Of all the different types of tourism out there, community tourism can be of particular interest to foreigners coming to a country that has a diverse set of long-standing cultures. In Ecuador, there are many opportunities for community tourism, but the one being run by Fundación Kawsay in Saraguro is especially interesting, though more catered to groups or families.
Saraguro refers to both the town located between Cuenca and Loja and to its surrounding canton, which consists of many small communities that inhabit a total of 31,000 people. Some of these communities include Ilincho, Namarín, Tuncarta and Las Lagunas. The town and canton is named for the indigenous group (also called Saraguro) who inhabits the area, the only indigenous group in the province of Loja to survive the Spanish conquest. Saraguro is a primarily agricultural-based community; each family has its own organic garden and animals and live off of their own land for sustenance.
Some attribute the Saraguros’ ability to preserve their culture so well to their strong nuclear families, their alternative education system where kids learn about traditions and culture before they learn how to recite the alphabet, and purity, as most do not marry outside of their communities. Saraguros are also known for their distinct dress, where men where cropped pants and ponchos and women wear long black pleated skirts, black shawls and intricate beaded necklaces, and both wear brimmed black hats and their hair in one long braid.
Visiting the communities is not possible independently, so if you have an interest in touring them or arranging a home stay with a local family, you need to contact the only tour operator in town, Sararku, which works closely with Fundación Kawsay. Staying with a family is a unique experience to peek into the lives of Ecuador’s best-preserved indigenous culture and share in some of the family’s daily tasks. The people in Saraguro are very friendly and open to answering questions about their lifestyle. Alternatively, you can stay in the community-run hostel, Hostal Achik Wasi, which has pretty views of Saraguro from above.
All home stays cost $27 and include accommodation, three meals a day, and family activities such as tending to the farm, cooking together or making local artisan products. The rooms where guests stay are comfortable and have bathrooms with hot water. Meals tend to be vegetarian and grain-based, including mote (hominy), potatoes, rice, quinoa, cheese empanadas and salads. Money from the home stays is funneled back into the individual communities to assist with completing community projects.
Besides family activities, visitors can arrange to visit some of the interesting sites in the community, which give insight into the communities’ way of life. Options include visiting a weaving workshop or traditional hat workshop, visiting organic medicinal gardens and learning about various curative plants, participating in local rituals with music, water and fire, and visiting sacred waterfalls. An especially interesting time to visit is during the town’s Inti Raymi celebration, or Festival of the Sun, the town’s biggest celebration.
To get to Saraguro from Cuenca, take any Loja-bound bus and ask to be let off in Saraguro. The ride costs $5 to and from Cuenca (3-4 hr) and $1.75 to and from Loja (1.5 hr).