Accounts of Carnaval in the Central Highlands

Headshot of Elise Fuente.
Elise Fuente
March 2, 2023
Parade in Guaranda

Every year in mid-February, essentially all of South America breaks out into a huge party.  It’s Carnaval, the weekend before Lent (which corresponds to Mardi Gras in the US), and we got a whole five days off to celebrate.  A group of six friends and I got on a bus late Friday night and headed to Ambato, a city three hours south of Quito where they have an annual festival of Flowers and Fruits.  We rented an Airbnb and spent all of Saturday enjoying the festivities—the street fairs, the massive floats covered in flowers, fruit, and bread, the concerts, the parades.  The city was full of people celebrating the holiday, and we marveled at all the energy. The best part—a low-key blues concert in the evening and a Merengue show at night which attracted what felt like the whole town, dancing in the streets under fireworks. 

The next day we woke up and enjoyed the huge street parade with dozens and dozens of dancers, bands, and beautiful floats covered in flowers. Every group felt the same but different in a way, and we stayed for hours without getting bored.  At around midday we left to catch a bus to Guaranda, a small town about an hour and a half south, which has the most famous Carnaval festivities in Ecuador. The bus was packed with people heading in to celebrate.  When we got off the bus, we searched for a place to eat lunch while trying to avoid getting sprayed with the infamous foam everyone was carrying, but most of us weren’t spared.  Soon after we ate we joined the festivities, putting our raincoats on tight and dodging the foam, water, and flour that everyone was throwing.  I quickly got soaked, and then joyfully took in everything coming my way. I’ll never forget opening my arms to a little kid across the street, who laughed at me and gleefully sprayed me with his water gun. Or the people that watched us from their balconies and threw water balloons and buckets on the street as we walked by. It was like an entire town was in on a game at the childhood playground. 

Although we had plans to stay in another town that night, we soon realized we didn’t want to leave Guaranda.  We had made friends as we were enjoying the festivities, and they kindly offered to help us find a place to stay in the next town over, about twenty minutes south.  A couple of us went with them to find a hostel, and then we all reconvened later that night at a concert. It was crowded and chaotic, and even though we didn’t get to see much of the show, the energy of the venue was still exciting.  When it ended, we hopped into the bed of our friends’ pickup truck and rode through the wind to the town we were staying, still managing to get sprayed by foam. 

The next day we went back into Guaranda to enjoy more festivities. At that point, we were totally drenched, in not just rain, but foam, water, and flour that when mixed, caked all of our hair in gooey dough. I went into the trip unsure if I even wanted to come to Guaranda because of all this mess, but I ended up absolutely loving it.  We immediately made friends with all the people spraying us and it turned out to feel like just one big block party in the streets.  It still amazes me how nice people were in Guaranda, and making friends so quickly amongst all the chaos was easily the best part of the trip. 

That night some of my friends went back to Quito while four of us stayed so we could visit Volcán Chimborazo the following day, the highest peak in Ecuador.  As we rode on the bus that evening, the volcano peeked through the clouds and towered above us at sunset. We were absolutely stoked to get even closer the next day. 

We arrived in Riobamba that night, the town that hosts all the Chimborazo tourists, and it was completely empty—a huge contrast to the vibrant cities we had just visited. I immediately showered to get all the dried dough that was still in my hair from earlier that day, and we soon left for dinner. The hotel staff told us nothing was open near us, but we decided to give it a shot anyway, to no avail. After knocking on the door of a store that appeared open but had no one in sight, the owner eventually showed up and confirmed that there were indeed no restaurants open. We decided to call a taxi to take us somewhere else in town, until the store owner offered to drive us himself in his own taxi.  We arrived in the town center where we enjoyed some fried chicken before heading back and resting up for our hike. 

We headed to the bus station early the next morning to catch a ride to the park entrance, only to find out there were no buses running there because of holiday scheduling changes.  Luckily a taxi offered to take us there for a reasonable price, and we hopped in, making our way up the bumpy roads as it proceeded to rain.  By the time we got to the entrance, it was raining even harder and everything was cloudy.  By the time we got to the trailhead, that rain turned to snow.  It was only a short hike to the first mountain hut, the farthest point you could hike without a guide, and even though I was seriously considering saying we should only go a little ways, I just kept my mouth shut. We were here. I was just going to enjoy the snow and see how far we’d make it. The hike to the mountain hut was indeed short, but being over 16,000 feet high, I was certainly feeling the altitude.  It was the highest I had ever been and despite the crazy weather, I was thrilled when we got there.  We enjoyed plantain chips and Oreos outside the mountain hut and then hiked up a couple hundred more feet to a small puddle, where we threw snowballs at each other, sang songs, and marveled at how in tropical Ecuador, we were surrounded by snow. 

The hike down was quick and the drive was rough, but we soon made it back to town where it was at least 10 degrees warmer and vendors were selling coconuts on the street. A crazy change of scenery to experience that quick.  The whole weekend went a little bit like that.  We bounced from town to town, experiencing so many different sites that four days felt like weeks.  It was a wild way to experience Carnaval, from the composed fruit and flower festival in Ambato, to the free reign street parties in Guaranda, to the bumpy roads and chilly snow of Chimborazo.  Although I would expect nothing less from a Carnaval in Ecuador—a small country that feels like it has a million different worlds in one.

Headshot of Elise Fuente.

Elise Fuente

My name is Elise Fuente and I'm a senior at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. I'm studying International Affairs with a concentration in International Development and I have a keen interest in Latin America. I'm studying in Quito after a semester in Buenos Aires and I hope to keep exploring the region as much as possible! I have passion for sustainability, service, languages, and the outdoors, but sometimes I still dream about being a chef. :)

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