Tupo, URL and beadwork necklace


©   2000/2003   Jim Belote & Linda Belote


Small images, (photos)(under 16k) are available on these ethno-ecotourism pages. For an index to much larger images (49k to 186k) of landscapes, click here.

AVAILABLE ON THIS PAGE:       The People     The Place     Ethno-Ecotourism     Ises and Isn'ts     Hotels and Restaurants    Photography and Videography     Climate     Equipment     Dangers

The town of Saraguro is in the heart of a beautiful region which is the highland homeland of a distinctive and interesting indigenous ("Indian") group called the "Saraguros."

The Saraguros proudly maintain their ethnic distinctiveness. Saraguro men and women both usually wear their hair in long, single braids, and both usually wear a hat of some kind (most commonly black felt). Ordinary daily wear for men includes pants slightly longer than knee length, and for women includes black pleated skirts, and elegant beaded necklaces.

Traditionally most Saraguros have been quite independent rural dwellers, owning their own land, and upon it raising crops and livestock. In the last part of the twentieth century, however, Saraguros tremendously broadened their educational and occcupational horizons. While the majority are still tied to the land, many (including women as well as men) now hold occupations such as school teacher, mechanic, store keeper, doctor, dentist, lawyer, veterinarian and so on. Whatever their occupation, Saraguros generally maintain their distinctive identity as reflected in (among other things) clothing and hair style, even when living and working in cities outside of the Saraguro region, and in other countries. (For more details see The Saraguros 1962-1997: A Very Brief Overview and other pages on this website.)

At this time they prefer the designation, "Saraguro." "Indígena" (indigenous person) is also generally acceptable. The Spanish term, "Indio" ("Indian") is usually considered insulting in the Saraguro region and is not generally acceptable when used by non-indígena people (although a few are attempting to reinstate its common use).

Almost all Saraguros speak Spanish. Quichua is also used by many Saraguros, especially in more remote communities such as Oñacapac and Gera.

The Saraguro region is also the homeland of many non-indigenous people. They are "Saragurenses" (as opposed to "Saraguros"), especially those who live in or around the town. In the past they also used the term "blancos" ("whites") to refer to themselves. Some will now use the term "mestizos" ("mixed") or "blanco-mestizos." In this time of changing terminology it is probably safest to use "Saragurense" or "no-indígena" ("non-indigenous person") although the latter term may be thought to have a somewhat negative element (in that it defines them by what they are not).

Ethnic relations have changed enormously since we first went to the area in 1962. Indigenous people were exploited, harrassed, excluded and otherwise discriminated against in a variety of ways then (although this was moderated--in comparison to what was going on in other parts of Ecuador--by their control over most of the land wealth of the region). Ethnic relations are not perfect in Saraguro today, but they are much better than they were, and better than they still are in most other parts of Ecuador. Today non-indigenous people may vote for indigenous political candidates, consult indigenous doctors or dentists or veterinarians, are students of indigenous teachers, may have close indigenous friends, and may invite indigenous people into their homes for a drink or a meal or a party (and it works the other way too!).


Within a hard day's walk (for many of the native people of the region--two or three days for most of the rest of us) of the town of Saraguro are many beautiful and interesting natural features--cold, windswept páramos, almost impossibly dense cloud forests, clear rivers, deep canyons, roaring waterfalls, strange rock formations, deserts, tropical rain forests, spectacled bears and mountain tapirs, whitetailed deer and mountain lions, and an enormous variety of butterflies, birds, orchids and bromiliads.

In the next section ( PLACES TO VISIT ) we present particular places that a tourist (or traveler or resident) may find worthwile to check out--where the place is, some of its main features, and how one might go about getting there. A variety of maps are provided on this website, along with an index to the location of all names on all the maps. For specific information on map availability, sources, and method of usage on these pages click here.


This naturally beautiful and ethnically interesting area is off the main tourist travel routes: few tourists--ecuadorian or international--arrive in Saraguro. But it is not difficult to get to. Saraguro is connected by the paved, Panamerican highway to the major cities (both with daily scheduled airline flights) of Cuenca (100 miles to the north) and Loja (40 miles to the south). Reasonably comfortable busses (some with TV and restrooms) pass through Saraguro almost every daylight hour (and several times throughout the night) in both directions. At this time all busses stop at the park in the center of town (very convenient). For those who wish to be able to stop to take pictures, to have a picnic, or whatever, taxis or other vehicles can be hired for the trip for reasonable prices in either Loja or Cuenca. Note: although the Panamerican Highway is paved, heavy rains in the last few years have left serious damage in some sections, most of it due to landslides. New landslides can occur at any time, but at least rough repairs are generally made quickly.

