Celebrating Carnaval in Ecuador

While Ecuadorians celebrate New Years, Easter, Independence Day, and Christmas, no holiday generates quite as much excitement, anticipation, silliness and overall hype as Carnaval. As a foreigner, I had absolutely no idea what to expect, in fact, I did not really even know what Carnaval was – and, boy, did I soon find out!

Historically, Catholics have celebrated Carnaval as a time to indulge in life’s pleasures before a period of solemnity, frugality and fasting in remembrance of Jesus’ suffering on the cross before his death. Therefore, countries around the world celebrate Carnaval with extravagant festivals, elaborate parades, lavish costumes and wild parties in order to “live it up,” so to speak, before the solemn period of Lent. For example, think of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, a masquerade festival in Venice or a flashy parade in Rio de Janeiro. While the Ecuadorian Carnaval l may find some roots in Catholicism, a large part of the festivities stem from ancient, indigenous traditions. To commemorate the end of the solar year, certain indigenous tribes would celebrate by throwing decorative flowers, cooking flour and perfumed water into the air. Over time, these indigenous customs were incorporated into the Ecuadorian Carnaval to create an experience unlike any other.

Nowadays, the indigenous practice of tossing up flowers, flour and water has transformed into an all out water war amongst friends, family and pretty much anyone you see on the street. But the battle doesn’t end with water. In some regions, as in Amaguaña, a farming community just outside of Quito, people douse each other with water, flour, foam, paint and even eggs! For many years, there were no rules about “playing Carnaval.” You could get completely soaked walking down the street, at work, on the bus, anywhere. However, in recent years, new regulations prevent people from playing Carnaval in buildings or on public transportation and from soaking strangers. In fact, to conserve water, local authorities encourage the people to use carioca, essentially shaving cream, instead of water (but, as with most laws, the further away you get from the city, the less the regulations are followed!)

Carnaval in Ecuador varies from city to city. One of the most famous Carnavals is in Guaranda, located in the Bolivar province, which is about four hours from Quito. People travel from all around the country to enjoy the colorful, lively parades of this Andean city. In Guaranda, one can experience the unique combination of indigenous and mestizo folk music, art and dance, drink the traditional “pájaro azul” liquor, and take part in one of the most fun street parties of the entire country. A different style of carnaval celebration takes place in Ambato, a nearby town in la Sierra. Here, the people call the celebration, “La Fiesta de las Flores y de las Frutas.” because the floats of the parade are exclusively decorated with flowers and fruit. On the coast, like in Esmeraldes, Carnaval displays the beauty of the Ecuador’s African American heritage. The parades, food, music, and dancing all reflect the country’s afro-indigenous customs and traditions.

In order to escape the cold of the sierra, we decided to travel to the small beach town of Montañita for our vacation. Little did we know, but what seemed like all of Ecuador was also vacationing in Montañita that weekend as well! Needless to say, the beaches were absolutely packed! For a good chunk of the weekend we squeezed our towels between our fellow beach goers, soaked up the sun and cooled off in the refreshing waves of the Pacific. In town, we found about every type of local and foreign cuisine that you can think of. Street venders sold tons of Ecuadorian food such as tortillas, menestras, pinchos, ceviche, sopas de mariscos, empanadas, juices and smoothies. 

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During the day, Montañita appeared to be a chill, little surf town on the coast, but, at night, it transformed altogether. The streets were packed with people of all ages buying food from vendors, shopping at the artisanal art stands, and, of course, playing Carnaval. The first night, we were completely unarmed and unprepared. Only one of us had carioca (the foam spray) and, as foreigners, we were even greater targets. So, not surprisingly, we all got completely soaked with water and carioca (luckily flour and paint are not as widely used on the coast). We learned our lesson that night and from then on came armed and ready for battle. Every night, we sprayed each other and random strangers on the beach, in the streets and even in the clubs. All in all it was a great, cultural experience. Plus, as a prankster at heart, I had so much fun sneak attacking people with carioca! All in all, it was a fun, relaxing weekend celebrating Carnaval at the beach in Ecuador!

