Words by Dominic Hamilton
Music, parades, dressing up, beauty contests, dancing in the streets, drinking, feasting, bull fighting, cock fighting, firecrackers - the Ecuadorians love a good party and there's nothing like a fiesta to generate the right mood. For gringos, fiestas are a great opportunities to join in and have fun. Villages and towns all have their own festivals days, usually a local saint's day, while there are certain times of the year, notably Carnaval in the days before Lent, when the whole country celebrates.
The following are some of the main annual festivals, though don't be surprised if you happen upon a festival in the country about which nobody seems to know the significance. It could be some ancient ritual dating from pre-Hispanic times.
If a public holiday falls in the middle of the week it is usually moved to a Friday or a Monday to make a long weekend (un puente, a bridge). And if it falls on a Saturday or Sunday it also moves to a Friday or Monday. Though it's fun to visit a town at festival time, accommodation fills quickly so it's advisable to make reservations.
Carnaval takes place in the week before Lent, usually in February. This is the biggest festival in Ecuador. Frenzied water fights in which nobody is spared are an Ecuadorian specialty. The people of Cuenca in the south seem particularly fond of soaking each other. The only way to save yourself a drenching is to stay indoors or go to the central-highland town of Ambato, where water throwing was banned because it became too rough. Instead, a festival of fruit and flowers takes place in Ambato in the last two weeks of February. On March 4, the annual Peach Festival is a wonderful sight to witness in Gualaceo, close to Cuenca. The peaches are, by the way, fantastic.
Following Carnaval, the next big celebration is for Semana Santa (Holy Week). This begins on Palm Sunday, a week before Easter Sunday, when people throughout Ecuador buy palm fronds in the market and weave them into ornaments. The processions of frond-wielding faithful emerging from churches at this time are particularly memorable. During Semana Santa religious processions are held throughout the country. The colorful Good Friday procession in Quito is regarded as the most spectacular with penitents and flagellants dragging crosses through the streets. Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Saturday are all public holidays.
After Easter, the town of Riobamba goes a bit loco on April 21, marking the Battle of Tapi with an agricultural fair and the usual street-concerts and merriment at around the same time. In June, Corpus Christi is celebrated in many central highland towns usually on the ninth Thursday after Easter. Combining pre-Christian harvest celebrations, it's a major festival in the Cotopaxi and Tungurahua provinces (south of Quito) and elsewhere. Ornate masks and headdresses are sometimes worn and a dance procession takes place from Salasaca to Pelileo near Baños.
June also marks the revered Festival of Saint John the Baptist (San Juan Bautista) on the 24th. The famous weaving town of Otavalo (north of Quito) and its surrounding villages particularly shut down to enjoy the proceedings. There's dancing in the streets during the nights leading up to festival day, and on its eve people dress in the strangest of costumes, from blond gringos to cartoon characters. Ritual battles and stone throwing take place outside the town in which people have been known to get injured or even killed. The festival may have originated as a pre-Inca solstice celebration.
On the heels of San Juan come San Pedro and San Pablo (Saint Peter and Saint Paul) on June 28 and 29. These tend to merge with the Saint John the Baptist Festival in parts of Imbabura Province. Bonfires are lit in the streets on the festival eve. Some areas associate themselves with Saint John, some with Saint Peter and others with Saint Paul. Saint Peter is the patron saint of Cayambe, a town north of Quito, close to the volcano of the same name, where there are big parades and a ceremony for the "delivery of roosters," a throwback to feudal times. Similar fiestas, which probably originated as harvest celebrations, take place in other parts of the highlands such as southern Chimborazo Province.
On July 25, the boisterous coastal city of Guayaquil marks its foundation with wild celebrations in the city, including beauty pageants, fireworks and parades that combine with the previous day's national holiday (the birthday of Simón Bolívar), while on a moveable date in early September, the Fiesta del Yamor takes place in the Otavalo area with plenty of razzle and dazzle and the election of a Fiesta Queen.
Probably the country's most famous fiesta is held on September 23-24 for La Fiesta de la Mamá Negra in Latacunga, also known as the Fiesta de La Virgen de las Mercedes. Men dress up as women and blacken their faces and there's much dancing and drinking in the streets. Two weeks later there's yet another big parade in honor of Mamá Negra, which some people regard as the more authentic of the two.
All Souls' Day on November 2, is marked by the laying of flowers and gifts in cemeteries and lighting candles in honor of ancestors. Following this comes a slew of city-festivals, including Cuenca Independence Day on November 3, Latacunga's on November 11 with parades and a bullfight, Loja's on November 18, which extends for a week of festivities and cultural events, and finally Quito's Foundation Day is celebrated in the first week of the December. Bullfights take place at the Plaza de Toros - local indígenas aren't much interested in the historical implications of this festival. Following this, the lively annual Baños Festival takes place around December 16 (townspeople also pay homage to their local saint in October).
Christmas is obviously a good time for parties, though people tend to enjoy themselves en famille, and there aren't many particular festivals. Leading up to New Year's Eve, effigies are burned in the streets.