Home > Ecuador > Ecuador’s Exotic Tsachila Region (Part 1)

Ecuador’s Exotic Tsachila Region (Part 1)

The Pan American Highway is Ecuador’s backbone road and crosses the entire country through the very center of its Andean Region, from the border with Colombia, all the way to the frontier with Peru in the extreme south.  It is early in the morning and we leave the main road, turning west. Now we ride the Pan American’s most important branch: the road that links the capital city of Quito in the Andes with Ecuador’s largest city and main seaport, Guayaquil, in the south-central Pacific coast.  Carlos drives the four-wheel vehicle while Jose, Juan and I talk about today’s filming expedition which is taking us to the highly exotic Tsàchila Province, less than two hours away from Quito.

We gradually ascend through spectacular mountain countryside to reach a high pass, well over 11.000 feet, at the southern flanks of the Atacazo Volcano, an area of typical Andean moorlands… Some wild horses roam free and we can hear the high Andean wind blowing outside…. Now we begin a sustained descent which will take us to the coastal lowlands.  The good quality paved road becomes winding as it twists around hills and ravines.  In a matter of a few minutes the scenery changes completely and gives pass to a lush cloud forest, thick with bromeliads and moss-laden vegetation.  The tops of the “silver trees” shine under the morning sun with their metallic silver-white canopy leaves while other fine woods bear intensely yellow flowers. A few scenic stops provide us with stunning views of the forest, myriads of butterflies and the songs of many birds.  As we continue descending, the small ravines become wider gorges with roaring small rivers, making their way from the Andes to the coastal plains.  The scenery is enhanced with sparkling cascades of all sizes and heights, tumbling also from the mountains down to the coastal lowlands.

We reach Santo Domingo, a huge commercial city which has become a major hub for intra-regional commerce, being at a strategic crossroads between Quito and the North-Central Andes with the South, Central and Northern Coast of Ecuador.  Just five decades ago, it was a small and sleepy town, only known for the ethnic group which inhabits the area since centuries ago, the famous Tsàchilas.  Today Santo Domingo is one of the country’s most densely inhabited cities and became, a few years ago, the capital of Ecuador’s newest province, Santo Domingo de los Tsàchilas.  At one of the main town squares, a stone statue complex represents a man and a woman from the legendary native inhabitants of the area, with their traditional and unique costumes… The city is a bustling centre of products exchange between the coast and the Andes, an amazing mix of open air markets and shops selling every imaginable natural or man-made good.

Leaving the city, we take a short ride on a secondary dirt road, leading to one of the nearby Tsàchila communities.  The surroundings are a mix of tropical forest combined with banana and pineapple plantations.  The road brings us to a dead end.  We disembark and head over a small and slightly muddy trail toward a swinging bridge… Beneath, a small creek of crystal clear waters runs along green pastures…. At the other end of the bridge is a smiling Alfredo, one of the community chiefs.  He greets us cheerfully and complains I haven’t been there for a long time… The Tsàchila men’s outfit is an above-knee, mid-length skirt, made of a light cotton cloth, wrapped around the waist. The base color is blue and it has white, black and red horizontal stripes.  They go barefoot and bare-chested.  Their light-tan skins are adorned with red stripes obtained from a native plant’s seed, the “achiote” and black stripes, obtained from another local plant’s seed, the “güito”.  Their most peculiar characteristic though is the hair, covered with a brightly red and thick gel-plaster, made also of crushed achiote seeds…. It acts as a protective cap in the scorching tropical sun and is also a symbol of masculinity.  In Spanish they have been called for decades “Colorados”, meaning “Red Ones”, due precisely to the red covered hair they use. Chiefs and senior men wear a sort of small “crown” atop their red-painted hair, made of white cotton, adorned with bits of bird feathers, as a sign of power…

The Tsàchila women also wear a similar skirt, though a bit longer, over or slightly below the knees, with similar colors and design patterns.  They also go barefoot and bare-breasted, only covered with a bright and colorful shawl across the back and over the shoulders… Neither their bodies nor their shining long black hair have any painting, an ancestral privilege, reserved for the men only…..  Their origins of this group are uncertain and lost in eons of time. What is certain is that they have no relation whatsoever with the Kichwa cultures which predominate the Andean Region nor other ethnic groups in the coastal lowlands or the Amazonian forests.. The intriguing origins and current life of the Tsàchilas, one of Ecuador’s seventeen living cultures will continue, along with this travel log story, on the next issue……

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