Yunguilla and Maquipucuna, belonging to the Metropolitan District of Quito, are located within the Andean Choco Region – which was recently proclaimed a World’s Biosphere Reserve!
Besides its natural wonders, the region was also home to the Yumbo ethnic group who travelled the mountains to trade products from different regions of the country and made history by leaving behind the impressive Culuncos.
A bit of history: The Yumbos and the Culuncos
The Yumbos were a large ethnic group that inhabited the territory of the mountains northwest of the Andes, in the provinces that we now know as Cotopaxi, Pichincha and Imbabura. Their origin dates back to pre Inca periods in history when natives from the Amazon established social and commercial contact with villages of the Sierra.
The Yumbos were not warriors, they were traders. They had a small stature and used cranes for balance. They also carried with them a “chala” where they kept their food, and which they hung on their forehead (instead of their shoulder!).
During the 1640-1650, the Yumbos travelled the emblematic “Culuncos” that cross Yunguilla, in order to trade products such as fruit, fish, meat, and exotic plants (coming from the coast) and corn, chochos, salt and tubercles (coming from the Sierra).
*Coluncos are narrow trails deep within the forest, that make their way to the coast and under the forest (for protection from the sun and rain).
Fun fact: The word Culuncos comes from the sound of water moving inside the Surrunes (water bags, or modern day camelbacks) when in motion “culun, culun.”
The Yumbos were never focused on settling and building an empire, instead they travelled as nomads around the mountain chains of Ecuador.
However, they disappeared during the 19th century due to the eruption of the Pichincha volcano, which devastated the Pululahua area.
Evidence of their existence, and their use of the Culuncos has been found in the area.
- One of the most emblematic pieces of evidence of the Yumbos is Tulipe, a sacred place that used to be a ceremonial center. The remains still stand.
- The petroglyphs inscribed in stone were found in Tulipe and dispersed around the Northwest
- Los Culuncos: they were not built by the Yumbos, they are the result of erosions caused by heavy rainfall. Because the Yumbos traveled the route a lot, it slowly began to take shape.
Did you know? During the 1940/1950’s the Coluncos were used for alcohol contraband (an estimate of 200 mules were concentrated in the area). The reasons why hard liquor was desired were: 1. there was a high tax on alcohol and 2. Aguardiente had a really high degree of alcohol (between 60-70 degrees!).
Yunguilla: Becoming a Tourism Destination
Before the Agrarian Reform, Yunguilla was made up of 3 haciendas: Rosaspamba, Yunguilla and Hacienda Pela Gallo. Rich in history, and a high-biodiversity area, Yunguilla kept existing as the years went by.
Tourism wasn’t on the locals’ minds until 1995 when tourists from the Netherlands arrived and asked for a tour of the area. They couldn’t believe it! And when they started considering tourism, they didn’t think they had the capacity/suitable resources. But they started working for it and received 80 tourists on their first year.
In the last twenty years local communities have worked to create recreational routes in the area, hoping to attract more people from the city and teach them about the history of the valley and the conservation efforts that are being enforced to protect its biodiversity. The number has now gone up to 5,000 tourists a year, with about 60% of them who sleep in the community (half national/ half international.) Yunguilla is a great destination for cultural exchange because you can stay within the community and experience the hacienda life, amidst a cloudy paradise.
How to get there? Yunguilla is 1h 15 min away from Quito. Once you’ve passed Calacali, you’ll reach the old toll where a sign reads “Yunguilla Comunitary Tourism”, follow the paved road for 10 min.
You can use your own vehicle until you reach the parking lot in Yunguilla and then you must leave it behind to start the tour. (Whenever you visit you must have a guide and use the community’s transportation.)
Once you arrive you will find a community shop where you can buy all of the products made by members of the community. We recommend the delicious marmalade prepared by Gloria which Rosita, the shopkeeper, made us try.
Our tour guide, Galindo, greeted us at the shop. He introduced himself and stood proud as he told us he was the son of one of the first founders of the community and administrator of the Yunguilla Project.
When you plan your visit to Yunguilla you can choose one of the several tours where you can learn more about the Yumbos and Coluncos, and the contraband that happened later in time.
On a clear day, you can see volcanoes such as Mojanda, Fuya Fuya, the Pululahua crater, Pichincha, Imbabura and Cotacachi at the distance.
These tours include:
Hacienda Full Day: a tour around the hacienda including a visit to the community gardens ($20.00)
Culuncos Full Day: a visit to Chochal viewpoint (admire the culuncos) in the morning, lunch and hacienda ($28.00)
2 day tour: 1 night in a family hostel, a day in the hacienda and the next day visit Culuncos ($70.00)
Trekking through the Culuncos: From Yunguilla to Maquipucuna
During our visit we decided to embark on the full adventure and travel the stretch of the Culuncos that is still enabled. Departing from Zizipunta (a Yumbo cemetery), an 8 hour trek took us to through the forest and into Maquipucuna. (The Culuncos originally departed from Tulipe and culminated in Rumipamba.)
A Biodiverse Valley
A few months ago, this area was denominated a World’s Biosphere Reserve! As we walked through the forest, in admiration of the flora and fauna, we realized why. Everything was green, and there was a lot of water. We saw orchids and hundreds of birds. Our guide also explained that other animals that inhabit the region include
- Spectacled Bears
- Jumbo Bird
- 27 species of hummingbirds
- Andean Pava
The flora is quite impressive, too:
- Flor de Mayo (a purple flower, translates to Flower of may)
- Dedo de Bruja (yellow flowers known as “Witch Fingers”
- Ferns (one of the most ancient species in the world, survived the Ice Age)
- 15m cedars
- More than 400 species of orchids
The scenery was magical and mystical!
During our journey we crossed two rivers, the Santa Rosa and the Umachaca. The Umachaca River ran beside us for most of the path. After 8 hours, we arrived at Maquipucuna Lodge completely in awe. Tired, but in awe.
Next to the river we found a restaurant where we rested and enjoyed a great vegetarian meal. The accommodations were excellent, everything there was made out of cane and wood. The sound of the river accompanied us at night and hummingbirds hummed all around us during the day.
Within the Maquipucuna reserve there are many activities for tourists, such as birdwatching (we woke up at 6 to catch some of the most peculiar birds!), trails, waterfalls, an investigation center, and an Orchideareo (were you can find several endemic orchids!). It is also the best place to find bears during season!
Some of the birds we saw at our dawn bird-watching session include the Torrent duck, the Scaled Fruiteater, the Arasal Toucan and the Swallow Tananger. However, there are 400 species of birds within the reserve!
Whether you live in Quito or are visiting from further away, we encourage you to come to Yunguilla, and if you can, walk the whole trail to Maquipucuna. Contribute to local tourism and keep this incredible testament to nature and history alive!