Updated April 24th, 2019.
About the Tsachila People
Santo Domingo, Ecuador, is an industrial hub that draws few visitors, but in its outskirts lies a culture struggling to survive the encroachment of modernization. The full name of the city, Santo Domingo de los Tsachilas, refers to the Tsachila people, an indigenous group that traditionally inhabited the area encompassing Sto. Domingo.
The Tsachilas are best known for their knowledge of medicinal plants and use of the achiote seed in colouring their hair red. Only 2800 Tsachilas remain, and they comprise one of Ecuador’s fourteen officially recognized indigenous nationalities. Today, they live in seven separate communities and host a heritage centre to share their story with visitors both domestic and international.
The achiote seeds that the Tsachila use to colour their hair red
Visiting the Tolon-Pele Cultural Centre
We were told that we could arrive at the Tolon-Pele Cultural Centre in the Chiguilpe community and receive a tour, traditional steam bath, and spiritual cleanse. From the bus station in Santo Domingo, we asked the taxi driver to take us to the Tsachila community and was dismayed when the taxi driver didn’t know where to go.
We were soon caught in a tangle of backroads, and after much wandering, we finally found ourselves at the Tolon-Pele Cultural Centre. A welcome sign sits next to a large building by the empty parking lot. Inside are several tables displaying homemade herbal remedies alongside made-in-China kitsch. Manning one of these stalls is Rosa, an elderly Tsachila woman wearing a colourful skirt and black lines painted on her face and arms. She informed us that tours were not available as no one was working at the moment, but we could wait to receive a cleanse and steam bath from Albertina, the Shaman.
Frustrated by the afternoon heat and having to overpay our incompetent taxi driver, I began to worry. What if the heritage centre was just a tourist sellout? They could don on their costumes, show us a handful of medicinal plants, make a quick buck, and send us on our way. I had a sincere curiosity for Tsachila culture and was hoping for a genuine experience. What would I write about if I had witnessed otherwise? Little did I know that I would have a more uplifting and inspirational experience than I could have ever imagined.
Meeting Albertina, the Shaman
After some waiting and fiddling about with items in the shop, we were summoned to meet Albertina, the Shaman who would perform our healing and steam bath. Albertina is a middle-aged woman with warm eyes and a strong, confident stature. She was wearing the traditional rainbow skirt of Tsachila women.
She welcomed us to the ceremonial healing area where a chair and table were placed in the center. The table was covered in leaves, rocks, and herbal concoctions. The healing was meant to be a blessing, spiritual cleanse, and release of negative energy. It consisted of a rubbing of ointments, shaking of leaves, and the rhythm of a rainstick accompanied by Albertina humming a blessing.
Albertina, the Shaman performs a blessing on us
The ointments smelled of spiced flowers and were warm and relaxing. That, and the rhythmic humming and patter of the rainstick made the healing ceremony feel like a comfortable, refreshing nap. Perhaps a person more in touch with their spirituality would have had a more transcendental experience than I, but it was an interesting cultural exercise nevertheless, while Albertina’s confidence and friendliness dissipated my former anxieties about Tolon-Pele.
A traditional Tsachila steam bath…
The healing was followed by a traditional Tsachila steam bath. Fragrant herbs are placed in a hole with hot water and rocks. The bather, tented in sheets, huddles over the hole and inhales the aromatic vapours like an herbal sauna. It was a refreshing experience that anyone would enjoy.
The day’s plans were already delayed and we didn’t want to have to rush home, so we decided to stay the night. Charming cabanas can be rented for just 10 dollars per person per night, breakfast included.
Dinner with the Tsachilas…
For $3.50, Albertina and her daughter Melina hosted us for a traditional Tsachila dinner of chicken seasoned with wild cilantro, wrapped in a leaf, and cooked over a fire, with rice and plantain on the side. Dinner was delicious and satisfying, but the gastronomic highlight of the evening for me was the wild valeriana tea. The tea was sweet, warming, and possessed an herbaceous aroma that I wanted to swim in.
Contently sitting next to the fire, Albertina began sharing her own story. At a young age she was married to an abusive husband and decided to separate from him in her early twenties. In the conservative, machismo culture this was highly frowned upon, and she was ostracized by the community.
Albertina left to work in the Galapagos Islands and gained experience in the tourism industry. She had a vision of opening a heritage centre where she could proudly share her culture with visitors. She claimed the land given to her by birthright, but opening the centre was met with much adversity. A single female shaman opening her own business was preposterous. Despite the lack of support from both family members and the community, Tolon-Pele has developed into a business that supports all of Albertina’s family and much of the Chiguilpe community. The next phase of development for Tolon-Pele is to become agriculturally self-sustaining, and they are currently looking to host volunteers with experience in agriculture to spearhead their new projects. I told Albertina that I would spread the word.
An authentic experience…
Staring into the crackling bonfire, I couldnt help but feel incredibly grateful for being given this opportunity to immerse myself in this little-known culture. I knew the Tsachilas still spoke their native language Tsafiki, and with curiosity lingering in the back of my mind, I asked Albertina if she had a Tsafiki name in addition to her Spanish one.¨Bembe¨ she replied. It means a tree that supports many orchids.
I asked for Melina’s Tsachila name too. It was Molo, or firefly. The girls and I were anxious and excited to have Albertina give us Tsachila names too. Joanna, a friendly girl with a big beautiful smile, was named Ele, after an elegant pheasant-type bird, regal and fabulous, the Queen of the Jungle.
My other friend Cheyenne, sweet and unassuming, was named Kimí, or hummingbird, gentle and delicate but ecologically vital. My Tsachila name was Shinoluli, a tree that bears delicate flowers that blow with the wind. Shinoluli flowers are never found close to home, prophetic for someone who has lived across continents.
