A frigid morning breaks as the sun rises from behind Cotopaxi, dancing across the volcano’s glacial cap. This is the land of the Ecuadorian Chagra, the South American parallel of “cowboys”. Wrapped in brilliant red and black wool ponchos, llama fur leggings and cowboy hats, they prance about on speedy little horses as durable and compact as the people that ride them. They bring with them a rich tradition entrenched in a culture and history of horsemanship and the agrarian lifestyle of haciendas and cattle.
July 23rd kicks off the Paseo Del Chagra in the town of Machachi (known as capitol of the ‘cowboy’) and located about 40 minutes south of Quito. These festivities then resonate throughout bordering pueblos and mountain villages as hundreds of Chagra filter down from the highlands to participate in the primary parade. The genesis of the celebration is derived from the last eruption of Cotopaxi Volcano in 1877. Filled with desperation and faith, the town’s people relocated the Sea or of the Sainted School (saint statue) to the flanks of Cotopaxi Volcano (a majestic 19k peak). Their prayers were answered and after surviving the eruption the saint was carried back home with an entourage of celebration and horsemanship.
The tradition continues with festivities that include small village rodeos, parades and an absolutely jaw dropping display of pyrotechnical engineering. This is also a good chance to sample the traditional cuisine, such as potato dishes, corn and the ever-exotic roasted guinea pig known as ‘cui’. It’s mostly though, an awesome exposure to culture and tradition as you get to sit alongside the local townspeople, in the rodeo stands, enjoying some of the region’s sugar cane home brew. A chance to mingle, talk to locals and really feel the pulse of Ecuador’s vibrant Andean Chagra culture.
The small pueblos bring in the circus complete with fuzzball tables, traditional music and dancing. As a foreigner, you will surely be invited to more than a few sips of the, quite potent, local bath tub gin or cachaça (derived from cane sugar). The fireworks are something indeed to behold as complex structures are erected which eventually create a whizzing and exploding pyre whose culmination is truly unexpected… at which point most foreigners will be running quickly in the opposite direction (Hint: the cachaça helps calm the nerves a bit).
If you find yourself traveling in Ecuador at this time of year, the village of Chaupi is a good base station for the festivities. Located right below Ilinizas North and South it offers the perfect resting ground for mountaineers as well.