Travelblog SA#12: Loja & Vilcabamba – Ecuador

19th-24th August 2018

The first thing I noticed about Loja was how religious it was. I arrived there on a Sunday and almost everything was closed, apart from the churches which were so cram-packed there were people spilling out from the doorways. One of the only places I could find open was an ice-cream parlour, so I had cake for lunch.

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The following day the shops and restaurants opened their doors again but, for reasons which remain unclear, the museums were still closed. Perhaps it had something to do with the Fiesta de la Virgen del Cisne event going on that night; the real reason I had come to this place.

The Virgen del Cisne is a local cult figure whose physical representation has several different homes across Ecuador. Each year, on the 20th of August, she is returned to Loja, and it is marked by a huge festival.

While I waited for this event, I did some sightseeing and spent the morning wandering around Loja’s churches and the castle gate.

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And later on, I caught a taxi to the Jardín Botánico just outside of town, which had over eight hundred different species and was also a good place to spot birds.

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Just over the road there was a park owned by the University. I kind of strolled on in casually, believing its trail would be a breeze, and instead found myself climbing up a steep slope and then having to grit my teeth (fear of heights, my old friend) as I made my way down a knife-point ridge to get to the bottom again. There were some wonderful panoramas along the way.

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Later on, I assembled outside the castle gate with hundreds of others to await the Virgen del Cisne.

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And waited…

And waited…

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During all the waiting, there was some entertainment. A band was playing and there was also some traditional dancing. I couldn’t see much of it though because there were some rather selfish people at the front holding up umbrellas (even though it wasn’t really raining, just a slight drizzle which wasn’t strong enough to damage my camera). I held my camera up high and caught a few videos, including this one you can watch here.

Eventually one of the musicians began to narrate, as he could tell people were getting impatient. He kept telling us the Virgen del Cisne was coming soon. After half an hour of this, she finally did. We could see her in the distance, being carried across the bridge. We all cheered…

And then… she was carried to the side somewhere and vanished from view. The man began to narrate again to keep the crowd from getting impatient while preparations were made. A brass band needed to assemble nearby… a man went to inspect the perch she was due to be placed upon and made adjustments. None of these were things which could have been done sometime during the two hours we had all been stood waiting, of course…

It began to get dark. The narrator told us to all to wave in greeting, because the Virgen del Cisne was coming soon… but nothing happened. He told us to do it again a few minutes later, but it was a false alarm… just some men with flags.

By the time she actually did come, I was so jaded by all the false alarms I almost missed it. A firework display commenced the moment she was placed on the perch, which was quite spectacular. You can see a video here.

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She was then carried through the town, and I rushed towards the central park outside the cathedral, where she finished her journey. I have uploaded a series of videos from the rest of the festival which can be found here.

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Overall, I was glad I went to see this as it was interesting and I had never seen anything quite like it before, but all the latin faff was a little frustrating.

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The next day I caught a bus to Vilcabamba, where I would spend my last few days in Ecuador in a nature reserve called Rumi Wilco. I finally got to use my new tent.

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I had the campsite to myself a couple of the nights I was there and enjoyed the isolation. Every evening, close to the place I would sit with my laptop (editing photos and writing), a pair of birds kept appearing, and one of them  – which I guessed to be the male – always made a display to the other. I caught a video of it once (click here).

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I also did some hiking. Rumi Wilco is owned by an Argentinean man called Orlando who lives there with his family. He is always very willing to help with information (or even just chat) and has created a great variety of trails around his reserve, all of which are marked and have information displays. One of the routes goes high up the mountain, where you can catch a great view of the surrounding valley.

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I also went to Cascada el Palto, which took several hours but seeing more of Vilcabamba’s stunning scenery made the journey worthwhile (as well as having a dip in the waters to cool myself down before I made my way back).

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I also made a few trips into Vilcabamba town itself, a place which has been taken over by baby-boomer expats who have retired here and now have the run of the place, spending their days languidly sat in cafes drinking wine and talking. There is some great food to be eaten in Vilcabamba if you have been on the road for a while and are beginning to miss first-world treats such as cheesecake and falafel but, be warned, whilst waiting for your food you may be subject to overhearing conversations about David Icke books, the dangers of gluten, the latest conspiracy documentary about aliens, a novel someone has been writing for over ten years and still not finished, and some new yoga class someone has just started.

The rest of my time in the area I spent chilling out at the campsite, where I caught up with friends and my blog. I also reflected upon my time in Ecuador, a place I have spent almost three months now and grown rather fond of.

Tomorrow I am crossing over the border into Peru, where I begin the next chapter of my journey.

