Ecuador has a long tradition of festivals and fiestas, dating from well before the arrival of the Spanish. Many of the indigenous festivals, celebrating, for example, the movements of the sun and the harvests, became incorporated into the Christian tradition, resulting in a syncretism of Catholic religious imagery and older indigenous beliefs. Most national holidays mark famous events in post-Conquest history and the standard festivals of the Catholic Church.
Whether public holiday or fiesta, Ecuadorians love a party and often go to much trouble and expense to ensure everyone enjoys a great spectacle, lubricated with plenty of food and drink. For most Ecuadorians the big fiestas are community-wide events that define local and national identity. If you get the chance, you should get to a fiesta at some point during your stay; these are among the most memorable and colourful expressions of Ecuadorian culture – not to mention plain good fun.
Carnaval is one of the more boisterous national festivals, culminating in an orgy of water fights before Lent. Local fiestas can also be fairly rowdy, and are reasonably frequent with even small places having two or three a year. Most towns and villages have a foundation day or a saint-day festival, and then maybe another for being the capital of the canton (each province is divided into several cantons). Provincial capitals enjoy similar festivals. You can expect anything at these celebrations: music, dance, food, plenty of drink, gaudy parades, beauty pageants, bullfights, marching bands, tournaments and markets. In the remoter highland communities, they can be very local, almost private affairs, yet they’ll usually always welcome the odd outsider who stumbles in with a few swigs from the chicha bucket. They’ll be much more wary of ogling, snap-happy intruders, who help themselves to food and drink – sensitivity is the key.
On public holidays just about all shops and facilities are closed all day.
New Year’s Day (Año Nuevo), January 1. Public holiday.
Epiphany (Reyes Magos), January 6. Celebrated mainly in the central highlands, most notably at Píllaro in Tungurahua, but also in Montecristi on the coast.
Carnival (Carnaval). The week before Lent is marked by nationwide high jinks, partying and water-throwing. Beach resorts can get packed to the gills. In Ambato, it’s celebrated by the grand Fiesta de las Frutas y las Flores, with parades, dancing, bullfights and sporting events – water-throwing is banned here. Two days’ public holiday.
Holy Week (Semana Santa). Religious parades take place across the country during Holy Week, when many shops and services close and lots of people head to the beach. The big processions in Quito are on Good Friday. Public holidays for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
Labour Day (Día del Trabajo), May 1. Public holiday.
Battle of Pichincha (La Batalla del Pinchincha), May 24. Public holiday commemorating a famous 1822 battle.
Corpus Christi A moveable festival sometime in mid-June, on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Celebrated in the central sierra, particularly Salasaca and Pujilí with danzates (masked dancers), wonderful costumes and, in the latter town, 5–10m poles people climb to get prizes at the top.
Festival of the Sun (Inti Raymi), June 21 and onwards. A pre-Conquest festival celebrated on the solstice at important ancient sites such as Cochasquí. Also subsumed into the Catholic festivals of San Juan, San Pedro and San Pablo, collectively known as “Los San Juanes” in the Otavalo and Cayambe regions.
San Juan June 24. John the Baptist’s saint day, celebrated particularly heartily in the Otavalo region, beginning with ritual bathing in Peguche and ending with tinku – ritual fighting – in San Juan on the outskirts of Otavalo (now discouraged). Outsiders should avoid these two activites, but there is plenty of music, drinking and dancing to take part in.
San Pedro and San Pablo June 29. Celebrated across the country, though particularly in Cayambe and the northern sierra.
Birthday of Simón Bolívar July 24. Countrywide celebration of the birth of El Libertador. Public holiday.
Foundation of Guayaquil July 25. The festivities here often blur with those of the previous day.
Independence Day (Día de la independencia) August 10. Public holiday commemorating the nation’s first independence (and thwarted) uprising in Quito in 1809.
Fetsival of the Virgin of El Cisne August 15. The effigy of the virgin is paraded 72km from El Cisne to Loja followed by thousands of pilgrims.
Yamor Festival A big shindig in Otavalo for the first two weeks of September.
Mama Negra de la Merced September 24. The religious one of two important fiestas in Latacunga, marked with processions and focusing on the Virgen de la Merced.
Independence of Guayaquil October 9. Big celebrations in Guayaquil. Public holiday.
Columbus Day (Día de la Raza), October 12. Marks the discovery of the New World. Rodeos held in Los Ríos, Guayas and Manabí provinces, an expression of muntuvio culture.
All Souls’ Day/Day of the Dead (Día de los Difuntos) November 2. Highland communities go to cemeteries to pay their respects with flowers, offerings of food and drink, and incantations. Colada morada, a sweet purple fruit drink, and guaguas de pan, bread figures, are eaten and drunk. Public holiday.
Independence of Cuenca November 3. The city’s largest celebration, which merges into the preceding holidays. Public holiday.
Mama Negra First Friday or Saturday of November. Famous fiesta in Latacunga with colourful parades and extravagant costumes, centred around the Mama Negra – a blacked-up man in woman’s clothing – thought to be related to the town’s first encounter with black slaves. Events continue up to November 11 celebrating the Independence of Latacunga.
Festival of the Virgin of El Quinche November 21. Pilgrims celebrate at the famous church outside Quito.
Foundation of Quito December 6. Festivities across the capital, with parades, dances, bullfights and sporting events. Public holiday.
Christmas Day (Navidad), December 25. Public holiday.
New Year’s Eve (Nochevieja), December 31. Años viejos, large effigies of topical figures representing the old years are burnt at midnight.