Faintly, he heard a gurgling sound. His eyes lit up, and he stopped in his track. Water! Fresh, running water! The trees were still in his way, but he was sure, quite sure, that there was a creek nearby. He put down his bamboo basket on the moist ground, a couple of limes lightly rolled out. Grabbing onto a seemingly stable branch, he heaved himself up and began climbing the tree. One by one, the tree branches made cracking sounds, but did not give way.
Brushing off the leaves, he ascended to the top of the tree and poked his head up. Immediately, he was hit by the glamour of the Sun God. The sky, as old and true as Mother Earth, stretched infinitely onward, to who nowhere; and surveying around, he felt the deep greens closing in on him. He did not dare to breathe. And then, guided by the rays of the Sun, he saw it: water running...no, falling, literally falling. But how? The river was not running smoothly like a brook, it wasn’t, as he put it, lying down. It was pouring endlessly from the Sky, like drops of silvery elixir sent from the Stars. He could not see the source...
The same awe struck me, as it certainly did the first Yumbos, as I turned around the bend and the waterfall loomed into view. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine their wide eyes and transfixed souls even if it was thousands of years ago.
We had followed the mountain trails to get here. Trees were being cleared out of the way, stairs were being constructed for our convenience, and most importantly, we had a tour guide who knew the forest and mountain so well that it ensured we were going to get to our final destination safe and sound. We knew what we were going to see.
On the other hand, the Yumbos were primarily agricultural and trade people, active from 800 AD to 1660 BC, before being conquered by Pizarro and the Spanish Conquistadors. They were adept farmers, cultivated bananas, avocados, pineapples, eggfruit, honey, hearts of palm, citrus fruits, guavas, and raised animals such as peccary, turkeys, agouti, fish. They were also skilled hunters, craftsmen, and medical experts. Their trade mainly involved fruits, plants, livestock, clothing, ornaments, and medicines, and whose network stretched from the sierra to the coast of Ecuador, while the town of Mindo, lying between the two geographic regions, acted as the resting stop for traders coming and going.
The first Yumbos, not knowing their destination, not knowing the adversity, were blank to the entire journey. And imagine this, they did not even realize their purpose for trade, not before they encountered other people to trade with. They did not set out to engage in commerce, they were merely- in a poetic way, ramblers and travelers. What a surprise it must have been for them to see streams of water cascading from the heaven; drenched in sweat from the enveloping heat and humidity of the rainforest, covered in mud and bugs falling unexpectedly from trees, bamboo shoes worn out and ragged, leathered clothes dangling and torn apart, sharp branches slicing across their dark skin…but then quite out of the blue, after days of trekking and nights of sleeplessness, they perceived from far away a merriment of dancing tunes, and suddenly coming across a magnificent downpour of resounding silver.
Water has always been the source of all life. So, the Yumbos were able to settle in lower and flatter lands beside the mountains, but staying close to rivers or ponds, for they not only provided water but also food such as fish and shrimps. They also began to use the water for irrigation, cultivation, and eventually an entire system of agriculture took place. In Spanish, Mindo means “Tierra de Guyabas”- Land of Guavas. Guava is a typical fruit of Mindo, thanks to its climatic influence. So, guavas were also productively cultivated and later used in trade.
And I would imagine that the first Yumbos informed other Yumbos, and other Yumbos informed more Yumbos…after the course of hundreds of years, Mindo gradually expanded into a town of civilization, with its own distinct culture and values. Routes for trade were also formed, the Yumbos constructed secrets passages through the mountains for the convenience of carrying large goods such as livestock, and of their extensive activities between the coast and the sierra regions. And so, from the first explorers, roaming the mountains and chasing waterfalls, a steady network of trade was developed.
The Yumbos continued to be a social, amiable, and peace-loving society for over two thousand years. Then when the Europeans came to the Americas in the 17th century, they bought along with them three deadly and dominate weapons- guns, germs, and steel. Among the three, microbes such as smallpox and syphilis had the most lethal effect on them, wiping out more than half of the population. Along with newly introduced germs and advanced weapons, long-term natural phenomenon like volcanic eruptions and seismic activities also accounted for a portion of deaths. There are no direct descendants of the Yumbos currently living today.
Today, nearly all residents of Mindo are Catholic, religious school and churches are also present in their town. I had the very opportunity to attend the Mass of their church on a Sunday night, in which the priest discussed the conflict of spending more time communicating through digital media and technology than communicating with God. “How many times do you take out your phone?” he had asked, “to see how many likes you got on Facebook in a day? You might be walking past the church but still looking down at your screen, you wouldn’t even take a few minutes to actually go into the church and practice the faith you believe in.”
Lastly, Mindo nowadays treat and value their rich but delicate environment. One of the main sources of income in Mindo is through tourism, which includes activities such as tubing, zip-lining, and bird watching, and construction of hotels and restaurants in the town. For the latter, it would take the cost of logging of trees, bamboos, and other vegetation. Therefore, it is essential for Mindo to protect their fast-consuming environment and resources, and its conservation projects have also received support from the Ecuadorian government itself.
During my two weeks in Mindo, I have completely fallen in love with not only its spacious sky and the grandeur of its mountain ranges, but also the people themselves. Their manners, their salute, their lighthearted laughter at my Spanish mistakes, their earnest offerings of help, their curious wide-eyes, the capacity of their hearts and arms to welcome all things, and their positivity to come through all barriers and to just live on resonated with me. As our guide Myriam put it, “they are simple people, but have beautiful souls.” And that’s how their images are embedded in my heart, forever.