I woke up this morning to the sounds of church bells clanging outside my window. It’s Palm Sunday, or Día de Ramos, and I imagined a procession of people gathering to enter the church in this small village of Pacto. I gathered my gear and was off.
Photographing a small village in Ecuador can be complicated. A good photographer doesn’t just snap photos here and there. That is a guaranteed way to anger locals, especially if they happen to be the subject on the other end of your lens. But it is amazing how a few kind words can open up opportunities that I otherwise wouldn’t have.
As I left the hotel, I did see a small procession of Pacteños walking up the steps of the church. Many were holding fans woven from palm fronds tied to bouquets of rosemary. They were chanting a solemn hymn as they walked up the steps behind the priest dressed in his white robes with a brown mantle. I did not even attempt to lift my camera in this situation but enjoyed the moment.
I walked further down the street in search of an open shop to replace a notebook I had misplaced the day before. Even at 6:15 or so in the morning, some shops are ready for business. I found one at the end of the street where a family was busy shelling fava beans for sale. The shop was full of food and I knew it was unlikely I would find a notebook, but I asked anyway. They told me no but that I could get one later at a different shop back by the plaza. Then the younger son, from inside the store, told me to wait. He went in the back, rustled through a drawer, and then came out with a small notebook in his hand. A gift for the gringa photographer. I had yet to take a single photo but that conversation gave me an opening so I asked. And the family said yes, please feel free and then they shared their names, Lucilla Chanatasig, Maykol Cruz, and Jonni, who didn’t want to share his last name.
I have repeated this process again and again in Ecuador. For some tourists, the conversation is an extra step that seems to be unnecessary for taking a photo. For me, it is an essential part of what I do.
After taking a few more photos in the area, a house with laundry hanging from the balcony, a Pacteño sweeping the street in front of his home, the small obelisk that marks the entrance into town, I found myself in a small neighborhood with traditional homes and large tree covered in lacy, white flowers.
In one of the homes, a woman peeked out the door and saw me. I greeted her with a hearty “Buenos Dias” but she ignored me. This happens sometimes when people don’t want to make a connection. I don’t take it as an insult but I see it as a healthy caution against strangers. After all, she has no idea who this white woman with the camera is.
As I set up with a long lens to take photos of the small birds hunting insects from the flowers of this beautiful tree, she kept peeking outside to see if I had left. No such luck. I was going to get a photo of at least one bird before walking back up the street.
But as happens to me often in Ecuador, the part that makes my son shake his head in impatience when he is with me and wants to get going with our day, another woman came out of her home and approached me. She was older and very short, as are many of the women in Ecuador. She carried a small backpack and walked with a cane but took steps long enough to make me hope that I walk as well when I am older. Her eyes were bright with interest as she asked me what I was doing. We started talking and soon she was pointing to little birds telling me that I had a better shot over here or over there. I would change my angle and she would then say, “¡Ah, se fue!” as the little bird flew off to a new flower.
Soon, another neighbor joined us. We held a small bird watching party for about 15 minutes and when I showed them the bird on the camera’s screen, they laughed with joy. They had never seen this little bird so close and didn’t know he had a yellow breast. When I asked his name, the second neighbor told me he was called granero because he eats seeds.
I did ask if I could take their photo. The second woman was self-conscious and I could tell she wanted to say no. Ecuadorians are ever polite and I could have pushed to take her photo. But I didn’t and I thanked her for the conversation instead and then handed her a business card. These cards have different photos on the back and it is a great way to say thank you as each time I hand one out, I give away a little piece of Ecuador.
But the first lady, who by this time had introduced herself as Emita, invited to come stay with her in her home on my next visit to Pacto. She was very insistent in wanting to know when I would return. I told her possibly in August and she grinned widely. Then she invited me to walk back into town as she headed to the plaza to find the man selling medicinal drinks on the corner.
We talked about many things. I learned that she doesn’t like to speak Quichua. When I asked about hummingbirds, I used the Spanish word colobri and her neighbor told me that they call them quinde. I once lived on a street of the same name and knew that the word comes from Quichua, a local native language. Both women were amazed to learn this fact but still had no interest in the language, telling me that if anyone needed to know two languages, the second should be English.
These Pacteñas also believe that Pacto is a part of La Costa, or the coastal region. Yet the owner of the hotel where I am staying says Pacto is part of La Sierra. This debate is one I have found often in small communities on the slopes of the Andes where they are high enough to still be in the mountains but are warmer than their higher neighbors. The climate in Pacto feels more sub-tropical than mountainous. The humidity is higher, the vegetation more lush, and the rains warmer. For two mornings, I have eaten tigrillo, a coastal breakfast staple of mashed, green plantain fried with scrambled egg and chicharrón.
I asked if Emita was going to mass for Palm Sunday and she told me no. Then she said she was an Evangelical Christian and that their service wouldn’t be held until later in the day. Then she asked me my religion. This topic can be a tad sensitive in rural Ecuador as I have no religion and the explanation should be simple but isn’t always. Emita didn’t seem to mind. She just wanted to know if I had a belief in a greater power. I told her that I believed people should do good and that they should be led by their hearts and she agreed. We had found common ground and that was enough of religion.
By this point, we had reached the main plaza and were walking towards the stone fountain when a tall man walked up to us, greeting Señora Emita with a huge smile on his face. This man was very tall by Ecuadorian standards. He towered over me and would have been just an inch or two shorter than my husband, who is 6 feet tall. His grizzled beard and his dirty shirt might have made some people cringe but his smile was absolutely contagious. He was thrilled to be introduced to the gringa walking around town with her camera.
His name is Juan Dabalos Vallejo and he is pure Pacteño with roots from Riobamba. That means he possibly has blood from the original Spaniards who colonized Ecuador in the 1530s. He told me all of his family is tall and left it at that.
The two gifted me with a lasting impression of kindness and big hearts. And they permitted me to take their photo together. It was a tough framing as Juan is as tall as Emita is short and I couldn’t really get a close-up of both together. Instead, I have a full-body shot that show their grand difference in height and their common kindness.
This was my morning. Now I am sitting at the hotel, drinking my first cup of coffee as I wait for my friends to come down to breakfast. I can’t think of a better start to my day.
A lot of the territory in the Pastaza Province is hard to see. After all, when there are no roads and the only way to travel is by airplane or by boat, access is limited.
Our knowledge of Pastaza is limited to a single trip where we drove to the small community of Shell, boarded a small prop-plane and flew out in the community of the Huaorani, landing on a small airstrip cut into the jungle, then took a motorized canoe further up-river to finally arrive at the Haouarani Lodge. It was a good trip, one where I learned a ton about the Huaorani culture.
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!
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.