Carnival is a Catholic holiday that has blended with Andean traditions to become a huge festival. The idea is to express as much craziness as possible before the reflective period of Lent, called Cuaresma in Ecuador. Most Andean communities celebrate Carnival in a small way, with neighborhood parties and lots of troublemaking.
Most of the rabble-rousing is good fun and harmless. Be prepared for lots of espuma or carioca, party foam that will fly at the least expected moments. A more affordable option is water and many people will arm themselves with water guns or toss buckets full of water from rooftops, open windows, and doorways at passersby. The worst is the colored flour. Brightly tinted bread flour is tossed into hair and onto clothing. If you are already wet with party foam or water, the flour becomes immediate sludge, almost impossible to remove.
Most of the negative stories about Carnival in Ecuador come from ill-prepared tourists who came to see the fun and but did little to protect themselves or their expensive camera gear. If you must photograph, consider bringing waterproof or water resistant equipment or some kind of plastic layer of protection. And maybe walk the streets holding an umbrella to act as a shield. No one is safe, especially not tourists who stick out like sore thumbs.
Drinking is just a part of Carnival. In fact, many parade participants will start drinking before the parade even begins. During the parade, it is not uncommon to find chicha de jora, a fermented drink made from corn, shared along the route. One of the more famous towns to celebrate Carnaval is Guaranda, home to the infamous white liquor called Pajaro Azul, or Blue Bird. It should come as no surprise that this town is also known for the wildest celebrations.
Check community calendars to confirm the days and times of local parades. Some communities will offer more than one, with the tamest taking place in the earliest days of the long weekend and the wildest usually taking place on Monday. No one wants a hangover on Wednesday morning so Tuesday events are tempered with a little moderation.
Most parades are full of music and dancing, with wildly happy participants enjoying the craziness of the day. Floats are common in only the biggest towns though even the smallest will have at least one truck or two blaring music from loudspeakers. The bands playing Andean songs on traditional instruments are the best but many musicians don’t want to chance damaging their prized possessions on this wild day.
Some parades, like those in Ambato and Quito, celebrate cultures across Ecuador. Those in the Chimborazo region in small towns like Guamote and Guaranda are heavily focused on mountain cultures of the Quichua. People from surrounding communities come to participate, each wearing a distinctive style of dress that others recognize merely from a change in the style of skirt or hat or even shawl.
While these parades can be lots of fun, don’t become complacent while watching. At any moment, you can become a target of the rabble-rousing crowd!