During our ecotourism adventure in Ecuador, my family found ourselves in the highlands of the Andes, along the slopes of the now dormant Cotacachi Volcano. This area around Otavalo, Ecuador is dotted with adobe villages with large indigenous populations, where the Kichwa language and traditional dress are widespread. Oven-baked adobe bricks, elders carrying firewood through the countryside barefoot and large family gardens abound.
In recent decades, however, many people have left the area to seek educational and employment opportunities -- resulting in greater wealth but also a loss in cultural heritage. Use of the Kichwa language is in decline, as many young people do not learn the language.
Runa Tupari is a community-based tourism agency with a vision for creating economic opportunities in these rural indigenous communities, while celebrating the local indigenous cultures in a respectful cultural exchange. The organization is creating economic opportunities in the community that help affirm this sustainable way of life, where homegrown native foods, community bonds that span generations and a vibrant culture can thrive.
One of the best ways to get to know local culture is by staying with a local family. During our trip, my family of four (with two young children) booked a homestay with an indigenous family in the mountain town of Tunibamba, outside the village of Cotacachi. The home is called Loma Wasi, or "house on a hill" in Kichwa.
The host family of Mario and Mercedes were surprisingly warm and welcoming, inviting us to participate in their daily activities. During our first morning in the village, my two children milked a cow, watched the birth of seven piglets and sampled many foods from the family's garden.
Their yard is overflowing with local native crops, with a variety of shapes, colors and flavors. This stunning agro-biodiversity helps with food and economic security, as the family is less dependent on each crop if it were to fail. Many of these foods are not sold in the stores and markets, so the best way to sample them is by staying with a family.
"We grow the majority of our own food, with natural fertilizers and without the use of chemicals," Mario explained as he weeded a patch of potatoes. "We often trade the foods we grown for foods we may want from other growers."
Mercedes frequents the local farmer's market in Cotacachi on Sunday mornings, where locals bring their homegrown harvests. What isn't sold is often traded for different foods. This is where the agro-diversity is apparent, as numerous varieties of tubers (some with medicinal properties), corn, fruits and vegetables are on display. Many food crops have originated from this area, including, potato, quinoa, beans, blackberries, avocado and white carrots.
It is choclo season now, so many of our meals contained this variety of Andean corn with large kernels. We ate humitas (corn tamales) and creamed soup with slices of choclo on the cob. Local families cook the corn over firewood in large pots, making an event out of cooking the humitas.
Mario told us many stories about the use of medicinal plants to cure common ailments, such as cancer, asthma and kidney ailments. Armed with a machete to clear a path, he brought us to a clearing in the hilltop forest where sacred ceremonies are held. This forest is owned by the community (not privately), after a local hacienda closed and the land was partitioned off.
"Offering homestays creates a rich cultural experience, where travelers can learn about our way of life," said Rolando, Mario's and Mercedes' son. "It also allows my mother to work from home, instead of having to travel long distances to find work."
Agriculture has traditionally been a large source of employment in the area, although many young people are losing interest in the profession. Many seek employment in other cities.
The tourism industry has also encouraged the talented Andean handicrafts and provided an important source of income.
My daughter and I picked blackberries with a neighbor, where we were introduced to her mother. "She only speaks Kichwa," explained the neighbor. I asked why she didn't learn Spanish while she was in school. Mario explained to me that bilingual education (with Spanish and Kichwa) is a new phenomenon in certain parts of Ecuador. Until recently the schools were conducted exclusively in Spanish. "She never attended school," the neighbor explains. "It wasn't considered important when she was younger."
I also asked the neighbor how far back her family has lived in Tunibamba. "We have lived here forever," she said confidently.
Image credit: Kiril Lozanov and Sarah Lozanova
Sarah Lozanova is a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Green Builder, Home Power, and Urban Farm. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine with her husband and two children.
<a href="http://www.sarahlozanova.com">Sarah Lozanova</a> is a green copywriter and communications professional specializing in renewable energy and clean technology. She is a consultant for Sustainable Solutions Group and a regular contributor to environmental and energy publications and websites, including Mother Earth Living, Home Power, Earth911, and Green Builder. Her experience includes work with small-scale solar energy installations and utility-scale wind farms. She earned an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School and she resides in Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Midcoast Maine.