The Carnaval in Ecuador
What do lime green or electric blue baking flour, water guns, soapy foam spray, big parades, costume parties, eggs, and more water have to do with Ecuador? If you don’t know the answer to this question, the chances are that you have never been here for Carnaval. You certainly would have found out unless you hid under a local rock when the partying started.
Carnaval is one of the most celebrated holidays on the Ecuadorian calendar, and usually takes place during February or early March. It is a very large party, held all over the country, and celebrated in a variety of diverse ways. But before we get into that, let’s look at some of the legends and history behind it.
Most historians link it to the ancient Romans, who celebrated a feast by partying to their God Saturn in December of every year. He was known as the god of time and plenty, and was generally recognized for regeneration. The Romans feasted and danced their way through this celebration until Christianity began to take over throughout the Empire.
In medieval Europe, the idea of a celebration before the Lenten period started to take hold, and first appeared in Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was said to be a rebirth of the Saturnian feasts. The new celebration spread throughout Europe and was adopted by most of the Catholic monarchies on the continent. The royalty held masquerade balls, and hosted hundreds of their subjects for sumptuous meals and unique events.
So when French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian explorers came to the Americas, they brought the idea with them. The first official celebration was declared by a Frenchman who discovered and settled Mobile (now Alabama, but then part of the French colony of Louisiane) and proclaimed that there should be a celebration on that Tuesday, since Ash Wednesday started the next day.
That was the first “Mardi Gras” celebration in the New World. It happened on March 2nd, 1699 and the world has not stopped partying since! New Orleans, south of Mobile, not only adopted the party, but it is now recognized as the largest festival anywhere in North America!
But here in South America? Well, we all should know that the biggest Carnaval celebration is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Their highlights for Carnaval include huge parades, fireworks, magnificent costumes, and food; lots of foods and drinks! And crazy people in the streets! It is a wild party for several days, but culminates on Tuesday night, like everywhere else.
So, what does this all have to do with Ecuador? Carnaval is celebrated in almost every corner of this country, and it is quite different in some places. There are some things that tie the partying together across Ecuador. Question number one? Yes, lime green or electric blue baking flour, water guns, soapy foam spray, big parades, costume parties, eggs, and more water occur and are used throughout this tiny country.
Carnaval was brought to Ecuador as a Christian (Catholic) observance to feast and party before the Lenten period started the next day. In the Sierra, an indigenous tribe named the Huarangas had been observing their own feasting period during the second full moon of the new year. The Huarangas threw flowers, water, and flour at each other as part of their celebration. Their traditions soon mixed with the Spanish interpretation, and the two became the basis for much of what happens to this day. The first recorded incidence of a Carnaval celebration came during the 1860’s, when it was reported that people on the Coast had water fights, while the Andean people threw flour at each other.
Let’s fast forward to what is happening now!
In 2019 I moved to Manta and experienced my first Carnaval. I was a bit disappointed, because I did not feel a major party vibe here in the city. People were out celebrating and dancing in the discos and clubs here, but there was not much else going on. I got excited to hear that there was going to be a parade on the Malecon, but my friends and I were left wanting more. Overall, Carnaval 2019 was a bummer; I had expected so much, but not much happened.
Manta Alcalde (Mayor) Agustin Intriago changed all that in 2020. The mayor was on a mission to prove to people everywhere that Manta was a first-class destination, both for visiting, and for living. He had been initiating new projects all over the city, and building tourism was one of his top priorities! He went at Carnaval with a vengeance!
It would be impossible for me to remember everything that happened here in the week leading up to Tuesday night, but there was never a shortage of events going on throughout Greater Manta. It was incredible!
The three events that I remember well were the concerts on the beaches of Manta. Some top talent from around the country was booked for these events, and the people responded! The first was a concert on Friday night that was staged on Tarqui Beach.
The crowd for that concert was an estimated 60,000 people! I was shocked when I saw the numbers, but after looking at the photos, I was a believer. The group, Gente de Zona, was an extremely popular feature act throughout the country. But the next night, something happened that most of us could not believe.
On Saturday night at Murcielago Beach in Manta, 100,000 people showed up to hear and watch Ecuadorian crooner, Sebastian Yatra, perform live at the beach. The photos of this event still make me shake my head in disbelief; there were so many people in every direction that it almost seemed like the photos weren’t real, but they were. My partner Irina, her daughter Naty, and a bunch of their friends were part of the crowd and had an incredible experience at this concert! No, I was not there!
Just in case there was still some energy left to party, there was a DJ Blast on San Mateo Beach on Sunday afternoon that drew a crowd of 40,000 plus revelers. The party featured three big-name DJs from around Ecuador, and some locals as well, who rocked the beach for five or six hours.
But that was 2020! Three weeks later Ecuador was shut down due to a new virus called COVID-19. The virus was spreading all over the world, and heavy infections in Quito and Guayaquil made living there an extremely dangerous event. The virus became a hard reality here on the Coast, to the extent that Mayor Intriago became infected and had to be moved to a hospital in Guayaquil. Because of their exceptional care, he was able to recover and come home to a hero’s welcome here in Manta. But the virus continued to take lives throughout Manta and Manabi Province, as it had in every other city and town in Ecuador.
There was no Carnaval celebration to speak of last year; if there was anything, it was a virtual presentation at best. 2020 became a nightmare, and 2021 followed with a similar performance. Towards the end of 2021, things began to look better for all of us. Because of the arduous work by the Ecuadorian health authorities, and the acceptance of the vaccines by a large majority of the people living here. Ecuador has reached an 85% vaccination rate, and is offering free boosters to everyone who wants one.
Despite all that, the newest and most contagious strain of COVID-19, the Omicron variant, has swept through Ecuador like a hurricane, and it only took about a month to put us back in danger. We are all hoping to get through this soon, but nobody has a crystal ball. Nobody knows where or when the next variant will show up; we are just hoping to keep ourselves safe and healthy.
And so, what do I think about Carnaval 2022? As I write this, it is the middle of January and I have not seen anyone talking about Carnaval events. To not be talking about Carnaval when it is a month away tells me that there probably isn’t going to be any public celebrations. Anything that does happen will more than likely be an online, virtual performance; I certainly don’t see public events on this year's menu. We are all going to have to hope for the best over the next few months and keep the Carnaval flames burning!
Two straight years of no Carnaval celebrations is going to take a toll on all of us! People here, and across Ecuador, will be ready to party like we have probably never witnessed before! Because if there is a huge fiesta, you can bet that beating COVID-19 will have a lot to do with the celebration! “Party like it’s 1999,” by Prince, will be replaced with, “Party like it’s 2023!” I hope we will all be here to sing in harmony!