Finca Sagrada is a biodynamic farm using permaculture principles, nested in the Andes southeast of Ecuador. I began this volunteer position on Christmas day and was supposed to spend one month here… but I ended up staying for two months instead!
With a medicinal garden, fruits and vegetables in abundance, a big kitchen where one can always experiment new ideas, an (almost) always sunny climate, a river close by to get a bath everyday… this place gathered all the elements to make me stay.
Finca Sagrada in a few words
The finca is located about one hour from Vilcabamba, at the heart of a valley 1 500 m above sea level, surrounded by high green mountains. It stretches out over 4,5 hectares and a big river and a stream from where it gets it water (for the plants as well as for the house) run along. A mountain over 500 hectares overlooks the finca, which is also part of the property.
A fruit forest offers bananas, avocados, citrus, coffee… while the gardens provide local vegetables such as yucca, sweet potatoes, white carrots, beans, amaranth; as well as many other kind of vegetables and plants: tomatoes, zucchini, beetroots, chia, cucumber, radish, spinach…
There are also a few cows, donkeys, chickens, guinea pigs, goats, bees… from which we get milk, eggs, honey and of course compost for the soil.
The owners, Walter and Susan, are an American retired couple. They bought the property eight years ago, after having an immediate crush for it. Walter worked his whole life in biodynamic farms, while Susan organized small innovation networks in solar, organics, social investing, women’s economic empowerment, and socially responsible business. She also coaches individuals on how to trust their intuition to take risks around their values to find their destiny path.
Cristian, José and Carmen are the farm’s employees; they are from Palta origins, which is the local indigenous community. A multicultural team of volunteers is now part of the common effort, which makes the farm an ideal place to practice both English and Spanish.
Some nice hikes on the surrounding mountains are possible from the finca. The mountain that is part of the property reaches 2 400 m above sea level and offers some great views over the region, especially the peaks of Podocarpus National Park in the background.
The Inca Garden
Cristian is especially in charge of the Inca Garden, an aromatic and medicinal herbal garden. This garden is beautifully organized and gathers “classical” plants such as mint, oregano, basil, thyme, parsley, aloe vera… and others that are more specific to South America, like the escancel, the ruda, the mortiño, the novalgina, the dulcamara…
We use these plants everyday in the kitchen and to make some infusions. There are also various on-going projects to get to know better these plants and their possible uses: a booklet that would gather all the plants, describe their properties and give some recipes, as well as a bilingual signage that would be more clear on each plant in the garden.
The House of Original Thoughts
Walter and Susan were contacted about seven years ago by the mamos, the shamans of the Kogi tribe (an indigenous community from Colombia). They told them that their valley was a sacred energy point of the Earth and that it needed to be reopened. To reactivate the valley, they said they should first work with the Palta indigenous people, the original custodians of the area.
Then they started the project of building a House of Original Thoughts or Spirit House, literally a sacred house that would always be connected to the ones of the Kogi. The constructions thus started with the Palta and the Kogi in June 2018 and the house was entirely built with natural material and methods (bamboo, straw on the roof etc.).
Since then, the fire that is in the centre of the Spirit House always has to be kept going, day and night. The Kogi are now organizing to build eleven other Spirit Houses around the world to also connect with theirs. These will also be at sacred sites and will help restore the Earth’s energy grid so that she can function in a healthy way.
The Spirit House is now used at the finca as a place to meditate, to make ceremonies (every time the season changes for example), to get some rest… depending on the desires and needs of everyone. The Agnihotra is also organized every morning, which is a ceremony with some offerings just before sunrise.
Christmas in a new family
I went to the finca on the 24th of December. When I arrived, all the volunteers were buzzing in the kitchen, preparing each a meal from their country (Colombia, United-States, Italy, France…) for Christmas Eve. I felt integrated in a new family from this very first evening (where everything was delicious actually!). A basket with the names of everyone had also been prepared, from which we all picked up one name. We would then have to create and offer a Christmas present to this person.
On the following morning, we all offered our presents to each other. This moment was especially moving and memorable. Indeed, it went against the consumerist Christmas that we now all tend to live, with so many presents under the Christmas tree that we don’t enjoy them anymore. But on that case, everyone had created a present with what was available at the farm (plants, fruits, poem etc.). Only one present per person, made by hand with care and inventiveness… we didn’t need more to be amazed by everyone’s beautiful ideas.
A meditative New Years’ Eve
Once I had found my footings at the finca, the volunteers team progressively reduced, going from eight to three people. We were then a very small group for New Year’s Eve. We decided with Ivana, an Italian girl with who I was getting along well, to spend the evening at the Spirit House.
We spent a beautiful evening there, making offerings to the fire (cotton, dried flowers, freshly picked flowers) while meditating on what we wanted to get rid of, what we were grateful for and what we wished for this new year.
