Christmas Festivities in the Mountains of Ecuador

Imagine a place folded into the surrounding mountains that plunge into the valley way down below. A place where water flows in such an abundance that every inch of land is tainted green with vegetation, where mountain peaks drift in and out of the cloud forest and where the most deafening sound is that of birds singing and cascades flowing.


A place where everyone knows everyone and where the people live in harmony with nature. Where nature provides not only a source of daily inspiration, but food, livelihood, a place to work and a place to play.

Welcome to Cuellaje, in the lush, sub-tropical zone of Intag, six hours north of Ecuador’s capital, Quito.

After a few long months of travel, we have arrived here deep in the mountains of Ecuador for our next stint of volunteering. This time we have come to work in our respective fields of water treatment and sustainable development and tourism, in cooperation with the communities of Cuellaje and tourism organisation Intagtour.

This is where we will be (all going well) spending a couple of months working on various projects with the help of the communities that make up the Parish. Cuellaje is the name of the main village here as well as the Parish. For the next little while we will be staying with a lovely family on their organic integral farm in the community of La Loma, a steep 30-minute uphill climb from Cuellaje.

Despite the tranquillity of the place, our first two weeks here have already been jam-packed. Our first week was spent getting to know our host family Angel and Mercedes and their three children Bryan, Leydi and baby Estrella.

Arriving some ten days before Christmas, we got wrapped up in the local festivities and Christmas-time customs. Our first experience was mass in the San Joaquin community kicked off with a children’s nativity procession and followed by lunch and a football match for the lil’uns.

The highlight of the day was definitely the walk back to our host community La Loma. Over the mountaintops and through the forest paths our newfound friends taught us about many of the forest trees, fruits and wild berries along the way until it started to rain. With the heavy downpour the path soon became one big mud moshpit, with the children slipping and sliding all over the place, returning home black and soggy.

Halfway up the mud pipe the children started yelling “mocos, mocos”, finding it hard to contain their excitement. One of the most agile little monkeys, Franco started climbing up the trunk of a tree only to descend with his arms full of branches of tiny green fruit. We were urged to try them, piercing the skin between our fingers we sucked out the fruit’s slimy contents, which closely resembled the texture of its namesake, “boogie”. While the kids love the stuff, there are other wild fruits that I would rather get stuck into.

Religion is an important aspect of daily life at this time of year especially. The week before Christmas, each community participated in a similar mass and nativity procession, always followed by food and sometimes by dancing to local beats.

Just before Christmas it was La Loma’s turn to host the Christmas party, el Pase de Nino. Our host family’s donkey was unhappily roped into the festivities to carry Virgin Mary (played by one of the village girls) and baby Jesus guided by the three wise men, up the hill from the highway back to the community church where we ate locro, drank chicha and were merry for the rest of the afternoon.

A few days later we were on a short 30-minute ride away from Cuellaje in the back of the community milk truck. Piled in the back of the ute with three Americans, two local women and a dozen steel milk vats we were off to the inauguration of the sun temple at Wariman.

Wariman is an ancient sacred site of the Kara civilization, where more than seven thousand tombs have been uncovered. Here the guardians of the site, the Pereira family were working with Christina, our main contact in Cuellaje, to turn the site into a main tourist attraction.

Following a small crowd up the hill to the main pyramid, we stopped to take off our wellies. Apparently this signifies a closer connection with Mother Earth, Pachamama. We wrongly thought we would be attending as spectators, not participators.

As we arrived up the top of the small hill, we were summoned by a small bare-chested man with long flowing hair standing in front of a bamboo mat. Silently he gestured us one-by-one to approach the mat, then ordered us to join the forming circle surrounding him.

This was the inauguration, a traditional ceremony held by a Shaman (loosely translated as witch doctor) in Quechua. As the ceremony got underway we were each told (silently, though we started to understand the expectations) to close our eyes, as we would soon find out why.

One-by-one as we each recited a prayer the Shaman came by, spat a mouthful of strong alcohol in our faces and shoved a capful of awful bitter-tasting herbal alcohol of some sort in our hands which we were then required to drink. I, with my mirrored sunglasses on, got an eyeful of what was going on before the Shaman reached my place in the circle and anticipated the moment by the sour grimace on peoples faces as they downed the herbal liquor.

In the words of the locals, “que chévere”!

While it was certainly an eye opener, it was a cultural experience like no other.

Christmas day arrived and we spent most of it in the kitchen, cooking up a feast of cross-cultural proportions while the family attended the last mass service of the year. In the humid climate of Intag, I stupidly thought I could make a pavlova (in an oven with one temperature setting), an Australian Christmas day tradition, for the family to try. Needless to say that it turned out to be a false representation of Australian cuisine – F.A.I.L!

By the time Christmas came and went, we had met a lot of the people in the Parish and visited most of the communities, but in true South American fashion were still negotiating the work that we would be undertaking during our stay here.

This is our New Year’s resolution! Let the adventure continue…

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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