To experience the fun of traveling in another country and learning about holidays and customs, apply to be a Program Director today! 

A Beginner’s Guide to Riding the Bus in Ecuador

The bus is definitely the most widely used form of public transportation in Ecuador. What’s it like to ride the buses of Ecuador? Fantastic question. Wonder no longer, I have the inside scoop for you.  What follows is an in-depth breakdown of what to expect on a bus ride, from embarkation to disembarkation, including the key characters you’ll encounter along your journey.

Let’s start with getting on the bus. Most bus routes have established bus stops, but know that you can pretty much make any spot on the street your own personal bus stop.  Here, we “hail” buses the same way we hail cabs: raise your hand out in the street, and the bus driver will know to stop.  I use the term “stop” lightly because the buses of Ecuador never truly stop.  You will never get on or off a bus that isn’t still moving.  While we’re on the subject, allow me to introduce you to your first character in the comedy of errors that is your bus ride: The Driver.

The Driver

His main responsibilities include driving the bus and opening the front and back doors. Usually, he is good about doing the latter because there are buttons passengers can press to alert him to open the door.  Sometimes though, passengers just yell “Gracias!” to get his attention, and he eventually opens the door.  The driver is also (apparently) responsible for never truly stopping, for speeding up right before speed bumps and for cutting every turn REALLY close, especially when passing other buses.

At night, most of the buses have unnecessarily flashy colorful lights on the outside and inside (which I assume is controlled by the driver), and on long bus rides, many buses play movies with obnoxiously loud volume (which I also assume is controlled by the driver… who probably just selfishly wants to hear what’s happening).  You will have almost no contact with the driver along your Ecuadorian Bus Journey, but I figured he was worth mentioning in case you had any curiosity about who the man behind the wheel was.

In reality, the driver is merely a figurehead.  The true person running the show is our next character, The Ayudante.

The Ayudante

The driver’s right-hand man.  Responsible for collecting the bus fare (or pasajes) from every passenger (an extremely difficult job if you remember that they have to walk on a moving (and often really crowded) bus with a handful of coins to collect fare and give change.  Of course, the ayudante (the Spanish word for helper) expertly holds two stacks of coins in his palm and folds either a $20 bill or a $10 and keeps it weaved in his fingers.  Ayudantes are usually seen repping their respective buses by wearing polos with the bus name embroidered on them.  Although I’ve been using the pronoun “he”, every now and then you will be pleasantly surprised by a female ayudante (who usually accessorizes her uniform with a jacket and fanny pack).


Other responsibilities of the ayudante include wiping off the fog from the windshield and doors of the bus, yelling to the driver when he should stop/can keep driving and yelling at passengers to get on or off the bus.  Upon waving a bus down, the first person to hop off the bus will be the ayudante who will say the following, repeating phrases in rapid fire Spanish: “Suba! Suba! Suba! Siga no mas!”, which both essentially mean “climb up/get on.”  This is always particularly comical to me because this is partially what makes the Ecuadorian bus experience seem like such a rushed affair.  Of course I’m going to get on the bus! What else did you think I was going to do?? Sit here and ponder whether or not to get on?? Just give me a second, gosh!

It is, of course, worth mentioning that despite the average height of this country being well under 5’6”, the stairs on the buses are HUGE steps, making it quite impossible to “suba” as quickly as the ayudantes order you to.  It is also worth mentioning that the ayudantes are responsible for grabbing toddlers that are trying to get on and off the bus and helping them.  None of the parents seem to mind that a total stranger is grabbing their children and helping them on or off a vehicle that is still moving, so I guess it is a welcomed service.

