Blazing saddles

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Known for reciting cowboy poems from the saddle, for being the lone horsemen of the hills, passionate about their traditions; they know their way across the mountains, make expert expedition guides, and are friends of animals and plants alike. The chagras are the heart of mountain life.

The name comes from the word “chakra”, land destined for sowing in Kichwa. Like the land, the chagra is fertile ground for tradition and knowledge. They love the mountain above all things. They are the guardians of agricultural and livestock lore and lands. Their high Andean rodeos  profoundly illustrate their livelihoods and unique talents.

Trees don’t eat their own fruits. The owers don’t get lost in their own fragrance. The sun, well… it doesn’t shine for itself. If you think about it, it seems like the rst universal law we all must follow is service. The e ective, righteous and harmonious service this wonderful nature we have deserves.

-Freund Ludovico

A poncho, chaps and a hat

The chagra’s traditional clothing protects him from the elements, from the cold wind that blows across the paramo to the driving horizontal rain that washes over it. The warmer the material the better they can ensure they get the day’s work done. But a chagra’s day is rarely over: they lead the rodeo, tame wild horses, herd the cattle back to the stable, pick plants that heal, weave between the trails that connect the mountains and plains… They are true cowboys: on a horse nobody can match them.

So important are they to Mejía’s identity they have their own festival, held every year. The origins of the celebration reach back to 1877, when Mount Cotopaxi became active.

Once the risk had passed, hundreds of chagras put on their best clothes, mounted their stallions and paraded through streets and squares to give thanks for the miracle that avoided the cataclysm.

We chagras don’t need a watch: we can read the sun. Just by feeling the air we can predict next day’s weather. We see a horse and we know he’s going to be di cult to tame. We know too little about reading and writing, but we know a lot about the language nature speaks.

-Roberto Velozo

The procession became emblematic for the chagra. But, as the years passed and modernity swept over the hills and valleys, the cowboys’ heritage was being lost. In fact, the word itself took on a pejorative meaning in Ecuadorian Spanish.

Thanks to cultural visionaries like Raúl Guarderas Guarderas, in the 1980s the identity of this once-derided character was reclaimed through the Paseo del Chagra, an official festival that is held every year, and that has grown in size and stature over the decades. Headed by the image of the “Lord of the Holy School” dressed in a hat and poncho, the chagras come together to say grace for 365 days of protection.

Although they work hard, the chagras also play hard. Nobody knows how to get a party going like they do: dancing, playing the guitar, singing their verses… They put the same passion into their fiestas as they do to their work high up in the mountains.

Chagra, lost Andean soul, wild like his hills, sincere like his meadows, solemn like his rocks… You see soft greens at the edge of these mountains: leather, whip and liquor, re, torch and guitar…

– Extract of the poem ‘Sentimientos chacareros’ (Country Sentiments) by Raúl Guarderas Guarderas

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