I can hardly see a thing when we first drive up the winding road that connects Quito to the Yunguilla Reserve, a small protected area located on the northwestern region of Ecuador’s volcano-rich Pichincha province. A blanket of fog has obscured the lush, green landscape and set in around my husband and me like pearly gauze. Luckily, a slight figure emerges from the haze: It’s Deysi Collaguazo, the community leader who will guide us through it.
Deysi is one of 190 people who live in Yunguilla. She’s accustomed to thick, misty, mornings like today — because, after all, this is what life is like in an Andean cloud forest. Yunguilla is perched 8,695 feet above sea level, where the chill of the snow-capped mountains collides with the warmer temperatures of the coastal tropics to produce a constant fog that lurks at canopy level. Leafy trees glisten with fresh condensation and a persistent rain keeps the soft, pliable ground slick and fertile.
While most travelers to Ecuador puddle-jump toward the dazzling Galapagos Islands, few visitors realize that some of the world’s richest biodiversity is hiding an hour from Quito.
Yunguilla is more than a reserve in a celestial setting. Over the past 21 years, it has become a carefully organized example of community-based tourism and entrepreneurship as residents such as Deysi have collectively poured their energy into sustainable projects that generate revenue for all. As the head of Yunguilla’s tourism efforts, Deysi greets us warmly, even remembering that we’ve arrived on my husband’s birthday. She whisks us to the Talhuallullo Lodge, a wooden house that welcomes the 3,800 tourists who visit each year.
In 1995, residents of Yunguilla were contacted by Maquipucuna, a neighboring reserve and foundation that had been pioneering conservation and sustainable efforts to protect the cloud forest, which has been declining in the face of climate change. Maquipucuna’s leaders were concerned that loggers and coal workers in Yunguilla were harming the nearby land, so they brought their knowledge of soil fertility, organic gardening and wildlife protection to the community. Maquipucuna also was running a successful eco-lodge, and a few enterprising leaders in Yunguilla thought that they might be able to remediate the environmental damage their jobs had caused by pivoting to ecotourism ventures of their own.
“My father was one of the crazy ones,” Deysi tells us, explaining that in 1997, her dad and 15 residents enlisted the help of Maquipucuna and other nonprofit organizations to build the lodge where we’re standing. Initially, this two-story structure served as a hostel for Yunguilla’s first visitors. But as tourism grew, families began opening up their homes, and the community invested in renovating houses to accommodate guests. On the wall, a map shows the 20 family homes that now double as lodgings, where tourists can stay while hiking to nearby waterfalls, looking for more than 120 species of birds and 150 types of orchids (as well as bears and pumas) and participating in the community’s daily activities — which include making cheeses and jams, arts and crafts, and gardening. Deysi points to a small square on the map and tells us that, for the next two days, we’ll be staying with her cousin, Julio Collaguazo, and his wife, two daughters and two grandchildren.
With her sturdy rubber boots sloshing in the wet grass, Deysi leads the way to Julio’s beautiful three-story home, draped in rainbow-colored pendulum flowers that hang from the trees. At the door, Julio’s eldest daughter, Estefany, and her friend Diana sit us down for a lunch of warm lentil soup, chicken and rice. They tell us about themselves: Diana is learning English so she can help with tourism, and Stephanie studies cooking to one day work at the 100-person restaurant that has been under construction for the past three years.
“The kids in the community are really motivated. They study tourism, they study gastronomy, they’re learning English. The idea is to apply all of their knowledge, eventually,” Deysi tells us later. Until recently, most young people couldn’t wait to try their luck in the bustling capital of Quito, where many of the jobs in the country are located. But as projects have expanded in Yunguilla, there are more roles and opportunities right at home — something we see firsthand as Deysi leads us through the community after lunch.
