The area took its name from the word for the people who inhabited the area, the Cañari, and the Quechua word “bamba” which means valley. Therefore, Cañaribamba literally means “valley of the Cañari.”
Compared to the areas further north, there isn’t much known about the pre-Colombian epoch. It is unknown when exactly the Cañari settled the area, but studies of the sites around Carachula and the anamorphic stone figures of Huasipamba show that humans have been active in the area for at least 3000 years. Much of the gold used for idols and other uses came from this area, a fact that would be highly exploited by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries.
There are undoubtedly countless areas of significant archeological importance that contain clues to the pre-Colombian history of the area that still have yet to be discovered and studied. Few outside of Ecuador have ever heard of the Yunguills Valley, much less that there are ancient carved figures as old and enigmatic as Stonehenge.
Physical geography of the area has hindered most tourists from exploring much further off the main road. The dirt roads can be very steep and treacherous with loose rocks, and during the rainy season, they often wash out completely.
For the Cañari, Cañaribamba geography served as an important strategic advantage in defending their territories from the Incas’ incursions from the south.
After the Spanish defeated the Incas, the area was subdivided by the Spanish colonial rulers and the land titles came to be held by Marquis Don Juan de Salinas who established the Villa de San Salvador de Cañaribamba on the site of the original Cañaribamba.
Some sources describe this period as marked by cruel and inhuman treatment of the indigenous population by the Spanish overlords as they ruthlessly exploited them to labor in the gold mines.
Additionally, the priest sent to evangelize the indigenous people, Cura Naranjos, also exploited them by demanding unreasonable tithes and the first, best selection of their harvest.
There are two important and infamous incidents involving Salinas and Naranjos, their terrible treatment of the locals, and their sheer outrageousness of their greed.
The first one involved the gold mines of the Shiry Hill. The Spanish forced the indigenous to work in the mines while nude, so they wouldn’t be able to steal any of the gold they dug. Although he was forcing over 800 people to work as much and as hard as they could, Salinas returned to Spain to bring back more equipment and machinery to pull even more gold out of the ground. While he was gone, Salinas’ son took over and forced the laborers to work without any consideration for bracing or supporting the tunnels they dug.
Of course, it wasn’t not long before there was a landslide that completely buried the mines and killed hundreds of workers. Among the dead was Salinas’ own son. When news of the collapse reached Marquis Don Juan de Salinas, he decided not to return and chose instead to settle in Loja.
According to a legend that circulated among the indigenous, the collapse was caused by a single mother. As the story goes, the mother was bringing food to her son at the mines where she witnessed him being abused and forced to work in the nude. It was said she abandoned the food and climbed to the top of the mountain. There she urinated while pronouncing a curse on the Spaniards for their cruelty. Her cursed urine saturated the ground and caused the landslide that buried the mines.
After Salinas abandoned the area due to the loss of the mines, administration of the area fell to the priest Naranjos. Naranjos used his position to further his own greed for gold by extorting them to take him to the hiding place for the Cañari gold. Agreeing to show them only after blindfolding him, they carried him to a cave in his sedan chair, the mode of transportation of which Naranjos was particularly fond.
Naranjos was so dazzled by clay chests full of emeralds and jewels, ornate pitchers and vases, and other sacred objects made of pure gold, he demanded to be taken back to the cave over and over again. The natives only agreeing due to threats of imprisonment and death levied by the priest for disobeying him.