When I first moved to my Ecuadorian home nestled at 3,550 meters in the breathtaking (literally) Andes, I was pleasantly surprised by how “tranquilo” life was. In comparison to the coastal culture, Sierran culture was respectful, simple and in harmony with nature. There was no one to blast music at 5 am, cat call me from the streets or party in excess. My town shuts down by 8 pm and most people rise by 4:30 am to milk the cows and tend to their crops. The central plaza is clean, you can walk at night without fear, and the locals learn your name greeting you each time you cross paths. For several months I let this sleepy village lull me into a peaceful, calm trance.
And then Carnaval came to town.
Every February for two weeks my village wakes up in a big way. The Bolivar Province, where Salinas de Guaranda is located, is known to be the birthplace of the Carnaval in Ecuador. As a result, the region throws one of the biggest parties. Traditions include spraying foam at strangers, throwing water at strangers, parades, dancing, dancing horses in parades, throwing powdered dye and eating a lot of guinea pigs. Carnaval is bigger than Christmas here in Ecuador and its theme song “Que Bonito Es Carnaval” starts playing everywhere about a month before the fiesta begins.
On the first day of celebrations I quickly realized that my chill countryside lifestyle was about to be shattered. I shared a roasted guinea pig with my elderly group. The rodent’s vacant eyes stared at me and its teeth threatened to cut my trembling hands as I raised its halved body to my mouth. Guinea pig or “cuy” is considered an expensive specialty in Ecuador and it is usually served with a peanut sauce and potatoes for important occasions. I can confidently say that it was not the worst thing I have ever eaten, but I was more than happy to pass it off to Señora Rosa after a few bites.
Shortly thereafter I was dressed up in traditional indigenous attire and danced through the town. By the end of the two hour journey up and down the paved parts of the mountains, I was covered head to toe in foam, glitter and water. The sun was shining and the entire community was filled with life. People lined the roads laughing and drinking the anise flavored alcohol typical to the area. Kids dressed as clowns and cowboys skipped through the parade as the air filled with aromas of delicious street food. The music, fireworks and chatter bounced off the mountains and transformed the town. The party did not end after one day, but rather continued for a week leading up to the big events of Friday and Saturday.
Carnaval is a national holiday in Ecuador so about fifteen of my friends were able to make the trip to see what it was all about. My host family graciously offered to put us up in their second house located in the woods about a twenty minute walk outside of the town center. We settled into our new digs and huddled each other and our dogs for warmth. On the first night the pipes burst and being the travelers we are, we set to cleaning up the swimming pool that had been created on the first floor and boiling river water to use in case of emergency. What could have been a stressful experience was turned into an evening full of laughter and creative thinking thanks to the positive attitudes of everyone there. We fell asleep staring at the stars, joking and shivering.
The following day, after making a big brunch of pancakes for my host family to say thank you for their hospitality, we headed down to the little city of Guaranda, the capital of the province of Bolivar, to take part in the festivities. The parade was huge and water and foam wars broke out all along its route. Several of us were picked up, brought to a man with a giant bucket of icy water, and completely soaked. After our freezing bath we armed ourselves with foam canisters and set out to seek revenge. A few hours and several foam battles later we returned back to my site tired, freezing and covered in colored dye. My white dog had a spot of blue on his head that didn’t come out for days. Despite our exhaustion, the fiesta raged on.
The following day I performed with the foundation I work with in another parade. Each business, school and government organization put on their own dance. The normally deserted plaza was buzzing with visitors and locals drinking, eating and laughing. People walked around serving locally made delicacies like potatoes with cheese, pajaro azul (anise alcohol), and tigers milk (fresh milk mixed with sugar, rum, raw egg and pajaro azul). After my flamenco inspired performance, one of my friends informed me that the pipes in the house had burst yet again, and since the majority of the town was under the influence of Carnaval, it proved to be rather tricky to find someone to come and fix them… que bonito es Carnaval. Luckily we found the only non-intoxicated plumber in Salinas who, for the ripe fee of $20, was able to help us out.
The final day of Carnaval was relatively calm. Several people went hiking to see the salt mines (where the name “Salinas” comes from), and epic views from the cross. I returned the keys to my host family, washed the dye from my hair and turned-in my dance costumes to my counterpart. The occasional reveler could be seen stumbling down the road chasing after his horse but as the day turned to night and I sadly said goodbye to my fellow Peace Corps volunteers, Salinas seemed to effortlessly lull itself back to sleep.
All visitors are welcome next February to experience how bonito Carnaval really is… until then I will be in hibernation.