Rumor has it that Carnaval in Guaranda has the best parade in all of Ecuador. Last year, 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.
In the United States, the only day we hold big parades for Carnaval 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 Carnaval in Guaranda on the Saturday before Mardi Gras. 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.
When we drove into town, we knew something was going on. Traffic was at a near standstill. So we decided to find a place to park and follow the crowd walking into town. And I’m glad we did. We started walking with most of the crowd and could see the city below us, looking calm and serene. But the noise was already starting to creep up the hillside, music from the parade starting below.
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.
And with all the excitement of the parade, I had as much fun people watching. We were some of the only international tourists around and 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. And I saw a mixture of modernity and tradition that is uniquely Andean. I have found it in Ecuador, in Peru, and in Bolivia, in equal measure. Festivals are the best places to observe it.
And there was the obligatory carioca, or party foam. If you have never attended Carnaval in Guaranda, or anywhere else in the Sierra of Ecuador, 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 Carnaval favorite.
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.
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 Carnaval in Guaranda offers visitors. Their big event takes place on Shrove Tuesday (aka Fat Tuesday and Mardi Gras).
If you would like to check out Carnaval in Guaranda’s their schedule for 2017, it is available online. This year, nothing is scheduled for the Saturday before but there is a parade on Fat Tuesday, February 21 and a smaller parade for school children on Monday, February 20. If you go, make sure to share your pictures with us on our Facebook page!