I ended up in the hospital while traveling through Ecuador in June 2021. I wasn’t sick, thank goodness. Visiting the San Luis de Otavalo Hospital was on the itinerary that I had developed with Andrea Lucio-Mieles of Ecuador’s Carishina Travel, a company that believes in showing travelers the world “through its diverse array of cultures and traditions.”
Lucio-Mieles had told me of a marvelous curandera (healer) and partera (midwife) who worked there—Mamá Rosita Colta, a leader of her Kichwan community. The hospital hired her because they were looking to serve the community better. Many folks in the neighborhood are Kichwa and were unlikely to go to the hospital for prenatal care or to give birth.
In an approach similar to that of the Weston A. Price Foundation, the hospital wants to offer the best of modern science along with traditional wisdom. They did not want to impose their modern “scientific methods” on women in labor and delivery but wanted alternatives to be available for high-risk situations.
Otavalo: The Best of Both Worlds
When Mamá Rosita came on board at the hospital, she became an important bridge to the community, eliminating a number of cultural barriers between the hospital and her people.
First, she spoke the indigenous language, immediately making community members feel more comfortable. Second, she embraced and supported Kichwa traditions—especially those related to giving birth. Many Kichwa women give birth standing up, squatting or sitting. Mamá Rosita was in favor of whatever best served the mother-to-be. Third, she wore traditional clothing and made sure the birthing center looked more like a home than a sterile hospital room with white walls. (As a matter of fact, for the Kichwas, the color white symbolizes poison or death, so having the space look more like home, with wood walls and other homelike features, was important.)
Last but not least, Mamá Rosita could accommodate birth mothers’ need to honor the mother and Kichwa traditions simultaneously. For example, the Kichwa consider having a doctor physically assess cervical dilation as invasive and inappropriate. Mamá Rosita, on the other hand, can read the signs of the body—particularly the sweat on the upper lip—to determine the progress of labor.
As I toured the hospital with my small team from Carishina Travel, Mamá Rosita showed us the birthing center and demonstrated the variety of birthing positions. She even played the harmonica and danced, showing us how she sets the tone for a mother in labor. The music, she explained, lets the baby know that it is welcome and coming to a happy place.
Mamá Rosita also allowed us to watch a prenatal visit with a pregnant mother who was due in about a month. She rubbed ointments on the woman’s belly and rocked her gently side to side using a cloth as a kind of hammock, as she murmured words of welcome to the baby and reassurance to the young mom.
When I interviewed her moments later, she gave me insights on her understanding of the body and birth. Nuestro cuerpo es sagrado, she said repeatedly. “Our body is holy.” She marveled at its design and beauty, along with its resilience and ability to adapt.
Inti Raymi: Celebrating a Festival of Gratitude
I purposefully chose to travel to Ecuador during the month of June, so that I could witness Inti Raymi, the Kichwa people’s “sun festival” celebrated around the summer solstice.
Mamá Rosita’s words about the holiness of the body echoed in my mind when she invited me to participate in the village’s annual ritual baño (bath), part of the Inti Raymi Festival celebration. The traditional cleanse is a time to receive the healing energy of the waters and release any bad energy in or on the body.
After Mamá Rosita invited community members (and me) into the waters, we flagellated our bodies with bundles of herbs, and then she poured water over us while speaking Kichwa blessings. A woman followed her with burning herbs, letting the smoke surround us. We shivered in the cool night air, from joy at the ceremony and the impromptu cold therapy. Mamá Rosita’s profound respect for the body and for its place in the broader community and the natural world permeated every action.
Inti Raymi Festival
I had read that the Inti Raymi Festival was a celebration of the sun and the sun god, but I learned that it was much more than that—and what I experienced was much more profound and nuanced. The festival was a multi-day (if not multi-month) celebration of gratitude for the sun but also for the earth and to God for all that had been provided over the course of the previous months.
The Ecuadorians call the earth Pacha Mama or Mother Earth. This name shows how much they cherish and respect her. Apauki Flores, a community leader and cultural guide in Santa Bárbara, told us that just as a mother is exhausted after giving birth, the earth, too, is weary after providing its harvest. The Inti Raymi Festival is intent on reenergizing and reinvigorating her.
Participants join in a special dance that involves a lot of stomping to give Pacha Mama what she needs. This joyous energy exchange—with costumes, whistling, singing and flutes made of bamboo along with other instruments—takes the celebration to the next level.
The hats that the dancers wore were eclectic, lending an almost carnival-like air. I spotted mariachi hats—the traditional sombreros from Mexico—as well as pointed hats resembling those of witches, police helmets and fantastically shaped stovepipe-like hats. Many hats had religious or governmental symbols drawn on them; participants told me the intent of the drawings was to mock the powers-that-be and demonstrate that their power cannot extinguish the power of the indigenous people.
The men wore heavy, military-style boots to do the stomping, reinvigorating the earth with each step. I was told that the people used to dance with bare feet but in recent years have switched to the boots to give even greater energy and heft to the dance.