Our first stop is Yunguilla’s fresh-cheese factory. About 15 families tend small cattle farms. Each morning, they bring more than 200 liters of milk into a spacious workroom where two women make 80 batches of cheese a day and, sometimes, a few dozen natural yogurts. A man goes into Quito to sell the products every day and, at the end of the month, Yunguilla’s accounting team pays the families for them.
A short walk from the cheese manufacturers, two other women stand over industrial-sized blenders that pummel tender berries into rich artisanal jams. Deysi excitedly shows me a fist-size jar spackled with a glossy sticker of an indigenous woman surrounded by emerald-green hills.
“Look at the new branding we’re trying,” she says. “We’re always trying to improve things little by little here.”
This was the case when the community decided to build a restaurant on one of the highest points in the forest. It used to offer food for about 30 diners at Talhuallullo Lodge, but some residents started pushing for a bigger space in a nicer location during the community’s monthly meetings. “The tourists want to see the landscape when they come,” Deysi remembers people arguing. “Why don’t we put a real restaurant where they can see everything?” She shows us the nearly completed effort that Yunguilla woodworkers have constructed: an airy, open space that offers stunning, panoramic views of the sun setting over the distant mountains.
We arrive back at Julio’s house by nightfall and sit with the family for dinner. As we finish our meal, the lights go off. My husband looks around, bewildered, and I see a flicker out of the corner of my eye. The family is grinning broadly as Julio’s wife, Magdalena, approaches with a candle-topped cake. The word of his birthday spread while we were out with Deysi, and the family got to work on a makeshift celebration. Excitedly, they sing “Happy Birthday” in unison — first in Spanish, then in English.
A trio of roosters wakes us up the next morning, and we peer through the curtains from the top level of Julio’s house to watch the pre-dawn clouds hover over the valleys. We soon layer up for a day of outdoor adventures that we’ve planned at Tucanopy, a zip-lining site about 45 minutes away.
The sun-soaked Galapagos and the snow-capped Cotopaxi volcano have made Ecuador a veritable playground for adrenaline junkies, and the companies in the cloud forest have taken note. The region is rife with outfitters that offer aerial activities. At Tucanopy, a young couple has installed six hulking cables that seem to soar into the sky. We spend an hour ripping through the air, taking in the breathtaking cloud forest from 100 meters above.
When we arrive back at the Collaguazos’ home, it’s time to say goodbye. We trade hugs and take photos on their porch before getting into our car. I can see the family waving in the rearview mirror, but the clouds roll in and hide them within seconds, as if to keep Yunguilla a magical secret until the next guests arrive.
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Located in a cloud forest in the Pichincha province, one hour from Quito. Reservations are required and can be made by calling or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. A room in a family home costs about $45 per night and includes three meals. Tent rentals cost about $10 per night, and meals run about $7.
Plaza Central de la Ciudad Mitad Del Mundo, Local No. 93
You’ll find this Ecuadoran restaurant next to the Middle of the World museum. The food is traditional and inexpensive, and its location is ideal for a quick meal before you drive into the cloud forest, where dining options outside of local reserves become scarcer. Entrees start at about $12.
Autopista Manuel Cordova Galarza, San Antonio de Pichincha
Ecuadorans built the Mitad del Mundo monument in 1979 as a tribute to the line of zero degrees latitude that marks the Earth’s equatorial center — only they were off by a few hundred feet. The GPS-verified location is at the campy Intinan Museum, where you can get your passport stamped and see exhibitions on Ecuador’s indigenous history. The museum is on the way to Yunguilla, about 40 minutes from arriving to the community.
Open 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. Admission about $4, about $2 for children.
Via Calacali, La Independencia, Kilometro 63, Nanegalito
This family farm has set up zip lines as a way to tour its sustainable agricultural practices. The property is about a 45-minute drive from Yunguilla and also offers hiking trails, farm tours and walks on canopy bridges built 250 meters above ground. Packages that include zip-lining on six cables with two bilingual guides start at about $22 for adults and about $18 for children under 10. Reservations are required and can be made at tucanopy.com/en/reservations.