Located not far to the north of Ibarra and near the town of Chota, Mascarilla is a small town that is not yet on the tourist trail in Ecuador. The roughly 1,000 inhabitants of Mascarilla are afro-Ecuadorians, descendants of black slaves brought into the Chota valley centuries ago to work the sugarcane fields.
In years past, the economy of Mascarilla has depended greatly on the numerous papaya trees that flourished in the region. About a decade ago, however, the trees were decimated by disease and the economic base of the town was destroyed. Many of the young people left the tiny town to seek work in Quito or Ibarra.
As the next generation started to leave Mascarilla, an Italian foundation came to town and began teaching the locals how to make African-style masks and dolls out of clay. The town eagerly embraced the project, seeing it as a potential industry as well as the chance to reconnect with their African roots. The town now has a small shop on the main street (you canâ€™t miss it) as well as a community center and workshop, where volunteers teach cheerful locals how to deal with international tourists.
The streets of Mascarilla are still dusty and dry, and young people hang out talking to one another. Small children chase makeshift soccer balls (such as grapefruits) around town. When tourists come visit, many locals gravitate toward the lone store, where the walls are hung with masks, most of them elongated with distinctly African features.
Inside the shop, locals discreetly watch the visitors shop. The mask business is still very new to them, and theyâ€™re curious to see which ones the tourists like most. The walls are divided up by artist and everyone knows who the artists are. There are dog-eared photos of the artists on the walls with their art. Look around and you'll find that they themselves are most likely watching, too.
All of the Chota Valley is known for a special sort of music and dance known as â€śbomba.â€ť The locals will be happy to give you a dance class if you ask. If youâ€™re interested in the town and the masks, try to go across the street to the small community center, where a short and interesting video will show how they are made.