By Susan Burke March
If you are a nature lover, there’s a special way to experience the unique and distinctive flora and fauna of Cuenca and Ecuador.
Cuenca-based PassifloraCourses offers educational programs to help you fully appreciate the local nature, culture and natural health options. They are professionally led field trips and lectures, given in English or Spanish, created by a biologist who wants to share the knowledge of nature in the Cuenca and the surrounding area.
With a typical tour you’re often part of a disparate group of expats, some who may just be passing the time, or worse, with others who may rather be somewhere else — impatiently complaining or lagging behind.
This experience with Passiflora is quite different. The courses, which can vary in length from a half-day to more, are designed for those who want much more than an outing, and want to learn from the best and most experienced professors. The opportunity is quite unique — a hybrid indoor study and field adventure, having fun, and meeting like-minded people — people who might become future friends.
I spoke with Caty Frenkel, the founder and biologist of PassifloraCourses.
Caty was born in Costa Rica and she graduated with a Master of Science in Biology from the University of Costa Rica. Over the past 20 years, she has worked in scientific research and environmental conservation projects. While studying and then working for the Organization for Tropical Studies in San José, Caty met her husband Eduardo Toral, who is also a M.Sc. in Biology.
In 2004, Caty and Eduardo moved to Quito, where they both worked for different NGOs and institutions involved in research and conservation. A year ago they decided to move to Cuenca, where Eduardo grew up. They wanted to raise their little daughter in a smaller and family-based city.
Caty founded PassifloraCourses in Cuenca last June, and in August of 2015 she launched her first Birds and Birdwatching Course. Caty says, “The PassifloraCourses are for anybody with an adventurous spirit and willingness to learn while having fun and making new friends. Our focus is on nature, culture and health and our courses are dedicated to the people interested in gaining knowledge and experiencing field activities at the same time.”
Caty says that no previous experience or knowledge is needed, and all courses are presented in a simple way that everyone understand. But the courses are not just a stroll in the woods, and you’re definitely not on your own. Instead, the courses are designed for people who want to have a hands-on experience in the field with experts who can answer their questions, and who will guide them to something very special.
Caty sends participants PDFs of scientific papers in advance of the courses, allowing them to acquaint themselves with the subject matter. She often includes a fun activity for the participants that makes the course not only educational but entertaining too. She also invites special guests to give talks about local projects related to the course subject.
Chris and Teresa Lane-Lightfoot, an expat couple living in Cuenca, signed up for the first Birds and Birdwatching course last August. The course was limited to a manageable 16 participants, and took place over two days.
During the first 5-hour day, renown biologist Fabián Rodas, the Coordinator of Cuenca’s Office of Nature and Culture International (NCI), who was hired specifically for his knowledge of birds and his ability to communicate in both English and Spanish, presented about bird characteristics, diversity, conservation, and best of all, how to bird watch!
The second day began early — to see a wide variety of species, you’ve got to get up before first light — and was spent in the field with Caty and Fabián. Everyone had fun putting the knowledge learned the previous day into practice in the field.
As Teresa told me, this course was so much more than she had expected.
Teresa is a veterinarian, board-certified in avian veterinary medicine, and if anyone knows birds, she does. She said, “My husband and I thought the course was excellent! Caty and Fabián were both extremely knowledgeable. The lecture portions of the two-day course were as educational and enjoyable as the field trips. Many of us were new to birding, but several experienced birders attended and were very pleased with the experience.”
She continued: “More than just a birding course, we learned tips about the right type of equipment to buy for future outings, the ideal times to see a variety of bird species, and many species-specific pieces of information not readily available elsewhere. We look forward to our next adventure with PassifloraCourses!”
Another Cuenca expat, Stacy Stovall, was also a part of the first Birds course. “This was not your run-of-the-mill ecotour. The reason I came to Ecuador was to continue my work with indigenous communities in wildlife habitat conservation, which has been my career for the past 25 years. I took the course because I wanted to learn more about habitat conservation efforts in Cuenca and the surrounding area. The birding course was well worth it and was everything I had hoped it would be.”
PassifloraCourses just presented their first Grassland (Páramo) Ecosystem and its Common Plants course this past week. The páramos are the high plateaus of Ecuador, and are especially vulnerable to climate change, deforestation, and changes in land use. This course includes lectures and field walks in the gorgeous natural area surrounding Cuenca.
The Páramo course began in the “classroom”, where professor Fabián covered an introduction to páramo (grassland) ecosystems, adaptations of the flora and fauna of this area, and the efforts to conserve the area. The next day was in the field, where participants sought out and documented a wide variety of common páramo plants.
Terry and Chiyemi Doyle, experienced and intrepid travelers, were part of this latest adventure. Terry said, “On Friday the group traveled to Challaubamba where professor Fabián taught a comprehensive overview of the science of the páramo, including biology, water resources, importance to the environment (the “water towers of the Andes”), animals, and human history. This was followed by delicious tres leches dessert and coffee and a ride back to Cuenca.
On Saturday we met early in the morning and traveled toward Gualaceo, stopping at the Mailas Lagoon. We spent the day hiking, listening, and learning, taking time for breaks and lunch. A highlight of the course was the extraordinary amount of information imparted by professor Adolfo Verdugo, a botanist from the University of Azuay, who enthralled us with his knowledge of medicinal uses, edibility, and other important facts about the vast array of plants, fungus, and lichen we observed throughout our day.
As the sun set we returned to Cuenca with our new friends and an appreciation of an area that exists here and nearby but nowhere north of Guatemala nor further south than Peru — a very special place.”
As with all PassifloraCourses, the fee covers everything — the courses, the transportation, entrance fee, and meals – for the Birds course, they included a homemade lunch. This past week’s Grasslands course included a very special lunch in the outstanding Hostería Santa Bárbara in Gualaceo.
Caty says that her motto for PassifloraCourses is, “Experiencing Local Knowledge”. Her goal is to promote local knowledge by hiring professionals living in Ecuador who want to share their academic expertise and experience in a specific area through courses involving nature, culture and health.
Learn while being part of a new experience, and have fun doing it. And meet others like you — interesting people, passionate about learning, always open to new experiences and knowledge.
PassifloraCourses: Nature, Culture, and Health Courses
Contact: Caty Frenkel: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information, pricing, and future courses.
Phone: 099 252 0103 or (07)-407 5109