In depth: Life and Lore in the Sierra

Ancient values, traditional healers, and Christian festivals are all part of life in the Sierra, an area that has seen little change for hundreds of years
Group of women dressed up with colorful dresses for the Quito Festivities' parade
Group of women dressed up with colorful dresses for the Quito Festivities' parade

A group of women dressed up with colorful dresses for the Quito Festivities' parade. Photo: Pablo Hidalgo

Every valley of the Ecuadorian highlands is populated by distinct indigenous groups, some descendants of original Ecuadorian tribes, others descendants of the Incas or of people imported by the Incas from other areas of the country

Europeans and Ecuadorian indígenas have been in contact for nearly 500 years, with the former influencing the lives of the latter in profound ways. Language, clothing, food, housing, and religion all have a European imprint. The influence has also worked the other way round: for example, more than half the food crops consumed in the world today were domesticated in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. Most significant are maize and potatoes, which were the economic foundation of the Inca Empire.

Distinctive subcultures

Indigenous people still retain a number of customs of pre-Hispanic origin. Although the various groups have distinctive subcultures, they share a number of traits. Some might argue that a poor, evangelical Protestant family in Chimborazo that ekes out a living on half an acre of bad land has nothing in common with a wealthy Catholic weaving family in Otavalo that has just finished the construction of a four-story apartment building in town. Yet both families consider themselves indígenas, both wear a distinctive dress that identifies them as members of a particular ethnic group, and both families speak Quichua inside their homes.

To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, the indígenas of Ecuador are separated by the barrier of a common language: Quichua or Runa Shimi (The People’s Tongue). Quichua is part of the Quechua language family. There are several Quechua languages spoken today in Peru, and two or three different Quichua dialects spoken in Ecuador. This means that indígenas from different regions of Ecuador do not necessarily understand each other. The origins of Quechua are unknown, but we do know that the Chinchay, a trading group on the coast of Peru, spoke it around the time of Christ. The Incas adopted Quechua from the Chinchay and spread it throughout the Andes as they expanded their empire in the 14th and 15th centuries. Then the church employed Quichua as a lingua franca to help them Christianize the indígenas, who resisted Spanish.

The Quechua language family is growing; more people speak it now than in Inca times, including in Ecuador. Today most indígenas are bilingual in Quichua and Spanish, but some older people, especially in remote communities, speak Quichua only.

Despite efforts, no standard version of Quichua or Quechua spelling has yet been set. Various alphabets have been devised over the centuries, and this accounts for inconsistencies in spelling. The Quichua word for baby, for example, can be spelled wawa, guagua, or huahua.

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Ecuadorian women on a market in the village of Saquisili in the Avenue of the Volcanos in the Cotopaxi region of Ecuador. Photo: Steve Allen/123RFEcuadorian women on a market in the village of Saquisili in the Avenue of the Volcanos in the Cotopaxi region of Ecuador. Photo: Steve Allen/123RF

Cooperative values

If there is a core value in indigenous society it is reciprocity, and naturally there are Quichua words that express this. One such word is minga, a collective work effort, which operates in various ways. In community minga the leaders organize an effort to repair the roads, or clean the irrigation channels, and every family must furnish several workers. If they fail to show up, some communities levy a fine. there is a core value in indigenous society it is reciprocity, and naturally there are Quichua words that express this. One such word is minga, a collective work effort, which operates in various ways. In community minga the leaders organize an effort to repair the roads, or clean the irrigation channels, and every family must furnish several workers. If they fail to show up, some communities levy a fine.

Then there is a private minga. If a family needs to roof a house, for example, they invite the neighbors to a roofing minga, supplying copious quantities of food and chicha (a local beer made from corn and manioc or yuca) for the workers, and people come willingly because they know they will need help themselves one day.

In the same way, compadres (two couples who are ritual kin because they are godparents to one another’s children) also know they can call upon each other for help, anything from a loan of money to working in the kitchen at a fiesta.