So you’ve ascended the stairs. You grab onto the handlebars attached to the ceiling while the bus wildly swings left and right.  If you’re unlucky, the bus is packed and you’re crammed against some of the characters I’m about to mention.  If you have things in your hand, you simultaneously juggle them while finding your change to give the ayudante when he or she circles around and asks for it. If you’re lucky, the bus is not too crowded and you’re able to stumble to your seat and more comfortably look for your pasaje in your wallet.  The main question is- where do you sit?

The front is not ideal for a variety of reasons.  If you are claustrophobic, it can seem crowded in the front when people are waiting to get off.  If you are a nervous person, you probably don’t want to see how close the driver always comes to almost hitting other buses. If you are an impatient person, you don’t want to be directly behind the driver’s seat because there is usually a wall there that blocks your view.  Finally, if you are an easily frustrated person, you probably don’t want to read the signs that encourage you to wear your seat belt (because there aren’t any) or the signs that discourage you from getting on or off a moving bus (because you have no choice in this matter).  So the front is out.

The back is also not ideal for a variety of reasons.  To start, it’s treacherous to walk on a moving Ecuadorian bus.  Unless you’re an ayudante, you should try to minimize your time spent walking in the aisle. Next, in the same way the front gets crowded, the back does as well because there’s a back door.  At times, the driver forgets to close the back door so you will often be subjected to the elements (rain and wind). Finally, the back of the bus is the least smooth ride out of all the seating options.

This leaves us to pull a Goldilocks and sit right in the middle. This gives you the vantage point you need, the space you want and the perfect amount of life or death time spent walking in the aisle.

Now you’re sitting in your seat. Different buses have different seat cushions and window decoration combos. (Trust me, you’ll KNOW if your bus is a fancy new one with leather seats, or if it’s been in circulation for a while and needs a tune up.) You pay the ayudante and now have time to people-watch until you have to get up and get off.  Who’s around you?

The Sleeping Old Guy 

Does exactly as his name suggests. No surprise there. Usually is wearing a felt fedora and a sweater vest.  Generally not problematic unless he stops leaning against the window and starts leaning on your shoulder in his sleep.  I mean, who wants to push a sleeping old guy off their shoulder? It just seems cruel.

The Lady with the Huge Sacks Stuff

This lady doesn’t usually sit, because of her huge bags (of vegetables, of blankets, of fruits, of plants).  If she’s an older woman, most people will help her out with carrying her things and offer her their seat. This woman is usually harmless, unless in her huge bags she has other contents, bringing me to our next character…

The Lady with the Live Chickens

Oh yes, she exists. You don’t know what’s in the bags until they move… or make noise…or both.

The Guy with the Adorably Small Animals

One of my favorite frequent flyers.  Bonus points if the guy is cute.  Typically carries tiny puppies, but sometimes these guys also have little kittens.

The Students

These troublemakers come in waves based on the time of day.  If school just let out or is about to start, prepare yourself for an influx of students in matching uniforms popping gum, laughing and listening to music. They’re generally mellower in the morning before school.  But if you’re on the bus in the afternoon, forget it.

The Salesperson

Can be any age and any gender.  Typically gets on the bus from the front entrance and gives a schpeel on what they’re selling and why.  Merchandise ranges from fruit to candy to gum to pencils to highlighters to homemade ice cream. After the schpeel, the salesperson will walk up and down the aisles offering his products to the passengers. At times, the passengers take the products, and when the salesperson returns they either pay him for it or just give it back.

The Entertainer

My personal favorite.  Has a boombox and sings or raps over music.  At times brings a guitar.  After the performance, he walks down the aisle to collect donations from passengers.

Finally, thanks to the ayudante (who yells every single stop as you approach it) you realize your stop is the next one.  If you’re sitting in the aisle seat, it’s easy to get up.  If you’re sitting in the window seat you essentially climb over the person in the aisle seat (because they usually don’t get up for you).  I didn’t specifically profile this person, but I’d call them The Jerk if I were going to make such a profile. The Jerk is the umbrella term for anyone who sits in the aisle seat and won’t simply move into the window seat for you to sit next to them. Conversely, this person does not get up when you need to leave, either.

