Llullundongo: The Ecuador I Knew is Gone

| September 21, 2016 | 2 Comments
Mt. Llullundongo

Mt. Llullundongo

My mother called it “Shangri-La,”  locals call it “San Juan,”  and I call it “Llullundongo,”  but it’s full name is San Juan de Llullundongo.  The name comes from Mount Llullundongo, which is one of  the “smaller” mountain peaks  (10,000+ ft)  along a spur of the Western Highlands that juts out toward the coast and helps form the breathtaking Chimbo Valley.   From atop Mt Llullundongo,  one can see both the lush, green Chimbo Valley and the snow-capped Mt. Chimborazo (20,000+ ft).  About 1000 indigena and mestizo farmers lived in the area in 1982.   Explaining why they were poor, the indigenas told me that Chimborazo and Llullundongo mountains used to fight each other in the past but that Chimborazo was (obviously) victorious.  For this reason, Llullundongo was left with less water, animals, and other natural resources than Chimborazo and they were left poor.  THAT was 1982:  a bit fatalistic.

View of Chimbo Valley & Chimborazo from Llullundongo

View of Chimbo Valley & Chimborazo from Llullundongo

Fast forward 30 years.  During a visit to re-connect with really old friends (70 + years old) in Llullundongo,  I had time to hike up through farm fields to the top of the mountain.  Near the top I met a farmer who secured his dogs so I could pass.  We got to talking, discovered that he remembered my living there years ago.  His next questions were did I not think Llullundongo was a great place to live and didn’t I want to move here and live in the empty house next to him.   He was sure I would like the fresh air.

WAIT A MINUTE!!!   Was I hearing this correctly???   30 years ago,  upon moving in and renting a room with a mestizo family,  I was, in short order, greeted with a man holding up a rope noose approaching me during the first (drunken) fiesta; various stories about how sticks and stones had rid them of government outsiders & tax collectors; concerns about me not being Catholic but rather an “evangelista;” concerns I might steal land;  worries “my” country (whose name they did not even know) would bomb their land in the future; and a group of women whispering that I was surely a  “mala mujer” because I had not brought a husband or mother with me.  Was I in the same place?  Really?  Well….. yes and no.

How could it be that where once I was feared and mistrusted, now I am welcomed with open arms?  I was dumbfounded and utterly unprepared to digest the transformation that had occurred.

But then my visit to the Ecuadorian sierra in 2012 was a continuing repetition of this experience.  It was not just the ubiquitous cell phones; not only that Quito had tripled in size or that the hamlet of 20+ chozas  where I lived in 1976 was not recognizable, having transformed into a town with roads, a school, soccer fields, and concrete block houses.  It was not only the new-found stability of the country with a two-term president and high oil prices long enough to jump start the economy and pull many out of poverty.  It was more.

Image of Spanish beating. Guaman Poma 1615

1615 image by Guaman Poma de Ayala of Spanish administrator beating a native person.

The change cut deep.  New opportunities and hopes had been opened up to young people that were not thinkable 30 and 40 years ago.  Young indigenas seem more hopeful and less fatalistic than their parents and grandparents.  Even mestizo families are happy with the national government.  Pres. Correa’s poster is prominently displayed in homes.  And there would be reason for the new found hope.

Ecuador’s history, as regards indigenas,  is sad.   Since the Inca Empire conquered what is now Ecuador, the native pre-Inca peoples have suffered:

  • 1st  — The Inca subjugated them, taxed them, and forced many to re-locate to distant parts of the Empire;
  • 2nd  — The Spanish (& Catholic Church) brought new diseases, stole the best land,  taxed them, forced non-elites to live in *Indian only* settlements (“reducciones”); and
  • 3rd — The Republic of Ecuador continued into the 20th century the system of peonage in which indigenas worked the hacendados’ fields in exchange for small plots of land.

So why did the farmer ask me to be his neighbor, when before he would have wished me to leave?  My guess is this:  the relationship between Llullundongo and the outside world has been stood on its head.  For the first time in centuries, a government is providing these farmers with resources to more fully participate in society.   Technology from the outside world —  cars & trucks, TVs & cell phones — is in their reach.  A new pattern has emerged of opportunity and resources from “outside.”  So rather than beating outsiders with sticks and stones, Lllullundongo people are welcoming them.   The effects of 50+ years of rural progress —  land reform in the 60s; electrification and potable water in the 70s, 80s and 90s; and massive infrastructure spending since 2007-08 —  has changed their worldview!

More reflections on changes:

From left to right: Rosario (80 yrs old), her daughter, me, her granddaughter that was studying law; and other granddaughter.

From left to right: Rosario (80 yrs old), her daughter, me, her granddaughter that was studying law; and other granddaughter.

  • The face of change is the young granddaughter of an indigenous couple in Llullundongo, visiting her grandmother from Ambato,  who was attending university to become a lawyer — smartly dressed in Otavalo-style, not Llullundongo-style, indigenous dress.   (Her grandfather was wicked smart, so I imagine she is too.)


  • The feel of change is several Llullundongo families — indigenous and mestizo — owning camionetas.  Walking a few hours to the nearest town is now rare — just get a ride with a neighbor.


  • The depth of change is farm communities like Llullundongo filled with empty houses.  Adults are moving into towns and cities, both in Ecuador and overseas.   A good portion of the children remaining in Llullundongo are the handicapped — for whom the 1st Correa administration (V.P. Lenin Moreno) had built block houses with tin roofs, a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and living/dining area.  The houses had running water and electricity — neither of which existed in the early 80s.


  • The taste of change was sharing a few meals with locals that contained more meat and cheese than I’d seen in a year in 1982.  In Quito and Cuenca, it was being able to safely drink tap water and eat fresh salads in good restaurants.
    Government built house for the deaf-mute daughter (of family I lived with in 82).

    Government built house for the deaf-mute daughter (of family I lived with in 1982).

  • The breadth of change, in urban areas, was “inclusion” symbolized in museums and government buildings offering information in the 3 official languages of Ecuador — Quichua, Shuar, and Spanish — and the role of women becoming more inclusive —  the expectation for many being to get an education and find a career.


In 2012, roads,  highways, schools, universities, clinics, hospitals, warehouses, light industry, community police stations,  water lines, electric lines, and hydro-electric dams were popping up everywhere.  It is hard to see much downside, except there always is:  too often rural parents leave their children — breaking up the family — as they work overseas;  air pollution in major cities has become chronic; petty crime in the big cities is becoming organized crime; and cell phones & TV are changing attitudes & behavior of the young generation, as everywhere.

But granted nothing is perfect……..  the progress of development in Ecuador over the last 30 years has been fast-paced and nothing short of AMAZING.  As much as I feel a sense of loss — losing cherished people who died before my return and seeing indigenous cultural traditions disappearing (eg, shigra-making) — I am overjoyed to see hunger and poverty fading.


1970s shigra

1970s shigra

1970s shigra

1970s shigra

1970s shigra

1970s shigra


Category: Ethnography Redux, Introductions

Comments (2)

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  1. Marian McDonald says:

    Such precious insights! It is all interesting, Cheryl!

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