Before the Spanish conquest, money did not exist in indigenous societies. Items were bartered or labor was traded. Under the Incas, people paid their taxes in the form of labor (mita) or goods, and in return were taken care of with food from central storehouses in times of famine. In many places, reciprocity still means the exchange of goods or services rather than money. It is useful, as a tourist, to bear this in mind: for example, giving people photographs is much better than paying them to let you take their picture. However, this is not always applicable in public places such as markets, where you’re likely to draw a huge crowd. Sharing food or gifts of food is culturally appropriate in most situations.

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Chimborazo volcano and sheep on the moor, Andes, Ecuador. Photo: Patricio Hidalgo/123RFChimborazo volcano and sheep on the moor, Andes, Ecuador. Photo: Patricio Hidalgo/123RF

Sacred mountains

Indígenas throughout the Andes have worshiped mountains for millennia. ln Ecuador, mountains are seen as male or female individuals, inhabited by powerful spirits. Mountains are also believed to control the rain and therefore the fertility and well-being of the entire region. The highest peak in any area was considered to be a waka (huaca) or sacred spot by the Incas. The Spanish decided to construct Catholic shrines over Inca sacred places, which is why you will see so many isolated chapels on hilltops.

Chimborazo, in the western cordillera of central Ecuador, is the highest mountain in the country, an enormous snow-cap that looms over the province like a giant ice cream. It is known as Taita (Father) Chimborazo, while slightly to the north and in the eastern cordillera is Mama Tungurahua. Lesser peaks in the region are also seen as male and female pairs. Offerings such as guinea pigs, trago (a fierce sugarcane liquor), or plants are sometimes made to the mountains to propitiate them.

In Imbabura province, Mama Cotacachi reigns to the west of Otavalo while Taita Imba­bura dominates the east. When Cota­cachi’s peak is snow-capped the indígenas say it is because Taita Imbabura visited her during the night. Needless to say, this encounter resulted in a baby, Urcu (Mountain) Mojanda, which lies just to the south of Otavalo. The connection of mountains with fertility is obvious here, and many indígenas carry it even further. When, for example, people who live on the flanks of Imbabura plant crops they first ask Taita Imbabura to give them an abundant harvest. And when it rains in the region people say that Taita Imbabura is peeing on the valley below. If the mountains send the rain, Mother Earth (Allpa Mama or Pacha Mama) feeds the people by producing crops. It is customary to throw the last few drops of an alcoholic drink on the ground as an offering to her.

It was not uncommon for the Incas to sacrifice humans on the mountain tops, most often teenage girls who were told from a young age they were the chosen ones. The ritual was considered a great honor.

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Shaman in Ecuadorian Amazonia during a real ayahuasca ceremony. Photo: ammit/123RF Shaman in Ecuadorian Amazonia during a real ayahuasca ceremony. Photo: ammit/123RF

Shamanism and healing

Virtually every Ecuadorian community has a man or woman who knows the healing properties of various plants, or who can diagnose and cure by correcting spiritual imbalances or undoing spells. Healers are known by various Spanish names: curanderos (curers), brujos (witches), or hechiceros (sorcerers, witches). In Quichua, traditional healers are called yachaj mamas or yachaj taitas (knowledgeable mothers or fathers). There are also midwives, who are known as parteras. The details of healing vary among the different ethnic groups, but in the Sierra people might go to a local healer for a number of reasons: it might be because they have intestinal parasites, or because they believe an envious neighbor has cast a spell on them (envidia), or because they are looking for success in love or business. In addition, many people in the highlands have combined the Quichua belief in an inner and outer body, which must be kept in balance, with the medieval European belief in humoral medicine. This ancient tradition held that the body was composed of four humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood, whose relationships determined a person’s disposition and health.

Today people believe that such illnesses as infant diarrhea occur because the baby has had a fright, which caused the inner and outer bodies to become unbalanced. If the inner body actually flees, then death can result, so the healer performs a ceremony known as “calling the soul” to bring back the baby’s inner body. Bodies can also become diseased because of bad air (wayrashka in Quichua), known as mal aire in Spanish. Mal aire gave us our word malaria, because people initially believed that the disease came from swamp vapors rather than from the bites of mosquitoes that lived in the swamps.

