The best Carnaval celebration in Ecuador? It’s in Guaranda and don’t miss the ‘Pájaro Azul’
By Esteban Cordero Balarezo
Although many communities in Ecuador claim to host the best Carnaval celebration, none can top the tradition in Guaranda, a picturesque city in the shadow of the Chimborazo volcano, in Bolivar Province.
In 2020, just weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic was declared, Guaranda attracted 30,000 visitors to its colorful festival that lasts for a full week, and more are expected this year. The visitors come to experience days of joyful folkloric music and dance, parades with colorful, often fanciful costumes, a vast assortment of food, as well as the the city’s well-known offering of camaraderie and brotherhood.
This year, with Covid restrictions reduced, Guaranda are expecting at least, 30,000 and probably more.
The festivities in Guaranda include much more than Carnaval. They incorporate the rich traditions of the Guaranga Indians, a community that inhabited the area for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spanish and which represent the roots of the people that live there today. It was during this time of year that the Guaranga people celebrated their chief, or “cacique”, for three days during the second full moon of the year. The cacique ceremonies included days of singing, dancing and, of course, eating and drinking. The celebration gave thanks and honor to nature and the “Pachacamac”.
Today, a “Taita Carnaval” (“Taita” is Quechua for “father”) and “Carnaval Indigena are elected prior to the festivities. “Taita Carnaval” is the larger-than-life indigenous character that presides over the parades and the folkloric displays of dance and music, sitting alongside local authorities during the festival activities.
Celebrations this year began Friday, with the infant carnaval, followed by a contest of “coplas”, where groups compete, singing in both Spanish and Quechua. The lyrics of the songs relate to love, passion and emotions of the people of the Guaranda. Wednesday is institutional (government) carnaval, and Thursday, university carnaval. Friday is the celebration of San Miguel, and finally, Guaranda elects its queen or “reina”.
Saturday, most of the party moves to nearby San Jose de Chimbo, where more parades, music, dancing and eating take place. Meanwhile in Guaranda the entrance of “Taita Carnaval” and “Carnval Indigena” is celebrated.
On Sunday, the grand parade or “comparsa” takes place in Guaranda. People crowd the streets and shower each other with string foam, called “Carioca”, and of course, water.
And the party does not end there.
Celebrations continue Monday, in the nearby communities of Balsapamba and Caluma, ending in Echeandía on Tuesday.
You can’t leave Guaranda without trying their famous “Pájaro Azul” (Blue Bird) alcoholic drink. It is made of sugar cane liquor spiced up with orange and tangerine leaves, anise, and … chicken soup. That is right, chicken soup!
The drink has a tinge of blue that you notice when lifting your glass to toast, hence its name. It is the preferred drink of both locals and foreigners during Carnaval, and imbibing it, in copious amounts, is a highlight for many tourists.
Guaranda is located 220 km from Quito, about a three-hour drive by car. From Guayaquil, it’s a150 km drive, about three hours by car. From Cuenca, plan on a six-hour drive.
Accommodations are inexpensive in Guaranda, averaging $20 a night per person.
Food is also cheap. You can choose from a variety of traditional local dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner and end up spending between $10 to $15 a day.
Guaranda is known as the city of “Seven Hills” because it is nestled in a valley surrounded by seven hills (San Jacinto, Loma de Guaranda, San Bartolo, Cruzloma, Titilac, Talalac, and Mirador). The city is located 2,668 meters above sea level.