Two years ago in 2012 we celebrated Mardi Gras in New Orleans and had an absolute blast. We learned Mardi Gras is not just the huge drunken fest you see on the newscasts, but rather a family-friendly event that appeals to people of all ages, backgrounds and walks of life. Last year we were on the road during this time of year. This year we found ourselves in South America – closer to Carnaval, the heart of Mardi Gras – than ever before. But, alas… the travel restrictions on our Ecuadorian Residency Visas mean no leaving the country to go to Rio or anywhere else (as we will be spending all of our allotted time in Philly). I did some reading about some other cities in Ecuador that put on more of a show than Cuenca, but in the end we decided to stay here. We live here now; shouldn’t we be here for at least one Carnaval celebration?
The last big celebration we attended in Cuenca was Corpus Christi – we won’t count the non-parade we attempted to attend in January. (More on that another time.) We knew nothing about what would happen here for Carnaval. In New Orleans, the celebrations and parades start two weeks before Fat Tuesday, the culmination of things. The first sign for us was last Monday when we went to Feria Libre, the biggest mercado (market) in the city, and there was water running everywhere on the ground. It was so wet we could barely stay dry getting from our banana vendor to our beet vendor. We were told they were cleaning and getting ready for Carnaval. Oooh! The next time we went there, we saw tons of extra vendors set up out front, selling water guns and confetti and cans of foam. Intriguing.
The same day one of our couch surfers told me she got hit by a water balloon while in town. “I think it’s the beginning of Carnaval….” I was super excited. I wanted to walk into El Centro and get caught in the action! (She was not super excited, as she walks to work each day and didn’t look forward to arriving wet for her shift.) As the week passed by, Elliott, the rest of our couch surfers, and many of our local friends told me tales of having water squirted, thrown, or poured on them. I got NOTHING. What a bummer.
Finally I heard about an event happening in the central park, Parque Calderon, on Thursday. I was psyched as I tried to prepare. I recommended to Elliott that he wear as much non-cotton as possible, and that it be clothing he didn’t really care about. But therein lay the problem – having moved here recently, we and most of our friends have very little clothing, much less expendable clothing! Luckily for Elliott, he had non-cotton pants that were black so we figured little staining damage could be done. He has a waterproof rain jacket, and put a hat on to keep himself as dry as possible. I was not so lucky – all of the non-cotton pants I have are light-colored, and I wear them about 75% of the time as it is! Not only is my windbreaker not waterproof, it’s in PA and I’ve been borrowing a friend’s, which meant I couldn’t wear it since I don’t want to ruin something that’s not mine. So I ended up in jeans and a long sleeve black cotton shirt. Not good for getting wet; luckily it takes a lot to get me uncomfortably cold.
We headed out. I had heard the event was a parade; it turned out to be a band, some dancing huge figures (traditional Ecuadorian women called Cholas), a ton of people in the streets having a good time, and once in a while, an exploding Castillo (see our post on Corpus Christi if you don’t know what a Castillo is). There were food vendors, but more present were the vendors selling cans of foam (called “carioca”). Elliott went off to buy us the biggest cariocas he could find, and we went nuts. None of our friends were armed so it was basically an ambush, but definitely a fun one. There were also the occasional boxes of corn starch, which could be lightly sprinkled on you after you were wet with water and foam.
When our friends left a few hours later, Elliott and I walked through the thick crowds in the street and then we *really* got ambushed. I swear the locals love getting us Gringos. At one point there was foam shooting at me from four different directions at once! And there was no taking it easy at this point; anything was fair game. People shot us in the ears, people shot us in the eyes, people came up behind us and smeared foam and flour on our faces and in our mouths. Yum! Elliott hid our two giant cans of foam under his jacket, and when some poor unsuspecting kid would give us a squirt, he’d rip his coat open gunslinger style, and unleash two-fisted revenge to the delight of all the locals gathered in the steets. Of course, this made us an even bigger target, but then that was the whole point.
One of the most interesting parts of the evening was when a huge model of a horse was paraded right down the center of the crowd. This horse model was special, though, as there were fireworks shooting out of it! No concern for safety here, lol. The crowd sure parted as the fiery horse made its way toward the band and galloped around and around. Before we left, we watched one final Castillo go off, and we got some close up photos of ourselves under the falling embers.
The rest of Carnaval, here in Cuenca anyway, was rather quiet. Apparently most locals take their vacation time and bop off to the beach. But those who do stay here definitely don’t let you forget it’s Carnaval. It was impossible over the last five days to go anywhere without getting wet from a water gun, water bottle, or water balloon. And when I saw an unfair fight where a boy was dousing a poor little unarmed girl, I pulled out our water bottle and asked, “Quieres?” – Do you want? She wanted it, and she took it. And I smiled when she got her revenge.