Trapped in a fiesta

“La Fiesta de la Mama Negra” is described by Wikipedia as “a well known traditional festival in Latacunga. It is a mixture of indigenous, Spanish and African influences. It takes place twice a year. The first one was organized in September by the people from the markets “La Merced y Del Salto” in honor of the “Virgen de la Merced”. The Virgin is venerated because she stopped the Cotopaxi Volcano eruption in 1742. That is the reason why Latacunga’s inhabitants call her “Abogada y patrona del volcan” meaning (lawyer and boss of the volcano).

The second celebration is a party which all Latacunga’s inhabitants celebrate every year on Independence Day. It is a parade with the participation of well-known people, the army, clergy and others.

Both of these fiestas include a lengthy parade of various cultural characters, all dressed-up in various colors. The ‘mama negra’ is the last person to pass through, which is the culmination of each parade. It is a person with their face painted in black, riding a horse, and spraying the crowd with milk. Homemade strong alcoholic drinks are freely passed between one another along the parade route, which can be quite chaotic, closing the road at times and making the route unpassable.”

The second celebration took place this past Saturday in Latacunga and we were there to experience it first hand.  In fact, we got a lot more than we bargained for.  On the advice of the hostel owner, we headed towards the parade site around 8:30; the parade was supposed to start at 9:00.  It was easy to find the main parade route which passed through several blocks as the roads were barricaded on both sides, and police presence was strong.  People were lining up plastic chairs and stools along both sides of the route, renting them out for two bucks a piece.  You could buy your own stool from any one of the dozens of stool vendors for $2.50 each.  Or you could just find a spot to stand. We walked along the route for a few blocks and found a good vantage point on a concrete step about a foot above street level. We parked ourselves there and waited.  As time passed, the area started to fill up with spectators and vendors selling knock-off Nike caps, sun hats, beer, snacks, and drinks.  Right in front of us, the Australian couple we met at the reserve in Mindo set up camp with their friends. They were equally surprised to see us, although I’m not too sure if they really remembered us.

Just before the parade began, our friends from the Galapagos cruise, Dafne and Jasper, walked right in front of us.  We couldn’t believe it.  We all had a good laugh about who was stalking who, because these were the friends we couldn’t seem to shake in Santa Cruz and ended up spending a lot of time with them.  When we said our goodbyes at the Baltra Airport, we believed that was the absolute final goodbye.  And here they were in Latacunga.  They were leaving in the afternoon to start the Quilotoa Loop, a 200 km route of rough and rugged roads that pass through beautiful, isolated mountain villages and hamlets, many of whose inhabitants cling to their ancient indigenous heritage and ways. There are several popular hiking trails along this route.

Finally, at about 11:30, the first characters in the parade passed by.  Over the next hour and a half, we saw marching bands, musicians, colorful dancers, a host of bizarre characters such as the Angel of the Stars, the Moorish King, as well as Los Huacos, who represent Latacunga’s pre-Colombian heritage, and the Camisonas, colorful transvestites.  Apparently the parade culminates in the arrival, on horseback, of the Mama Negra, the Black Mother, a combination of the Virgin with African deities. The Mama Negra, bearing dolls representing her “children,” is elaborately costumed and from a container sprays milk and water on the parade goers.  We didn’t stick around long enough to see the grand finale.

The parade characters tossed candy to the crowds, and shots of booze were handed out as well. Others didn’t bother with shot glasses and just poured booze down the throats of anyone willing.  After awhile, I observed a pattern to the parade:  First, there was a group of colourfully dressed dancers, followed by a marching band or other musicians, and then the highlight would be a guy carrying a full pig on his back. Men dressed as women would intermingle amongst these main characters along with those dressed in white doing cleansing rituals to unsuspecting spectators along the way.  Once this entourage passed,  it would be repeated again and again with new groups of dancers, musicians, etc.  Each group seemed to represent an association, a store or some other entity.

I was intrigued by the guy carrying the pig. Clearly it was heavy as he would walk only a few steps, twirling around a few times, and then he would stop and rest the pig on a table that was carried behind him by his entourage for this purpose. As he walked, his legs buckled under the weight of his load and his face strained from exhertion. When he rested, he swallowed copious amounts of water (at least I think it was water), smiled for photos, and then mustered up his strength again for another few steps and twirls. This was repeated for the entire length of the parade – a distance of over 2 km.


Restaurateurs set up stalls on the streets, and served Latacunga’s most famous contribution to Ecuadorian cuisine, Chugchucaras; deep fried pork, pork rinds, popcorn potatoes, maize, and plantain.  I practically gagged at the smell of the grease from these vendors!  And of course, beer vendors were everywhere.


By 1:00, we decided to head back to the hostel; we had no idea how long the parade would go on, and we were sweltering under the mid-day sun.  We navigated our way through the crowds trying to find our way to the other side of town, but on every turn our passage was blocked.  After about a half hour of walking pretty much in circles we ran into a group from our hostel, Peace Corps workers that we met at breakfast who assured us they knew their way around town.  They too were trying to get back to the hostel and suggested we join them.  They backtracked towards the parade and before we knew it we were right back to where we had been standing except now we were on the street in the middle of the parade!  Crowds of people lined both sides of the street on both sides of the barricades – and there was no apparent way to exit.  We pushed our way through the sea of bodies; blindly following our Peace Corps buddies, hoping they knew where they were going.

When we ducked into a little restaurant for a reprise, we discovered only two of the Peace Corps group remained; they had lost the rest of their friends in the confusion. Daniel and Hannah suggested we all stop for a bathroom break and a snack before facing the mob again.  We tried a local favourite, chochos – a bowl of small white beans topped with toasted kernels of corn, slivers of red onion and soaked in a vinegar based sauce. Delicious.

Once fortified, we made our way back onto the street and tried once again to find an exit.  It was unbelievable that the parade route had been configured in such a way as to not allow anyone to exit. This was a disaster waiting to happen.  There were thousands of people throughout the parade route, many drinking excessively, and some getting aggressive when their passage was blocked for any reason.  The large police force seemed incapable of controlling the crowds. There were many families with young children and babies in their arms caught in this mix too. Every possible exit point – side streets off the main parade route – were impenetrable as you can see from the photo below.

As we pushed our way through the crowds, we kept getting pulled into the parade. As gringos, we were easy targets – Hannah was nabbed for a “cleansing ritual”, then it was Chris’ turn.  This was all in good fun.

Every few steps, people were trying to pour booze down your mouth or offered shot glasses of who knows what to drink. I had a few sips but gagged at the taste. Chris was grabbed by one of the guys dressed as a woman who was yelling Viva Latacunga, Viva Latacunga. Chris was a good sport about it all.

After two hours of pushing through the crowds, trying to find a way out, there was still no exit in sight.   The parade just kept on coming – more muscians, bands, dancers and strange looking characters. And more rowdy spectators.  It was no longer fun.  We were exhausted fighting the crowds, and I was feeling faint in the heat.  We just wanted to get away from the craziness.

Finally, we saw a few people pass through a barricade to freedom.  We weren’t the only ones trying to get out and all of a sudden we found ourselves caught in a mob forcing their way to this almost imperceptible exit.  The power of this mob was frightening and made me understand how people get trampled to death when crowds lose control. Chris took this shot of the crowds just before the surge began.

And then, we were out.  What a relief.  Nobody was hurt (that we knew of), although Daniel was pick pocketed during this final surge of bodies but he only lost a few dollars. We were all exhausted and made our way back to the peace and quiet of our hostel where we stayed for the rest of the afternoon.


Category: Ecuador, South America
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