Calling the soul involves a cleansing, in which the patient’s body is rubbed with a raw egg. The egg is shaken, and the sounds it makes indicate that the bad air is being absorbed. After the cleansing a child is sent to hide the eggs in the fields nearby. Calling the soul also includes prayers in Quichua to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary and the saints. The healer tells the patient’s heart to rise up (that is, to come back), passes alcohol to all present, and smokes cigarettes, blowing the smoke on the patient. Tobacco has long been used by indigenous groups for healing. There are many early Spanish accounts of its use among the Maya, and it is still used in healing and religious rituals throughout the Americas.

While most communities have their own healers, several areas are famous for their curanderos. People in the Sierra believe that the Shuar people have special healing powers, as do the Tsáchila of Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas (colloquially known as colorados because men dye their hair red) west of the Andes. The healers of Ilumán, outside Otavalo, are also famous, and people come from all over the highlands to be treated by them.

These healers rely on centuries of knowledge passed down from their ancestors. In ayahuasca rituals, a psychotropic plant is given to the patient, allowing the shaman to enter the sick person’s body, find the illness, and cure it. These medicine men are well-respected members of their communities and are given credit for saving many tribes from death. The practice is making a comeback as Ecuadorians and international tourists frustrated with modern medicines look for alternative methods of treating disease and mental anguish.

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Good Friday procession in Quito, Ecuador. Photo: Pablo Hidalgo/123RFGood Friday procession in Quito, Ecuador. Photo: Pablo Hidalgo/123RF                              

A calendar full of fiestas

Latin America’s reputation for partying and festivities has a long history. In pre-Hispanic times community fiestas were organized around the agricultural and solar cycle. After the Spanish conquest, the Church cleverly turned many traditional indigenous religious celebrations into Catholic feast days on the grounds that people were going to celebrate anyway, so they might as well observe a Christian occasion. Heavy drinking of chicha (local beer) is associated with nearly all Andean festivals, despite the Catholic Church’s efforts to phase it out.
While a number of civic festivals are observed throughout the year in Ecuador, the most interesting fiestas by far are the traditional celebrations in the country. These mainly occur in the spring and summer, especially after the harvest and during the dry season. Every community has its own ritual calendar, so you might at any time of the year wander into a town in the middle of a fiesta in honor of its patron saint. However, here are a few of the major Sierra fiestas that are well worth catching:

Carnival (February or March) is held during the week before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Carnaval is a transplant from Europe, and represents a last fling before the austerity of Lent. Carnival in Ecuador is not like the one in Rio. In the Sierra the main activity is throwing water, and it is definitely not fun to be hit in the back with a water balloon or to have a bucket of water dumped on your head in a chilly mountain village. Ambato, however, has outlawed water-throwing and has a fiesta of fruit and flowers that includes street dances and folkloric events. Hotels fill up early, but Ambato is reachable easily from Baños by bus, so it’s possible to make a day trip out of it.

Holy Week (Semana Santa, the week before Easter) begins with Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos). Throughout Ecuador people buy palm fronds in the market, weave them into different shapes and take them to church. Four days later, on Maundy Thursday, families visit the cemetery and bring food and drink for the dead in an observance similar to that of the Day of the Dead (see page 74).

In Quito on Good Friday there is an enormous, spectacular procession through the streets of the city, complete with flagellants, men dragging huge wooden crosses, and penitents dressed in what look rather like purple Ku Klux Klan outfits. There are also impressive Good Friday processions, with costumed penitents in such Chimborazo towns as Yaruquíes, Tixán, Chambo, and Chunchi.

Corpus Christi, in honor of the Eucharist, is a movable feast, held on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, usually in the first half of June. It is a major fiesta in the central Sierra, especially in Cotopaxi and Tungurahua provinces, but it is celebrated in many places, including some communities in Chimborazo province, in Cuenca, and in Saraguro, Loja province. Dancers with ornate headdresses and spectacularly embroidered costumes are now found only in such communities as Pujilí, Cotopaxi, and San Antonio de Píllaro, Tungurahua. In Salasaca, the indígenas wear plaster masks, bright ribbons and feathers on their hats, and dance from Salasaca to the nearby town of Pelileo. In Cuenca, celebrations include tiny paper hot-air balloons, fireworks, and special sweets.

