One thing you will quickly observe when traveling in Ecuador is how many indigenous communities there are in the Andean region. These Andean indigenous communities have their own customs and traditions, and some even have their own language still – though many these days speak Quechua or Spanish, or both. Here is a guide to the indigenous people of Ecuador, and in particular, those of the Andean region.
Otavaleños are found in the northern region of Ecuador. Unsurprisingly, this includes in and around the market town of Otavalo, after which they are named. This Andean indigenous community is found all over the Imbabura province. Otavalo people no longer have their own traditional language, as this was reported to have been lost in the 16 th century. They now speak Kichwa and Spanish. You will find that those running market stalls will often have a fair grasp of English as well. The population of these people that is estimated to be around 58,000, with the vast majority of those living in Otavalo and the surrounding areas. They are exceptionally good sales people, and many are occupied with handicrafts and commerce. They also tend to have a decent standard of living when compared with other indigenous people of Ecuador.
It is thought that there are as many as 120,000 Cayambis in Ecuador, and this indigenous people of Ecuador is found in the Cayambe region, in Imbabura and in Quito, primarily. The people tend to work and organize themselves in a cooperative manner. Many work in agriculture, but a sizeable number also work in the handicrafts industry. They speak Kichwa primarily, but the majority now also speak the Spanish language. As with many other Andean indigenous communities in Ecuador, music forms an important part of their traditions.
Quichua is somewhat of a generic term that is used to describe people of various different Andean indigenous communities in Ecuador and beyond. In total there are thought to be 10-11 million Quichuas, with 2.5 million of these living in various areas across Ecuador. The largest population of this group is found in Peru, with a population of almost 3.8 million. They speak Quechua languages, though many these days do also speak Spanish. Despite being placed together in a group they are fairly culturally diverse from an ethnic and lingual perspective, and Quechuas in Southern Peru will be quite different than those in Northern Ecuador, for example. For many such groups, handicrafts are an important business, and agriculture is also a major occupation for this group. They may often wear traditional dress, though some younger people may reject this. In Ecuador Quichua groups include the Amazonian Kichwas, Otavalo people and Salasacas.
Salasacas are another of the Andean indigenous communities in Ecuador, and this group lives in the Tungurahua province. This is in Central Ecuador. Cities where Salasacas may be found include Baños and Ambato, and the town of Salasaca near to Ambato is their namesake, with many located here. They speak Quichua, and Spanish. Salasacas are mostly occupied in agricultural activities including livestock. However, some work in the handicraft industry, and tapestries woven by Salasacas are often very beautiful. It is not known how many Salasacas there are in Ecuador, though approximately 12,000 live in the town of Salasaca itself, with more dispersed through Tungurahua.
The Saraguro people are a type of Kichwa who are found in Southern Ecuador. They primarily live in the area surrounding the town of Saraguro, which is in the Loja province. They speak Kichwa, and in many cases they also speak Spanish. It is difficult to know how many Saraguros there are, as this is not officially measured. However, some 31,000 people were found to be living in the Saraguro canton as of 2010 during the last census, and it may be assumed that a large number of these are Saraguros. While younger people are breaking away from traditions, at the same time, work is being undertaken to make sure that the Saraguro people do hold onto their past as well. Many Saraguros work in agriculture, and many own livestock.
There are various other groups of indigenous people in Ecuador, aside from Andean indigenous communities. For example, the Amazonian Kichwas are found in the Ecuadorian Amazon region. This group has spilled out over Ecuador’s borders, and some are located in Colombia and Peru. Also in the jungle are the Huaorani (or Waorani) group. They have their own language, Huaorani, which is not believed to be related to any other language. They can be found in the region of Coca. The Shuar people also live in the Amazon region and speak their own language, and some do live in the Andean foothills. They had a tradition of shrinking heads, which they are infamous for. The Achuar tribe is yet another group who were the adversaries of the Shuar. Yet another fascinating group is the Tsachila people who can be found in the Ecuadorian province of Santo Domingo, in the foothills of the Andes. This group speaks the Tsachila language. They are also sometimes referred to as the “Colorados”. This means “colored,” but it refers to the hair, which is often dyed a very bright red.
One important Insider recommendation that we would like to make for any trip you might make to visit local Andean communities is to take a guide that speaks the relevant language, and get him/her to ask questions for you. Be aware that you might need to do this through your guide, as some Andean indigenous communities will not speak Spanish, let alone English, so having the right language skills will be important. However, you can learn a lot about people by asking appropriate questions, and the customs are interesting. You never know what you may find out! Also, take some spending money with you, as you may well want to buy some of the lovely handicrafts that many within these groups make and sell.
Visiting an indigenous Andean community can provide a fascinating insight to life in modern day Ecuador for these traditional peoples. As Ecuador experts, we can help you to visit an indigenous community, so why not get in touch to see what we can do.