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  • Writer's pictureMarilyn Saltzman

Kichwa hospitality

“Quedamos eternamente agradecidos” (we are eternally grateful) Apak emailed me the day after we left Cotacachi. Yet we are the ones who should be and ARE are grateful for our time with him and Urku, our two windows into the Runa culture.

I found Urku, an expat New Yorker, living among the Kichwa, through a friend, and we corresponded for months, planning our unique cultural experiences through the newly founded Kichwa Cultural Center in Cotacachi. And she helped us with even more experiences than expected when we got there.

After our first tour with Apak, he took us to his home for a traditional Ecuadorian home-grown, home-cooked meal prepared by his mama that included quinoa soup, chicken with veggies and fruit. His mom served us at a lovely table in front of the living room altar and then retreated to the kitchen.

Friday night Urku took Dian and me to visit her friend, Mama Celestina, in the Kichwa community of Gualapuro, which overlooks the city of Otavalo. We thought we were going to help her make her special, 30-ingredient soup for sale in the Saturday market. The cooking takes all night and results in an income of $20. After letting us watch  soup prep in her traditional kitchen for a few minutes, Celestina brought us into the modern kitchen that her five college-educated children had  built for her. Urku told us Mama Celestina only uses the new kitchen for guests. She served us the traditional Ecuadorian chicken soup with potatoes accompanied by colada, a delicious hot drink made of blueberries. Though she had recently suffered injuries, falling into the ravine while tending her livestock, Mama was a kind, attentive and generous hostess.

On Sunday when Heidi and Selam went horseback riding with a Kichwa guide, Demian,  (again thoughtfully arranged by Urku), Dian and I visited with the guide’s American wife and her Swedish-born mom. I learned how tightknit the Kichwa community is. Families live in community compounds, building houses on family land, and the children are everyone’s responsibility. When family  members stop by, they expect a meal, so there’s always soup at the ready. If there’s a project to be done,  from road building to house construction,  all the men and women in the community are called together for a minga, socializing and working late into the night if it’s necessary. Though Sophia, the American wife, appears young and fit, her husband is convinced she cannot keep up with the strong Kichwa women and shouldn’t even try to participate in the minga. After the horseback ride, we were invited to swing over the valley in Demian’s hand -built swing. I declined but the rest of the family bravely tried.

Every Runa we met was open and kind. With the loving help of Urku and Apak, we got an insiders’ view of their history and life.

Our experience with Mama Juana, the yachak (shaman) deserves its own post that I will write soon. Please also visit Heidi’s blog,

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