Anyways, you’re almost there. You climb over The Jerk and stumble into the aisle.  You keep stumbling down the stairs and hop off the bus that’s still moving.  Pro tip: walk off the bus with your right foot so that the bus doesn’t catch it while it’s moving forward.

And there you have it.  You just survived your first trip (and every succeeding trip because they are all the same) on an Ecuadorian bus.  Although this was a painstaking amount of detail, for further explanation, check out this video I’ve spliced together for your viewing pleasure.  

Duke Spring Break in Baños

After a weekend on the beach in Montañita, Ashley, Jack, Sam, and I returned to the sierras Sunday night to meet our first two spring break groups.  While Ashley and Jack took the group from Vanderbilt University out to our partner organization, FEVI, in the valley north of us, Sam and I met up with our group of six from Duke University and brought them back to the valley with us.  Seeing as Monday and Tuesday were holidays in Ecuador celebrating Carnaval (what we know as Mardi Gras in the States), we took off for our overnight trip bright and early Monday morning, to Baños.  Here to give a snapshot of our time together is one of our spring breakers from Duke: Jake!

After a long and bumpy ride to Baños, we were welcomed with espuma (foam) and buckets of water by the locals.  It was Carnaval, and the festivities were wild; a major part of the celebrating involved spraying foam on everyone and everything.  Once I dried off, the town was amazing.  We checked into a hostel (which only cost $7.50 a night), and then decided to go repelling down 5 of the local waterfalls.  We had a blast – the experience was well worth the blisters and rope burns on our hands.  After we dried off (again), we caught a chivas (essentially a party bus) and went to party on top of a volcano.  The party consisted of fire-jugglers and comedy shows, but the real highlight of the night was the view.  We could see over all of Baños, and the mountain scenery was incredible.  When we returned to the town, we quickly learned that the celebrating during the day was nothing compared to the celebrating at night.  We all were so tired after the adventurous day that we turned in a little early so we would be ready for the next day’s events.  

We started the next day with a rooftop breakfast before renting bikes and embarking on a 27 kilometer ride to a huge waterfall (I know, there are a lot of waterfalls on this trip).  The ride was exciting for two reasons: the incredible views that we saw on our path and the water balloons that we had to dodge (the Carnival activities also included water balloon pelting).  About half way through the ride, we stopped to go on a one kilometer zip line (it was the longest zip line I have ever seen).  I can honestly say it was one of the coolest experiences of my life.  We finished the bike ride and snapped a few Kodak pictures of the waterfall before returning to our hostel and leaving Baños.  A few pointers for those of you planning on being in Baños for Carnaval: get the Mega Grill burger (it’s delicious) at the burger stand off the plaza, go zip lining (it’s exhilarating), and bring a bathing suit (it’s wet)!  

A performer with fire on top of the volcano
Jake concentrating in preparation for a 1km zipline.

Family visiting means plenty of travel

In absencia, since she´s in the Galápagos with her family right now, Becky writes about having family from the States visit her and Manna in Ecuador.  

Two Thursdays ago, my brother arrived in Quito.  I was excited for him to visit and see all the cool stuff I have been doing since July.  The day after he arrived, I brought him to Zoë`s and my cooking class for the Aliñambi nutrition program.  The program has started out very successfully and we’ve made some delicious and nutritious food.  In class that Friday we made a cream of spinach and lentil stew along with fruit salad, for which the kids brought all the fruit to class from home.  We also made some great jugo de mora (blackberry juice).  The kids really enjoyed this week`s recipes and even asked for them so that they could make it again at home.  Alex enjoyed helping with the class and trying to talk to the kids.

