Today found us returning to Ibarra to visit friends and continue our dental program, which was started in 2002.  On our way out of Quito, as we were driving through the Guapalo neighborhood, I thought once again what a beautiful town this really is. The winding streets through this hill town really resemble villages we have seen in Spain. Upon leaving Quito, you travel through mountains that are dry and much like  areas of Africa. After reaching the town of Cayambe, the terrain turns lush and green. The patchwork farms on the sides of the mountains are a lovely site. One thing that strikes everyone as they travel through this part of Ecuador is that fields are planted on the vertical slopes of the Andes. The area is well-known for fresh blackberries and strawberries. A great blackberry syrup, called arrope de mora, is made here, and is awesome on pancakes. 

In Ibarra, we learned that the Rancho Totoral, at Lago Yarguacocha, where we have been staying for a lot of years, had been sold and turned into a private residence. So we lodged at the Hotel Montecarlo in the central part of the city. We shared a great seafood dinner with or friends Nicolas Herrera and his daughter Soly. Afterwards, we walked to the Casa de la Cultura for a private showing of Nicolas’ new sculpture installation. Both Nicolas and Soly are artists and both have had shows at Lexington’s Central Library Gallery, under the auspices of Kentucky Ecuador Partners. 
After Nicolas finished his exhibition in Lexington, we shipped his paintings to McAllen, TX to the Latin American Museum. He added more paintings to the show, for a total of 50 paintings. His opening there coincided with an International Surgery Conference, which held its opening reception at the museum. Nicolas sold every painting at $5,000 each. He used the proceeds from this event to build his cultural center in Ibarra, a stunning facility high on a hill, with a panoramic view above Lago Yarguacocha. 

In the several years since he was in Kentucky, Nicolas has created monumental sculptures which have been placed in the central parks of the towns of San Gabrial and Gitan in Carchi Province. He has been very successful and now has expanded his cultural center to increase his exhibition space by 120% and also is including a cafe, which Soly will manage. 

The next morning, Miguel Harrington, a friend who has worked with our projects since 1986, hired a truck with racks in the back to take us to schools above La Esperanza. Esperanza is at the foot of the Volcano Imbabura (15,121 ft.). Imbabura, the mother mountain, is held in high regard by the indigenous population, who ask her blessings for abundant crops planted on her sides (when it is raining in the valley, it is said to be Imbabura relieving herself). The local indigenous used to climb Imbabura to collect ice to sell in Ibarra. 

As you leave Esperanza and climb the mountain, you drive through stunning scenery, including eucalyptus forests and a patchwork of planted fields. You realize you have entered a world all its own as everyone here is indigenous. The type of bus these folks have to use is exactly what we are riding in, a truck with sides on the bed. The difference is, in their trucks, there might be 15 or more people. Everyone here still wears their native clothing and don’t seem to be affected by outside culture.( At one point on our way back down the mountain that morning, we came around a curve and realized we were following a pickup truck carrying a somewhat small casket along with one of the deceased’s family members, surrounded by funeral flowers and leading about 8 other mourners).

Finally, as we climbed higher and higher that morning, the truck began to sputter from lack of oxygen, just as we arrived at the school “El Abra” Our dental program was started here at this school in 2002 and we have seen a lot of success, more restorations in permanent teeth and few cavities and lost teeth. After applying ACP and distributing toothbrushes and beanie babies, we returned to Ibarra for Helado de Paila.
Ibarra is famous across Ecuador and in Queens, NY for its helado de paila. Although helado translates as ice cream, here it is made only from fruit juice, pieces of fresh fruit , ice and sugar and is made by hand by spinning the ingredients in a large, somewhat shallow bowl or paila, over ice, straw and salt, It is simply delicious and is also a great way to sample the different fruits of Ecuador.
Roalia Suarez began the tradition in 1897 by gathering ice from Imbabura’s glacier. She lived to be 105 years old, and the last time we were in Ibarra , in 2008, her then-93-yr-old daughter was still working the cash register at the original restaurant 7 days a week. Rosalia’s descendants still run the shops in Ibarra (there are three in this town, alone) and in Queens. You can find this fabulous sherbet across Ecuador.
Note: this idea did not originate with Rosalia. The Incas used to send runners to the glaciers for ice and make helado de paila. It was a special treat, saved for only the highest leaders.
The next day, Nicolas and Soly and the Skinners headed to Carchi to get up-close-and-personal with Nicolas’ monumental sculpture. The Skinners were a little apprehensive, as this would place us right on the border of Colombia. As we left Ibarra, we descended into the Chota Valley and within just a few minutes the temperature rose dramatically and the terrain became very dry. This area is all farmland but is irrigated from the Chota River. 80% of the tomatoes eaten in Ecuador come from this area. It is inhabited by Afro-Ecuadorians. One inhabitant in 1988 was a tall, lanky goalie who accompanied our Ibarra team to Winchester and Lexington to play in a series of soccer games. In conjunction with the Sister Cities International Convention, which was meeting in Lexington. Lexington Sister Cities sponsored an Under-18 international tournament with teams from Canada, France, Ireland, USA, Italy and Ecuador. GRCHS Soccer Team in Winchester sponsored the Ecuador team. Ireland ended up winning the tournament, but Ecuador won everyone’s hearts, as they fought every game to the last second. Ecuador  played France for 3rd place and the game ended 0-0; then, after overtime, with no score, a shootout was required. The kid from Chota stopped every shot-on-goal and gave Ecuador its victory. Upon his return to Ecuador, we requested that the American Embassy send someone to scout this young man out. They did and the rest is history. The kid’s name was Giovanny Ibarra and he would go on to become the most famous goalkeeper in the history of soccer in Ecuador, and he would go on to lead the national team to many victories. He was there for the 2008 World Cup when England’s David Beckham bent a shot to defend Ecuador, winning the semi-final game. It is our understanding that he is still playing on the national team.
Upon leaving Chota, you climb into the cloud forest and the views are just spectacular. When we arrived in San Gabrial, we were stunned by the massive sculpture which met us as we got off the bus. We were all speechless. We asked how many pieces the sculpture was transported in and were told it was moved all of-a-piece. He must have had to use a Mac-type-truck, with a flatbed. He says he has a movie of the whole thing, and was given police assistance all along the highway.
We then rented two taxis and were off to Gitan, a small village near the Colombian border. We took the old cobblestone road to get there, again seeing beautiful scenery. After checking out the other sculpture, we headed back into town, where their Saturday market was in full swing. We had (of course) ice cream before boarding a bus for the trip back to Ibarra.
That evening, we journeyed to Nicolas’ house and foundation where Soly was fixing dinner for us. We arrived early enough to see the garcas, the beautiful white birds which come up through the river  valley every night around sundown to roost around Lago Yarguacocha. It really is remarkable to see these pretty birds float in, first in 2’s and 3’s, then in larger groups, finally in groups of 30-40 or more, to spend the night on the lake, then return the next day to feed around the nearby river.
We were given a private tour of the cultural center and saw all the new construction. This is going to be a truly handsome sculpture and art destination.For dinner, Soly prepared loco de papas, (potato soup with avocado), shrimp, choclos (corn, but better than anything found in the U.S.), llapingachos (potato cakes with cheese; also has a little achiote added right in to the frying oil), avocadoes, green salad and fresh-squeezed blackberry juice (jugo de mora). Soly is a terrific cook, and we were all stuffed as we returned to our rooms to pack and bid farewell to our friends and to our Sister City.

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