The word “breathtaking” is surely one of the most incorrectly used, its meaning lost amongst all the guidebooks, blogs and advertisements. But in the Ecuadorian Andes I was reminded of what the word actually means: something which makes you gasp, something which enraptures you so completely that you have to remember to breathe. The fact that this experience happened at 3,100 metres above sea level probably didn’t help my breathlessness, but still…
Cuicocha, which translates from Quechua rather clumsily as “Guinea-Pig Lake”, is a volcanic crater lake in the Cotacachi-Cayapas Ecological Reserve, lying between the snow-capped Imbabura and Cotacachi volcanoes, in northern Ecuador. I’d seen photos of the Laguna, with its strange humped islands, sunk high into the sierra. But as I trudged over the crest of the hill, wrapped up against the crisp Andean morning air, I stopped dead. And gasped. And had to remember to breathe.
Cuicocha is mirror-like, its perfectly still waters reflecting the blue sky and white clouds above. More wispy clouds hovered in the valley below us, to the side of the lake, and ringed the foothills of Imbabura volcano, whose mottled white crown was visible above the mist. I looked down into the sky in the lake, and across the tops of the low-lying clouds in the valley. I looked up to the rocky mountain peak, and everything was turned upside-down. The absolute silence added to the mystical atmosphere.
The deep green islands appear to float on top of the water, which changed colour as we trekked around the lake, as the equatorial sun rose higher, and the mists swirled around at incredible speed. A huge condor swooped round in ever-widening circles, the bright pink of the tiny orchids punctuated the blue and green landscape. A waterfall gushed out of the mountainside. This place was incredible.
The local indigenous folk knew that too. Like most water sources up here in the mountains, Inca legend recognised this as a sacred spot – this allegedly bottomless pool, a living lake, where bubbles could be seen rising up from the Earth’s core. This is one of those places where even non-natives can understand the concept of Pachamama, the Earth goddess, who gives the Quechua everything they have; but has also the power to take it away.
This region was inhabited by indigenous communities until the area was recently declared an ecological reserve, and they were evicted from the land they had nurtured and cultivated for centuries in Pachamama’s name. The Quechua were forbidden from accessing Cuicocha, so important in their ancient rituals, during which they would use the icy waters to cleanse themselves of all the spiritual “dirt” that had been accumulated over the past year. The Ecuadorian authorities were convinced the natives were covered in a different type of dirt, and pushed them as far out of sight as possible.
“Go away,” the mestizos would say, “you don’t wash. You smell.”
They would watch the Quechua trek from their villages down to the churches in the neighbouring towns to attend Sunday mass, and steal the sombreros from the men, and the shawls from the women.
“Dirty Indians,” they taunted. “Go and clean the streets, and then we will return your hats.”
And so the Quechua were forced to work on a Sunday, and prevented from following the imported religion that had been thrust upon them by the every people who were now not willing to share their houses of worship with them.
They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and this is certainly true of the native spirit. Sick of decades – centuries, even – of persecution, the communities developed well-organised groups, through which they could make their voices heard. They called for basic human rights. They demanded access to their own sacred lands. And now, three decades on, they have it.
Antonio, our beaming, indigenous guide, his long black hair plaited all the way down his back, told me this story proudly and sadly. An outspoken activist from a nearby Quechua community, he expressed his views eloquently and enthusiastically. He seemed wiser and more worldly than one would expect from someone who had grown up in such a remote, traditional community, but had made it his personal mission, since a very early age, to understand this situation his people had been placed in and to do what he could to improve it.
As we hiked around the lake, watching how it changed colour and temperament, Antonio told stories of his family, of Indian legends, of the land, of the wildlife. I learned how the people of the communities would trek up to Cuicocha for Inti Raymi, the festival held on the summer solstice. They would bathe in its chilling waters, before dashing back up the slopes to be warmed by a fire, and a shaman wafting the fire’s heat and smoke at them with the aid of a condor feather. The thought of it made me shiver. The celebrations would continue with the people travelling from village to village, from house to house, drinking chicha and dancing the traditional stamping dance of the Indians, to music played on tiny guitars and Andean quena flutes – made, it is said, from the hollow thigh bone of a condor.
The Quechua people, like indigenous communities all over the world, have an almost tangible sense of their roots, of where they came from, of the land they sprung from centuries ago. They have grasped forcefully onto their beliefs and their way of life. And now, finally, now they not only have a strong sense of their rich past, but also of their future.