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Ecuador, a parade march during La Fiesta de la Mama Negra traditional festival. Photo: Florian Blümm/123RFEcuador, a parade march during La Fiesta de la Mama Negra traditional festival. Photo: Florian Blümm/123RF

The winter solstice, Inti Raymi, celebrated on June 21, was once a major event in the Inca festival calendar. In the Cuzco area, south of the equator, the winter solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. Closer to the equator, the differences in the length of the day and night are less dramatic, but astute indigenous astronomers still recognized them.

Today, Saint John the Baptist (San Juan Bau­tista, June 24) is the major fiesta in the Otavalo Valley and probably replaced an ancient, pre-Inca solstice festival.

Among the Otavaleños, San Juan is a male fiesta lasting the better part of a week. On the night of the 23rd, the male vespers (la víspera) dress up in costumes. The dancing begins after dark both in Otavalo and in the outlying towns.

The variety and ingenuity of the costumes is a sight to see, from Batman, Kalimán, and North American Plains Indians with feathered headdresses, to Mexicans with giant sombreros, women, and soldiers. Some indígenas even parody gringos by wearing blond wigs, down jackets, jeans and running shoes, and carrying backpacks. The dancing goes on each night for a week, with groups of musicians and dancers moving from house to house and dancing (actually stomping) in a circle, with sudden reversals of direction which may represent the movement of the sun.

Saints Peter and Paul (San Pedro y San Pablo, June 29) is a major fiesta that takes place in Imbabura province, and in many towns and villages the San Juan and San Pedro y Pablo festivities run together.

On the night of June 28 bonfires are lit in the streets throughout the province. This seems to be a combination of indigenous and Spanish customs. Young women who want to have a child are supposed to leap over the fires. San Pedro is especially important in Cotacachi, where there are also ritual fights, and in Cayambe. While San Juan is important to the Otavaleños, San Pedro is the big event for the other main ethnic group in Imbabura, the people who live on the east side of the mountain in the communities of Zuleta, Rinconada, La Esperanza, and Angochagua.

Because San Pedro is the patron saint of the canton of Cayambe, hundreds of indígenas come into town and parade under the banners of their communities. The groups dance down the streets, around the main plaza, and past a reviewing stand, where local officials award prizes to the best groups. Among the dancers are men and women carrying roosters in wooden cages or tied to poles for a ceremony called the entrega de gallos (delivery of roosters). In the days of wasipungo (serfdom) the indigenous people on the haciendas had to show their loyalty to the landowner by making a ceremonial gift of roosters at this time. Today the ceremony is most often performed for the indigenous sponsor (called the prioste) of local fiestas.

The feast of the Virgin of Carmen (La Virgen del Carmen, July 16) is a notably larger celebration in the southern provinces than in the north. There is a fair (feria) in front of the church of that name in downtown Cuenca. In Chimborazo this fiesta is celebrated in Pumallacta and in Chambo.

Chambo, located just outside Riobamba, is the site of a miraculous shrine and fountain, one of those instances where a Catholic church was built on a mountain over what was undoubtedly a pre-conquest holy site. The shrine is dedicated to the Virgen de la Fuente del Carmelo de Catequilla. Indígenas from throughout Chimborazo, in their finest traditional dress, visit the shrine and chapel on July 16. There is also a small fair at the base of the springs where food, drink, candles, and holy items are sold.

Saint James (Santiago, July 25) is the patron saint of Spain, and his image (on horseback with a raised sword) was carried into battle by the Spanish. The Spanish had firearms, which were unknown to indígenas, who associated Santiago with the powerful Inca god of thunder and lightning (Illapa). Today Santiago is the patron of many communities, and there are many fiestas in his honor.

