We had heard that Loja in southern Ecuador was a bit warmer than Cuenca, somewhat smaller (pop about 150,000), and had fewer gringos to drive up real estate prices, so we decided to take a look. As we were planning our trip we learned of a two-day guided tour of Saraguro, a small town more than halfway to Loja, so we booked the tour.
The Inca Empire started around Machu Pichu in the early 1200s and over the next 250 years the Incas expanded their empire by conquering their neighbors all up and down the western coast of South America.
The Incas often transferred troublemakers to remote parts of their growing empire. Many claim that the natives living in and around Saraguro are descended from mitimaes (populations transferred by the Incas) from southern Peru or Bolivia in the early 1400s when the Incas conquered much of Ecuador. The traditional costume of the people of Saraguro is primarily black. Some people claim that they dress in black because they are still in mourning for the last Inca king that was killed by the Spanish conquerors. If you are interested in more information about Saraguro and its residents, check out the web site, www.saraguro.org/.
But, let’s begin our trip. It began when our group of 11 participants, two English speaking guides, and our driver set off shortly after 7:00 am on Saturday morning, March 3, 2012 from the tour company offices in central Cuenca.
The area south of Cuenca is green and lush. The mountains in southern Ecuador are much older than those in northern Ecuador. As a result, the mountains have eroded into rounder, less rugged shapes. In addition, the soils are older and are less fertile. As a result, southern Ecuador is primarily dairy country with the hillsides planted in imported grasses to serve as pasture for the cows. The road was in good condition because it is only about 5 years old. Since the road is often cut through clay, the recent heavy rains have meant that there have been numerous places where the hillsides have slumped onto the road. The soil and rock is cleared from the roadway using front-end loaders and the soil dumped alongside the road. That is the source of the bright red soil alongside the road in the second photo. After about two hours of driving our van stopped for a potty and refreshments break.
As we approached Saraguro we could see pampas grass growing along the roadway. When you see pampas grass it means that you are at an elevation between 2800 m and 3400 m above sea level. As we drove up the gravel road to our hotel we could see some of the roads and/or paths that lead to houses or provided access to the fields. We stayed at “Achik Wasi” a community owned facility. The town of Saraguro and several surrounding villages have banded together to facilitate tourism. Our tour had been arranged through the local cooperative that owns the hotel and facilitates tours to the neighboring villages to see native artisans.
The hotel was quite impressive. This was the main lodge. In addition to the rooms for guests there was a restaurant and a large conference/meeting room. In the second photo Bea and Nancy are looking down onto Saraguro through the large archway at the bottom of the garden area. This is the view of the main cathedral (Inglesia Matriz) from the archway. The front of the church faces the main plaza.
While we were waiting for our local native guide to arrive, I noticed one of the local farmers hauling a 5 gallon jug of water up the steep slopes to provide water for his livestock. The middle photo shows our local guide walking up the road to the hotel to meet us. We all climbed into the van and we drove off towards our first artisan’s establishment. Along the way we passed some rather run-down dwellings but we also passed some new up-scale dwellings under construction.
Our first stop was at the local dwelling where Bea and Bob were going to spend the night. Several locals have built a guest room onto their houses where tourists can stay. This was a very nice room. We had originally elected to stay in a similar place rather than the hotel. However, when we got there we had to climb a steep, rock path for about 100 meters to get to the dwelling. Since we were going to have to climb this path in the dark, we decided to stay at the hotel rather than in the guest room. In part of the house where Bea and Bob stayed they had set up a recording studio for local groups.
As we were leaving the house where Bea and Bob were to stay we were treated to an impromptue jam session. The first artisan we visited was a master weaver. He was introduced by our native guide and then he demonstrated some of the work he does on that loom.
The first step in setting up a loom is to wind the threads onto the supply reel. Once this is done you can start threading the loom. The set-up process takes between two and two and a half days. In the second photo an assistant is working on an intricately patterned tablecloth. He uses all six pedals under the loom to create the pattern he wants. The final photograph shows the master weaver working on a very detailed pattern of red and green threads on this Christmas tablecloth.
At the end of our visit the master weaver and his wife, who does beadwork, pose for photographs. Our tour group heads back over the dirt path back to our van. We then head back to the hotel for lunch at the restaurant.
On one wall of the hotel was this wooden plow. It was pulled by a pair of oxen to till the fields. The seconds photo shows the vehicle used to transport us to the village of Gera to see the museum there. We should of known what to expect when they didn’t use our nice van to make the trip. The final photo shows us leaving in the converted truck. The road doesn’t look too bad here but gets much, much worse!
As we drove through town we passed the camal municipal. This is the municipal slaughterhouse where larger animals such as cows, sheep and pigs are slaughtered for food. Smaller animals such as chickens, turkeys or guinea pigs are slaughtered at home as needed. The center photo shows one of the milk cows that form the backbone of the local economy. Since many farmers tend pieces of land that are many, many miles away, cattle rustling is a serious problem. Many of the older dwellings are very small and are made of mud bricks.
