They say that the Saraguro people dress in black because they are mourning Atahualpa, the last Inca. But what if I told you that, in reality, black wool keeps you warm? Mourning in ancestral belief, in any case, does not exist under modern precepts, because dying always marks a beginning in ancestral Andean cultures such as that of the Saraguros. Here, death is cause for celebration and gratitude.
Loja is like a hidden charm for those who arrive from the north and Saraguro is its portal. One can’t understand this unique town without taking into account the relationship that the culture ascribes to runas, “humans” and pacha, “Mother Earth”. From the construction of a house and the weeding of crops to the way people dress, everything involves ritual and meaning. Today, these values are being redeemed across the region.
The colors of the harvest.
It is noon, September 21, and at the main square, the Kulla Raymi is taking place. It marks the first celebration of the agricultural year and the time farmers decide what seeds to sow. The festivity seeks to honor new beginnings and the feminine drive of the cosmos. Of the 140 communities that make up the Saraguro canton, only five take part in the annual celebration of the four Raymi festivities; the rest maintain their Catholic celebrations.
The square is decorated with flowers and the air is redolent with their scent. I stand entranced, the only laichu (white woman) present, watching the marcantaitas “community leaders” dance with the people in a circle. They shuffle around a chacana (a form that represents the Andean cross) to the rhythm of an accordion and a drum played by an old man and a boy, both with wide braids tumbling down their backs, one white and the other black. The songs are carried by the wind across the square. From time to time, a shout — “juayayay” — rises up from the group and shakes me from my trance.
The ceremony I witness is a recurring theme in this town: the revitalization of heritage. Historically stripped of their beliefs, since the 1980s the Saraguros have begun to recover their culture, reviving long-lost festivities and incorporating the Kichwa language into a bilingual school system. All this constitutes a ” moment of transition”, or pachakutik, according to Darwin Japón Quizhpe, cultural actor and specialist in community tourism. It represents, he says, a return of the original, aboriginal peoples to their source of harmony, a defiant response to the spiritual vacuum of modern times. But the road is long. “First we must feel it ourselves and then we can share it with others,” says Darwin.
At the heart of Saraguro
The facade of the main church seems made out of sand. It zealously guards a handsomely tile-and-cement floor, a roof of romerillo beams and an ornate altar. The square before it is full of trees and flowers and people, inviting you to sit on a bench and bask in the rays of the glorious sun.
You can visit several restaurants and craft shops around the square and its adjacent streets. Don’t miss the chaquira bead necklaces and adornments. We suggest you take your time to amble through the streets. Let yourself be surprised. A find is Kullayni, on Calle 10 de Marzo, where they sell beautiful handmade musical instruments.
Beyond village walls
The workshops of Miguel Ángel Lozano, Manuel Guamán and Julio Guamán are the perfect place to understand that, just like food in Saraguro, clothes and utensils have an origin and a story. Cerámica Lozano, located in the nearby community of Gunudel (ten minutes from the center of Saraguro) and Cerámica Guamán, in the community of Ñamarín (located to the northeast of town) are both showcases of what makes pottery so special within the community. The Con Quien Viniste (“Who d’you come with”), for example, is a clay pitcher with a built-in cup-like container that keeps drinks warm for up to two hours. Here, if someone comes to your house to ask a favor, he or she will do so with one of these pitchers in hand, full of warm chicha. To accept the favour requested, one accepts a drink.
As for Julio Guamán and his looms, in his Awana Kuchu workshop we learn how wool is transformed into yarn and then into beautiful garments that, in addition to keeping you warm, belie his creative designer’s eye. Julio works with ease as he weaves his threads. I could only dream of matching his dexterity.
Sara Lozano, on the other hand, manages the Inti Wasi Tourism Center and the Runa Extreme guiding company. She takes us out to discover the hidden secrets behind these crafts. She explains the importance of dance and music for the Saraguros and how the arts are part of region’s cultural syncretism. Sara is a member of the Inti Huambrakuna dance group, and dances to the rhythm of violins and drums, essential instruments in local music.
All shall be shared at the table, in this case at the Kuya Raymi’s muguna feast.
The community of Gera is full of single-storey houses, built with adobe walls and rammed earth, with small gardens sowed and harvested according to the Andean cycles. Its inhabitants have strong bonds with their animals. They are convinced the creatures understand Kichwa. There is always someone willing to share good shot of homemade guajango. Mercedes Medina sits in her kitchen, where ears of countless types of corn hang, and explains the process of extracting this liquor from the agave plant. The result is a sweet drink that bubbles in your glass and leaves a strong aftertaste. According to Mercedes, guajango is better for your thirst (and tastier, for sure) than any commercial soda.
From Gera, head up to the Mirador del Cóndor or “Condor Lookout” from which you can admire the patchwork green and ochre mountainsides, dotted with houses and small plantations. You can also glimpse the ruins of an ancient Andean fort in the distance, a half-hour’s walk away.
Illamarín, another nearby community, attracts adrenaline junkies. Here, José Cartuche has set up what he calls “The Flight of the Hawk “, a free-falling 9-meter swing that hangs from the mountain. Once you’re airborne, you literally feel like you’re landing in Saraguro. The swing is located atop Hisikaka Machay, the “smiling mountain”. It’s certainly a heart-pumping bird’s-eye view! Additionally, the site offers lodging where Whatsapp pings are replaced by the crackling of a chimney and various routes take in craft workshops, traditional food and walks along a section of the Inca Road or Kapac Ñan.
Not far from Illamarín, we reach the Baños del Inka (Inca Baths), a cascade of crystalline water like liquid silver, where communities perform rituals for their different Raymi festivities. Between eucalyptus, sacha romero and chilca trees, we find a hidden cave, where they say huacas or spirits appear. They also invoke the Wiki, a popular local character who emerges during the Christmas to enliven festivities. What everyone sees or feels here in the cave depends on the cloth your spirit is cut from.
For those of us who are not Saraguro, something is very clear and obvious: we’ll always be outsiders. But coming into contact with this unique culture, we can still find common ground with its people, with their dreams and worries and struggles, and recognize that in our daily lives we are all beginning to truly lose or forget the connection with what surrounds us. To live the Saraguro experience is to allow our spirit a chance to fly once more, to be reborn. It’s to return to our ‘modern’ lives with unbreakable ancient threads, both real and metaphorical.