In 2016, I went to one of the most exciting parades in Ecuador, Carnival in Guamote. It takes place the Monday before Fat Tuesday. Hundreds of people come from the surrounding mountain communities to either take part in the parade or to watch it. It’s a celebration of Andean culture like none I have ever seen.
Where is Guamote, Ecuador?
Guamote is a small town not far from Riobamba in the Chimborazo Province. To get there, we drove through quiet towns, hillsides patchworked with farmland, and fields full of llamas. The town is very close to the oldest church in all of Ecuador, La Balbanera, founded in 1534. After almost 500 years, the blending of Catholic and Andean native cultures is so matter-of-fact that locals very often don’t see the difference between the two.
Carnival in Guamote Is a Community Affair!
If you want some insight into Andean culture, this parade will definitely provide it. Guitarists and accordion players fill the streets with the strong, rhythmic sounds of Andean music, a drummer occasionally joining in the fun. Paired dancers take well-practiced steps, the men holding their shoulders straight and proud, the women curtseying and twirling around them.
Groups of women in swirling skirts, necks heavy with beads, shoulders covered in woolen shawls, dance in step along the cobbled street. Diablo Huma, a two-faced demon masked in heavy, bright-colored fabrics stomps its way down the street. Occasionally a man or woman will greet the crowd with a pitcher of chicha, a drink made from fermented corn, and offer ladlefuls from a single cup of a hollowed gourd. The wildness begins to take on a life of its own.
Carnival in Guamote, Prepare For Action
Be warned. Carnival in Guamote comes with some standard practices that surprise and sometimes shock visitors. You are almost guaranteed to get sprayed with party foam, called carioca. Foam is mostly sprayed by parade watchers towards the parade itself, but there are no rules, and if someone thinks you look like a good target, lookout.
If you stand next to a wall or a building with an open window, or even just walk by too closely, you may get water dropped on your head or a water gun aimed in your direction. Just standing and watching the parade might get you plastered with colored flour and water… this one isn’t so much fun. None of this is meant to be mean. In fact, you should take it as a compliment… the locals are including you in the fun. If you don’t like the idea of becoming a target, don’t go to this parade.
However, if you want to take part in the fun, there will be plenty of carioca for sale on the streets.
A Carnival Welcoming to Tourists
Sometimes when international tourists like ourselves attend a cultural festival in Ecuador, we feel unwelcome. We get the side-eye or people stare at us, without smiling. We wish we would have known beforehand that should have stayed away.
The truth is, there are some places we are not welcome and the locals in those areas would prefer to keep their festivals private. We get that.
But I have good news about Carnival in Guamote. They encourage tourists, both national and international, to come to this event! In 2017, they offered this invitation on their website:
El tradicional carnaval indígena Guamoteño, declarado parte del Patrimonio Cultural Intangible de Ecuador en la provincia de Chimborazo, invita a turistas nacionales y extranjeros a las actividades que organiza la localidad para celebrar este feriado de carnaval.
Follow Your Instincts
If you’re reading this article, there is a good chance you are a an adventurous traveler. You’ll under stand that our rule of thumb at events like this is to leave when the fun is just on the edge of going too far.
When you see the colored flour aimed at the family standing just down the street… you might be the next target
To play it safe for this event, we did wrap our cameras in plastic and used filters to protect the lenses. We also developed rapid reflexes to tuck our cameras into our jackets when the worst carioca was aimed in our direction (and yes, we definitely became targets!).
Fortunately, there is a definite build-up to the excitement. When you first arrive, the parade is fairly low key but as more and more dancers go by, and more and more chicha is imbibed, the more likely you will become a target of some of the fun.
If you’re not prepared to be hit, it’s time to go. If your warning bells are different than our own, that’s okay. We merely ask that you take situational awareness into account.
Above all else, enjoy! This festival provides a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in an Ecuadorian Andean tradition.