Some of the more progressive and prosperous farmers use greenhouses to grow vegetables such as broccoli for sale in Cuenca or Loja. As we drove further out of town the road deteriorated rapidly. Cave-ins and mud slides made a narrow road even narrower. Recent rains had severely eroded the road surface so the truck had to slow to a crawl as it negotiated the rutted roadway.
Around one particularly treacherous corner we came upon these three crosses. Our guide tried to convince us they were just a sign of the piety of the local residents. But, I don’t think so. The second photo shows milking time. These cows don’t come home to a fancy milking machine. The milkmaid takes a bucket and a stool and climbs the hillside to the cows! The final photo shows a sheep tethered along the roadside trimming the grass. The spiky plants are agave. The locals use them in many ways. The juice is fermented to make an alcoholic drink, the needle at the end of a leaf and the attached fibers are used for sewing, etc., etc.
Eventually the road just petered out and became a cow path and so we had to disembark and hike the rest of the way to the view point.
Well, here is the view we drove 40 minutes over terrible roads to see. Bob and I hiked down to a point of rock extending out over the valley. The second photo shows Bob looking over the edge. In the final photo Nancy poses a safer distance from the drop off.
Down in the valley there was a field of maize/corn. In the top center of the photo there is a circular patch. This is where the grain is threshed during harvest. The second photo shows a neat purple flower. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to identify it yet. The final photo shows a stream cascading down into the valley.
On several occasions we passed a saddled horse tethered near the road. Our guide explained that most farmers have very scattered holdings and so they have to travel long distances to reach their fields and so they use horses to reduce the amount of time spent traveling. The second photo shows two crosses near a recent grave. The second cross is particularly interesting because it has several light bulbs attached to it. This seems very strange because there is no electricity in this area. Perhaps it is to appease the great god Westinghouse. As we were walking back towards Gera from the viewpoint our guide pointed out some interesting birds. The last photo is of a pair of southern yellow grosbeaks on an agave plant. This bird is locally known as a “chugo.” Since the bird is beautiful and has a pretty song, it is often captured and put in a cage. However, locals say that a caged chugo will die of a heart attack. This leads to a local expression that is said to people who are workaholics – “If you don’t slow down and relax, you will die like a chugo.”
The second interesting bird we saw was a Peruvian meadowlark. It song was similar to the meadowlark we have on the prairies but it is a black bird with a bright red breast. The remainder of the walk back to Gera was uneventful. In Gera we passed the health post. It appeared to be similar to the nursing stations on remote Indian reserves.
This is the museum in Gera. It is a traditionally-built two-room house. In front of the house is a garden with many medicinally useful herbs. At the front of the house there is a sloping pole that chickens use to climb up to a nesting platform. Just below the pole you can see an adobe bench. When visitors approached the house the residents would check their guinea pigs that they kept penned under the bed. If the guinea pigs appeared agitated the visitors were giving off bad vibes and would be entertained outside the house. If the guinea pigs were calm, the visitors were OK and were invited into the house.
Inside the museum was a display of traditional costumes worn by the men and women. On the wall were the parts of a back-strap loom that was traditionally used for weaving. The family’s bed was pretty primitive. The frame was made from wood. The sleeping surface was made of bamboo covered with a reed mat.
Food was draped over poles suspended from the ceiling. Note the circular guards used to keep rats from climbing down the ropes to get at the food. The other room in the house was the kitchen where meals were cooked and the juice of the agave plant was fermented to produce an alcoholic drink. We tried some but it didn’t taste very good.
After leaving the museum we walked past the one-room school house where the children of Gera are educated.
The first photo is the other end of the one-room school. If you look carefully, the hearts have the numbers written on them. The one on the right side says “TWO”. These kids are being taught rudimentary English as well as Spanish and Quichua (their native language). In the second photo we are walking back towards our vehicle parked in front of the church. Once we were all aboard we began the slow, arduous journey back towards Saraguro.
As we drove along we saw many fields on rather steep slopes that appeared bare. Our guide informed us that those are fields where crops other than corn have been recently planted. We passed several stacks of wood as we drove along. This was wood that had been cut and stacked by the owner of that piece of forest to be used for cooking. Eventually we came to the outskirts of Saraguro where the farms appeared to be more productive and profitable.
As we were approaching Saraguro we saw a beautiful rainbow. Unfortunately, we didn’t find a pot of gold at the end of it – just a bunch more potholes! The last photo in this group shows some of the modernistic murals in downtown Saraguro.
In downtown Saraguro this food vendor’s establishment spills out over the sidewalk and onto the street.
