Traveling a short distance from Cuenca, by private car, for a nominal amount, lies the craft-shopper’s paradise of Gualaceo. Ikat weavings and paños (indigo-dyed cotton shawls with intricate macramé fringe) are especially sought after here. There is a fascinating allure of this quaint Ecuadorian village – a haven for textiles such as woven shawls, straw hats and beautiful, hand-embroidered clothing. The local towns are well known for their traditionally made handicrafts, such as the makanas (shawls) that women have woven from alpaca.
The bucolic town of Gualaceo is situated along the banks of the Santa Barbara River. There is a market in the town, where the locals sell folkloric handicrafts and textiles, such as the characteristic white straw hats, as well as blouses, skirts and linens hand-embroidered with magenta, orange and yellow thread. We skipped the market, due to time constraints on the part of the driver, and headed to La Casa de la Makana , where you can see the process of weaving, see how the shawls, called makanas, are made, and how the different dyes are mixed. These are sought-after items: one makana can take days or even weeks to produce. I bought the pictured yellow silk scarf for $25, which was what I could afford.
About a 1/2 mile down the road is an Orquideario (orchid farm) that you can explore. Orchid aficionados will want to check out the Ecuadorian species and hybrids grown here (over 4200 in the country). I am excited that the orchid master grower will be at the orchid show in April in Portland, OR. I will be there!
The Saraguro people are an ethnic group, most of whom live in Saraguro Canton in the Loja Province of southern Ecuador. Although most now speak Spanish, Kichwa, a Quechua dialect, is still spoken in the 21st century. Likewise, the Saraguro have retained much of their land, customs and traditional dress. They number about 30,000. As far as I know, no outsiders live in this town.
Surrounded by verdant green hills that have been sown with hearty tubers and grains for thousands of years, Saraguro, about 100 miles south of Cuenca, is the center of indigenous Saraguro culture. The prosperous and proud Saraguro may be the descendants of people re-settled from distant regions in the Inca Empire in the 15th and early 16th century; perhaps having lived near Lake Titicaca in Peru but ended up here in the 1470s as a result of the Inca Empire’s system of resettlement, or mitimaes. The Incas had this policy of forcibly moving people from one region of the empire to another, thereby diversifying the population and dispersing possible opposition to their rule. The numbers resettled were large, estimated to be up to 80 percent of the population of some provinces.
The town of Saraguro may have been founded by the Spanish rather than the Incas, although a number of Inca ruins are in the nearby area. One Spanish document says that the ancestors of present-day Saraguros were elite soldiers in the Inca army.
Whatever their origin, Saraguro in the 20th century celebrates their Inca heritage. Oral traditions ascribes the black clothing typical of the Saraguro as a sign of mourning for the death of the Inca Emperor Atahualpa. Schools have been named after Inca emperors, Inca customs recreated, Inca architecture copied, and efforts made to preserve the Kichwa language.
The Saraguros have retained control over their lands more successfully than many of the Andean subjects of the Spanish Empire and the independent country of Ecuador. Part of this may be due to their initial hostility to the Spanish and the indigenous people who collaborated with them. More importantly, however, the Saraguros were required by the Spanish to maintain an important tambo (inn or way-station) along a major communication route. They successfully argued that the operation and maintenance of the tambo required that they retain their land and its resources. They continued to manage the tambo until the 1940s when a motor road reached the area.
Most of the Saraguros live at intermediate elevations in the Andes between 5,900 feet and 9,200 feet. Traditionally they are farmers and livestock herders. A shortage of land in their homeland has led many to migrate eastward into the Zamora-Chinchipe Province of Ecuador.
I traveled by car from Vilcambamba with lovely new friends who live in Cuenca. We stopped for a fabulous lunch at Shamuico Espai Gastronomic, which is a gourmet restaurant of fusion/highland Ecuadorian tapas, exciting and very reasonably priced, run by a local chef who has worked at some of Europe’s best restaurants.
