How to live and farm in an old volcano

Pululahua in Ecuador is the only inhabited and cultivated volcano in the world.

While Pululhua Volcano – not far from Ecuador’s capital city, Quito – hasn’t erupted in 2,500 years, it left behind a doozy of a legacy: A giant caldera full of fertile soil and a wealth of fog that keeps vegetation lush. At 13 square miles, it’s a remarkably ample crater with a central lava dome rising 1,600 feet skyward that plays home to unique cloud-forest-loving orchids and other unique plants. The whole area became protected as a geobotanical reserve in 1978 and was later declared a national park.

But for hundreds of years on the crater floor and terraced moutainsides people have been putting Pululhua’s rich resources to work in the name of agriculture. Pululahua is one of only two volcanic caldera in the world that is inhabited, and the only one that is cultivated.

Named for the Quichua term meaning "smoke of water" or "cloud of water,” referring to the fog that rolls in and fills the crater each day, the caldera was likely first settled by the Incas. When the colonial Spanish came and divvied up much of Ecuador into haciendas, thousands of local people farmed the land in exchange for a small plot of their own – a system that was ended in 1963.

Farms in volcanoRinaldo Wurglitsch/flickr/CC BY 2.0Now it’s mostly the descendants of those early indigenous families tending to the half-dozen or so farms in the crater.

Organic crops of corn, sugar cane, beans and a rare variety of potato make up the bounty, which thrives in the mineral-rich soil left behind by the volcano. By some accounts, there is so little rainfall that the crops are nourished by the moisture of the daily fog. The farms are largely self-sustaining and the produce they grow is mostly sold at markets elsewhere. But as it turns out, this may be the last generation of farmers working the land as their ancestors have. A hostel has set up shop in the caldera and other tourism-inspired businesses are popping up, horse ranches and more modern organic farms.

The full-time population has dwindled to a mere 15 residents, according to NPR, and most of those are elderly. Their farms will likely be sold eventually, and maybe sooner than later. The younger families have left, not for greener pastures, literally, but in a figurative sense. The only school in the crater closed a few years ago and basic services are not available.

Living rurally is one thing, but doing so at the bottom of a plunging 45-minute car drive down the side of a volcano is another. But for a life in the clouds ... with an abundance of organic produce ... it sounds like heaven on Earth.

Tags: Agriculture | Ecuador | Farming | Organic Agriculture

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