The Way of the Chagra: Tourists participate in cattle drives in Cotopaxi Province

13/Julio/2012 | 14:26

By Lance Brashear

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Combining centuries-old traditions and the normal work-a-day operation of a hacienda, Tierra del Volcan, a tour operator in the Ecuadorian Andes, has found a unique way to attract tourists to their remote property on the southern edges of Cotopaxi National Park.

Three times a year Hacienda Tambo, part of Tierra del Volcan, moves a group of cattle from one area of their 4,000 hectare (10,000 acre) hacienda to another as part of a conservation management plan. 

Though it is a necessary part of running the hacienda, each of these cattle drives now offers tourists an opportunity to participate. 


Tambo is a working hacienda with 800 head of cattle and has been part of the Perez family for almost a century.  “It has been in the hands of our family since 1913,” explains Juan Fernando Perez, patriarch of the family.  

Juan Fernando, an architect by profession but a historian by hobby, says Hacienda Tambo was once a stopover for the Incas – a site that fell into abandonment until the Society of Jesus religious order (the Jesuits) acquired the property around 1586.  At that time Tambo was part of a larger hacienda called Pedregal.

Jorge Perez, owner and manager of Tierra del Volcan, and Juan Fernando’s son, says that documentation shows the Jesuits brought fighting bulls to Pedregal by the end of the 16th century from Lima. “They had sheep and llamas, but because their farm was so big the indigenous started to steal their animals and they could not control it,” he explains. “So they decided to bring fighting bulls…it was a way to preserve your production without needing guards or shepherds to take care of your animals.”

And it was a decision that would forever alter the character of this part of the Andean highlands – a legacy now 400 years in the making.


The introduction of cattle and bulls into the Andean highlands by the Jesuits gave birth to a cultural phenomenon that lives to this day:  the “chagras,” or Andean cowboys.

Jorge says that when the Jesuits settled in Cotopaxi they distributed small areas of land, known as “chagras,” to be managed by the local mestizo population. 

“It was a piece of land they would give to their most trusted employees so that they could harvest their own products,” says Jorge.  “To those whom the Jesuits felt were honest, they rewarded by teaching them to handle the bulls and ride the horses.” 

The name came to denote not just the land, but the trusted servants themselves.

“Chagras were the first indigenous groups at that time that were allowed to ride horses,” explains Jorge.  “If you think in the Middle Ages in Europe it was only for the nobility or the knights…being able to ride horses was a big privilege.” 

So for centuries the chagra have carved an identity that is unique and enviable among other people in the region.  Today it is also a point of fascination for tourists, one on which Tierra del Volcan is capitalizing. 


Maria Jose Andrade, Sales and Marketing Manager and the general logistical coordinator for Tierra del Volcan, has put together a program that allows tourists to share in authentic, chagra life. 

“I have a great program called Chagra’s Way,” explains Andrade.  “It is a 5-day program any time of the year.  During those five days the people are part of the chagra culture.  They learn to lasso, to saddle horses, to fish the chagra way.”

To become a chagra for a day, or a week, you first have to get to Tambo, which usually involves a stopover at Hacienda Porvenir, one of the other properties in the Tierra del Volcan group.  From there it is a 90-minute drive across the desolate, eastern side of Cotopaxi Park.

Tambo sits in a valley.  The hacienda house is a stone oasis perched above the corrals.  Upon my arrival early one morning, the corrals were empty and silent - save for the stirring of horses as the chagras prepared them for the cattle drive - and the valley was all the more majestic for it.

Crowded near the hacienda house are “chozas,” traditional Andean huts constructed of earth and straw.

One of them always has smoke profusely seeping out of the thatched roof, as if it was on fire.  This is the mess hall for the chagras. 

I entered and immediately began to choke.

“Sit down,” says a familiar voice.    As my eyes adjust I recognize Maria Jose beneath the layer of smoke.  She has just taught me rule number one: Do not stand up in a choza when they are cooking.   Breathing is done when sitting down.

Slowly, the chagras enter one by one, gathering around for a breakfast of soup, boiled eggs, and coffee with “machica,” or powdered barley - the energy drink of the chagras.  They share their food and soon everyone is ready to depart.


Manuel Changuro will lead the chagras in today’s cattle drive.  He is 72 years old and looks every bit of it when he sits alone on his horse.  But when it is time to ride and command the others he sheds years like the horses shed hair.

On this particular morning, he leads a dozen chagras, followed by the rest of us: Jorge and Juan Fernando Perez, Maria Jose, and the novices – tourists and journalists who are about to get a lesson in Cattle Driving 101.

Following some ceremonial formalities, we proceed at a slow pace towards the skirts of Quilindaña Volcano, a barren peak, which together with snow-capped Cotopaxi, defines the local geography.


Then Jorge offers some value advice before we get into the drive: “If you see a bull alone or a mother with her calf, go the other way.”  They will charge.  “You are faster uphill.  They are faster downhill.  And, it’s good to have something to throw.”   I suspect this advice is for the novices, not the chagras. 

We continue up the mountain and regroup once again.  Manuel announces who will ride together and then everyone has a shot of liquor.  Is this really a good idea I wonder?  Following Jorge’s survival pep talk, I would have to say yes.  But even without tourists, I understand it is a tradition - the way of the chagra.

After another two and a half hours of riding we are 5-6 kilometers from the corrals and 4,200 meters above sea level.  The cattle are below us.

The chagras move further ahead and out of sight as we, the novices, are instructed to move back down along a ridge.  Soon, the chagras come into view below, herding the cattle down to the valley floor where we will rejoin them.

It does not take long before we hear the noise - an incessant mooing that will not cease for the remainder of our stay.

We finally move in behind the herd, forming a line to minimize the escape of any single member of the herd.

We are alert, heeding the instructions of those more experienced - everyone that is, except for a French journalist who, too busy with his camera to pay attention, is rammed in the backside by an angry cow.  Amazingly he remains mounted - luck disguised as experience –with camera firmly in hand (he was not willing to throw it, despite Jorge’s advice).

We cross a ravine and in a short distance the hacienda comes back into view and all ends where it began.  The majestic silence is now a cacophony of moos that will not stop nor even diminish throughout the night. They will be challenged into the wee hours of the morning by the chagras and their campfire singing.  But eventually, the moos will win.

And why shouldn’t they?  The cattle are the reason the chagras are here - the same family of cattle brought by the Jesuits in the 16th century.

Throughout the trip, visitors come to understand that this is not a show, even if we have a few laughs along the way.  Tourism, after all, should be fun.

But this is also a way of life, which you feel privileged to encounter.  It is part of the heritage of the region, which the Perez family is trying hard to preserve and promote – a heritage that predates their participation but garners their profound respect.

“What gives me a lot of pleasure and much satisfaction,” says Juan Fernando, “and I believe it is a kind of ecological and genetic patrimony, is that in this same spot, Hacienda Pedregal, today Tambo…has the same cattle, genetically the same, since more than 400 years ago.  For me this is a beautiful thing.”

To be part of the next cattle drive at Tambo contact Tierra del Volcan,  Call the offices at 2-600-9533 or 094-980-121 or write to Maria Jose Andrade at [email protected].  Overnight stays at Tambo are $39 per person plus taxes.  An additional $6 conservation fee is charged to care for the environment.  Breakfast and dinner are included.



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lbrashear - en Diario HOY - Noticias de Ecuador.