When we got back to the hotel, we found that the rainbow was very persistent and formed a beautiful arch over the city. For our final activity of the day, we headed south out of Saraguro past the statues of a woman and her children at the entrance to the city.
Just south of Saraguro, the main road crosses the Las Aradas geologic fault. This is a very active fault and it has proved impossible to maintain a stable roadbed in this region. They smooth and pack the roadbed and lay a new asphalt surface and within a couple of weeks the road is a mess again. They are now working on building a bridge with built-in flex to span the fault. Once we are past the fault, the road is smooth again and the countryside lush and green.
This time we stopped in to see a hatmaker. These are not Panama hats nor are they the light-weight felt hats that many residents of Saraguro wear everyday. These are the traditional hats made from white wool. These stiff, heavy hats are made from about 2 pounds of wool and are about a quarter of an inch thick. Here the hatmaker explains about the type of wool he uses.
First the hatmaker cards the wool to align the fibers. The wool is then laid out on the table with the fibers all aligned. The wool is then folded and trimmed with scissors to shorten the length of the fibers.
The hatmaker uses a bow string to separate and puff up the wool fibers. He claims this step is necessary to prevent the finished hat from having flaws and breaking. The puffed wool is formed into semicircular shapes. Two of these shapes with a cloth separator in the middle are stacked to form a sandwich. The sandwich is wrapped in cloth and worked by hand and in a press to felt the wool fibers together to produce a cone shaped piece of wool felt.
A powdered resin is sprinkled onto the hat. The resin stiffens the hat and improves its waterproofing. The hat is worked by hand and heated to incorporate the resin. Eventually the hat is blocked to the correct size and shape and the brim trimmed to the customer’s specifications. The hats are made to order and take about 2 full days to make. They cost about $60 to purchase. There are only 7 people in the world who make this type of hat.
After our visit to the hatmaker it was time for supper. We had supper in a large hall. It was cooked and served by members of the local community. After supper we were entertained by a group of local musicians who played lively Andean music. Eventually everyone got up and danced to the music.
After the evening’s entertainment we were taken back to the hotel where we found our room and crashed for the night. It had been a full day so we slept soundly. In the morning we had a beautiful view out across the valley from our balcony.
It appears that Sunday is market day in Saraguro. From our balcony we could watch people leading their animals to the market. The center photo shows two women with a black pig. Our guide had mentioned that white pigs are more highly valued in this area and ony the poorest farmers have black pigs. Since Nan and I have raised hogs, I’m not sure that I agree with this. In confinement operations, white pigs have been bred to grow faster and larger. However, when raised outdoors, particularly in areas of intense sunlight like Ecuador, white pigs tend to set severe sunburn and develop skin cancers. So, in this area, I would think that black pigs are much more suitable.
This morning we were to attend a native purification ceremony. We were transpoted in the van to this interesting looking building. We then walked down a slope and followed a trail that led along a broad ledge along the side of the mountain. Near the start of the trail we passed a large pig and several sheep. We were glad that it wasn’t raining because it was a long, dirt trail that was muddy in spots.
After walking along the fairly level trail for about 15 minutes our native guide lead us down the mountainside. At one point you had to be careful because the slope was quite steep. Before long we came to a large rock that was revered by the Incas as a place of power. Here we met the shaman who would be leading the purification ritual. We had to wait a while until his two female helpers arrived. We could not take photos during the ceremony but could take photos once the ceremony was completed.
The ceremony was performed around a sacred circle of flower petals. Inside the circle were four stakes marking the cardinal directions as well as a smudge pot, several bottles containing herbs and liquids, a fan made of bird feathers for fanning the smudge pot and some special plants. The shaman sat to the South with the two women to the East and West. We formed a circle around them. The shaman played on a small drum and several flutes during parts of the ceremony. The two women performed most of the rituals in the ceremony.
The first photo shows a side view of this rock that the Incas thought was a source of power. The ceremony was performed to the left of the rock. Our native guide thanked the people who conducted the ceremony and we began the long hike back to our van.
As we were getting into the van for the ride back to town we saw the two women who had helped perform the ceremony walking home. Our next stop was at the main square of Saraguro. It was just before noon and mass was just over. Several caballos were riding their horses around the main square.
The first photo shows another of the caballos. The second shows the tack they were using to keep their horse’s tails down. The final photo is of Nancy wearing a traditional beaded necklace and a heavy wook shawl fastened with a large, fancy pin.
When mass was over, many of the older residents paused to visit. Since the large hats we saw being made are quite expensive, many of the people wore less-expensive, mass-produced felt hats. Note the length of the men’s pants. They seem to be just long enough so they meet the top of a pair of rubber boots.
After lunch at the restaurant in the hotel, the rest of the tour group got in the van and headed back north to Cuenca. Nancy and I took a taxi for the ride south to the city of Loja.