language) to fog.  Almost every afternoon, clouds shroud the steep mountain walls that circle the crater in a dense fog that blows in from the coast.

But if you get there early in the morning as we did, it’s a stunning sight.  It’s also a window into rural Ecuador’s past. We’re just a short distance from the bustling capitol of Quito, yet this crater – protected as a geobotanical reserve in 1978 and later as a national park – is a peaceful escape.

On its pancake flat floor, there’s only a modest hostel and a half dozen or so farms run by the descendants of farmworkers – or huasipongos.  

(we’re told this area used to be part of a large, colonial-era “hacienda” system, but that’s the subject of a future post).  

A few minutes after arriving, we meet Humberto Moromenacho.

At 86, he’s one of only about fifteen full-time residents of the Pululahua crater. He takes a break from work to talk outside a small shack that serves as an improvised shop. He uses a cut, wooden log as a stool to sit on.  His hands are caked with dirt from the fields. He’s missing part of his index finger on his right hand and he’s got cotton stuffed in his ears (he’s hard of hearing).

Through an interpreter, he tells us that his family has farmed here for more than 300 years. All of his relatives have left though. In fact, most people still living in this crater are elderly. The last young families moved away when the small school closed four years ago.  There also isn’t a doctor or other basic services. But aside from that, most of the farms like Moromenacho’s are pretty well self-sustainable.

He tells us his relatives who live nearby in San Antonio and the Quito area come back to help to pick his corn and tend to his beef cows.  Most of the organic crops grown here are sold at markets elsewhere, the remaining is consumed locally.  (In addition to corn, beans, sugar cane and a variety of potato called camoate, among other things, are grown in the fertile crater with its elevated terraces).

Yet, even after a short visit, we can’t help but get the sense that this way of life may be going away soon. Moromenacho’s relatives may sell his small piece of land when he dies if there’s no one willing to keep farming it.  The same dilemma will probably apply to the other indigenous families here. And a few of the crater’s newer inhabitants – aside from the hostel owners – have come from other countries lately to set up more modern organic farms.    

We saw a couple of these –and their spiffy, modern houses with wrap-around porches – as we started climbing back up the windy road to get back to Quito.  But we didn’t have time to visit.  The clouds were rolling in, and soon the Pululahua crater would be engulfed in fog. 

Kirk Siegler is reporting from Ecuador on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP). This post was also published on NPR's On the RoadPhotos: Kirk Siegler/NPR

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