By Mark Bradbury
We are talking about fiestas, or parties, here in Ecuador this month. With some major holidays coming up, it’s a good time to tell you all what might be happening over the next couple of months. So, put on your costumes, buy a turkey, trim your tree, and buy the champagne! It is officially Party Season in Ecuador!
Every expat that I have met since coming here always wants to know about the holidays and their celebrations. Ecuador has quite a few holidays, called feriados in Spanish, that North Americans do not know anything about. They are usually national days, commemorated for their historical significance to Ecuador’s evolution as a country. We recently had a 3-day weekend here to celebrate the Independence of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city. For our local neighbors, it was a big tourist weekend, but for the expats it was just another weekend.
No disrespect intended, but sadly, too many who come here to live do not embrace the culture and the history of our great host country. Go back in time a couple hundred years, and all of South and Central America were colonized by Spain, Portugal, and a handful of other European countries. These European countries came here to take whatever they could from the land and its people; it was not an enjoyable time in the history of what would become Ecuador.
So, when the people here celebrate a day like the Independence of Guayaquil from Spain, it is a very big deal. Very shortly we will be celebrating the Independence of Cuenca, another key battle in the fight for Ecuadorian independence. Anyone coming here to live should learn some of the history that makes Ecuador what it is today, so that you can at least understand the significance of those long weekends.
For most of us living here one of the questions I see all the time concerns Halloween. People want to know if the holiday is celebrated here, and it is, it’s simply different than what you might be used to. The streets aren’t full of kids in costumes going door-to-door, that is not done here. Not that thousands of kids would not like to go out and get a bag full of candy, but that is not the custom here.
Halloween is more of an adult thing here. Because of the American influence, there are parties and social gatherings in most cities and towns, especially where there is an expat presence. Here in Manta, there are several parties happening and most of them involve adult beverages. Like Cinco de Mayo in the US, Halloween has become a reason for a party, so that is something you can look forward to if dressing up and partying is something you like!
On October 31, Ecuador celebrates its National Coat of Arms; called El Día del Escudo Nacional. It is a day of national pride; Halloween is but a whisper. Although Halloween plays a very minor role here, the Day of the Dead, or El Día de los Difuntos in Spanish, is a huge event across the country. Celebrated on November 2, it is a day of remembrance and respect for the people who have passed on. Thousands of people go to the cemeteries to visit the graves of their loved ones, and some spend the entire day there, meeting and mingling with other family members and friends.
It is this day, along with the Cuenca Independence celebration, that makes up a long 4-day weekend across the country. Traveling can become exceedingly difficult, but millions of Ecuadorians make the trip back to visit family and thousands of people come to the coast to enjoy the beaches of Manta and other towns along the Manabi Province coastline. It is a very busy time in all the tourist areas of Ecuador, and for the Ecuadorians, it is the last holiday before Christmas.
Wait! What do you mean, the last holiday until Christmas? What about Thanksgiving? Well, turkey day is not a holiday in Ecuador. If you remember your history lessons, the Pilgrims were from Plymouth, Massachusetts, and what they did has no meaning here.
But that doesn’t mean there are not any Thanksgiving Day dinners and parties! Again, because of the expat presence, there are usually quite a few opportunities for us all to go out and celebrate the day. I have gone to a Thanksgiving dinner somewhere in each of the seven years I have lived here. There is a large expat group in Manta that hosts a dinner at one of the beachside restaurants, and the restaurant does an excellent job of cooking a traditional meal, complete with cranberry sauce! It is an event I look forward to every year, as do many friends here in Manta.
If you love Christmas, you will discover that most people here do, also. Just like the United States (and everywhere else probably), the stores and malls start decorating and selling Christmas things in August and September. It is crazy, but it is Christmas! Our beautiful mall here in Manta, the Mall del Pacifico, does a spectacular job decorating each year, and thousands of people come to Manta just to see it!
Santa Claus doesn’t live here; in Ecuador, he is called Papa Noel, and his presence is nothing like what Santa is in the US, but he is still representative of Christmas. As a country where 95% of the population is Roman Catholic, there is much more attention to celebrating the religious aspect of the holiday.
People still shop for gifts during December, but there never seems to be the pressure of gift buying. Black Friday, although promoted in a few places, has not taken off like it has in the United States. Generally, we could all learn a lot from our Ecuadorian neighbors; they are a much more laid-back society and take the time to enjoy their special moments.
There are many restaurants offering special Christmas dinners and many expats host Christmas dinners for friends. You will have multiple choices for your menu, as well. In Manta, we are surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, so great seafood is part of the celebration in many restaurants and homes.
No matter where you are in this world, New Year’s Eve is a terrific celebration, and Ecuador is no different. I have spent time at parties on the beach, where much of the action happens along the coast, and to say it was exciting does not scratch the surface! Something new to me on my first New Year’s Eve was the burning of paper mache effigies. They are called “monigotes” in Spanish and they are sold on the streets of the cities and towns everywhere.
Some of the monigotes I have seen are huge, but most of them are 2-3 feet high. They are usually cartoon characters or politicians, but I have seen so many different things. The custom here is to burn a monigote to wash away the bad memories and experiences of the previous year. It is a ritual purging of bad vibes and helps you to start the new year off on a good foot.
The burning of the monigotes is done just before midnight. People will start bonfires on the beach, or even in the street, and they will toss their monigote into the fire, hooting and hollering as the effigy catches fire. I was on a beach one time where the flames of the bonfires lit up the beach for at least ten miles. It was amazing!
But when the clock strikes twelve, watch out! The firework displays in every direction are incredible! I lived in a condominium tower for a few years and going up on the roof to watch the fireworks was a fun event! Most of the people in my building who weren't out partying somewhere else were on the roof celebrating with us. It was a very enjoyable night!
New Year’s Day is normally a day for family dinners and quiet conversation. Most of the businesses close for the day, including the mall. It is a time when the local people just relax and catch their breath.
So, if you are contemplating a move to Ecuador, you’ll have plenty to celebrate! Things might be a little different than what you are used to, but you can still have all the fun you want. Come to Manta! It’s a wonderful place to celebrate!