It appears to us that most of the inhabitants of the Saraguro area, indigenous and non indigenous, would like to see a lot more tourism in the area, especially of the sort some call "etno-eco-tourismo" ("ethno-ecotourism")--that is, tourism that is oriented around observation of the cultural and natural features of the area and that takes care not to be destructive of either one. Furthermore there are no intercontinental hotel or restaurant franchises in the area, and there are not likely to be anytime in the forseable future. The Saraguro tourist infrastructure is owned and controlled by local people, indigenous and non-indigenous. It is for these reason that we present the information on these pages. So act with respect, and remember that Saraguros have their own lives to live and you are just passing through, and you will be welcomed!

We should also note here that Saraguros have, in fact, some understanding of travel and tourism. Well educated or not, richer or poorer, male or female, many Saraguros, like you, have spent time as travelers,tourists or explorers (for examples, click here). While they love their own land, they, like you, are like the bear who went over the mountain--they wish to see what's on the other side.

As noted above, tourism in the area exists at a very low level--some days no tourists stop over in the region and rarely would more than a handful spend a night or more there. This is not due to a lack of attractions, but, rather, to several other factors. In the first place, Saraguro is in southern Ecuador, well off the busy travel routes around Quito/the avenue of (snow-covered) volcanoes, the northern and central oriente (tropical forest), the beaches of the coast and the biological marvels of the Galapagos Islands. Secondly, there are few resources developed specifically for tourism in Saraguro. Thus, for example, hotels and restaurants are few and basic and there are no clearly available guide services or other easily available sources of information on the area, etc. Finally, (and related to the latter) the considerable cultural and natural attractions of the area are not well advertised in the rest of the world.

(Probably the best known tourist area in southern Ecuador is the valley of Vilcabamba, famous for its warm, healthy climate and laid-back rural life-style which has supposedly premitted a far higher proportion of its inhabitants than almost anywhere else in the world to live to exceedingly old ages. If you travel to Vilcabamba, keep your eyes out for Saraguros. Starting some thirty years ago, indigenous people from the Saraguro area started going to Vilcabamba for work. Many were eventually able to buy their own farms and settle there permanently. Most have retained their distinctive Saraguro identity (eg. long hair in a single braid for both men and women) and have even maintained some community/religious festivals of their home area.)


Only very basic hotels and restaurants are available at this time in Saraguro, although plans are underway, and construction has begun on these facilities. The town is small, and all facilities are within two or three blocks of where you would get off a bus. Don't act like a man! Ask for directions, and you can easily find what you need. One place to mention is a restaurant with good set meals and clean restrooms. "Mama Cuchara" is run by indigenous people and is located "kitty-corner" across from the main church on the central town park (where busses stop).


Guidebooks, brief ethnographies, geographies and histories sometimes have inaccurate or not-quite-accurate information on the Saraguros. To be a little picky, then, here is some of the not very accurate stuff you may read or hear:

1) the Saraguros wear almost all black clothing

2) they wear black clothing to mourn the death of the last Inca (Atahualpa);

3) they have flocks of black sheep which serve as a source of wool for their black clothing;

4) they wear thick, white felt hats with very wide brims;

5) the men wear a kind of white apron split to cover each leg;

6) they are descendents of mitimaes (mitmacuna)--people transported from either Peru or Bolivia by the Incas.

FORGET IT! (well, sort of ... most of it). For some of the people who have said or written this stuff (but not for the Saraguros) time stopped in the 50s. And in some other cases, they believe stories for which little evidence has ever been produced.

Here's the deal:

1) Saraguros in this century have worn a lot of clothing (including men's pants, cushmas and ponchos, and women's anacus [outer skirts], pulleras [inner skirts] and rebosos [shawls]) that we would call black. OK. But to get a little technical here, the preferred color for most traditional clothing is a blue so dark it seems black--this dark blue is produced by repeated processing with indigo die (the same die that traditionally produced the much lighter blue of blue jeans--if you happen to have any spare indigo dye lying about your house, take it to Saraguro for the people there--it is now VERY hard to get). Yes, Saraguros still wear more "black" than most other people; men's pants and women's anacus are usually black. But in most cases now, for ordinary daily purposes, Saraguro people wear shirts, T-shirts, blouses, sweaters and jackets that are not black.

