Some 20km south of the turn-off to Cotopaxi, LATACUNGA (2800m) is a charming, mid-sized market town huddled on the east bank of the Río Cutuchi. With its handsome, colonial-style buildings and bustling streets, it makes an agreeable base from which to organize forays into this part of the sierra, in particular to the not-to-miss crater lake at Quilotoa, or to the hectic indigenous market in nearby Saquisilí. It also makes an alternative launchpad for trips to Cotopaxi, well catered for by the town’s tour operators. If your visit coincides with either of the town’s two famous and colourful Mama Negra fiestas, one on September 24 and the other on the weekend before November 11, you’ll be treated to a riotous display of parades and street dancing. Otherwise, Latacunga’s charms are a good deal more sedate, and can be enjoyed in an afternoon’s wander around town.
Despite its colonial look, most of Latacunga’s architecture dates from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century – a fact owed to Cotopaxi’s repeated and devastating eruptions, which have seen the town destroyed and rebuilt five times since its foundaiton in 1534, most recently in 1877. The focal point of town is the Parque Vicente León, a leafy square enclosed by iron railings that is locked after dark. A cathedral, with whitewashed walls both inside and out, dominates the south side, while the austere municipio flanks the east side. A couple of blocks north the twin-towered Iglesia Santo Domingo is the most impressive of the town’s churches, with its Grecian pillars and extravagantly painted interior covered with swirling blue, green and gold designs. Right in front of it, on the little Plazoleta de Santo Domingo, you’ll find a small artesanía market selling knitwear, shigras and other souvenirs (closed Thurs & Sun).
A twenty-minute bus ride northwest of Latacunga, SAQUISILÍ is a quiet, slightly ramshackle little town that explodes into life with its market – one of the biggest in the highlands – every Thursday morning. It fills seven plazas, each one specializing in different types of goods. There’s an extraordinary breadth of merchandise for sale, supplying just about every consumer need of the hundreds of indígenas who journey here from all over the central sierra. Lining the pavements are mountains of vegetables balanced on wooden crates, sacks full of grain, mounds of fluorescent yarns used for weaving shawls, kitchen utensils, finely woven baskets and curiosities, including stuffed animals from the Oriente. Also on Thursday, about a ten-minute walk north of the centre, dozens of sheep, cows, pigs and the odd llama exchange hands in the animal market (before dawn to around 10am), dotted with women clutching tangled cords attached to squealing piglets.
Away from the market, the church on the main square is worth a look. Its original facade has been preserved, but everything behind it was replaced in the 1970s – the interior is quite striking, with its brightly painted windows, blue-and-white metal roof and minimalist altar. Otherwise, there’s little else to do in Saquisilí, and nothing to draw you here outside market day.
- The Quilotoa loop
Mama Negra fiestas
Mama Negra fiestas
A highlight of the Latacunga year is its renowned Mama Negra fiestas, commemorated twice in religious and secular festivals within a few weeks of each other. The fiesta is thought to have derived from the expulsion of the Moors from Spain or the astonishment of the local indígenas on seeing black people (the slaves that the Spanish had brought here to work in nearby mines) for the first time. The colourful religious celebration (also called the Santísima Tragedia) is held on September 24, with brightly costumed paraders and various mischief-making characters: the white-robed huacos, the whip-wielding camisonas, and the belle of the ball, a blacked-up man gaudily dressed as a woman – the Mama Negra. In the midst of this, the focus is supposedly the Virgin of the Iglesia de la Merced (known as Our Lady of the Volcano because she is believed to have saved the city many times from Cotopaxi’s eruptions), who is paraded through the town and up to El Calvario, the concrete monument on the hill to the east of town. The flamboyant secular Mama Negra festival usually begins on the Saturday before November 11 (though the big parades have been scheduled for the Friday in recent years to discourage excessive drinking) and features the same cheerful costumes and characters, marching bands and street dancing. The festive mood continues with cultural events and bullfights until November 11, the day of Latacunga’s independence.