You’ve heard of a not-for-profit business. Now, think of how that might work on a larger scale for an entire community, with all profits being pooled and re-invested into homes, infrastructure, and support services for the residents. It’s the sort of idea that may gain more attention following the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. If so, Ecuador is the place to go to see the concept in action.
Cooperative sharing is what defines Yunguilla, a community located in the “Cloud Forest” north of Quito. One of the most incredible things about Yunguilla is the fact seeing the community is even more thrilling than the ride to reach it. For most visitors, accessing Yunguilla means an approximately 90-minute drive from Quito, with the last seven miles (12 kilometres) consisting of a climb through narrow, switchback roads that pass swaths of verdant fauna lining cliffs that overlook Andean vistas. At the apex, the scene is hallucinatory, making you wonder if this is the way deities see the world. Clouds flow in front of your eyes in a steady ribbon of ethereal beauty. Below, you peer upon nurtured acres of corn, potatoes, endemic fruits, and grains whose fields cling to the mountains, a unique aspect of the Andes, where agriculture can thrive thousands of feet above sea level, thanks to a temperate climate and mineral-rich soil.
It is the agriculture of the mountains that allows Yunguilla to exist. In 1995, 18 families chose to start the experimental community with cooperative sharing at the foundation. Today, there are 50 families living in Yunguilla. They tend to more than 3,000 hectares of territory and are in charge of stewardship for another 3,000 hectares of protected forest that is home to the endangered Andean spectacled bear. Initially, the community was dedicated to forestry but has shifted its economic focus to conservation, farming, and tourism.
The community welcomes approximately 6,000 overnight visitors each year, as well as volunteers from as far away as New Zealand who teach English to Yunguilla’s adults and children, and researchers who study how this society of “cloud people” operates. Yunguilla includes three factories that operate in small buildings, each dedicated to the production of milk, cheese, or marmalade, as well as a small community store. In 2017, Yunguilla received a commercial license to sell its products. Now, each day, 300 litres of milk are produced in Yunguilla, and then shipped to small markets in Quito for sale. The Yunguilla cooperative pays their residents for the quantity of milk each one provides.
Along with the factories and store, a handicrafts facility offers guests the chance to learn how to make traditional Ecuadorian trinkets using recycled materials. The main gathering space of the community is Mirador Restaurante, a 120-seat space that crops out of a hill to gaze over the Cloud Forest and its valley. The restaurant uses food from the community, including a lush garden that visitors can help harvest during their stay. Soon, one of Yunguilla’s own will be graduating with a culinary degree from a school in Quito, giving the community its first certified chef. Mirador is open for weekends and holidays, and for large group visits. Among its local cuisine is mote maapioso, a dish of boiled white corn and beans served with a tostado filled with beef and pork.
When I ask to see what the accommodations in Yunguilla look like, I expect to find rustic cabin-like structures with thick blankets to help contend with the cold nights in the mountains. Instead, Deysi Collaguazo, one of Yunguilla’s residents and tour leaders, shows me her home, a gleaming two-story house of charm and happiness. The sturdy, warm beams that form the structure of the home come from wood harvested from the forest. Inside is a gourmet kitchen, sunken living room, and vaulted ceiling.
It’s at that point where I realize Yunguilla, in its 25 years of existence, has moved beyond being an experiment to a success story in how to nurture an alternative society. One worth visiting, when we can travel liberally again, simply for the chance to contemplate how your community might look if it was more like this.
MORE ABOUT VISITING YUNGUILLA
Getting There: From Quito, the drive is 55 miles (88 kilometres) northwest into the protected Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve, home to the Cloud Forest. Hiring a guide who knows the roads is highly recommended.
Nightly Rates: The cost to stay as a guest with Deysi, or any other citizen of Yunguilla, is only $45 (USD) per night and that includes three meals at the Mirador restaurant.
Day Rates: For $20, visitors can enter the community for tours of its facilities and gardens.