2) Don't know who made this up. Never heard Saraguros claim this in the 1960s. They always claimed they just like black, and that maybe black is warmer. But what do they know, eh? Maybe the story came from Caldas, a Colombian traveler through the area in the early 1800s who recorded the "sublime" statement of a mother bereaved of her son, "chaupi punzhapi tutayarca" (Quichua: "in the middle of the day night fell"). Others have later associated this phrase with Saraguro sentiment about the death of the last Inca.

3) Yes, some families may have a "black" sheep or two (OK, another technicality--most black sheep are really brown) in their flocks. And they may use them to provide "natural" color in some of their weaving. But guess what color wool is used to make almost all black clothing. White.

4) Except for a few older people thick, wide brimmed, felt hats are worn only for very special occasions (yes, most people wore them most of the time in the early 1960s. BUT THIS IS THE 2000s). And most people don't. You will see more baseball caps worn backwards by Saraguros than thick, wide brimmed felt hats. Not to mention narrow brimmed dark felt hats made in Italy or Colombia. It is true that most (but no longer almost all) people wear some kind of head covering most of them time when they are awake, indoors (except for mass) or out.

5) What? White APRONS? They're CHAPS (as in something cowboys wear) and are called ZAMARAS in Saraguro. In the early part of this century they were chaps made of sheepskins that men wore especially in the high páramos to provide some warmth and protection to the legs. That evolved into woven white chaps used for work. And that form evolved into a kind of dressy element of men's clothing (like a tie). A few older men still regularly wear them for work, but younger Saraguro men wear them (if at all) only for formal "dress-up" events such as for a wedding or when having a special photo taken.

6) Well, this may be part right. That is, it is not unlikely that Saraguros are descended in part from mitmaccuna brought in from either Bolivia or Peru--maybe even royal Inca troops. However, their ancestry probably includes people who were in the Saraguro area before the Incas, as well as people native to other parts of Ecuador who were part of a massive mixing of populations in colonial times that was caused by severe exploitation of landholding Indians by the Spaniards.

See Toponyms for what place-name distributions suggest on this topic. Documentary evidence indicates that indigenous Saraguro populations were of two sorts prior to Ecuadorian independence in the early 1800s, "Quintos" [natives to an area] and " Forasteros de la Real Corona" [strangers/foreigners of the royal crown]. After independence, and up until the early 1900s, Quintos remained and the Foresteros were apparently divided into "Collanas" [possibly those with mitmaccuna origins] and "Secundeles" [possibly those with Ecuadorian, but not Saraguro area, origins]. If interested, check the following documents: 1718b, 1838, 1892b, 1921.

.       .       .

Do you believe my claims here? Should you? Of course not! We haven't provided all the evidence for any of it. Its just our word against theirs. So get yourself to Saraguro. And observe. And ask questions. And read. And, most of all ... enjoy it all, whatever you find out.


Let's be careful here: Saraguro is not a place where time has stopped--a timeless village where people still live as if nothing has changed in the last four hundred years. You can't be sure that the Saraguro you meet on a country trail hasn't canoed in the Boundary Waters, attended a conference in Peking or San Francisco or Slovakia, gotten stuck for a year in Russia after the Soviet Union fell, swum in Lake Superior, taken university classes in Virginia or Indiana or Minnesota, hiked in Glacier National Park, cross country skiied in Duluth, attended courses in Israel, worked construction in Maryland, taken a bus tour to a beach in northern Peru, driven a truck in New York or ..... The person you meet may have a degree in law or medicine, in business or anthropology. And hundreds are school teachers and directors. Just don't make any quick assumptions!

Furthermore, Saraguros have been connected with the wider world in one way or another, for centuries. What is interesting is how Saraguros have maintained a strong and distinctive (though changing) identity while being engaged with a variety of forces impinging upon them--attempting to adapt to these forces as they see fit.


Most Saraguros are quite familiar with cameras and video-cameras--some own them themselves. This does not mean you should feel free to take pictures whenever and wherever and of whomsoever you please. Intrusive, in-your-face photography is particularly likely to be resented. Cameras have been confiscated or destroyed in a few cases. Saraguros, like most other people, don't appreciate a papparazzi approach to filming or photography. Ask and ye shall usually (but not always) receive permission to take pictures. Gringo residents of the area (missionaries, peace-corps volunteers, anthropologists) usually have no trouble taking pictures of people because they promise them copies--and fulfill their promises. This might be a little harder for a non-resident tourist to arrange since the nearest available (one hour) photo processing is in Loja or Cuenca.