 

Click on the following links for more photos from Loja and Vilcabamba.

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Travelblog SA#11: Saraguro – Ecuador

17th-19th August 2018                                                                                         

A common theme within the travelling scene is people striving for encounters along the road they consider ‘genuine’, but the truth is that these days truly authentic experiences can be hard to come by. For almost everything you want to do or see, others have come before you with the same expectation. Patterns form and the people who live in the areas you visit are always anticipating your arrival and preparing for it. When a place reaches a certain level of popularity, infrastructure has to adapt to cope the numbers, and often artificial versions of cultural experience are created especially for tourists.  The influx of money too – for better or worse – changes places which become part of the tourist trail.

And who can blame people for changing when they have more money? Or even sacrificing some of the things we travellers consider ‘authentic’ and ramping up the costs? Most travellers are people from the first-world, roaming across areas filled with people with far fewer opportunities than themselves, and yet, I sometimes hear people complaining about ridiculous things. Such as the native village they visited having electricity. Or an indigenous man wearing jeans. That’s a rather entitled way of thinking. Are these people really expected to turn down some of the comforts of advanced age just so it can feel quaint when you stroll through their life like it is a living museum?

One of the things I think people should always be aware of when they travel is that you are, in a sense, taking advantage of a worldwide monetary system which is unfair and venturing to places which – by some rigging of the system most of us don’t even understand – our money is worth more and goes further. I don’t think that it should stop people travelling though – because you are doing a bit to help in a way, by injecting money into developing economies and, of course, cultural interaction is beneficial for everyone, as it opens up minds to different ways of living and thinking – but it is something you should be conscious of.

So… back to where I began…

When travelling, how do you guarantee that the experiences you have along the way are genuine?

The truth is, you can never fully but are a few things you do to make it more likely. Such as learning the native language, as it opens up more options for you and makes the locals treat you less like a tourist. Another way is to go, as we call it, ‘off the beaten track’. That can help, but you need to remember that a lot of places are popular for a reason. I have met travellers before who seem to make a point of not going to places they consider ‘touristy’. They roam all of Cambodia without going to Angkor Watt, or Peru without seeing Machu Picchu, or Thailand without going to its beaches… and they will often seem rather smug when they tell you all about it too.

Sometimes, while you are on the road, authentic and genuine experiences just happen to fall upon your lap, and it is just down to nothing but sheer luck or meeting the right people. It is what happened to me once in Cambodia, when I met a stranger and got invited to a wedding, and in Burma, when Roy and I went to Mount Popa and came across a random festival, as well as other occasions…

And recently, it is what happened to me in Saraguro, where I had one of the most memorable two days of my life…

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I booked a homestay with an agency called Saraurku who I had heard good things about. I didn’t really know what to expect of my time there as they don’t tell you which family they have selected for you till you arrive. I did know that Saraguro is in the highlands and surrounded by traditional rural villages though.

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I was driven to Pukara Wasi, a brand new homestay owned by Mama Luz and her son Antonio. I was their first ever guest, and I suspect the agency matched me with them because my Spanish is not yet fluent and there was a man living there who spoke English called Luis. Luis is originally from Quito but is an indigenous rights activist and been living with Luz and Antonio while helping to build the extension to their home for guests. The room I was given was only recently completed and it had a great view from the window.

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It just so happened that on the day of my arrival there was a demonstration going on to mark an occasion three years ago when the people of Saraguro blocked the highway running through their town as an act of protest for indigenous rights. This civil disobedience was eventually brought to an end by police, who arrested dozens of people. Some of them were even facing jail sentences for a while, but they were eventually repealed.

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Luis asked me if I would like to go, and it sounded both interesting and worthy cause so I didn’t need much persuading. He, Luz and I walked down the mountain, towards the meeting point outside a small church. We were among the first to arrive, but throughout the next hour, numbers grew.

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It had a rather uplifting atmosphere for a protest. Men were playing music, and later on, after everyone had arrived, a shaman performed a ceremony outside the church which involved prayers, burning of leaves, and everyone making a salute south, west, north and then east.

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And then we began to march towards the town.

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People were chanting, but it was mostly in Kitchwa so I didn’t understand any of it, but I did enjoy the energy. Numbers grew as time went by and when we reached the main square in Saraguro we filed into the town hall where speeches were made and I got to see a traditional Saraguro dance (a video can be viewed here). I began to realise that this wasn’t just a protest, but also a celebration of Saraguro culture.

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In the end, the shaman conducted another ceremony. Offerings were laid out within the middle of the circle. A wreath was lit and smoke clouded the air. Prayers were spoken, and he blew into a large shell which made a resonating horn-like sound. He then sprayed liquor from his mouth onto some of the people around him as a form of ritual cleansing, and then everyone was given a piece of banana and some chicha. Music played, and everyone danced.

