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.”
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 got back to town, three 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 water," referring to the recent popularity of throwing water and friends and foes alike.
The long Carnival weekend that began last week with a noisy parade up Cuenca’s Calle Simon Bolivar, goes on until Tuesday, and offers up plenty of parades, dances, masquerades and bizarre behavior. Although your chances of getting a bloody nose are relatively low, expect to get wet if you plan to attend any of the events. Water ballooners and bucket brigades will be out in force, making sure party-goers are well lubricated.
Although there will be lots of events in Cuenca, especially in the parks and along the city’s river banks, 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 pre-dating 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 missles 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.
In Cuenca and surrounding towns, the blood-shedding custom was popular through the 1960s.
Photo caption: Cuenca schools present their annual Carnival parade on Simon Bolivar.