A Modern, Age-Old Culture: Mejía, Ecuador’s “Chagra” Horsemen
By: Shannon Cantor
Mexico proudly upholds its vaqueros, North America boasts legends of cowboys, Argentina is known for the gaucho, and huasos scatter the Chilean plains. All across the world, horsemen may be found as culturally defining centerpieces. People hold reverence to both the rider and his impressive steed, looking up to them as symbols of strength, confidence, and teamwork. They also carry an aura of lore—telling their own tales of the plains, and leaving thousands more in the wake of their travels. In the Mejía Canton of Ecuador, this renowned rider is the chagra.
Originally the most trusted indigenous workers of the Spanish “hacienda” plantations, chagras were taught to be master horsemen in charge of the livestock. They always carried an air of authority and pride; and yet, they at once upheld the stories and traditions of their indigenous identity. Gathering around the fire at night, they told legends of the 9 living volcanos adorning the valley’s landscape. Likewise, tales of their adventures spread through the community, as those who braved the frigid plains in search of wild, angry bull. Today, the chagra still remains as Mejía’s cultural staple. Local riders proudly carry on his legacy, of living cultural heritage in the 21st century.
The chagra essence is accompanied by lore and mystic, but also still lived out today as a modern lifestyle. There are still wild bulls in the plains, and still the need for those willing to go out in search of them; still late-night stories to be told, and the need for those who gather ‘round to share them. If you travel to Mejía, you will find riders clad in the combination of modern jacket topped with hand-woven poncho, standard blue jeans with traditional, goat-skin chaps. The seemingly-paradoxical mixture of old and new is actually indicative of the traditional dress’s timeless utility. It is undoubtedly the most effective protection from wind, cold, and discomfort on the horse. The cucayo also never goes out of style: the picnic lunch that chagras take with them on their journeys through the highland grasses. Finding a knoll to guard against the wind, and bunkering down at the foothills of a volcano, the chagra surely appreciates these much-earned meals.
Mejía’s people also pride themselves upon the festivities that accompany and highlight the daily grind of chagra life. Every year, riders have the chance to show off their best horsemanship, in the parade and competition, “El Paseo del Chagra.” The horse show is accompanied by dance, song, and food, and communities gather to celebrate the long-standing importance of their chagra riders. Histories and memories float in the air, as old friends tell old tales, and young generations also learn from the flourishing cultural richness. At differing dates throughout the year, the region’s Hacienda plantations also host “rodeos,” both cultural and practical gatherings of vital importance in Mejía. During these multi-day festivities, chagras gather at the Hacienda’s corral, and together set out into the plains in search of wild bull. They return with angry beasts in tow, to a freshly-cooked meal that the Hacienda offers the participants. Family and friends flock as the parties continue well into the night, with music and stories of the day’s labor. Starting generations ago and continuing even today, this rodeo has become one of the region’s most beloved traditions. The events are so renowned, in fact, that horsemen from countries near and far even gather to participate in the events—learning from the local chagra expertise, and sharing in the mutual love and appreciation for the animal-herding lifestyle.
But even non-riders are welcome in Mejía’s mystic and charm. The canton has developed an incredible network of community tourism, in which the “modern chagra” is an active participant. Although offering a range of options from rustic to luxurious, these experiences all maintain the essential element of personal connection with local individuals. Families and solo travelers alike can adventure onto ancient hiking trails, guided by community members who know each secret and story of the terrain. Additionally, visitors can team up alongside a cooperative of families, as they milk their cows and make their own artisanal fresh cheese. Biking, hiking, camping, cooking, and more are all activities that communities offer their guests, supporting responsible agriculture and widespread appreciation of local resources. These small-scale projects are supported by local government, and also even team together with Hacienda-turned-Bread and Breakfasts that spatter the region. And, for those who want to experience what a slice of what the chagra life requires, many real chagras are likewise equipped to break from their daily grind, and lead horseback expeditions through the volcano-studded landscape. Travelers will be dressed in poncho and chaps—not just for the touristic sake of it—but to truly sense the importance and warmth of the clothing. Likewise, they will venture beyond the corral, transported through layers of time and space by the peace of the highland grasses.
This timeline vortex exists in the character of the chagra himself: both ancient legend and modern lifestyle. But though he might well be timeless in the combination of eras, the chagra is unique to this one, specific place: Mejía Canton, Ecuador, where horsemen still reign free in the volcanic Andean plains.
Image Credit: https://viajapormejia.com/la-capital-del-chagra/