Thousands of years of isolation from the Western world made South America’s indigenous communities undeniably distinct, with their own idiosyncrasies, spirituality and customs continuing to set them apart from the rest of the world’s bright myriad of cultures. While some would like to change that, perhaps making them more Western or ‘advanced’ — the Spanish colonizers certainly tried — your time living with an indigenous family in Ecuador should be seen as an opportunity to experience a rich living culture, where you’ll simultaneously discover countless differences and spot more similarities than you’d expect. Here are some tips to keep in mind when you lived with an indigenous host family in Ecuador:

1. Multi-faceted faith

In indigenous Ecuador, native belief systems and customs merge with Catholic traditions to form a type of spiritual hybrid that in some ways might leave you scratching your head. Keep in mind, however, that while in your own country there might not be such a thing as a Muslim Christian or a Christian Jew, in Ecuador many types of mixed religious expressions are possible. To help you understand, these have their roots in both history and nature, with the Spanish having implanted their European religion and the indigenous population having maintained a strong spiritual connection to the land. Keep reading for more details!

2. Pachamama, Mama Pacha

Speaking of belief systems, how could we not mention Pachamama? Otherwise known as Mother Earth, and also referred to as Mama Pacha, this Andean spiritual figure emerged from ancient Incan society where she was considered the bearer of fertility, as expressed in her influence over the harvests. Throughout the year in Ecuador, spiritual practices in indigenous communities see Pachamama take a leading role in society’s vested hopes for good rains and strong harvests. What’s more, she often takes the place of, or merges with the figure of the Virgin Mary.

3. Gender, gender

The rule of thumb that “it’s not necessarily better or worse — just different” is a great way to prepare yourself for life with an indigenous family in Ecuador. One example is the role of men and women, where in indigenous societies things can differ drastically from what you might used to in your home country. While visitors to native communities are sometimes shocked by the perceived inequality between men and women (and it does exist), often they overlook what native communities excel in when it comes to gender. Native women have important leadership roles within indigenous families and communities, taking charge of household economics, participating actively in agriculture, like in crop management, and taking on the role of curanderos, or spiritual healers, for example.

4. Medicine mania

It’s unlikely you’ll spend your time in an indigenous family in Ecuador watching soap operas or the endless cycle of pharmaceutical advertisements on television — if in fact they have one! And on that note, in indigenous Ecuador, traditional medicine takes the form of a number of customs that are mostly linked to the jungle, the source of many of the products that native Ecuadorians use to prepare their ancient remedies. While we don’t recommend you try these, they are certainly an important part of indigenous life in Ecuador and should, like all traditional practices, be respected. This goes for the interpretation of illness as well, which in Otavaeño culture, for example, includes the belief that illness is caused by four things: fright, evil wind, evil spirits or foreign objects.

5. Watch out

Ecuador’s indigenous communities have, for many decades, been left on the margins of society by the more dominant European social groups. Today, while much has changed and you’ll find growing pride in the country’s rich indigenous heritage, you should still watch out for the odd bad attitude some Ecuadorians show toward native communities, as some sectors of society continue looking down on fellow Ecuadorians based on their skin color. Advice? While you’re bound to batter an eyelid at what others say, let your own experiences speak for themselves. And one final tip… avoid using the word indio and stick with indígena or just say… ecuatoriano!

Feel like we’re on the same page? Learn more about our programs with the Otavaeño community and the Shuar community!

Originally published on Ailola by Jayson McNamara on April 4, 2014.