A night of story telling and a Tsachila Legend…
The evening concluded with the telling of Tsachila legends around the bonfire. Here is the story of how the shamans prevented Mapia, the Goddess of water, from drowning the world…
Mapia was angry at the people for disrespecting the forest, and she sent floods to punish mankind. She would count every single strand of hair on her head, and every time she finished counting, she would send a new series of floods. Only a select few would survive, for which Mapia sent visions of a mountain. Those that would travel atop the mountain would survive the rampant downpours.
Mapia accepted sacrifices of the sons of single mothers. With each sacrifice, the mountain would grow taller, providing more space for its inhabitants and securing them from the floods. Over time, the shamans grew weary of the sacrifices and the malicious flooding. They decided to take lightning and disguise it as a giant monkey to give to Mapia.
Mapia was very pleased to receive such a large, decadent gift and began cooking the monkey over the fire. Once over the fire, the lightning revealed itself and struck out Mapia’s left eye. Without her left eye, Mapia was unable to finish counting her hairs, and the people were saved from the catastrophic flooding.
Albertina also told us that a few weeks ago in March, Mapia appeared to her. ¨I saw a very tall, beautiful woman with long hair in the clouds. She was missing an eye. I called out to all my family to come see¨. Mapia’s appearance is a sinister omen. ¨The next day there were floods all throughout Colombia and Peru. The rain was so powerful it caused landslides as close as Alluriquin, only twenty mintues away from Sto. Domingo¨. Another landslide demolished the road between Quito and Sto. Domingo and the highway was shut for weeks.
That night I went to bed listening to the shower of rain water hitting the cabana. Perhaps Mapia sends her regards. From their stories I could tell that the Tsachilas hold the sun, the rain, and nature in the highest regard. I went to bed wondering when it was in human history that we became so detached from our environment.
Breakfast and the Full Tour of the Tsachila Village…
The next day we awoke to a breakfast of scrambled eggs cooked with cilantro, maduro, plantain, and to my delight, more valeriana tea. Melina held a small container of black ink, extracted from the mali fruit. With it, she painted lines and patterns on our faces. Both Tsachila men and women wear the black lines which serve as protection against maladies, negative energy, and to honour ancestors who died from introduced diseases.
Getting our faces painted in Tsachila style
Breakfast was followed by the tour we were hoping to receive the day before. Melina showed us several stations that displayed various aspects of Tsachila life, including a burial chamber. The dead are wrapped in a sheet of bamboo and their bodies are taken into the jungle. They believe that the flesh will decompose into soil and the bones will turn black and grow into the roots of a great tree. The biggest trees, such as Tolon-Pele (after which the centre is named) contain the spirits of their ancestors. We took a brief walk to see a 350 year old Tolon-Pele tree, it’s large roots cutting across the hiking trail. The tree really was a towering edifice to be held in awe by anyone who crossed its path.
The huge Tolon-Pele tree, over 350 years old
Meeting more of the Family…
During the tour we also met Kuafusona and Yoshili, Albertina’s beautiful daughter-in-law and adorable little granddaughter, both wearing rainbow skirts and black face paint. We also met Freddy, Albertina’s son, who showed us how achiote is applied to the hair. Legend has it that the people would rub achiote onto the skin to protect them against smallpox. This is how they gained their Spanish nickname, Los Colorados, or the Red People.
Now, the achiote is only applied to men’s hair which is shaped to resemble the shape of the seed pod, while the achiote plant remains a symbol of life for the Tsachilas. Freddy was one of the few men working at Tolon-Pele and wore a black and white skirt, meant to be protection against deadly equis snakes. He was toned with broad shoulders and a masculine gait. I couldn’t help but think what an attractive family Freddy, Kuafusona, and Yoshili made.
The Finale and the Future of the Tsachila People…
For the finale of the tour we were taken to a ballroom with chairs placed along the sides. Front centre were a marimba, rainstick, and drum. The marimba and drum are introduced instruments, while the rainstick is native. The room filled with lighthearted and exotic music as women in rainbow skirts spilled onto the dancefloor, stepping casually to the rhythm. Tsachilas always dance alone and never in partners (a concept I sometimes wish would carry to modern nightlife).
It was soon time to depart, and I asked Albertina how she felt about the future of the Tscachila culture? The Tsachila are a peaceful, non-confrontational people. Their way of life began changing about 80 years ago as colonial development and westernization encroached upon Tsachila territory.
The Tsachila hid deeper in the jungle until they decided it was time to stand up for their land. They are now officially recognized by the government as an indigenous society and can thus claim their rights to territory. Their land may be secure for the time being, but their culture is not. As indigenous societies begin to accept the materialistic offers from westernization, their own culture begins to slip between their fingers.
Tolon-Pele is a private business designed to educate visitors, but it also serves as a reminder to the Tsachila people of their own heritage. Perhaps the displacement of indigenous culture by westernization is unavoidable, but hopefully with visionaries like Albertina, the Tsachila beliefs in environmentalism, peace, and harmony will live on.
Kuafusona and Yoshili, Albertina’s daughter in law and grandaughter
Although you can simply show up at Tolon-Pele (at a reasonable hour) it is advisable to call in advance to ensure that tours and other activities will be available. All tours and activities are conducted in Spanish.
Empresa Comunitaria Tolon Pele
- Address: Via Quevedo Km 7 left margin+ 4 Km.
- Email: [email protected]
- Phone: 0993413827, 0993412240
- Facebook page: Empresa Comunitaria Tolon Pelé
About the writer: Marina Wang (alias Marina Coladas) is a nature aficionado, sustainability enthusiast, and budget backpacker. She has recently spent eight months living and working in the cloud forests of Ecuador and backpacking through Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. You can read about her other travel adventures and insights at her travel blog – ifyoulikemarinacoladas.com.