Although only a couple of hundred miles south of the equator, most of the Saraguro area has a moderate climate. In Saraguro itself (2500M=8200') night-time temperatures are usually in the 50s (°F), daytime temperatures in the 70s (in the shade--note that at high altitudes, sun temperatures contrast more with shade temperatures than they do at lower altitudes). At elevations of from 3000 to 5000' in the desert country one day's hard walk to the west and in the tropical rain forest one day's hard walk to the east of Saraguro (for someone in exceptionally good shape) daytime temperatures are likely to be in the 80s, night time temperatures in the 60s. Saraguro is not a dry area; rain can fall at any time of the year. The only dangerous part of the Saraguro region in terms of climate is the area above 3000m=10,000'--largely in cloud forest and, above that, páramo. The danger is not so much in low temperatures--which may drop below freezing on still, clear nights, especially in frost pockets--but in high winds, rain or drizzle and temperatures in the 40s and 50s. This doesn't sound so bad--but it is a serious warning. PEOPLE DIE OF HYPOTHERMIA under these conditions nearly almost every year in the Saraguro region. So--in these areas, be prepared for WET, cold conditions (good rainwear, dry shelter, extra dry clothes and sleeping bag for spending the night).


If you spend much time in the area you will need equipment suited to warm, dry weather, warm wet weather, and cold, wet weather. Trails can be steep, slippery, muddy, and/or rocky. In the higher regions, away from settled areas you don't need a tent since there are few anoying bugs or other pests. That is a plastic tarp (8X10') with at least one pole (for páramo areas where there are no trees--although the (dead) flower stalk of the achupalla can serve in a pinch), some cord and a few stakes, plus a ground cover of some sort, would be a light, sufficient shelter for up to three people. There are some areas where because of rough or uneven ground a tent could be difficult to set up, whereas an unfloored tarp would not be a problem.

COMPASS: This is not a guide to backpacking or hiking in general--you can figure out what you need according to the conditions described. We are aware that every guidebook on outdoor travel recommends a compass. We are also aware that many experienced outdoor people have gone for years without using a compass. HOWEVER: unless you are prepared to be lost for days in cold, wet weather, don't even consider travelling off-trail without a compass (and a GPS wouldn't hurt, either) in the Saraguro páramos or remote cloud forest regions.


Most of the dangers for travelers in the Saraguro region would be of their own making: being unprepared for cold weather in the páramos and dying of hypothermia; breaking a leg on a slippery trail; falling off a cliff; getting sick from eating food not appropriate to your own digestive system etc. (there are physicians and a small hospital in Saraguro in case of medical emergency).

We have had valuables stolen in other parts of Ecuador, but in five years total time in Saraguro have only had one picture (which we were going to give to the person who took it, anyway) and one book stolen from us.

The most dangerous part of a trip is probably the bus ride to Saraguro. Be careful of thieves in bus stations in Cuenca and Loja and watch your stuff on the bus. And hope that you have a good bus driver! And it's safest to travel during daylight hours (there have been a few busses assaulted at night on the Cuenca-Saraguro route, and [info for those travelling to the Upper Amazon] on the Loja-Zamora route).

Travelers in the Saraguro region, whether in settled, or wild areas, are not likely to be assaulted--there are not enough tourists in the area to have drawn those who would prey on them (as has happened in some other popular tourist spots in Ecuador). However, it should be noted that at times there have been assaults of local people traveling (walking) in remote regions. These assaults have usually been directed towards taking cattle from these travelers--however, other goods have also been taken. Check locally for the likelilhood of such activity, especially in the area along the Saraguro-Yacuambi trail.

Dogs . . . Most houses in the countryside are protected by dogs. You probably won't have too much trouble with them, but we have had one bite in over five years in Saraguro--and a number of close calls. A few even have a bite worse than their bark! So be aware, especially near household property boundaries.

And finally, if you plan to be in Ecuador just before Lent (which starts forty days before Easter) click here for a cautionary note about Carnaval.

Prepared 11/11/2000 Jim Belote & Linda Belote
Updated January 12, 2003      

Go to   SARAGURO HOMEPAGE    (www.saraguro.org)

  Fuente del deseño del fondo: faja de Saraguro / Background design source: Saraguro woven belt