Two weekends ago, I took my brother to Tena, a town right inside the jungle.  There, we went on a daylong whitewater rafting trip, which was really cool.  It was a great way to get inside and experience the jungle.  Unfortunately, we both got food poisoning during the weekend (which is expected every now and then in Ecuador, especially for newcomers).  We missed hiking the caves outside of Tena in the morning, but the sickness passed pretty quickly and we were on our way back to Sangolquí the next afternoon.

My parents also arrived last week to visit.  They, along with my brother, visited the Manna Centro to see me at work.  They really enjoyed taking a tour of the Centro and looking in on the children’s art class.
I`ve been super excited to show my family around Ecuador.  Last weekend, we spent a lot of time in Old Town seeing the old churches and visiting museums.  We also went to the artisan market and Mitad del Mundo (where the equatorial line is located).  As you read this we are heading back from the Galápagos for a five-day cruise around the islands!

It’s really awesome having my family around to visit.  They get to see where I live and work and be a part of the great experience I am having here in Ecuador.  A feel that a lot of the time, while the people you love back home definitely support you, they do not exactly know or understand the work you are doing.  It’s nice sharing with my family a glimpse into my life here.

Retreating to Baños

Last weekend MPI Ecuador took its second retreat of the year to Baños.  It was a first trip for all of us (except Bibi), and we loved it.  Situated on the western side of the Sierras in the zone where mountains transition into Amazonian jungle, Baños is warm and beautiful and full of fun things to do.  We arrived on Sunday morning, dropped off our things at the hostel, ate a delicious lunch, and immediately set out to cross activities off of our list. 

As with many tourist towns in Ecuador, the streets of Baños are lined with tourism agencies from which you can rent equipment and guides to take advantage of local adventure opportunities.  We rented bicycles for one of the local trails and set off for the hills and waterfalls surrounding the small town.  First, however, we stopped at the San Francisco bridge to check out something we’d been talking about for weeks in anticipation: puenting.  “Puenting” is a shamelessly Spanglish term (puente means bridge, so it was “bridge-ing”...?)  referring to the activity of jumping off of a bridge attached to a rope and swinging underneath.  We pedaled up to the bridge to find a line of folks watching as a girl stood on the platform psyching herself up to jump.  She tried for 15 or 20 minutes, but eventually she stepped down, unable to bring herself to actually go over the edge.  I don’t blame her; I wasn’t able to do it either.  But everyone else in our group did! 
Hannah puenting off of Puente San Francisco!
The bike ride continued to be beautiful and was followed by dinner and a nighttime chivas bus ride (the same kind of bus that hosted Chet’s birthday on the streets of Quito back in July) up to the lip of Tungurahua volcano overlooking the town. 

Before we returned home the following afternoon, PDs split off for multiple activities in our remaining hours.  I for one, as the house’s early riser, went at 6:30am to take advantage of the thermal baths that Baños is known for, its full name being Baños de Agua Santa, or “baths of sacred water,” the town having developed around the site of an appearance of the Virgin Mary near a waterfall.  It was spectacular to sit in steaming waters underneath a cliff of greenery and right next to an enormous waterfall in the first hours of the daylight.  Other PDs throughout the morning and early afternoon also went to the baths, rented go-carts, got massages, and explored the small, lovely town before catching the bus back up the Pan-American highway to Sangolquí.

Overall the retreat turned out to be the perfect mix of adventure and relaxation, and we all came back refreshed and ready for the week.  I personally loved Baños and am really excited that I get to go back in just a few days with one of our first spring break volunteer groups, from Duke, for Carnaval.

Becky and Ashley getting ready for our bike ride.  Note the go-cart... 
Brock on his rented ATV.
One of the many cascadas surrounding Baños.
The cascada overlooking the thermal baths.
Keep a lookout for posts from spring break groups over the next two weeks!  We’re extremely excited to be hosting four fantastic groups of volunteers from Duke, Vanderbilt, the University of Georgia, and the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.  Duke and Vanderbilt arrive this coming Sunday, and we can’t wait!