Rumor has it that Carnival in Guaranda has the best parade in all of Ecuador. In 2016, we decided to see if that was true. Of course, planning a trip for any cultural festival is complicated by the fact that very little information can be found online, even when you know the name of the town and the days the festival normally takes place.

A Queen of Carnival, Guaranda, Ecuador | ©Angela Drake

Understanding Carnival in Ecuador

In the United States, the only day we hold big parades for Carnival is on Shrove Tuesday. That’s when the big Mardi Gras festival takes place in cities like New Orleans. But in Ecuador, parades can take place in the weeks leading up to Fat Tuesday.

My research told me that there would be a gathering of dancers for Carnival in Guaranda on the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday. We woke up early Saturday morning and left Quito with the plan to arrive in Guaranda around 10:00 am. But we weren’t sure exactly what to expect.

The town of Guaranda with Andean Foothills in the background

Arriving in Guaranda

When we drove into town, we knew something was going on. Traffic was at a near standstill. After waiting a while, we decided to find a place to park and follow the crowd walking into town. We figured they knew where to go even though we didn’t. And I’m glad we did.

They took us on a route above the town where we could see the buildings spread out below, looking calm and serene. However, the noise was already starting to creep up the hillside. It must have been music from the parade starting below.

The Royal Court in a Carnival Parade

The Carnival Parade of Guaranda

We found the parade by following the noise and the people. The main street was full of twirling dancers in native costume. Some danced to bands strumming guitars or to accordion players tapping out music unique to the highlands of Ecuador. Others followed trucks with huge speakers hanging off the back, the music blaring for miles around.

Man and woman dancing in traditional costume, Carnaval in Guaranda, Ecuador
Guitar Player
Accordion Player, Carnaval in Guaranda, Ecuador
Carnival in Guaranda, Ecuador

The day was incredibly warm and it was apparent that many of the dancers were hot and tired. I actually purchased an umbrella on the parade route to shade myself from the hot, ecuatorial sun which can be punishing. I couldn’t imagine dancing at full tempo while also dressed in woolen shawls or ponchos, heavy wool hats, or chaps made of llama hide. Many dance troops took moments to drink from water bottles or paper cups, likely filled with chicha, a fermented drink found at Andean festivals. I was wishing I had brought my own!

People standing in shade of an umbrella
Man playing harmonica
Woman in red, wool shawl drinking from a paper cup

While I enjoyed all the excitement of the parade, I had as much fun watching the people watching the parade. I watched the parade over the shoulders of local women wearing wool hats with woven bands, blouses embroidered with bright colors, and woolen shawls. Across the way, I watched families with children look for their friends and family in the parade. Additionally, I saw a mixture of modernity and ancient tradition. I have found it in Ecuador, in Peru, and in Bolivia, in equal measure. I’ve learned that festivals are one of the best places to experience what is uniquely Andean!

Watching Carnival Parade
Family watching the parade, Carnaval in Guaranda, Ecuador

Look out, here comes the carioca!

Of course, there was the obligatory carioca, or party foam. If you have never attended Carnival in Guaranda, or anywhere else in the Ecuadorian Sierra, you might not know that tourists are usually warned away. Carnaval is a time for craziness.

Tourists are sometimes favorite targets for the cans and cans of party foam that are sprayed along the parade route at participants and viewers in equal measure. There are horror stories of cameras destroyed from flying water and colored flour, another Carnival favorite.

Carnival in Guaranda, Ecuador
Little girl with can of party foam, Carnaval in Guaranda, Ecuador
Little Boys with cans of party foam, Carnaval in Guaranda, Ecuador

We went prepared and brought plastic bags to cover expensive equipment and smiles on our faces to let people know that we knew that it was all in fun. And, for the most part, we were left alone. People tended to spray friends and family. Some of the parade participants were literally covered in what looked like white shaving cream.

Queen of Carnival, Carnival in Guaranda, Ecuador
Woman runs from foam spray,Carnival in Guaranda
Dancers in traditional costume

The After Party

After the parade was over and we made our way to the food stalls set up in a large plaza, we did have to watch out for water being thrown from windows out onto the street! One lucky hit with a bucket of water, and we would have had some very sad cameras. Fortunately, the umbrella I bought to protect myself from the sun also protected me from flying water from above.

After a couple of hours of fun, we headed out of town on to the next part of our adventure, to stay at a high mountain lodge on the slopes of Chimborazo.

We later learned that this parade was only a small taste of what Carnival in Guaranda offers visitors. Their big event takes place on Shrove Tuesday. Perhaps next time, we’ll make our return trip to experience Carnival in Guaranda on its namesake day.

City Panorama, Carnival in Guaranda, Ecuador