April 28, 2022
The following is a note from trip leaders, Kevin Hopsicker & Joanie Davis:
Hello, hola from Yunguilla! We sit and write the next update as the low fog rolls over verdant green hillsides, slowly shrouding the surrounding mountains in a mysterious beauty. However, before we shed some light on the wonderful enigma of the homestay experience in Yunguilla, we must first pick up where we left off in Mindo.
We awoke in Mindo to a light rain that would soon burn off – it was at this point in the trip that we truly realized what rainy season on the equator really meant. In Mindo, we visited a butterfly sanctuary, giggling as butterflies landed on hands, noses and hat brims all around us. We then took a jungle tram – kind of like a horizontal chairlift – to a reserve where we hiked past several waterfalls while searching for the rare pajaro gallo, ever elusive. The kids received some much deserved independent exploration where they could build independence while exploring the town in small groups. And finally, that evening we went on the much awaited chocolate tour, sampling chocolate until our stomachs burst. Lindo Mindo certainly delivered, but we soon would be off to Yunguilla and one of the most interesting components of our trip: the homestay experience.
Yunguilla, Yunguilla! Kichwa for “choque de nubes” or “clash of the clouds”, Yunguilla is a sustainable community nestled in the mountains outside of Quito. It is a unique town sitting in the middle of two conservation areas, in which the famed Andean Bear makes its home. Yunguilla lives up to its name – in the morning blue skies and sun warm the hills, but every afternoon almost without fail the clouds roll in crashing together and raining down to create the beautiful dark black earth that gives so much to the people and animals of the area. Yunguilla is a world renowned community because of its sustainable tourism. They produce almost all the food they consume. If the people don’t make it themselves then their micro-factories do – producing everything from fresh cheese, to recycled paper, to delicious jams or fresh plantain chips.
When we arrived in Yunguilla from Mindo we were given a tour of the community. Then, the students were split into groups and sent off with their families for the first of six nights. The next morning we woke up and met to help the community with some service work. We split into groups, some going off to make cheese in the cheese factory, and others helping to clear and till the community gardens that were left dormant since the start of the COVID pandemic. We felt fortunate to be one of the first groups welcomed into the community since the pandemic, and were able to work hard all day – forming blisters and wearing out muscles. However, we weren’t too tired to miss the first of many fútbol games at the community field!
The second morning in Yunguilla welcomed us with an ominous cloud cover that blanketed the surrounding mountains. Our respective homestays fueled us well for the long day of work ahead: patacones (fried plantains), scrambled eggs, fresh cheese and fruit juice. Our meeting point was La Tienda, ‘The Store.’ Here in Yunguilla, there is only one store that sells products to the community. These can be anything from toilet paper to the homemade blackberry marmalade. Every community member works at the store for a 15 day cycle and then it rotates to the next person. It’s a central meeting point and well represents the ethos of this community. We continued to work on the projects from the day before: organizing an overgrown reforestation project and clearing land for a new garden for the local restaurant. Both were hard work. A group of students spent hours hoeing land to break up the fertile ground below. The other students cleared overgrown trees and restarted a project that was abandoned midway due to the outbreak of the pandemic. Our hands were covered in dirt and blisters, backs sore from the day before. Not only did we feel intimately connected to the environment with dirt caked under our fingernails, but we harnessed a true appreciation for a long day of manual labor. Throughout the day a few students alternated in the chip factory making plantain chips to sell in La Tienda. At the end of the bagging process we literally enjoyed the fruits of our labor. As always, the afternoon finished off with a competitive game of fútbol.
The students continued to get more comfortable in their new homes. Sunny and Cheyenne learned how to make homemade bread as their baby sister, Soy, crawled on the floor below them. Charlie and Nate sat for hours with their adoptive dad, Manuel, and spoke Spanish. Mahala and Grace fed a baby cow from a large milk bottle. August and Owen engaged in a competitive game of Uno. And Ian, Ben and Alexander learned a new card game in Spanish that took 2.5 hours to play. We are grateful to be welcomed into a community with sincere warmth and affability.
On the third morning in Yunguilla we woke up to a startling sight: sunny weather and clear blue skies. We ate breakfast mesmerized by the picturesque vistas; it was a moment of unanimous awe as the snow capped peaks in the distance revealed themselves to us for the first time. Our dear friend and guide, Jorge, excitedly named the peaks and described the numerous ways to summit and climb the mountains. To our north we have the three Pinchichas: Wawa (baby), Padre (father), and Abuelito (grandfather). They’re popular climbs among Ecuadorians and a way to train for Cotopaxi by connecting all three summits in a day. Today, we finished off our projects in the morning and enjoyed a well deserved afternoon off. Some played cards while others played another competitive game of fútbol. We all set off for our respective homes with tired bodies and happy hearts.
Yunguilla day four: the trek. After three hard days of work, students had the option to sleep in or wake up early to milk the cows. Ben was the only one to take advantage of the morning activity. We walked through the dense fog to a pasture up on the hill where two cows casually grazed throughout the day. Our milk guru, Julio, whistled for the cows to come closer and set up a tire of feed to distract the cow as he tied her back legs together to ensure she didn’t kick. Our homestay’s Labrador Retriever kept a close yet curious distance from the cows. Julio showed us the milking gesture and we awkwardly retrieved a few cups of milk from the cow’s utter. Afterwards, Julio swiftly finished off the process with incredulous talent and speed. Other students enjoyed the extra bit of sleep and we all met to trek in the late morning. We hiked a Culunco, an ancient path that was used by indigenous peoples throughout history. These paths connect small communities from the coast to the mountains; they are sunken into the earth sandwiched between walls of vegetation due to centuries of foot traffic and water erosion. Ferns fanned overhead and our guide, Diana, pointed out endemic orchids that emit a vanilla essence.
We spent the remainder of the Sunday with our respective families as the rain clouds settled around us.
On our last day in Yunguilla we volunteered at the primary school. One teacher educates 20 children from the community. As students get older, they travel farther from Yunguilla to get their education. We taught English, played games and enhanced our connection with our adoptive siblings. In the afternoon, we worked at the marmalade micro-factory. They make four flavors of organic marmalade from the fruits native to the land: blackberry, strawberry, uvilla and chigualcan. It was nice to see the process of a product we ate copiously over the past week. Our time in Yunguilla finished with a fiesta thrown by the community. We ate, showed off our improved Spanish, and of course, played a game of fútbol. We are grateful for this community and the experience of living with families to truly understand Ecuadorian life. Ciao!
There was a really fun jungle swing! Can’t wait to tell you the story…
Don’t worry, I am definitely not sunburnt and I don’t have any bug bites… I love you and can’t wait to see you!
The homestay is awesome and I got to milk a cow!
I’m having lots of fun. Can’t wait to see you guys soon.
I am 2 bracelets and 3 rings in. The cloud forest is cool.
Homestay has a cool child. Kaia, I’ll bring you back a llama.
There’s a lot of soup in the place where we are now. Also, I saw snow on the top of some tall mountains.
I have a new cool scarf. Love you.
I’m having fun. Hope things are well at home.
Thinking of you and I’m having fun.
I got electrocuted by a shower head; Ecuador is exquisite!!