Descending Into a Volcano — To Farm

Ecuador 2015

By Kirk Siegler

October 25, 2015

Also published by NPR

From the rim of Ecuador's Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve, it's at least a 45-minute drive (no, more like 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?

The Pululahua Crater in Ecuador erupted about 2,500 years ago. The soils remaining in the collapsed mountain are mineral rich and good for cultivation. Photo: Kirk Siegler/NPR

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. Today the terraced mountainsides are still excellent for cultivating crops such as corn, sugar cane, beans and a rare variety of potato called camoate.

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 enough in the morning, it's a stunning sight. It's also a window into rural Ecuador's past. Pululahua is 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.

Getting into the crater requires traveling down a windy, bumpy dirt road that plunges you about 700 meters from the rim to the crater floor. Photo: Kirk Siegler/NPR

It's widely believed that there has been farming here for hundreds of years. But in more recent times, the crater was included as part of Ecuador's large, colonial hacienda system. The country's first Spanish colonialists divided up much of Ecuador into vast haciendas, or farms, that were powered by mostly native farm workers, or huasipongos.

Thousands of native people did the farming, without pay, in exchange for a very small piece of land they could farm on their own, usually on their one day off a week. Ecuador didn't actually abolish this huasipongo system until the land reforms of 1963.

Today, on Pululahua's pancake flat floor, a half dozen or so farms run by the descendants of these huasipongos remain. One of them is 86-year-old Humberto Moromenacho, who is one of 15 full-time residents still living in the crater.

Taking a break from work to talk outside a small shack that serves as an improvised shop, Moromenacho uses a cut, wooden log as a stool to sit on. His hands are caked with dirt from the fields and he's missing part of his index finger on his right hand.

Humberto Moromenacho, 86, is one of just a few people still farming in the crater. He says his family has been farming in the crater for 300 years. Photo: Kirk Siegler/NPR

Through an interpreter, he says that his family has farmed here for more than 300 years. All of his relatives have left though. In fact, most of the remaining people who still live in the crater full-time are elderly. Even just ten years ago, the population was 50. The last of the younger 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.

Moromenacho says his relatives who live nearby in San Antonio de Pichincha 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.

Even after a short visit, you 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 farmers here. And a few of the crater's newer inhabitants -– aside from the owners of a small youth hostel –- have come from other countries more recently to set up horse ranches and more modern organic farms mostly for tourism.

Some of these spiffy, newer homes with wrap-around porches can be seen on the ascent back up the windy road to get back to Quito. But there is no time to visit. The clouds were rolling in, and soon the Pululahua crater would be engulfed in fog.


Kirk Siegler reported from Ecuador on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP). A version of this story originally appeared on NPR's On The Road Tumblr.