Big Flavors in a Cloud Forest: Discovering Ecuador’s Yunguilla

Big Flavors in a Cloud Forest: Discovering Ecuador’s Yunguilla
(Tim Johnson)

The streets of Quito can be chaotic at the best of times. Rolling out from the heart of this high-altitude city, a place where the heart quickens and your breath gets short, real fast—we only climbed. Soon enough, we found ourselves in the clouds.

Literally. Turning off the main highway, we curled up a dirt road, riding switchbacks further and further into a lush, dense rainforest. Higher and higher. It had been summery and bright back in Ecuador’s capital, but here the temperature was chilly. We were briefly delayed by a sudden traffic jam—cows on the road, with a few enthusiastic dogs and a solitary, weary-looking farmer trying to move them out of the way.

Higher still, the road straddled a narrow strip of land, sheer, precipitous cliffs falling away on both sides. Dark mist surrounded from a sky that felt close enough to touch. We were now in an Andean cloud forest, a place almost perpetually wrapped in the fog produced in the space where the cold air descending from snow-capped mountaintops meets the warm and humid air below.

We reached a roadblock. A chain was strung across the road, a guardhouse to one side. I worried we would face questions, or maybe some sort of passport check. But a smiling man simply unhooked the barrier, happily waving us through to his little village in the heavens.

(Tim Johnson)
(Tim Johnson)

Home in the Clouds

This was Yunguilla, a peculiar and beautiful place. Secluded—you’d never just stumble across it—the village was established as a sort of agricultural and ecotourism collective less than 30 years ago. It’s now a tourist attraction where casual visitors can spend the day, or even a few nights, sleeping in the on-site lodge or one of almost two dozen private homes where families host guests.

On a visit, you can get your hands dirty with some of the farm work, or take a hike along an ancient trail that leads all the way back to Quito. The Inca used to walk it—for weeks—to trade at the market at San Francisco Square. (Now people mostly take early morning strolls along a small portion of it. There are waterfalls nearby, too.)

First up for me? Lunch. Having parked the car, we huffed and puffed up a steep hillside, reaching a lovely private home. Sitting down at a rough-hewn table just outside, I chatted with my local guide, Lisbeth, and a man named Roland, who was one of the founders of the community. Originally, 18 families came together to form this place. “They called them the 18 crazies,” Lisbeth laughs. That number has now grown to 55 families. Their mandate has been to protect the cloud forest from mining and lumber operations and work together to promote entrepreneurship and profits.

We dug into a hearty, mountain meal. First, spinach soup with popcorn, then chicken with potato tortillas and beets. “Organico,” Roland said, noting that everything on our plates was grown right here. He gestured around. “We are in the middle of the forest,” he said, noting the diversity of exotic flora and fauna you can find in this place: 120 species of birds, and more than 100 types of orchids. Pumas and mountain toucans. Even an Andean bear that looks like it’s wearing glasses. “It’s called a spectacled bear,” Roland said, showing me a photo on his phone of one who recently wandered nearby.

In his 60s now, Roland is from this place, having lived in these mountains all his life. Growing up, he said, the work was hard. His family grew sugar cane and made alcohol from it. At the age of 10, he routinely trekked through the forest many hours to sell in the nearest market town. By saving money, he bought mules to make the work easier. Then built up his farm. Shaking our hands, his grip was firm, and he wished us a good day.

Thriving Community

Lisbeth led me back down the hill, the views all around improving as the fog and cloud lifted. Verdant, velvety ridges emerged from the mist. Small homes and farms dotted the surrounding slopes. We popped into a small shop filled with products made here: marmalades and jams, cheeses and chips, sweet potatoes and roasted fava beans. All with “Yunguilla” on the label.
(Tim Johnson)
(Tim Johnson)

Lisbeth is young, in her early 20s, and was born and raised in this community. Her parents couldn’t afford post-secondary education themselves, but were able to send her to a private university. She graduated with a degree in business administration. Other kids have been able to learn English, or tourism, or even take culinary classes and create beautiful dishes in the village’s mountaintop restaurant, which overlooks a volcano.

Unlike many rural places and small towns, she noted that it’s common for young people to return here, get jobs, and stay in the community. “Working together, we’ve improved quality of life. We have nice houses, education, internet,” she said.

On foot, we wound up a narrow path to a series of little “fabricas,” which is where the magic happens. In one small building, they make two types of fresh cheese, processing as much as a couple hundred litres of milk every day. “People have one or two cows, and they bring the milk here every morning,” Lisbeth explained, noting that they pay 20 cents a litre above market value for the milk.

Next, another fabrica, this one for marmalade. The factory was founded by women, Lisbeth explained, adding that many of the leadership positions in the community are filled with females. All of the fruit is grown in the community—strawberries and blackberries, as well as an Andean fruit known here as uvilla, and chigualcan, a “mountain papaya” cultivated only at high altitudes. Jarred and labeled and certified organic, it’s now sold in some of Quito’s finest food shops. I regretted not buying any in the shop, earlier.

Soon, it was time to go—just as the sun began to peak out, piercing those clouds, for a fleeting moment. Back in the car, back down the switchbacks—the farmer and his cows and his energetic canines, now gone. Out of the mist, and onto the highway. Just a couple hours later, back on the bustling streets of Quito, it all feels a little like a dream, a fit of my imagination. A village in the mist, making beautiful food. Next time I visit, I promised myself, I’d leave with more marmalade. And definitely some of that fresh cheese, too.

If You Go

Getting There: Quito’s Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Ecuador’s busiest, was opened 10 years ago, and still feels new. It is serviced by nonstop flights from a number of U.S. cities, including Houston and Atlanta.
Stay: If you prefer to visit Yunguilla as a day trip, a stay at the Swissotel Quito is a good option. Located on a broad avenue outside the city center, the hotel has a courtyard pool; big, cushy suites; and a number of restaurants within easy walking distance.
Getting Around: While you could rent a car and drive yourself, it’s preferable to hire a Quito-based guide to handle the tricky mountain roads and potential language barriers. From the capital, Yunguilla can be reached in about 90 minutes, if the traffic is light. Once you arrive, a local guide will take you on a walking tour.
Take Note: Even if you’re just doing a day trip, make sure to call ahead, so the folks in Yunguilla can anticipate your arrival, arrange a local guide and tour—and get the soup on. You can find more details by following the contact details here:
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.
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