The men and women dance on separate days. To my surprise, one afternoon a captain of the Santa Bárbara community invited me to join in the dance. I felt honored, especially because it seemed to be a day for the men to dance, not the women. I gamely joined in, trying my best to imitate the movement of the Kichwa people. I did not exactly succeed. Let’s just say that my dancing style was slightly reminiscent of a bow-legged cowgirl who has just dismounted her horse and is trying to wake up tingly legs that have fallen asleep.
Maintaining Culinary Traditions
Another aspect of the Inti Raymi celebration was the Pampa Mesa: a community table replete with the best that the families had to offer. With a tablecloth of enormous proportions extended in the village square, it was not unlike a community-wide thanksgiving. Food shared included palta (avocado), eggs, chicken, cuy (guinea pig), potatoes and quinoa. Unfortunately, beer and sodas were poured liberally, though I heard that traditionally, this meal featured chicha, an indigenous fermented corn drink.
As the world “becomes smaller” and people become exposed to Western foods and begin to incorporate them into the diet, Ecuador’s culinary traditions are slowly eroding. However, I encountered two individuals who are doing their best to reverse the trend.
Javier Carrera is one of them. Javier and his team helped start (“seed,” if you will) a group called Red de Guardianes de Semillas (Network of Seed Guardians), which is committed to preserving heritage seeds in Ecuador, encouraging regenerative agriculture and more (see redsemillas.org). It is a network of groups and individuals, including indigenous groups, that together are collaborating for a brighter tomorrow. The network offers courses and has a podcast, but members also visit villages where they educate and equip people to plant the ancient heritage seeds and enjoy the harvest that results. Preserving traditional crops is one step in the right direction toward helping the peoples of Ecuador return to a more diverse, nutrient-dense diet that is good for the health of people and the soil.
The second individual, a chef named Juan Sebastián Perez, is reclaiming not only foods but traditional preparation techniques and putting them on display at a restaurant called Quitu Identidad Culinaria. By lifting up the preparation and serving of traditional dishes, Perez is calling Ecuadoran people back to their pre-Spanish, pre-Inca roots.
Despite the emphasis in mainstream culture on “Westernized” (“modern”) foods, including vegan cheeses and such, I am heartened by the efforts of these individuals and their teams to revisit and reinstate their country’s wise dietary traditions.
Cotopaxi: Communing With Nature
Among the many highlights of the trip was a visit to Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Situated in the Andes, it has an elevation of over nineteen thousand feet.
We were not planning on “summiting,” but I still had a healthy respect for this mountain volcano. We were told that the wind could be brutal, the cold air biting and the altitude breathtaking, literally. To make matters more challenging, my suitcase got misplaced, so I didn’t have access to any of the warm clothing I had packed.
Thankfully, I was able to borrow adequate gear to stay warm, as we prepared for our hours-long hike to the refuge located at just over fifteen thousand feet.
With our guide Nancy Masapanta, we rode in a jeep to our starting point near the base of the volcano. It was there that Nancy invited us to do something unusual. She said that she didn’t share this ritual with every visitor but that she could sense, from our discussion in the vehicle, that we were open to ancient mystical traditions. She invited us, at the volcano’s base, to show it our respect by putting a little of its dirt under our tongue, so that it might recognize us, and so that we, in turn, could acknowledge the volcano. It was a moment that bonded us, in a kind of informal communion.
And I’m not saying that this communion was related to what happened next, but the volcano showed itself in spectacular ways throughout our visit. Ordinarily, Cotopaxi is only visible at certain times of year and most often is shrouded by clouds. But before we ascended, Cotopaxi’s peak appeared between the clouds, and as we descended, it showed itself once again. Nancy told us how unusual that was. In essence, the volcano greeted us as we arrived and bid us adieu as we departed. I felt a profound gratitude and a sincere appreciation for it, and for the marvelous Ecuadorian people who were teaching me to receive all that nature has to offer, with gratitude and humility.
GALÁPAGOS: Unparalleled and Protected Beauty
Fully 40 percent of the flora and fauna in the Galápagos islands cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. We visited only a handful of the twenty-one islands—Isabella, Fernandina, Santa Cruz, Mosquerero and Baltra—but, oh, what marvels we saw: sea turtles that looked as ancient as time itself; sea lions willing to interact with us playfully; marine iguanas resembling creatures straight out of a science-fiction movie; Sally Lightfoot crabs looking like they were hand-painted by Monet; pufferfish; and even sharks. Nature’s astonishing and mesmerizing glory was on full display in this place.
On one island, I was poised to jump into one of the coves when the Galápagos Park guide, Roberto Ojeda, stopped me. Tourists visiting the islands used to do that, but it displaced the sea lions. Humans crowded them out, disturbing their rhythms, and they left. Because of what happened on this island, regulations have been put into place, limiting what tourists can do, in an effort to respect those that were there first. I noted this thread throughout the islands, with signs warning against approaching the giant tortoise, cautions to avoid touching the sea lion cubs (to prevent their parents from rejecting them because of the “human smell”) and so on. The call to protect the natural habitat of the varied species was a reminder both of their fragility and of what they most needed to thrive.