The feast of the Virgin of Mercy (La Virgen de la Merced, September 24) is a major two-day fiesta in Latacunga (Cotopaxi province), where a local dark-skinned statue of the Virgin is known as La Mamá Negra, the black mother. This is one of the country’s most visually-striking festivals, a pooling of cultural traditions from the Ayamara to the African, with the highlight being the parading of La Mama Negra (the black mother, an intriguing combination of the virgin mixed with African deities) through streets on horseback. La Merced is also celebrated in Columbe (Chimborazo province).

Musicians playing flute and guitar at Inti Raymi indigenous celebration in Cayambe, Ecuador. Photo: Pablo Hidalgo/123RF Musicians playing flute and guitar at Inti Raymi indigenous celebration in Cayambe, Ecuador. Photo: Pablo Hidalgo/123RF

All Saints’ Day and the Day of the Dead (Todos Santos and Día de Difuntos, November 1 and 2). These two Catholic feast days are another example of the blending of Andean and European traditions. In pre-conquest burials, food and drink were placed in graves to feed the dead in the next life. Some people believe that the spirits of the dead return to earth for 24 hours and will be unhappy if they aren’t remembered.

If you are in Quito in early December you will get swept along in the festivities that celebrate The Founding of Quito (December 6). There are parades, bullfights, dancing in the street, and general merriment.

Finally, there are many beautiful Christmas (Navidad, December 25) pageants and celebrations throughout Ecuador; it’s a wonderful time of year to be traveling there. Christmas is the main religious holiday, though as commercial here as anywhere else, with stores setting up Christmas displays as early as September. Among the local Christmas customs is the Pase del Niño (Presentation of the Christ Child). Families who own statues of the baby Jesus carry them in a street procession to the church, accompanied by musicians and by children dressed as Mary, Joseph, and other Nativity figures. The baby Jesus statues are blessed during a special Mass and then taken back to the household cribs.

The most famous Pase del Niño occurs in Cuenca, on the morning of December 24. It begins at the churches of San Sebastián and Corazón de Jesús and converges on the cathedral on the Plaza de Armas. Families from around the region bring their children, some dressed as indígenas and mounted on horseback, their horses decked with gifts of food, liquor, sweets, and fruits. Other children are on foot, dressed as Nativity figures or as gypsies, gauchos, or Moors, each group carrying its own statue of Jesus. Inside the cathedral the children are given chicha and bread, then the participants wind their way through the streets to celebrate Christmas at home. The Pase has grown so large, however, that its quality has declined over the years.

In Saraguro, Loja province, each indigenous community owns a statue of the Christ Child which is carried in a procession on Christmas Day from the main church to the home of the Christ Child’s “godparents,” the marcan taita and marcan mama. The procession is led by violinists and drummers and accompanied by costumed dancers. At the marcan taita’s house the statue is placed on a decorated altar, and the entire community assembles for a huge meal and an afternoon of music and dancing.

Other Christmas observances include the fiesta of the Holy Innocents (Santos Inocentes) on December 28 (in Quito), and the feast of Epiphany or Three Kings (Tres Reyes or Reyes Magos), on January 6.                                   

Fiesta etiquette 

There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to behave at fiestas, and everyone will have a better time if you know how to act. If you want to take photographs, for example, you will be less conspicuous and find it much easier at the larger and more public events. If you are the only outsider at a small village event, then circumspection is the word. Put your camera away, watch the festivities, talk to people, and then ask if you can photograph them. Indígenas have been pushed around by people for nearly 500 years, and they are pushing back. They resent the arrogance of some outsiders who assume they can photograph anything, anywhere without asking permission. Remember, you’re a guest here, not Sebastián de Benalcázar.

Ritual drinking is customary at all fiestas, and by late in the day many participants are hopelessly intoxicated. It is insulting if you refuse to drink when the trago bottle is passed around, so join the revelers in a drink or two and throw the dregs on the ground as an offering to Pacha Mama. One of the best ways to enjoy a fiesta without causing or taking offense is to arrive fairly early in the morning and leave by about 2pm, before things get seriously out of hand and before you’ve shared so many drinks that you can’t find your way back to the bus stop.

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