Posted by: Jena Davison | October 29, 2012

Saraguro, Ecuador: A Peek into Indigenous Culture

Saraguro, Ecuador, is an interesting place to visit, especially if you are looking for an authentic experience in a non-touristy town. Located in the southern Andes mountains, between the cities of Cuenca and Loja, Saraguro refers to both the town itself and to the surrounding canton, which encompasses several nearby indigenous villages, including Las Lagunas, Tuncarta and Namarín. The town has 6,000 inhabitants, while the entire canton has 31,000.

Saraguro’s Main Plaza

The area is named for the indigenous Kichwa group who lives there, also called Saraguro. Not only were the Saraguros the only indigenous group in the province to successfully survive the Spanish conquest, they have also managed to retain their customs and way of life and continue to remain the best-preserved indigenous group in all of Ecuador. They are especially known for their distinctive way of dress. Men wear ponchos, knee-length pants and brimmed black hats (though they traditionally wore wide-brimmed white hats made of sheep’s wool with a spotted pattern under the brim). Women wear long black (often pleated) skirts, black shawls, multi-stranded beaded necklaces and bracelets, and black hats. Both men and women wear their hair in one single long braid.

Saraguro Woman in the Field

I went to visit Saraguro a few weeks ago as part of a work trip and participated in the community tourism project going on there. The project was set up by Fundación Kawsay as to way to encourage sustainable and educational tourism while also funneling money back into the communities themselves. Saraurku is the only tour operator in town and works with Fundación Kawsay directly (they even share an office) to place visitors in home stays with local indigenous families.

It costs $27 per night and includes three meals a day, plus family activities. You have to contact Sarauku at least one day in advance to organize this. The foundation also runs a nice hostel, Hostal Achik Wasi, which has pretty views of the surrounding countryside. If you would like your own space, the hostel may be the right place for you, but I highly recommend staying with one of the families if you want a unique experience.

Chickens on Local Family Farm

Actually, I really lucked out in Saraguro. I had showed up in town with plans to stay at the community hostel, even though I wanted to stay with a family, since I was confused as to how to organize a home stay. When I got to the hostel, I asked about organizing a tour to some nearby workshops and communities and was told it would be very expensive because I was traveling alone and organizing it last minute. It is not possible to visit these communities independently, either, as you need permission to visit them and transportation is complicated. To be honest, I was disappointed. I came to Saraguro because I was genuinely interested in learning more about the indigenous culture and in checking out the community tourism project.

Then I met Lauro, the manager of Sararku, one of the kindest and most helpful people I have encountered in a long time. I think he picked up on my general disappointment with not being able to see what Saraguro has to offer and he graciously offered to take me around the area for the day. He also offered to organize a home stay instead of staying at the hostel. Lauro absolutely made my time in Saraguro worthwhile.

Countryside Around Saraguro

First, we went to a weaving workshop in the small village of Las Lagunas, which has been run by a humble man named Manuel Incarnación Quizhpe since 1976. Funny enough, I ended up staying at the house of Manuel’s son and daughter-in-law  that evening. Manuel showed me around the workshop, explained to me how weaving is a man’s job in Saraguro because it is thought to be too laborious for women, and showed me some of the finely woven finished products, including intricate table cloths. He said the weavings are sold in stores in Saraguro and at artisan fairs in Loja, Cuenca and Quito. Manuel also allows kids to learn how to weave at his workshop for free, and once they have mastered the skill, they can continue making items for money if they want to.

Manuel in his Weaving Workshop

Looms in the Weaving Workshop

Afterwards, I stopped at a traditional Saraguro hat workshop in the village of Tuncarta. The owner has run the workshop for 16 years and is the only guy that makes high-quality handmade traditional hats in the canton. Here I learned a bit about the history of the iconic hat, was able to watch the process of making one, and even tried on a few of them (they are much heavier than I thought). I was told that it takes two days to make one of the hats, and that they cost about $60. They are made from lamb’s wool, and require one pound of wool per hat (one lamb produces one pound of wool, to put that into perspective a bit). The owner also described some explanations about the spotted design on the bottom of the hats, among them that it represents nature or the struggle between the indigenous people and the Spanish conquistadors.

