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Cotopaxi, cowboys, horseback riding

The stampede of wild cattle rushing through the high Andean páramo made a slight vibration on the ground. “Vaca, vaca, vaca carajo!” yelled the chagras to keep the cows moving in direction of the hacienda. It was the last day of roundup in Hacienda Yanahurco before the process of selecting and branding the cattle began. Beyond the adrenaline rush caused by my horse galloping through the ups and downs of the yellow hills, a sense of liberation threw my fears and reservations into the cold breeze. I soon found myself yelling at the cows as well, chasing after the deviant animals that dared escape up the mountains. Had I known the stress they were about to go through, I might have let more of them go back to their freedom.

One of the last true haciendas in Ecuador and the biggest one with 65,000 acres of páramo, Yanahurco is home to thousands of wild animals ranging from Andean Condors, Spectacle bears, wild horses and white-tail deer, among many others. For years owner Fernando Cobo has offered his piece of heaven up for nature lovers to visit, thus giving us a window to the beautiful wilderness at the foot of the Cotopaxi volcano.

After herding the cattle into the ranch stables, the chagras made two more rounds in the area to get the rest of the cows that managed to hide in the ridges of the mountains. This year only 12 chagras came for the cattle roundup, which made it very difficult to cover all the territory. Foggy days also contributed to missing a lot of cattle, therefore only 800 heads were rounded this year – half of what was rounded up last November.

Once the stable doors were closed and the chagras rested their horses, they were all back on the saddles making the gigantic herd move from stable to stable, ending in a very small space where horns dug into ribs and the call of cows looking for their calves drowned the deafening silence of the páramo.

As the animals began to stress over the screams of the chagras and the confined space they had squeezed in, some bulls began trying to hump cows, while others broke into diarrhea, and a few actually tried to jump over the high wooden walls of the stable. The air quickly filled with a strong stench, and above the cattle a cloud of steam formed, revealing just how many bodies tried to breathe-in the chilled oxygen.

One by one the herd had to line up and go through a very narrow hallway that ended in two possible openings: Through a red door the cows and young bulls meant to head back to the páramo walked into the main stable again, and through a blue door big bulls being sold to an abattoir walked into an arena. It is amazing how cattle follows the lead of one brave cow that unknowingly may be moving into freedom or death.

The slaughterhouse bulls were all sold in a matter of 60 minutes of walking into the arena, yet they had to be taken to a small corral on the side to await for their new owners to pick them up.

The remaining cattle was once again led to the small stable and then through the hallway. This time the young cows and bulls went through the blue door, behind which a group of chagras with lassos waited to take the animal down, cut its ears in the Yanahurco design and brand them with a hot iron staple.

It’s at the end of this process that cowboy rodeos begin and all who dare jump into the arena to tease the bulls. That’s when I took off. Something about the seemingly endless land of Yanahurco calls out to my feet constantly, until I can no longer resist, turning a stroll around the hacienda into a walk through the grassy surroundings and then into a hike up the straw-covered hills. Rabbits sneak in the high straw as they feel me approach, and the wild horses and deer grazing in the meadows lift their heads to stare at me as I pass by.

Up a near mountain the air feels thinner, making my lungs float in the breeze. Letting go of the stress passed on by the cattle, I start making my way back, then all of a sudden a familiar vibration puts me in alert. The chagras released the cattle, and all 800 of them are rapidly moving in my direction. As I sat near a river to watch the spectacle, I was once again reminded of the cycle of life. Next year the roundup will be performed again, some bulls will go to the slaughterhouse, and the Yanahurco cattle will return to their free grazing.




Further Information

Travel tips: call for reservations, take very warm clothing, bring sunblock. Remember the Andean páramo is a place of extremes: the sun is intense, the cold is chilling, the beauty is unpaired.
Must see/do at this place: must get on a horse and take a tour around the hacienda

Did you like this article? Then you'll like these: Bahia De Caraquez Rocks!, La Casa Del Molino Blanco, Betty Surf & Yoga Retreat, The Best Hotel In Otavalo, Ecuador To Relax And Rejuvenate, Que Paso?, The Devil's Nose, Pacha Chocolate, Hiking in the Cajas National Park, Guiding Yourself In Your Travels and Post Offices.

26 Nov 2007

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