Back in time…with the Incan people
There are four major groups of indigenous people in Ecuador who still practice traditions and customs dating back to when the Incan people ruled the land. As of last weekend, I have visited all four.
The Cañari people, who used to reside at/near Ingapirca, the site of the oldest Incan ruins in Ecaudor, were the only group who lived in harmony with the Incas instead of under their rule. Nowadays, the site of Ingapirca is a tourist destination. Though not as large or, in my opinion, great, as Machu Picchu in Peru, a sizable part of the Temple of the Sun is still standing at Ingapirca. This temple was constructed so that on solstices, the sun would shine directly through the door at a certain time during the day. I don’t know how the people who planned the construction of this site knew which way the door openings should face, seeing as I can barely figure out North, East, South and West without a compass, but it really is incredible. The architecture of Ingapirca is similar to that of Machu Picchu — stones carved together to fit exactly. Machu Picchu’s architecture is smoother because the Incas were there for a longer amount of time than they were in this particular valley, but there are still a lot of similarities between the two sites.
The Salasaca people, who continue their traditions and customs in the northern part of Ecuador, are known for their textiles. I visited Salasaca for part of a day to learn about the textiles and some of the dancing there. Though I didn’t have a lot of time to experience the culture in this particular area, I was able to try some of the food, visit a workshop to learn how to make tapestries and shawls, and to dance with some of the people.
The Otavalos, who are also located near Quito in the northern part of Ecuador, were the first group of indigenous people that my study abroad group visited. In this day and age, Otavalo is known for its Saturday Market, in which a solid 10 blocks are filled with vendors selling their wares. Unfortunately I didn’t make it there on a Saturday, but on other days the market is still very sizable. Goods range from textiles, such as blankets and jungle pants, to leather (belts and some bags), artwork (a lot of painted pieces…paint mixed from different plants and foods, or so the man who tried to sell me a very large painting of a flower, said), and traditional clothes, which includes a lot of beaded items. The town of Otavalo, in the center of which is this market, is a touristy town and most of the indigenous people actually live in the mountains around the center.
The final group of indigenous people I have visited while studying abroad in Ecuador this semester are the Saraguros. This was my trip last weekend — to Saraguro, a town about four hours away from Cuenca. The town itself appears pretty modern — buildings with electricity, pharmacies with pills instead of just natural medicines, and small stores that sold foods as similar as oreos and as unique as a few things I don’t even know how to describe. However, the biggest difference that I noticed when we went here (besides the “frigid” temperatures in the mid-40s for which none of us were properly dressed) was the prevalence of indigenous dress. Many people, even in indigenous communities (that I remember), wear jeans and could blend into a crowd in Cuenca. Or at the very least, children weren’t in traditional dress. However, even the children in Saraguro were wearing traditional clothes. For females, this includes a black skirt, a blouse, a shawl that goes over one shoulder and under the other, several different necklaces (all with some sort of significance, of course) and often a few wrap-type-things around their waist where the skirt meets the blouse (always tucked in). As I learned in Otavalo a couple months ago, the different wraps are meant to protect any babies (if a woman is pregnant) and just her reproductive health in general.
Visiting these people, and living in Ecuador in general, has shown me how well culture can be preserved. In primary and secondary school, I learned about different indigenous groups but at this point, I feel like I know more about the history and culture of a country I have been in for a few months than I do about my own country. Obviously, with about a decade of American History under my belt, I do know a lot about my own country’s history…at least since the Revolutionary War era. However, living abroad in a country that has thousands of years of rich culture and history that is still visible today in close-to-original form has made me realize how little I know of my own home, and is an experience that I recommend for everyone.