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Later on, Luis, Luz, and I walked back to the little church where everyone had assembled earlier but this time it was a more intimate gathering. Leaders from Ecuador’s indigenous communities were there – some of them had come from as far away as Cotopaxi and the Amazon – and everyone brought some food, which was laid out upon the table. We ate together and, at first it was just small talk and I joined in the conversation too, but later on, they went onto more serious topics involving inter-tribe politics so I kept quiet and observed. They were speaking Spanish (and Kitchwa) far too fast for me to follow much of it anyway. It was certainly interesting though.

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The next morning, I got up early and followed Antonio up the mountain to their plot of farmland which was twenty minutes away. They had recently harvested their crop of corn, which was hanging up in bunches outside their home, but the cows still needed to be tended daily. I was happy to see that they gather milk in a way which is both humane and sustainable. The cows were grazing in the field, and the calf (who looked quite big and not like she was going to be a calf much longer) was allowed to drink some of her mother’s milk before Antonio gently coaxed her away so he could fill some into a bucket.

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All of the vegetables, dairy and eggs which are produced by Luz and Antonio (and most of the other farmers who inhabit the Saraguro region) are organic. Big business has tried to make them adopt the modern industrial model, but so far they have resisted. Saraguro is an area which has taken on some of the trappings of the modern world – such as cars and electricity – without letting it change them. Even though Luz and Antonio have electricity, they only really use it for lighting and, as far as I know, they don’t own a television. Their kitchen is still mostly traditional, and the only electric appliance I saw was a blender they use to make juices and smoothies. They have recently acquired wifi, but I think that is just for the guests.

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Once Antonio and I returned to the house, Luis introduced me to his son (Cidro) and nephew (also called Antonio). They had just arrived from Quito and Luis was going to take them out sightseeing for the day. He asked me if I would like to come along.

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He began by taking us to a sacred waterfall near a village called Lagunas. On the way, we saw some wonderful views of the valley and passed by an old ritual space still used by many locals to this day for ceremonies. It was becoming ever so clear to me that animism is still deeply embedded in their culture.

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When we reached the waterfall, Luis coaxed us all to plunge into the waters beneath the cascade and to do so three times so that we would be spiritually cleansed. We were high up in the Andes, so the water was freezing but, once the original shock was over I got used to it. As Cidro, Antonio and I emerged from the water, Luis was waiting with a bottle full with a botanical mixture and he sprayed us all with it in the same manner I saw the shaman do the night before. We dried ourselves and got dressed again.

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After a brief walk through Lagunas village, we hopped onto the back of a truck which trundled through a series of bumpy mountain roads, towards a village called Gena.

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Gena was beautiful. Situated where a series of valleys and plateaus met and had all these huge green plants which some of the locals use to make a drink with a similar taste to sambuca. We met a woman called Rosa, who invited us into her home and let us all try some of her homebrew while she told us about the village.

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Luis, Cidro, Antonio, and I made our way along a trail towards a peak nearby which had stunning views and, upon our return, Luis performed a limpia (cleansing ritual) upon all of us with boutiques of leaves known locally as ‘shamana’. He also performed one upon Rosa too, as a thank you for introducing us to the area and allowing us passage.

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That night, when we returned, we ate a delicious supper of quinoa soup, corn, homemade cheese, and vegetables prepared by Mama Luz, and then Luis took me to Inti Wasi, where the resident shaman (also called Luis) performed a ceremony upon me to connect me with the energy of the area and cleanse me. He also called upon his ancestors and asked them to help see that the rest of my journey goes safely and I meet good people upon the way.

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Inti Wasi is still in the process of having renovations done, but I was given a little tour of its premises. It seems like it will be a great place to check out when it opens its doors again. Residential rooms with wonderful views overlooking the mountains, herbal steam baths, and ceremonial spaces –where they will be offering retreats, accommodation, limpias, and other ceremonies for very reasonable prices.

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The next morning, Mama Luz met me outside and sang a song because she was sad I was leaving, which was a very touching end to my time in Saraguro. We embraced, and then shortly after the taxi came to take me to the bus station.

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Saraguro is one of the most memorable places I have ever been to, and one I wholeheartedly recommend future travellers.  If you do go there, go without any expectations. Just arrive, talk to people, and see what happens.

Pukara Wasi is one of the homestays available through the Saraurku agency in town, but it can also be booked directly if you ring (+593) 3030 189 or 093938834.

 

For more photos and videos, click here.