TRAVEL AND ADVENTURE – Day Trip to Oña: Time Travel Made Easy

Jeff Salz

ISSUE 39
PAGE 14 – 15

By: Jeff Salz
Photos: Courtesy of Jeff Salz

“There is nothing to see in Oña. That’s what people say. In truth, there is everything. People don’t know that Oña is remarkable.” Our friend Veronica Cabrera is passionate about her home turf and throws down a challenge: “Are you willing to take a day and find out for yourselves?”  

 How could we say no?

 Day Trip to Oña: Time Travel Made Easy

Lower Falls at Oñas’ Cascadas de El Rodeo

En route, we head down a long dirt road to Calmecatl—a remote retreat center surrounded by wild paramo and native forest.  Eleven years ago the GAMMA Foundation purchased the property with the intention of creating a safe haven where women who had been impacted by domestic violence could gain life skills in a safe and peaceful environment. Recently, the center has opened its doors to outside groups and individuals. Sandra Lopez, GAMMA co-founder, gives us a tour of the property.

 “We’ve also hosted men’s groups,” explains Sandra. “Men exploring how they can join in the work of preventing domestic violence become better people and partner with the women in building a better society.” Calmecatl uniquely uses clean technology: minimum impact techniques including a natural filtration system to insure the water returning to the earth is the cleanest possible. As Sandra explains, “The mission of GAMMA is to re-weave the web of life in the healthiest ways possible. We help people realize that we are a part of nature and that in nature there are no competitive, hierarchal or violent relationships. Relationships found in nature are based uniquely on cooperation. Our center is a laboratory to explore how it is possible for us all to live in a different way.”

 Closer to Oña, we meet Elman Donaula and Alba Campoverde at their family-run brick-making operation. They laugh and joke with us, handing and stacking bricks the entire time. Engaging us in a lively conversation, they will only allow us to leave after we have promised to return as guests for the big New Year’s Eve parade.

Day Trip to Oña: Time Travel Made Easy

Making Bricks the Old Fashioned Way

Closer to Oña, we meet Elman Donaula and Alba Campoverde at their family-run brick-making operation. They laugh and joke with us, handing and stacking bricks the entire time. Engaging us in a lively conversation, they will only allow us to leave after we have promised to return as guests for the big New Year’s Eve parade.

 It’s a steep path down to the adobe house of doña Honorina Ramon. She bounds out the door, throws her arms around us and hugs us tightly with howls of happiness. Never in our lives have we felt so enthusiastically welcomed.  Bright-eyed and boundlessly buoyant, doña Honarina gives us a tour around her cafetal sharing the travails and triumphs of a coffee-grower’s life. When she proudly informs us that she is Ona’s reigning Reina de los Adultos Mayores (Queen of Older Adults), we are not surprised, but amazed there exists such a competition.

Closer to Oña, we meet Elman Donaula and Alba Campoverde at their family-run brick-making operation. They laugh and joke with us, handing and stacking bricks the entire time. Engaging us in a lively conversation, they will only allow us to leave after we have promised to return as guests for the big New Year’s Eve parade.

 It’s a steep path down to the adobe house of doña Honorina Ramon. She bounds out the door, throws her arms around us and hugs us tightly with howls of happiness. Never in our lives have we felt so enthusiastically welcomed.  Bright-eyed and boundlessly buoyant, doña Honarina gives us a tour around her cafetal sharing the travails and triumphs of a coffee-grower’s life. When she proudly informs us that she is Ona’s reigning Reina de los Adultos Mayores (Queen of Older Adults), we are not surprised, but amazed there exists such a competition.

Over coffee, we interrogate Honorina, searching for the secret of the remarkable resilience that belies her age. She responds, “It’s all about staying involved in life. I don’t just sit around; I do things that give me animo.  “And of course,” she says as she lifts her cup and releases a boisterous chuckle that shakes the room with gladness, “I drink a lot of coffee!”

Day Trip to Oña: Time Travel Made Easy

Doña Honorina Sharing the Secret of her Longevity

Oña’s other best kept secret is Las Cascadas de El Rodeo. From the road, it’s only fifteen minutes to the first falls and about the same distance to the next. A pleasant trail leads along a river, through forest and across a log bridge. Crystalline waters plummet with surprising fury into deep pools ideal for swimming on a sunny day. All alone on a Saturday afternoon, we marvel at the wild feel of it all.

At dusk, I gaze out of the car window as we head down the dirt road toward the highway and to our bus back to Cuenca. “Stop the car!” I hear myself yelling, “Oh my God! Where are we?” It’s a Twilight Zone moment… literally.  In the final light of day—in the blink of an eye—we have slipped backward through time. Old adobe buildings, wooden balconies, and battered hand-lettered signs on mud walls beneath tattered shingled roofs surround us. I leap from the car, snapping photos.

“This is San Francisco—the old town center of Oña,” Veronica informs us.
“Oña was once the most important trading hub between the mountains and the coast. There’s history here….Maybe even more than in Cuenca,” she gloats.

Day Trip to Oña: Time Travel Made Easy

Sarah Lopez of GAMMA at Calmecatl Retreat Center

Day Trip to Oña: Time Travel Made Easy

Romantic Glamping at Calmecatl Retreat Center

Veronica is right. A trip to Oña is remarkable. What makes it remarkable is how much it feels like traveling to the past. The barrio of San Francisco feels like the set of a Spaghetti Western…except for its mote, it’s in Ecuador, and it’s real. Oña’s waterfalls feel pristine and refreshingly undeveloped. Our visits all seemed from another era, laughing with people who live simply and happily, working hard but never too busy to offer unconditional hospitality to a complete stranger. Our time with Sandra Lopez at Calmecatl was a trip to the unspoiled mountain landscapes of the past. It was also a glimpse of the future—a very hopeful one—where people have learned to treat each other and the earth with respect and gratitude.

We bid farewell to Veronica at the bus stop. On the two-hour ride home, Jaffe and I recap our amazing day. As I think back on the delightful people we have met, tears well in my eyes.

“Me too,” offers Jaffe, “but then again,” she says, “Oñans always makes me cry.”

Jeff Salz

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