VILCAMBAMBA (THE VALLEY OF LONGEVITY/HIPPIE HEAVEN)
FLOWERS, FOOD, PERFECT WEATHER AND NEW FRIENDS
MY HOSTEL, the Rendezvous, had incredible flowers, an avocado tree hung with baskets of orchids outside my door and a free breakfast. It was only two blocks from the main plaza.
Vilcabamba is a village in the southern region of Ecuador, in Loja Province, about 28 miles from the city of Loja. The etymology of the name “Vilcabamba” apparently derives from the Quichua “huilco pamba.”; sacred trees on a plain. The spectacular area has been referred to as the “Playground of the Inca”, which refers to its historic use as a retreat for Incan royalty. The valley is overlooked by a mountain called Mandango, the Sleeping Inca, whose presence is said to protect the area from earthquakes and other natural disasters.
Located in this historical and scenic valley, it is a common destination for tourists, in part because it is widely believed that its inhabitants grow to a very old age. Locals assert that it is not uncommon to see a person reach 100 years of age and it is claimed that many have gotten to 120, even up to 135, which would make it an area with the oldest inhabitants in the world. It is often called the Valley of Longevity.
In 1973, Dr. Alexander Leaf of Harvard Medical School introduced these people to the world for the first time in his cover story for National Geographic Magazine, although after scientific investigation, longevity in Vilcabamba has been attributed to nothing more special than the benefits of exercise, a healthy diet and good treatment of the elderly by the community. Longevity of the residents has also been attributed to a result of migration of younger people to cities.
Scientists reached the conclusion that there was not a single centenarian living in Vilcabamba and that the villagers systematically exaggerated their ages and the older they grew, the greater their exaggerations became. The oldest person in the village was found to be 96 years old. The average age of those claiming to be over 100 years was actually 86 years.
The researchers speculated that the villagers had originally exaggerated their ages in order to gain prestige in the community. This practice appeared to have been occurring for generations, long before academic researchers had arrived in the village. Additionally the scientists speculated that the international publicity, and subsequent rise in tourism, may have encouraged the villagers’ exaggerations to grow more prolific. The second source of error was the widespread use of identical names in the small community. Although the Vilcabambans did not enjoy greater longevity than the rest of the world, researchers noted that the Vilcabamban lifestyle, which included hard work in a high altitude combined with a low-calorie, low-animal-fat diet, did seem to keep the villagers healthy and vigorous in their old age.
I am hoping that it works for me. I am looking for house/pet sitting job there starting in November, for perhaps 2 months. It would be a much easier home than Portland, which takes a huge amount of my energy, with volunteer work, political activities and, of course, dancing. I am considering a move in the far future but who knows….I love Portland.
The area’s beautiful scenery, mild weather and laid-back vibe attract waves of visitors: backpackers as well as North American and European retirees. The hills are dotted with big, new houses and the town plaza with expat-owned businesses. Gringo-ization has created tension about the cost of land and living, but the flip side is that jobs in tourism and construction are more plentiful than ever, and Vilcabamba is the rare Ecuadorian pueblo where young people have little ambition to leave for the big city.
Vilcabamba offers perfect weather for hiking and horseback-riding, and is also an excellent place to relax. Legions of specialists are ready to facilitate your relaxation with inexpensive massages, pedicures and meditation sessions. There are yoga classes but I couldn’t find zumba or belly dancing classes, which are important to me.
I beautified myself with walking and dancing, which was easy on Carnaval weekend. There was a 5 minute parade after waiting 2 hours for it to appear. I probably looked rather forbidding while I was walking around taking photos so I was spared the water and the foam and the red paint. However I went back in the evening and joined several hundred young Ecuadorians, as the ONLY older person and the ONLY tourist/gringa, who appreciated my dancing very much and rewarded me by pouring beer on my head, trying to make me drink whiskey, sprayed foam on me and applied pink paint on my face, hair and hands. This pink paint on my hair is still there. It was fun!
I’m back in Cuenca for the last few days of Carnaval, and the town is DEAD. I didn’t realize that there would be no dancing here, or I would have stayed in Vilcambamba. I met wonderful people there and hope to see them again before the year is over. I also spent time with dancing sisters in Cuenca this week and went food shopping at one of the big markets.