I love driving Ecuadorian backroads. Even when it means we tend to get a little lost or turned around. That’s how we discovered Sigchos. We thought we would just be driving through on our way to the Quilotoa Crater. But what we looked like the main road dead-ended practically at the town plaza.
Like many small towns in Ecuador, Sigchos is a small place with a few paved roads that intersect on straight lines. Somewhat central to the town is an open plaza where locals probably meet in the early evenings and on weekends. I can imagine the park benches full of watchful mothers and children running around playing in the later afternoon. Early mornings, I am sure there are a few pensioners reading the paper. But mid-day, there was hardly a soul in sight. This is a town where everyone goes home for lunch!
Since one wrong turn had brought us to this quaint plaza, we had no qualms about taking another. Of course, we thought we were on the road to Quilotoa once again but then the road narrowed and became more rutted the further we went. At some point, we discussed turning around and decided that there would be a better spot further up the hill. And to our great surprise, we actually found a parking lot, a view over the valley with Sigchos neatly nestled into place, and a large statue of the Archangel Michael, or el arcángel Miguel.
We also found a great place to have lunch… luckily we had packed a picnic!
If traveling backroads has you concerned about taking a wrong turn, you’re not alone. We have made so many mistakes and end up going the wrong direction. And although helpful people are often willing to give directions, very often they have no clue how to get where you want to go. We highly recommend having a list of villages along your route so that you can ask for the next place along the path. Along the backroads of Ecuador, local villagers may not know how to get to Quilotoa because they’ve never visited themselves.
Last year, I went to one of the most exciting parades in Ecuador, Carnaval in Guamote. It takes place the Monday before Fat Tuesday. Hundreds of people come from the surrounding mountain communities to either take part in the parade or to watch it. It’s a celebration of Andean culture like none I have ever seen.
Guamote is a small town not far from Riobamba in the Chimborazo Province. To get there, we drove through quiet towns, hillsides patchworked with farmland, and fields full of llamas. The town is very close to the oldest church in all of Ecuador, La Balbanera, founded in 1534. After almost 500 years, the blending of Catholic and Andean native cultures is so matter-of-fact that locals very often don’t see the difference between the two. Read More
The Loja Province deserves so much time and attention that I wish we could live locally for a year or two. I arrived in the province with the idea that I would see the capital city, Loja, add a few sights on the outskirts of town, and be content to come home. Instead, I left with a list of places yet to see!
After hiking trails towards the Podocarpus National Park, I realized that days were needed to really explore it. I stayed in the famous ex-pat town of Vilcabamba to be near wild places and found that I could have stayed in half a dozen other places more wild and free. And the capital city, named Loja like the province, had its own tame wildness at the local botanical garden just outside of town. And the unique culture of Saraguro is only enhanced by the outdoor attractions surrounding the town. Few have been developed for foreign tourism and retain an authenticity that is to be lauded. Like I said, a few days in this province only managed to whet my appetite.
Rumor has it that Carnaval in Guaranda has the best parade in all of Ecuador. Last year, we decided to see if that was true. Of course, planning a trip for any cultural festival is complicated by the fact that very little information can be found online, even when you know the name of the town and the days the festival normally takes place.
In the United States, the only day we hold big parades for Carnaval is on Shrove Tuesday. That’s when the big Mardi Gras festival takes place in cities like New Orleans. But in Ecuador, parades can take place in the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday.
My research told me that there would be a gathering of dancers for Carnaval in Guaranda on the Saturday before Mardi Gras. We woke up early Saturday morning and left Quito with the plan to arrive in Guaranda around 10:00 am. But we weren’t sure exactly what to expect.
When we drove into town, we knew something was going on. Traffic was at a near standstill. So we decided to find a place to park and follow the crowd walking into town. And I’m glad we did. We started walking with most of the crowd and could see the city below us, looking calm and serene. But the noise was already starting to creep up the hillside, music from the parade starting below.
The most famous church in the historic center of Quito must be La Compañia de Jesus. It is famous for being bathed in gold. Just about every imaginable surface is either painted with murals or covered in gold leaf. This church is also one of the few that cannot be photographed by tourists.
