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Off the Gringo Trail

Explore and Support Ecuador’s Mountain Villages

San Blas: The view along Cuenca’s main street to San Blas Church.

Community-based tourism has gained momentum in recent years as the planet has become a lot less lonely and adventurous spirits cast about for something both authentic and responsible.

Ecuador offers a variety of community models, three of which lie within easy reach (two to three hours by bus) of Cuenca, the country’s third city and a colonial treasure. Cuenca is a well-established stop along Ecuador’s “gringo trail,” heading south from Quito. Few, however, take the time to explore its hinterlands and experience the warmth and culture of the people in the villages that dot the surrounding mountains.

Jima

Nestled in green mountains, the tiny village of Jima is reached by a crowded, bone-shaker bus via an ochre-hued rollercoaster dirt road. But a friendly and enthusiastic welcome awaits those willing to make the trip.

One thing that makes this project special is the presence near the village of the Tambillo Protected Forest, the only example I am aware of in the region of a forest protected purely by the local people. They are prepared to forego the fuel and building materials the forest provides in order to protect this delicate ecosystem, home to many orchids and butterflies. And of course to attract tourism. Repay their faith and visit them.

The local tourism foundation has an information center near the church offering details of hikes and cultural events. They also rent camping and fishing gear and can organize homestays and horse riding. The village has a choice of two hostels and restaurants.

It is recommended to contract a local guide for any long hikes, both as a safety precaution and as a way of giving something back to this tight-knit community.

The 3- to 4-day hike to the Oriente is the pick of the bunch. You begin your trek high in the Andes and steadily descend through cloud forest and remote mountain villages (where you will spend the night and eat meals), past 100-foot waterfalls and an orchid farm, to the heat and lush vegetation of the jungle.

Saraguro

Saraguro is an old indigenous town with a proud history and distinctive cultures and traditions. It is also an area of considerable natural beauty and offers a range of activities.

Located midway between Cuenca and Vilcabamba along Ecuador’s gringo trail, Saraguro is easily accessible, so it really is just a matter of getting off the bus.

Legend has it the Saraguros were sent to Ecuador from Bolivia by the Incas as a means of control and that their distinctive black clothing (poncho, hat, three-quarter-length trousers) is worn in mourning for their lost homeland.

Locals see this as fantastical and say the black is merely worn to keep them warm—at around 7,500 feet it can get cold here. Whatever, the strong indigenous history and culture of Saraguro, along with the colonial charm of its town center, make it a wonderful place to spend some time.

The Kawsay Foundation has established a network of excellent homestays in surrounding communities. The chance to take meals with a local family, perhaps even help them work their fields producing local crops like potatoes, corn, and tree tomatoes, is the kind of one-on-one interaction that the traveling soul yearns for.

If homestays are not for you, the recently completed Achik Wasi Hostel is a gem. The quality of the rooms is matched by the view across the tiled roofs of the town. The Cabinas restaurant offers great local fare like smoked beef and potato cakes (llapingachos).

During the huge Sunday market, the usually quiet town becomes a bobbing sea of black hats and ponchos. In recent years the ancient festival of the sun, Inti Raymi, has grown in prominence and now involves shamanistic cleansings and a procession to the nearby Inca Baths.

Saraguro has a strong musical tradition, and exhibitions of folkloric dance and music are frequent. The Sara-Urku community tourism operator has its office on the main square and offers cultural and adventure packages including hikes and mountain biking.

Principal

Ask about a trip to this charming village and most Cuencanos will look at you quizzically. “Principal what?” Don’t be put off: Principal is an undiscovered gem and a leap of faith repaid.

Getting there is half the fun, changing buses in the market town of Chordeleg and venturing along a windy, dusty road past spectacular scenery. But the pick of the landscapes is Principal itself, set deep in a lush valley dominated by Volcan Fasanan.

From the slopes of this dormant volcano, locals say, came the Canari people who were such a thorn in the side of the Incas. The local tourism foundation has made hikes to the volcano one of its principal (no pun intended) attractions.

This is a great spot for hikers. Along with the tough 2-day climb to Fasanan, the trek to the Three Lakes is a must. The overnight trip can be extended to two or more nights for those interested in fishing, and there is a plan to build a cabin at this picturesque spot. All hikes necessitate a guide under foundation regulations.

For those feeling less energetic, or recovering after their exertions, the village offers a variety of other features. Fans of Tom Miller’s Ecuador travel book, Panama Hat Trail, will find a visit fascinating. Principal is one of the production centers of this cottage industry turned international industry.

Panama hats, known in Ecuador as “sombreros de paja toquilla,” are woven in the tiny villages around Cuenca and transported to the city for finishing. The weavers themselves traditionally receive a tiny fraction of the final price for work that is both time-consuming and incredibly skilled. The local Weaving Cooperative is trying to buck the trend of exploitation by making its own crafts like place mats and dolls, as well as various styles of hat, and selling directly to visitors.

The village’s excellent restaurant (the owner once cooked for the Spanish ambassador) offers culinary adventurers local specialties like guinea pig.

The tourism foundation offers individual and group packages that include a stay at the local hostel, meals, and exhibitions of hat weaving and folkloric dance. The big festival of the year occurs at harvest time, at the end of August.

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