Humberto Chica, a Cañari ’”Priest of Life’,” preserves ancient customs and the Kichwa language

Jul 15, 2012

By Susan Schenck

When my husband and I came to Cuenca a couple of years ago, though we did not know it at the time, we met one of Southern Ecuador´s most intriguing residents.

Humberto Chica, along with his wife, owns and operates Cabañas Yanuncay, a hostal that is as unique and charming as Humberto himself. They live on the property with their two sons, eleven-year-old Luis and thirteen-year-old Juliano.

Humberto’s grandmother was Cañari. He explains, “Chica is a Kichwa, not a Spanish, name. The Cañari are a matriarchal society, so my grandmother’s name was passed down. My grandfather came from France. Over his lifetime, my grandfather accumulated a large piece of land on the north banks of the Rio Yanuncay in Cuenca.”

Humberto was among 60 grandchildren, many of whom inherited parcels of the riverfront property. Today, Cabañas Yanuncay is part of a large walled compound where several members of his extended family also have their homesteads.

Humberto was also selected by his grandmother to be an apprentice, or conanona, a “priest of life” who knows a little about everything, a kind of indigenous Renaissance man. He can spend hours talking about the history of the Cañaris and Cuenca history, the Kichwa language, and local customs, herbs, and folk remedies.

He spent many years studying in Europe. “I toured the continent on my bicycle,” he recalls, “then I migrated to the U.S., where I lived in California, Florida, and Kentucky.”

Spanish, of course, is his first language, but he’s also fluent in English and German, and relishes renting to American and European tourists, so he can keep in touch with foreigners and practice his languages, while enjoying the more relaxed life of his home country. He says, “I have the best of both worlds.”

Humerto´s property, secluded behind a large wall, offers the feel of the country. There are several dogs and cats, and 50 chickens and roosters and, at the time, a llama. You often forget you are in the city. The only noise is that of the roosters and dogs and, especially at night, the flowing river.

They offer two furnished cabins for rent. The big one has two bedrooms, with the kitchen and living area downstairs and the bedrooms upstairs, with two baths and a nice porch with a view overlooking the grounds and river beyond ($250 per month plus the cost of gas, which is minimal). The smaller cabin occupies a single floor with a bunk bed ($200).

Humberto also rents out one room in his own house, with two beds, a private bath, and breakfast included ($15 per night per person). Guests often stay in the room while they wait for a cabin. The main house also has a sauna.

Once you stay at Cabañas Yanuncay, you become part of the Chicas’ extended family. It’s always a delight to visit with Humberto, Maria, and the boys. Maria spends hours in the kitchen, preparing local delicacies and Ecuadorian dishes and she’s always ready with a pot of fresh lemongrass tea and bowls of traditional soup.

Cabañas Yanuncay is located on Calle Canton Gualaceo 2-149 (near Av. Loja), along the north side of the Yanuncay River; telephone 09-283-9737.

The Organic Market

While in the United States Humberto was introduced to the world of ecology and organic farming and produce. He furthered his agricultural education working on an organic farm. Though Humberto studied medicine when he returned to Cuenca, but one of his proudest achievements was organizing a number of Cuenca-area farms to grow organic products. He helped establish the Saturday morning organic market in 2005.

He explains, “The campesinos – the country folks – they don’t have money to buy agrochemicals. The ones at the organic market have been taught to produce organic food, and if you have any doubts about it, you are welcome to visit their farms when they have open houses a couple of times a year.”

The market opens early, around 5:00 a.m., and continues until 9:00 a.m. but if you don’t get there by 6:30 a.m. much of the good stuff is gone. And breakfast is available (fresh squeezed orange juice and corn tortillas for $.50).

“At the market, you will encounter many natives who speak Kichwa and sell their pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, and even flowers. The prices are fixed, so they don’t charge the ‘gringo tax’ like in the mercados around town,” Humberto says.

The market is located near the El Tiempo office at Av. Loja y Rodrigo de Triana, three blocks from Rodrigo de Triana where it dead ends. You can’t miss it.

Working with INFA

In addition to increasing awareness about organic living, Humberto works with INFA (Instituto de la Niñez y la Familia), an Ecuadorian institution that tries to rescue the children of alcoholics and prostitutes who live on street by getting them into orphanages where they can go to school. INFA also educates pregnant women on nutrition, works with abused children, and is trying to get rid of the custom of hiring children to beg during Christmas week.

Author Susan Schenck teaches raw food classes and can be contacted at livefoodfactor@yahoo.com.

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