But if you write a blog and want to share photos that will help promote the La Compañia de Jesus as a tourist destination, I have a secret to tell. You can photograph the church for a grand hour without other tourists around.
As the road drops down from the heights of the Papallacta pass heading towards the lower slopes of the East Andes, there is a small lodge marked by a large dark rock wall with a large painted with a sword-billed hummingbird and the word Guango. This is the Guango Lodge.
The word Guango comes from the Quichua language and has no simple translation into English. It describes a place where tumbling rivers meet on high mountain slopes covered in mystical cloud forest. The rivers scour the land and re-make the terrain every few years as floods come and go with the changing seasons. At Guango Lodge, it is possible to hike the cloud forest and to meander the gravel shores of the fast moving river.
On my first visit to the Loja Province, Saraguro, I stayed at a small, family-run hostel just down the road from a friend’s childhood home. It was an adventure that introduced me to a new Andean culture, Saraguro.
I spent a week hiking local trails and heading into town to watch the Independence Day. I roamed city streets, ate Andean food, and photographed hundreds of people in local costume. I enjoyed collecting pictures of the iconic wool hats painted in black and white, of short dark pants protected by off-white muslin covers, of long dark wrap-around skirts, and of brightly embroidered blouses. But most of all, I enjoyed collecting smiles.
The people of Saraguro are proud of their heritage and the costumes I saw during the parade were also on display, if in a more sedate form, throughout the week. Saraguros are not unused to tourists or photographers but the entire process of taking photos of the population is certainly made easier when a parade is taking place.
I highly recommend staying in a single location in a smaller town in the Andes, especially if you are hoping for pictures that capture the culture. Saraguro is not high on the list for luxury tourists, but for those of you with a little patience, a spattering of Spanish, and a desire to explore, it has a lot to offer.
There are many articles to come about my time spent in the South of Ecuador. In the meantime, please enjoy these photos. They barely scratch the surface of this beautiful place.
Click on any photo to open a slideshow with further descriptions of each photo.
Ecuador Por Mis Ojos
Recently, the Instituto Geografico Militar of Ecuador and I released a book of photography, Ecuador Por Mis Ojos. This post shares photos from that book.
If you would like to see other photos from the book, please check out:
The Imbabura Province around Ibarra, the White City, is an area I hope to explore more deeply. We have visited for the famous Cacería del Zorro, a horse race named for the English practice of hunting foxes with a unique twist all its own. We have watched the grand parade that takes place along the city streets of Ibarra on the morning of the race. This single event is a great way to get to know the culture of Ibarra because it shows the blending of cultures that so define the area. There are grand horses and riders, in European-style riding gear, and small ponies mounted by chagras, local cowboys. The parade includes the youngest citizens, often toddlers sitting on the saddles in front of their parents, and the oldest, proudly smiling while astride their lovely horses. Everyone wears their finest gear, whether it is the latest polo shirt of their club, the traje típico of their native culture, or fine dresses and long coats of old.
On these visits, we have walked around the city center eating helado de paila, an ice cream dish sometimes compared to American sherbert. We have explored the church, the central plaza, and some of the smaller shops dotting the center of town.
I have a love affair with the Tandayapa Valley. It was the first place we visited after moving to Quito, Ecuador. It was a magical experience, leaving the big city, driving through the dry and dusty valley of Mitad del Mundo, and then winding through mountains thickly covered with cloud forest. The high mountain slopes are a stunning dark green with an occasional bright spot of purple flowers growing on a vine or the flashing silver of the leaves on a cecropia tree.
The Imbabura Province is best known by tourists for the market town of Otavalo. Visit on a Saturday to visit two completely different style markets. One is the Feria de Animales where farmers come to buy and sell animals. Locals can buy everything from a well-trained horse to an edible guinea pig, from a fighting rooster to a cuddly puppy, and everything and anything needed for the farm. The second is the market that takes over the city streets of Otavalo. It is part tourist market with vendors selling local blankets, instruments, and artwork. And it is part practical, with vendors selling shoes and clothes for school kids, underwear and socks for all, chains of golden beads, embroidered blouses, and long black skirts, all worn by local women.