Hacienda Chan Chan, Cuenca, Ecuador
May 12-18, 2019
Our time in Cuenca was incredible. It’s such a beautiful city with so many things to see and do (see Della’s post here and Amelia’s post here and Annabelle’s post here) but after two months of settling, we felt it was time to mix things up a little.
We’d heard rumors of a special farm, not too far away, in the hills above Cuenca – a working dairy farm run by an ex-pat family that offered volunteer opportunities (that we found on workaway.info) and rustic cabin rental accommodations (including an amazing tree house!) to visitors from around the world. We had loved our French farm stay experience earlier in our trip – read posts here, here and here – and have searched for similar opportunities ever since. So we contacted the owners of Hacienda Chan Chan, Julie and Luke, and asked if they’d be interested in having us come work in exchange for room & board. After a couple of emails introducing ourselves and explaining what we’ve been up to these last 10 months, they invited us to come volunteer on the farm for a week.
So after wrapping up our long-term stay in Cuenca proper, we swapped our school books and Spanish class schedules for rainboots and shovels, and headed for the hills.
Hacienda Chan Chan sits on about 90 breathtaking hectares of land and has a herd of about 75 dairy cows (30 currently milking). It also has horses, donkeys, pigs, chickens, goats, ducks and two wonderful dogs. Julie, Luke and their staff milk the herd twice a day and sell much of the milk to distributors in town. What they don’t sell they process on site, making cheese, yogurt and butter which they provide to staying guests and sell in downtown Cuenca. The farm is HARD WORK and watching Luke and Julie do what they do every day while we were there for the week was exhausting. Oh, and did I mention they’re also raising five awesome kids?!
We realized fast that life on the farm never stopped. Everyone did their part and everyone was always busy. On our very first afternoon we helped herd cows for milking from impossibly-steep hillsides, moved fences (along said impossibly-steep hillside) so the cows would have fresh grass, and watched Luke and Julie artificially inseminate a cow! Phew! (Christiana note: this also happened to be Mother’s Day – no rest for working farm mamas).
Herding and milking the cows
The girls got to milk a cow and goat by hand and learn how different cheeses and yogurt are made, which we then got to enjoy for breakfast each morning with fruit and delicious homemade bread.
The four of us spent two days surveying and re-marking two walking trails around the property. Many of the trail markers were worn or missing completely and Julie told us that guests were getting lost while out hiking. Doing this work was a true family team effort. With Amelia on stake duty, Annabelle on paint, momma on marker and navigation and me on the hammer we climbed our way up and tumbled our way around both trails until both of them were (we hope) easily navigable again. The views up there made it all worthwhile.
Another job during our week at the farm was more fun than it was work. Julie asked us to create a scavenger hunt for young kids visiting the farm. We wrote a series of riddles to find and placed them at different locations around the farm. Each riddle led the scavenger to another riddle which led them to another and then another until finally discovering the final location and a prize! The prize??? Julie’s super-secret, incredibly delicious bread recipe. Priceless.
We loved being surrounded by animals all day. Coming from the city our exposure to animals is limited to leashed dogs and house cats with attitude. Feeding a calf, chasing chickens, and herding cows were opportunities we’d never had before and this exposure definitely changed what we thought we knew about these animals. Chickens don’t exactly welcome being chased by kids, but seem to love being hugged, once caught. And baby calves like to run and play around like puppies.
Annabelle and Gwen became fast friends over the course of the week. Baking together, exploring together and on the final night, camping together under the roof of a pigsty. Annabelle was quick to tell us in the morning that it didn’t smell “too bad” sleeping next to the piggies.
One of our favorite memories on the farm was totally unexpected but insanely fun. “Stop work!” We heard Luke shouting, “we have something very important to do!” We turned to see Julie holding a frisbee, walking with Luke and all the kids toward the small cow pasture above the vegetable terrace. Julie assigned teams (boys against girls) and each side picked a name (Championes against Divas). For over an hour, in the waning sunlight, on a (fresh) cowpat-covered pasture, against the backdrop of lush Ecuadorian mountains, wearing filthy clothes and full-length wellie boots, we ran, jumped, dove, and fell down. Our two families pushed, threw, caught, dropped, scored, argued, cried and laughed. It was epic. These are the spontaneous moments we’ve come to appreciate the most over our year away… totally unexpected, yet stupidly simple.
Our week at Hacienda Chan Chan was one of our best all year. Getting our hands dirty and breathing fresh mountain air felt really good, and the time away from civilization was unexpectedly welcome. Luke, Julie and their entire brood couldn’t have been more fun or gracious. Thank you Hacienda ChanChan.
Onward to the Galapagos!