What if we did the same for ourselves? What if we created a habitat that helped us thrive? I believe it would begin with a healthy respect for the holiness of the body and the world it inhabits. This was one of the greatest lessons I gleaned from Ecuador.
Mamá Rosita lifted up the holiness and innate health of the body itself, pointing to the healing energy of natural waters. The community of Santa Bárbara showed its gratitude to the earth throughout its Inti Raymi celebration. Nancy the guide taught me to approach the volcano with respect and awe. And the Galápagos experience reminded me that a reverential approach to our surroundings is of benefit to every living species, including the human race.
Traditional Foods and Changes Over Time
Among the fresh fruit and seafood found in abundance in Ecuador, there are typical dishes still served on many tables throughout the country. Here are a few of the dishes I had the pleasure of trying myself:
Locro de papa: A creamy potato soup, made with milk or cheese and onion, garlic and cumin
Yaguarlocro: A tripe soup with a lamb broth base, served with coagulated lamb blood, avocado and red onion
Encebollado: Albacore fish served in a tomato and onion sauce
Llapingacho: A sausage dish served with egg, a potato pancake and a side of peanut sauce
Chicha: A naturally fermented corn drink
Gütig: Naturally carbonated spring water from Machachi
While heartened to see (and taste) many of these traditional dishes throughout my adventures in Ecuador, I was disappointed to find that many are prepared nowadays using vegetable oils, instead of traditional lard or natural meat fats. In a supermarket, I came across a brand of shortening called Tres Chanchitos (Three Little Pigs) that originally merited the name because it was a pork lard product; when the company changed the product to vegetable shortening, it kept the name. Now, unfortunately, it is likely to appeal to no one. A vegetarian is likely to steer clear because of the name, while those seeking real lard will be seriously disappointed once they inspect the ingredient label.
As I have found in other countries, there is also a push—particularly in the cities—toward veganism. In the rural areas, in contrast, people still regularly enjoy raw milk, real meat and fresh eggs.
COVID In Ecuador
I observed that there was more fear (and more restrictions) in the cities than in the rural areas. When staying in Santa Bárbara, a community leade’s wife told us that many community members became sick at one time, “catching COVID” during the Inti Raymi Festival in 2020! In response, she and a group of women in the community gathered twenty-four medicinal plants and herbs and took them from home to home. No one was hospitalized, and no one died.
Mamá Rosita told me that she herself had become sick with COVID. She was in the hospital, with an IV in her arm, when she thought to herself: “Do I want to die here or at home?” She took the IV out and went home, over the protests of the medical staff who considered her condition to be quite serious. She told me she nourished herself by going to the woods and listening to the birds, and also ate a lot of sambo, a kind of squash soup. She recovered fully.
Traveling During COVID
Most (if not all) airlines currently require masks in order to fly. As it happens, I started wearing a mask for flights long before all this Covid nonsense started—but not out of obligation or worry about contagion. Instead, I wear a coconut carbon filter mask designed to filter out jet fuel bleed and other cabin air toxins (available at icanbreathe.com). I also wear a less-EMF hoodie. I used to feel “off” after flying—often deplaning with a slight headache or mild nausea. Now, when I disembark, I feel “100 percent.”
To enter Ecuador and, later, the Galápagos, COVID tests were required. Yet another test was required to reenter the U.S. I took all the tests on my own terms. In other words, I refused to have a cotton swab shoved up my nose, insisting (both at the testing site in D.C. as well as in Ecuador) that I had sensitivities and preferred to spit or exhale through my nose into the spoon. In each case, after some insistence on my part, I was allowed to do it my way.
At one testing center, the technician protested that the results might be inconclusive. “That’s on me,” I replied. “If necessary, I’ll do it again and pay again.” Fortunately, I received a negative test result on each occasion.
Once in Ecuador, we were asked to wear masks in some public places, such as in historic Quito and on the small ship in the Galápagos. My group often did not comply. When under duress, I wore a rhinestone-beaded pseudo-mask. Most of the time, however, I was free-faced, and there was no real enforcement of mask wearing.
From time to time—at national parks or at the airport—there were also “disinfectant” stations that resembled airport metal detectors. Individuals were supposed to walk through and get sprayed with some unknown concoction of chemicals or bleach. I simply walked around the devices each time and no one ever asked me to return and walk back through. At the entrance to the MegaMaxi store in Quito, a greeter cheerily asked me, “Would you like to be disinfected?” while gesturing to the station. When I replied “No,” he welcomed me just the same and invited me to walk into the store without the “hosing down.” Overall, these small inconveniences paled in comparison to the magnificence of the experience.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2022🖨️ Print post