Brushing the Wool to Soften and Separate the Fibers at Hat Workshop

Then I went to visit some organic gardens growing medicinal plants in the village of Namarín. Lauro told me that Saraguros don’t go to the hospital unless it is an accident or emergency; they culturally rely on natural remedies to cure most things. He pointed out plants that treat colds, relieve menstrual cramps and help you sleep better. During the home stay, I was able to see this in action when the son self-medicated his sore throat by eating several tomate de arbols (tree tomatoes).

Medicinal Plant Garden

I spent the rest of my time in Saraguro with one of the local families in Las Lagunas, which gave me insight into their everyday lives. The family had an organic garden, as well as several chickens and cows, one pig and over a dozen guinea pigs. The family I stayed with and most Saraguros have a mostly vegetarian diet; the wife told me they bought the pig solely for a source of income, as they sell its offspring for about $60 per piglet.

Indigenous Woman Feeding Her Pig

The guinea pigs are used to sow the garden, and are eaten only on special occasions, such as Inti Raymi or to celebrate the October harvest. In Saraguro, the women maintain the home, garden and animals. I was surprised to learn that the wife would do the dirty work of choosing, killing and de-skinning the guinea pig (usually a male, since it has less value because it can’t reproduce), and cooking it for all to eat; the husband admitted he was clueless about this.

The Family’s Guinea Pigs

As evening started to fall, we moved inside from the garden to the kitchen. The wife had decided to prepare soy empanadas filled with cheese that night, and I helped her through each step of the process. Making empanadas is super time-consuming, as you have to make and knead the dough, roll the dough into balls, flatten the balls into small discs, place small piles of cheese in the middle of each disc, fold the discs in half and seal them tightly, stretch the edges of the empanadas so they will cook evenly, and fry them in a shallow pan of oil.

Making Empanadas

We made 40 empanadas, so it took several hours to make them all. From here on out, I will certainly think more about how much work went into the $0.80 empanada I am eating. They turned out great, though, probably some of the tastiest empanadas I have ever tasted. We accompanied the empanadas with a fresh salad, boiled mote (hominy) and potatoes, crumbled unsalted cheese fresh from the family’s farm, and mint tea–all was mixed and eaten together out of carved wooden bowls with wooden spoons.

Empanadas Almost Ready to be Fried

Sharing dinner with the family was one of the highlights of the trip and I learned even more about the Saraguro culture. Among the many things they told me, they reaffirmed the simple, healthy—almost antiquated—lifestyle I had seen during my time there. Saraguros typically don’t drink soda, coffee (they drink herbal teas instead) or alcohol (they drink chicha on special occasions instead), or smoke tobacco. The family I stayed with had both a TV and computer but said they rarely used the TV and only used the computer for communication purposes and to assist the son’s musical education (the son plays the violin).

Yet, beyond the family’s obvious rejection of modern societal influences, I was surprised to find out the husband and wife had two children in college in some of Ecuador’s biggest cities, Cuenca and Loja. Although I completely admire and respect the Saraguro way of life, it would be very hard to maintain outside of the sheltered communities they live in, so I wonder how their kids are able to balance university and city life with their traditional culture.

All in all, I had a lovely time in Saraguro. Beyond the natural beauty of the countryside, characterized by textured agricultural landscapes, I’d have to say all of the open and hospitable people really made my stay especially special.


  1. How did you arrange the homestay? How long of a trip is it from Cuenca?

  2. It would be very interesting if you could still get ahold of the kids at University and have them do an interview about that balance between their own culture and city life.
    Just a Thought!

  3. […] a place to spend days, it was still a nice spot to explore, with its markets, rivers and Shuar and Saraguro Indians milling around the neighbourhood, the latter in their distinguishable black shorts. We can […]

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