For our travels and occupational therapy work in Quito, click here.
Arrival in Yunguilla
Yunguilla is an eco-reserve that houses roughly sixty families within the Cloud Forest. In 1995, the community started its sustainability efforts to preserve the land. Nearly everyone within the Yunguillas community has a specific role to help and support the community. Using milk and fruits they have harvested, they create milk and jam. They sell this milk and jam, and this is the community’s primary source of income. The community has many conservation projects happening, including a nursery to begin placing native plants and trees that were lost as well as their reforestation project to combat the aftermath of the destructive deforestation project that occurred before 1995. People from all over the world come to visit Yunguilla and learn about their conservatory and sustainable community. Most of the folks that live within the community were born here, and have lived here since the beginning of the village centuries ago.
We took a bus from Quito and traveled three hours north, deep high into the Andes Mountains. Our drive to Yunguilla was enchanting in itself. We could see we were ascending higher, we could see and drive along the cloud formations floating along the mountainside. When we arrived at Yunguilla, our homestay families welcomed us.
Stephen and I were incredibly lucky. We were selected to live with the grandfather of the village, Guillermo. Guillermo is a charming man whom you will never see without his brown hat. He welcomed Stephen and I with open arms and we followed him back to his home. Guillermo lives in a small wooden cabin only with a living room and two bedrooms. The kitchen was attached outside of the main living space. Inside the kitchen is where we met Guillermo’s wife, Olympia. She is soft-spoken, and her cooking skills are legendary. She is known as the cook in the village, and many of the villagers learn how to cook from Olympia.
I am very thankful that I had Stephen as my roommate. He is a wonderful human, but his Spanish skills are quite adept for a non-native speaker and he helped my communication with Guillermo and Olympia.
Before Stephen and I went to bed, Guillermo asked if we would like to join him with milking his cows in the morning.
A Mountainside Sunrise and a Morning With the Cows
Stephen and I woke up at 5am to go help Guillermo milk his cows. We thought the cows were pasteurizing a few paces behind his house, boy we sure were wrong. Instead, we had a beautiful morning hike down the mountain and met the family dog, Mac. As we started our hike down the mountain, we could see the warm morning light peaking behind the blue mountaintops.
Community Work and Involvement
After Stephen and I spent the morning with Guillermo, we met up with our class to try a swing that was attached to the mountain. The swing sweeps over the mountainside and above the valley with no harness, so it was daunting at first. We loved it in the end.
We spent a great part of the day touring and helping with various sorts of projects that the community undergoes to preserve their sustainable economy. These projects include: creating and selling jams and cheese, painting napkin holders for markets, and gardening and planting to help repopulate the area’s diverse flora.
After our work and some power naps, we played soccer and volleyball with our Ecuadorian friends. It was not until we were playing soccer did we realize how much the altitude affects your conditioning. But, I’m proud of my cohort for holding our own against the Ecuadorian soccer gods.
That evening, the Yungillas community held a special celebration and party for us as a way of thanking us for our exchange of ideas and contributions. Everyone was given a bracelet made from the community with each one its own unique set of colors. Our homestay families tied them around our wrists and we exchanged hugs. Afterwards, the community sang traditional hymns, and we danced our hearts out all night.
An Incan Trail Amongst the Clouds
The next part of the day constituted hiking along an Incan trail. To get to the start, we all took a truck and stood in the back of the trailer. We all held onto each other, laughing, trying not fall over with the quick jerking and rumbling of the truck. We all sang “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen and sang our hearts out. The Incan trail was steep, but the view of the seven volcanoes hidden amongst the clouds was well worth the trek.
“We hugged for a nice few seconds, then when I thought we were done and attempted to pull away, he held on for just a little longer.”
Just like any beautiful meeting of new friends, there came the time where we had to say goodbye to our homestay families and the community. Goodbyes can be hard. So hard, many of us skip them with some of our relationships. But, goodbyes are magic: they provide the opportunity to both experience and express the value that the interaction, relationship, or person has had in our life. Stephen and I gave Olympia hugs, but Guillermo was nowhere to be found. We were worried that we were going to miss saying our goodbyes to our homestay grandfather. Fortunately, as Stephen and I were preparing to get onto our bus, Guillermo came driving in with his son in their old family truck.
I will never forget the hug Guillermo gave me. We hugged for a nice few seconds, then when I thought we were done and attempted to pull away, he held on for just a little longer. I will never forget his smile, laugh, and his notorious black hat.
The last segment of our trip took place in the Amazon Rainforest, a six-hour drive from Quito. The drive itself was breathtaking; the grass and villages composed of greens created a vibrant contrast with the orange and purple skies colored by the setting sun. Our home was with the Kichwa people at a lodge called Sinchi Warmi, which translates as “Strong Woman.” The Kichwa people are indigenous people of South America, and are a minor tribe composed from the Quechua people. Our welcome dinner was delicious, comprised of fresh tilapia, avocado, rice, and vegetables. We also tried their “Amazonian Redbull”, which was composed of tea and juice. We were also told that the location had a pet tarantula, and her cage is always left open so she can roam the canopied-rooftops of the lodge. Speaking of tarantulas, check out the video below of some of my peers finding a tarantula in their shower the night we arrived. Please keep in mind that we are world-class travelers.
Our time in the Amazon was spent panning for gold in the Rapodi River, hiking to a beautiful waterfall, making bracelets, learning about the medicinal plants the Quechua people were growing, and more. Our time hiking in the Amazon and reaching the waterfall was a glorious hike, and the waterfall waiting for us at the end was a remarkable reward.
One activity we really enjoyed was the making of chocolate from the arriba plant. We made fresh chocolate from the seeds and experimented using it as a facemask.
Our final moments at Sinchi Warmi consisted of a dancing celebration with the Kichwa people and a large fire. We could tell they put thought and heart into their dance for us, and we loved every part of it. At one point, we were all pulled in and we joined them with dancing around the embers of the fire. The morning after, we all went through a cleansing ceremony that included a large leaf from the jungle and smoke.