It was the first time that I could spend New Year’s Eve far away from society, and was thus free from having to bend to any social obligation (new year’s eve’s parties have never been my favourite). Taking some time to think about this very rich year of travel, about all the strong experiences that I had and the people I met, all the things I had learnt and what had changed in me; was the best way to close this chapter.
I then ended up full of gratitude and emotion for this year 2018, and ready to fully live the year 2019, which couldn’t start in a better way.
The farm’s daily life organisation
Work at the finca is globally well organized. A big board allows us to spread the common tasks that we all have to do throughout the day: watering the different gardens, feeding the chickens, keeping the fire at the Spirit House, collecting the fruits that fall on the whole property, etc. The meals preparation is also shared, from one to two volunteers in charge depending on the number of people for who we have to prepare the meal.
We then work with José, Carmen, Cristian or Walter for the whole morning, depending on the needs of the moment: preparing new beds for planting, weeding, fixing the water system (which blocks very easily depending on the weather), planting trees, transplanting, collecting dry cow manure, collecting wood for the Spirit House, etc.
The afternoons are then free, although they very often end up being very busy. Indeed every Tuesday is organized a “satire meeting”, a meeting during which we are all gathered. We first express things we are grateful for, then raise the problems we might have encountered and look for solutions for them. Finally we plan the organisation of the coming days and finish manifesting some personal affirmations, which we want to get realized.
Another afternoon per week, Walter gives a talk about biodynamics, in order to explain the main principles. From theory to practice, the experience at the finca is really complete!
Happiness in the kitchen
The kitchen is one of the biggest joys in this volunteering experience: an open, luminous, spacious and well-equipped kitchen, with a lot of high quality ingredients. Add to this creative volunteers coming from all over the world, each bringing their ideas and experiences to prepare healthy and tasty meals.
Sourdough bread, kombucha, kefir, fermented vegetables, granola, cakes and other vegan recipes, marmelades, yoghurt and cheese made with the cows of the farm… there is a lot to learn and test every day. The farm’s fruits and vegetables also tend to arrive in big waves, which force us to be even more inventive to cook them quickly and avoid loosing them (special mention for the banana breads, carrot cakes and maracuya pies, just to mention a few!)
The main challenge with such a cooking lab is to resist and not eat too much 😉
The animals at the farm
The finca counts with a few cows from which we get the milk. I discovered the joys of milking with these especially wild cows that are hard to handle, unless it is with José, Carmen, Cristian or Walter. But with the volunteers, they really know that we are beginners, so we’d better watch our bottom! Beyond the security aspect, milking the cows is much more difficult for the arms that it looks like and the feeling is quite disturbing… but it’s part of learning farm life!
Also, the weather is particularly dry in the region, so the mosquitoes and insects are present but nothing to compare with the jungle. Still, it’s very important to always be watchful at the moment of putting on the shoes or boots (watch out the scorpions, spiders or snakes that can hide in there at night!), where we put our feet in high herbs… and be careful in the chicken house, because we already found (and killed) two big snakes that were hiding there, eating our eggs sneakily!
Two weeks after my arrival, two baby goats were born but their mother was not giving them milk. By a set of circumstances, I ended up being alone at the farm to feed them during the first weekend that followed their birth (with fresh cow milk for want of anything better). It was first five times a day, then three times once they had grown a bit more. I then stayed like the main person in charge of the goats, in order to keep an eye on their growth and evolution.
Being their “second mum” was a very time-consuming task but also touching and very enriching. One month later, we found Tanguy, the little male, mysteriously died in the field. Could it be the father that stepped on him, another animal that bit him…? We will never know what happened, but these are the hard laws of nature.
This incident still made me think about the conflict around the introduction of wolves and bears in the mountains. I was sad to have only one baby goat dead, but can one imagine the experience for a shepherd to see his whole flock decimated at once?
Conclusion about the experience
I felt at the right place as soon as I arrived at the finca. The environment, the mountains all around, the delicious food, the peacefulness to practice my yoga, the bilingual English-Spanish environment, the spiritual dimension with the presence of the Spirit House, are just a few elements that made these two months such an enriching experience.
Not only the place itself, but the variety of the tasks, the excellent energy between the volunteers and the farm’s employees, the delicious food, the peacefulness to practice my yoga, the bilingual English – Spanish environment and the spiritual dimension with the presence of the Spirit House are many elements which made this experience so enriching.
Walter and Susan were just looking for one volunteer that could stay longer at the farm in order to develop new projects, supervise the volunteers, coordinate the actions with José and Cristian, manage the finca’s social media… they then offered me this position.
Having given it a lot of thought, I decided to travel for one month through Ecuador and come back to the farm for a minimum of three months thanks to a visa extension. If we can get a volunteer visa, I could stay up to one year at the finca, but nothing is sure yet.
This wouldn’t be the end of the trip nor of this blog but only a longer step to learn more about permaculture and all what farm life includes. A very enriching experience to come! (And still many stories to share following to this amazing month traveling through Ecuador 😉 )
To be continued…