I’ve only just begun to settle into my room in the Ecuadorian village of Tunibamba when I hear a quiet knock on the door.
My host mother for the week—a middle-aged woman named Carmen Taya with glowing brown eyes and long black hair pulled back into a braid—stands outside in full traditional Kichwa dress, and she has a question: Would I like to help her with something?
I slip on my sandals and follow Carmen into her concrete courtyard, where a huge pile of dried beans has been spread out on a sheet for us to sort. As we sit on the ground sifting and swapping stories, I assure her that during the four days I have come to stay with her family, I would like to help out as much as possible. Little do I know what she has in store.
Carmen and her husband Alonso Estrada are one of more than two dozen families from four indigenous Kichwa villages surrounding the city of Otavalo, Ecuador, that are part of the homestay program of locally based tour operator Runa Tupari, which fittingly means “encounter with local people” in the Kichwa language.
The Dutch nonprofit Agriterra helped Runa Tupari establish its first homestays, starting with eight families, in 2001. The aim was to create a way for travelers to stay in local communities, instead of merely passing through on their way to other parts of Ecuador.
“Back then,” shares Runa Tupari’s marketing director Martin Baumann, “families had to be persuaded to take part. They couldn’t understand why anyone would want to come to their home. It took a lot of convincing for them to believe that people like getting their hands dirty.
“In 13 years, there’s been a complete change in attitude,” Baumann maintains. “It’s not only the extra income; it’s also that people are now much more confident and proud of their culture.”
For travelers looking to immerse themselves in a destination’s traditions and ways of life, homestays are a perfect entry point. They are the very definition of local travel, getting visitors on the ground as soon as possible and plunging them into the deep end of a new place.
In the past few years, I’ve stayed with several families around the world—from India to Turkey to a small island off the coast of Bali. Each time, the opportunity arose spontaneously, after I arrived. Travel serendipity, I guess.
My homestay in Tunibamba would be the first I had sought out ahead of time. In the days leading up to my trip, I wondered if the experience would yield the same sense of authentic connection.
I needn’t have worried. When our bean-sorting session concludes, Carmen leads me around her family farm, revealing her endearing sense of humor and the bevy of animals that call her fields home.
My Spanish skills leave much to be desired, but I’m grateful to understand a good deal of what she’s pointing out—the guayaba and granadilla trees in her garden (guava and passionfruit), the three chickens and trio of cows patrolling the yard, and a snorting little pig named Chancho.
Only one thing puzzles me. “We have many cuy,” Carmen reports, a fact I dutifully note in my book, though I have no clue what cuy means—perhaps the word for ‘chore’ I’ve yet to learn.
“Now we are going to collect herbs for the cuy,” Carmen continues in Spanish. Still, I remain in quiet confusion as we fell a huge swath of alfalfa with a sickle.
Only when we carry the basket overflowing with the flowering herbs into a brick-walled shed do I come face to face with the mysterious cuy—no fewer than 40 guinea pigs stirring in their wire pens and squealing at the sight of dinner.
The best part about homestays is that they’re a constant education—a chance to see another way of life in its natural expression, to pick up on rhythms and routines, and to be a part of them, if only for a time.
On my third morning in Tunibamba, I accompany Carmen and Alonso to a regular occurrence: a village-wide gathering called a minga. Held nearly every Saturday in a Kichwa village, mingas require someone from each household to work on a project that benefits the entire community.
“You never miss a minga,” Carmen says, explaining that mingas can involve building houses, cleaning streets and irrigation channels, or, as on this day, tending the town’s communal cornfields.
There are already at least 50 people at work when we arrive, spread out in groups across the furrows of fertile soil. The women wear hooded sweatshirts over long skirts and headscarves to protect them against the strong Andean sun, chatting away in Kichwa.
Armed with a hoe I’ve brought from Carmen’s house, I join the swiftly moving ranks. We work up and down the rows of young plants, teasing weeds away from the crops’ roots, so that at any given time we are moving toward one of two towering volcanoes—Mount Cotacachi to the west and Mount Imbabura to the east.
As my bare feet sink into the cool, dark earth, my connection to this place and these people takes root and begins to grow. By staying with Carmen and her family, I have been gifted the chance to step out of the shadows and play an active role in their community.
It’s hard to believe that just days earlier I’d never heard of Tunibamba. Now, with skin covered in dirt and dust and sunscreen and palms burning with blisters, I’m finding it harder to imagine ever leaving.
These experiences are not always comfortable or easy; indeed, as I spend the week pulling weeds, peeling potatoes, and feeding the cuy, I’m struck by how eager I am to help out with tasks I actively avoid back home. Each chore and conversation brings me a step closer to understanding their culture—and better yet, by participating and engaging, I slowly transition from outsider to included guest.
And just as I am eager to drink up every detail of daily life in my temporary home, so too are my hosts curious about me. Throughout my time with them, Carmen and Alonso frequently ask me about life back in Virginia, where I am from.
“Do you also grow corn there?” Alonso asks as we work in their fields one afternoon, and I am delighted to tell him that I grew up helping my grandfather with his garden.
Baumann emphasized that one of the most valuable byproducts of homestay programs is cultural exchange. “One day someone from Finland comes, the next day someone from Japan,” he said. “These families don’t have a chance to travel very often, but this way, they have the world in their home.”
They have the world in their home, and then we bring home the world—memories of showering in rainwater in Bali, preparing dinner in Turkey, or tending a cornfield in Ecuador, as well as the families who opened these worlds to us.
On my final night in Tunibamba, I sit with Carmen and Alonso around their kitchen table, a pot of verbena-infused tea steeping between us as we reflect on the week.
“The next time you return to Ecuador, you have a home,” Alonso says. “You go from Quito to Otavalo to our house, okay?”
I raise my cup of tea to him and Carmen with a smile and say, “Okay.”
Candace Rose Rardon is a writer and sketch artist with a passion for storytelling who recently released her first book, Beneath the Lantern’s Glow. Follow her story on her blog, The Great Affair, on Twitter @candacerardon, and on Instagram @candaceroserardon.