If you want to get off the beaten path and venture where few tourists have gone before, I can’t recommend enough the remote region of Intag in Ecuador.
Here, deep in the Andes, it’s easy to forget about the outside world. People go about their lives as they have for generations, almost untouched by the trappings of modern life.
(Strangely enough, many of the younger generation have mobile phones, even though internet access is hard to come by! Never underestimate the universal allure of the mighty iPhone.)
Tourists are received with a kind of shy curiosity. In general, Ecuadoreans tend to be reserved and even more so here. But don’t mistake that for coldness or unfriendliness! They will share everything they have with you, to the point where you’re downright embarrassed to accept anything more.
Cloud Forest Adventure
I stayed and volunteered with Cloud Forest Adventure for 6 months. (I hadn’t intended to stay quite so long, but being there was like a lovely dream I didn’t want to wake up from. Escapism for the win, guys.)
It’s a small grassroots ecotourism and volunteering project run by Ned, a Brit who’s lived there for over 10 years, and his Ecuadorean wife, Patricia. They are both lovely people who will make you feel right at home. And if you needed any proof that they’re genuinely good people, how about this: they don’t make any profit off the volunteering side of the project! This is despite the enormous amount of time and effort they put into coordinating homestays for the volunteers, checking up on them, etc.
Things to do
There are plenty of things to do in Intag, whether as a tourist or a volunteer.
Hiking and horse-riding
Ned’s property borders the vast and little-explored Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, which is reputedly one of the most biodiverse areas in Ecuador.
One of the most popular hikes is to three waterfalls at the edge of the reserve. You don’t need to be an expert hiker (I certainly am not!), but be prepared to do a little scrambling at times. Along the way, Ned points out interesting plants and facts about the ecosystem.
If horse-riding is more your thing, you’re in luck — Ned and Patricia have two horses and also rent horses from their neighbors when more are needed.
Milking the cows
And I’m talking milking them the old-fashioned way. None of those machines which do all the work for you! No, this is all about hand strength and technique. (And years of practice.)
Don’t be embarrassed if you fail to get any milk out. The first time I did it, I squeezed as hard as I could (which wasn’t very hard) and couldn’t get a drop of milk out. After a loooongg time, I finally managed a few small jets of milk.
But when Patricia took over, she filled an entire bucket of milk in just a few minutes…
So unless you intend to become a professional cow-milker, just have fun and don’t stress yourself!
All the cheese I ever ate in Intag was home-made. This involves boiling fresh milk, using some curdling agent and then compressing the curds using a mold.
Have you ever made your own cheese like this?
(The whey would be fed to the dogs or pigs. Nothing is wasted here!)
I’d never really thought about how sugar is made until I went to Intag.
Here, you can get a taste of how to make sugar. From the very beginning — harvesting sugar cane — to the final product, a block of panela (unrefined whole cane sugar).
Patricia’s family is one of only a few in the region who still make baskets the traditional way — from vines they pick themselves.
She often teaches visitors how to weave baskets, which also makes for a handy souvenir. It’s a lot harder than it looks! Here’s a tiny basket I made.
Learning traditional Ecuadorean recipes
Let’s be honest. Ecuador isn’t exactly known as a foodie paradise. And I can see why — the food in most of the restaurants I visited was pretty blah.
But the best meals I had were home-cooked in Intag!
It could be the freshness of the ingredients (most of which come from the garden or, in the case of meat, are reared by them). Or it could be the recipes passed down through the generations, which have been tried and tested to the maximum.
Some of my favourite Ecuadorean foods are snacks like quimbolos and humitas, which are easy to make at home.
Patricia is all too happy to share her recipes. I got some recipes from my host family too, plus plenty of practice making them!
It could just be my incurable greediness speaking here. But making and eating these traditional foods was a highlight of my stay. OM NOM NOM!
If you choose to volunteer, you can do farming work or teach English. Or a combination of both, like I did. Even if you just visit as a tourist, you’re always welcome to help out with the farming work.
The main economy here is agriculture, but forget about tractors and mowers. Everything here is done by hand.
I helped plant potatoes, yuca (cassava), corn and beans, among others. Harvesting was pretty fun — it takes a while for you to get the hang of it, to know which fruits or plants are ready to be harvested. Plus, you get a huge sense of satisfaction when you see your basket start filling up!
But surprisingly (or not, for those of you who have gardens) — what I found most satisfying was weeding. Unglamourous, tedious wedding.
It’s strangely therapeutic to be there on your hands and knees, pulling errant weeds out, and then seeing how clean the ground looks after that!
I’ve written entire blog posts about my experience teaching in Intag, so all I’ll say is: it’s not easy, but it’s so rewarding. The kids are unbelievably boisterous, but they’re also super affectionate and will want to hang around you as much as possible.
I know many people are against the idea of short-term volunteers who parachute in for a week. They think it’s pretty disruptive for the kids, might cause them to have abandonment issues, etc.
My view? Given that they get zero English lessons otherwise, I feel that something is better than nothing. As with all languages, practice is key — and every little bit of practice they get helps.
But you should make it clear from the start if you’re not going to be there long. And, please, don’t make rash promises you can’t keep. The kids told me about previous volunteers who had promised to return, but never did. And I could see that these broken promises had hurt them.
It’s not all candy canes and unicorns in Intag, however. The area is under threat from large-scale copper mining operations, which will almost certainly cause soil and water pollution, affect the biodiversity, and adversely impact the local population’s health.
Cloud Forest Adventure and other tourist organisations in Intag aim to promote ecotourism as an alternative source of revenue to mining. It’s an uphill battle, but every visitor counts.
So, visiting Intag is an easy way to show your support and contribute towards a wider cause.
Tourists pay about US$20 a day all-in: all food and board plus activities.
Volunteers pay US$60 a week (farming) or US$55/week (teaching) directly to their host families. This is to help offset the cost of their food and lodging.
How to get here: Intag, Ecuador
The nearest city is Otavalo, about 3 hours away by bus ($3). There are a few buses a day from Otavalo to Cuellaje, the Intag parish where Cloud Forest Adventure is located. The bus will drop you off at the village of Cuellaje. From there, you can take a taxi to Ned and Patricia’s farm (about 45 minutes away).
If you fly into Quito, you can arrange to be met at the airport by friends of theirs who live there. They offer accommodation and can help you get to Intag.
So, do you want to get off the beaten path, enjoy an authentic cultural experience, and perhaps do your part to save the environment while you’re at it? If so, I’d suggest checking out Intag and Cloud Forest Adventure the next time you’re in Ecuador. I had the time of my life there, and I’m sure you will too!
About the author: Michelle is a Singaporean travel blogger and aspiring tree-hugger. She loves learning about other cultures, going on new adventures, and sharing little-known destinations with her readers. She particularly enjoys finding new ways to travel responsibly and sustainably, and seeks out such projects wherever possible.
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