Carnival in Cuenca is wild and crazy but not nearly as bloody as it used to be

Feb 18, 2023 | 0 comments

By Liam Higgins

Cuenca old-timers will tell you that Carnival is not what it used to be. They’ll also tell you that it’s not as bloody, either.

“It has always been fun,” says Patricio Sanchez, “but years ago it was also a time when people settled grudges and there were many fights. I remember seeing boys and young men with blood running down their faces after getting into brawls.”

Today it is foam and water, not fists that fly during Carnival.

According to Sanchez, a Cuencano who left Ecuador in the early 1990s for New York and recently returned, there was often a “hidden agenda” for many Carnival participants. “Because of all the costumes, parades and celebrations, some people were able to attack their enemies and get away with it. Since I returned to Ecuador nine years ago, I’m glad to see that this is mostly a thing of the past.”

He added: “It seems like blood has been replaced with foam and water, although there is much less water now.”

The long Carnival weekend that began Thursday with the Noche de Compadres and Compadres at San Francisco Plaza, goes on until Tuesday, and offers up plenty of  events, including food and craft fairs, masquerades, concerts and generally bizarre behavior. Although your chances of getting a bloody nose are relatively low, expect to get foamed or wet if you plan to be out on the town. Foamers and bucket brigades will be out in force.

Although there will be plenty of events in Cuenca, many locals opt for the festivities in surrounding towns.

Although most of the blood-letting of past carnivals was inspired by personal enmities, it had its roots in ancient Andean traditions. Bathing the earth with blood to promote fertility was a sacred ritual, predating the Spanish and even the Incas.

Some rituals featured rival groups firing sling shots and throwing stones and sticks at each other. At close range, the weapons of choice were fists. Combatants often wore thick leather hats to ward off in-coming missiles but took them off at close range since the objective of the fight was to shed blood on the soil. All were expected to make a contribution. Traditionally, the idea was that disputes were settled during Carnival and not resumed to until the following Carnival.

In Cuenca and most surrounding towns, the blood-shedding custom ended in the 1970s. It continues today in parts of Peru and Bolivia.

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