CUENCA, ON-LINE ISSUE 02
By: Jeff Salz
Photos: Courtesy of Jeff Salz
Three hours from Cuenca is a community where life has remained relatively unchanged for centuries.
The Supalata is a traditional celebration of the Saragureños that has been passed from generation to generation for centuries. Taking place around the March 21 equinox, it celebrates the beginning of the harvest and gives thanks to the Pacha Mama—Mother Earth. Members of the communities visit house by house to receive food—mostly made from maize—accompanied by musicians who sing and dance. The following day community members stream down from the hillsides to worship at the church and fill the streets of the central plaza with music and merriment.
Jaffe and I had the good fortune of being invited by local musician friends to accompany them on their rounds, performing at local homes. We were greeted with no questions and excessive hospitality. Much chicha and myriad forms of maize were consumed. As you will see in the video below, the mood was definitely celebratory. And a very, very good time was had by all.
The people of Saraguro have kept their vibrant folkways, music, religion, and farming practices alive and intact since they were forcibly relocated from the shores of Lake Titicaca in the 1470s by their Incan rulers. It is because of the mitimaes system that maintained the empire by quashing opposition and moving entire communities many hundreds of miles from their land and ancestors that Saraguro exists to today
A three-hour, five-dollar bus trip from Cuenca, surrounded by emerald hills that have been sown with hearty tubers and grains for thousands of years, live a people who have never forgotten their history.
On a tree in the main plaza is a wooden plaque carved with the words: “La cultura es la basa de la identidad local, ella nos permite ser nosotros mismos en el mundo que se globaliza y mimetiza”. Culture is the basis of local identity; it allows us to be ourselves in the world of globalization and mimicry.
It is a credo that the local residents take seriously. The Saragureños way of life—governance, worship, folkways and even attire have changed little in the last half millennium. Women wear broad-brimmed hats that look like black and white spotted cowhide (But, I’ve been told are actually painted to recall life’s moments of light and darkness.), long pleated wool skirts, ornate pins called tupus, brilliantly embroidered blouses and elaborate bead necklaces known as chakiras.
The men sport ponytails beneath round-domed fedora-like hats, black ponchos, short black pants and black shoes. Tourist legend says the black is still worn to mourn the death of the Inca centuries ago. A more likely explanation is that black clothing trapped the sun’s warmth and allowed survival in their ancestral homeland on the high altiplano along shores of frigid Lake Titicaca.
Around Saraguro are sacred waterfalls and beautiful valleys for exploring on foot or horseback, as well as almost daily markets and fiestas.
The big surprise? Amid all the tiny stalls and storefronts selling food for the locals in the center of town, there is a five-star restaurant called Shamuico. Tapas, treats and cold beer in an incongruously elegant setting. Not to be missed!
A great day trip from Cuenca—busses run almost hourly from the main bus station. For overnighters there is a clean, reasonably priced, community-run hotel called Achik Wasi. Ask at the main desk for ideas of what to see and do as well as local transportation. Saraguro is a pioneer in the area of community tourism. If you are interested in a stay with a local family contact: www.turismosaraguro.com
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