Last year, I went to one of the most exciting parades in Ecuador, Carnaval 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.
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.
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. Diablos Humas, men wearing two-faced devil masks made of heavy, bright-colored fabrics stomp their 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.
Be warned. Carnaval in Guamote comes with some standard practices that surprise, and sometimes shock, visitors. You are almost guaranteed to get sprayed with party foam, or 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, look out. 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.
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. The truth is, there are some places we are not welcome and the locals in those areas would prefer to keep their festivals private. But I have good news about Carnaval in Guamote. They encourage tourists, both national and international, to come to this event! The invitation for this year is 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.
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. If you’re not prepared to be hit, it’s time to go. We leave less because we are worried about ourselves and more because we don’t want our camera equipment to be targeted. To play it safe, we did wrap our cameras and lenses in plastic and used filters to protect the glass on our lens. We also got quick about tucking cameras into our jackets when some of the worst foam was aimed in our direction. And 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 to go by, and more and more chicha is imbibed, the more likely the colored flour is to make an appearance.