Diaries from Canton Mejía: The Volcanic Center in the Middle of the World
By Shannon Cantor
In the Valley of 9 Volcanoes…
Rippling across the highland grasses, a biting wind carries the sweet scent of Andean blueberries. The valley is so smooth, so docile as it extends endlessly without disruption; juxtaposing its formation of hot lava ripping open earth. But thousands of years have since disguised the violence. Now, wild horses and bulls graze in the rolling carpeted plains, underneath the ever-present gaze of Taita Cotopaxi.
“Taita” means father in the native-Ecuadorian Kichwa language. In this case, it denotes one of the 9 volcanos that pocket within the small Mejía Canton of Ecuador—aptly called the “Valley of 9 Volcanoes.” The place is magical—think Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. But to truly experience it, you have to go out into it. You have to grab your bike, hiking shoes, or horse, and lose touch with the close comfort of “normal life.” Instead, you must entrust yourself to this valley’s 9 protectors, to be marvelously shaken by what they will show you.
…Where Legends Come to Life…
5 of us go searching for the experience of Mejía. We already know about its infrastructure of sophisticated, community-based tourism, networking through this valley’s pristine natural landscapes. But we’ve also heard that this valley also strangely allures. Its visitors leave enchanted—or don’t want to leave at all. I now venture to experience this magic of the valley, led by Picaflor. He trots along the path; who knows how many times he has taken eager adventurers out into the 1,000 hectares of the Hacienda Porvenir’s protected highland ecosystem. I trust his every step, increasingly awed by his intelligence and strength against the harsh environment. Becoming very aware of my utmost reliance on him—for direction, footing, even heat—I’m immediately humbled. Johnny acts as our human guide, and he likewise goes ahead of us with the ease and comfort that only experience can provide.
“Every year, the chagras gather here to start the famous roundup of wild bull.” He indicates towards the large corral we’re passing. “They break up in teams of a “u” formation, and return at the end of the day with angry bulls and endless stories. At this point, the Hacienda owner kicks off the party with food and drink. Most chagras play the guitar, and all like to dance, drink, and celebrate.”
Johnny knows the event from experience, himself a chagra from the neighboring community of Santa Ana de Pegregal. In the Mejía Canton, the guides are all local, providing sources of income for community members and inside knowledge for visitors. As we head uphill—sheltered from the strengthening wind by thick ponchos, chaps, and the warmth of our horses—Johnny continues to share local legends and cultural secrets. The endless, barren surroundings come alive with his words. Likewise, the intermediary moments of silence turn our thoughts inward, reflecting on the fantastical images that float around us.
The chagra is the Andean cowboy. In the days of Hacienda plantations, these were the most trusted indigenous workers. They were taught to ride Spanish-brought horses in order to manage and round up the owner’s bull. Nowadays, the chagra is the cultural cornerstone, unique to the Mejía area.
…In a Wonderland of Adventure
When we finally crest the hill, we’re greeted by 3 apu (or, “protectors,” in the Kichwa language): a chagra man, a chagra woman, and a llama are each monumentally constructed. We follow their gaze across the valley that extends below us. Rain clouds pocket across the way, while Ruminahui rises mammoth to our back right. We see the foothills of Cotopaxi directly in front of us; if only the clouds would clear, we would be face to face with his iconic glacier. This is the highest active volcano in the world—nearly erupting in 2015 to once again expel the peace of the valley. But Volcano Ruminahui stands sentinel over the human settlements, giving locals the confidence of protection. They know that, in the case of Cotopaxi’s eruption, their “protector’s” perfect location would block any potential lava flow.
Johnny has brought along hot tea, made of the zumfo plant that grows native in these highlands. Its warmth contrasts the outside, biting cold. And as I give thanks for the hot liquid’s warming power, I think how miraculous life is, how fragile I am within it, and how thankful I must be to experience a place so palpable with grand magnificence.
Just as I rejoin Picaflor and we turn to start our descent, Cotopaxi pushes back the clouds and shows off his total majesty. I question how many people have gazed here in wonder. It is an entirely unique experience—for nowhere else in the world combines the Andes’ majesty, the equatorial line’s energy, and the layers of cultural complexity. But then it dawns on me—this “secret magic” of the valley that serves like a centrifugal magnet: I’m one of many; many who are connected through time and space by the experience of sharing this same view. Although an hour earlier, I thought to be heading out on simply a horseback tour, I felt in this moment to be included in the development of history—started forever ago, and marching continually onward. And further, this view, this invitation for a connection through time and space, is in fact the reward that awaits all those who dare to venture through the portal of Mejía, Ecuador, and journey to the volcanic center of the Earth.