South of Cuenca, the Panamericana winds its way through increasingly remote and isolated countryside, passing only a handful of villages on its way to the city of Loja. The most interesting stop en route is the small agricultural town of SARAGURO (“land of corn” in Quichua), 140km south of Cuenca and 64km north of Loja, the site of a lively and atmospheric Sunday-morning market. As you approach from the north, a large sign proudly announces your arrival in “Saraguro, Tierra de Maíz, centro indígena más importante de América” – the centre of one of the most distinct highland groups of Ecuador, the Saraguro indígenas. Their forebears, originally from the altiplano region of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, were relocated here by the Incas during their expansion into Ecuador, as part of the mitimae system used to consolidate colonization. More than 500 years on, the Saraguros are still set apart by their particularly pure form of Quichua and very distinctive clothing. The men wear black ponchos and black knee-length shorts, often over black wellington boots used for their farm work, while the women wear pleated black skirts and hand-woven black shawls, fastened by elaborate silver or nickel brooches called tupus. Saraguros have also maintained very traditional forms of celebrating religious festivals. Their Easter celebrations, in particular, follow a strict pattern of processions, re-enactments and symbolic rituals, all marked by their great solemnity. Other important Saraguro festivals include Tres Reyes (January 6), Corpus Christi (early or mid-June) and Christmas.
Most Saraguro indígenas live as cattle herders in rural farming communities, but just about all of them come into town for the Sunday-morning market for fresh produce, cattle and household goods, and Sunday Mass, held in the handsome, honey-stone church on the main plaza.