The people of Ecuador have a rich cultural history, comprised of both indigenous and Spanish roots. Ecuadorians typically celebrate with parades, public dances, and loud music. Celebratory foods and drinking are always part of Ecuadorian holidays. If you haven’t tried Ecuador’s famous sugarcane liquor, called trago or aguardiente, you’ll find plenty of it at a festival. Sip carefully! These drinks are quite strong.
During a parade or other major holiday event, expect most businesses to close. Ecuadorians take their festivals seriously, and everyone in town wants to participate. During holidays, plan your travel carefully. Think about what services you need to use before everything shuts down — banks, post offices, grocery stores, and even public transportation will be limited. Hotels cost more, and the streets will be packed with revelers.
Ecuador’s Major Holidays
Easter Week in Ecuador
As in many predominantly Catholic countries, Easter is one of the largest public holidays in the country. Eye-catching fanfare spans the week leading up to Easter Sunday. This week is called Semana Santa, Spanish for “Holy Week.” The date of Easter and its related celebrations depends on when the vernal equinox takes place. Easter Week occurs sometime between March and April.
Palm Sunday, which happens a week before Easter, compels Ecuadorians across the country to parade down the street with palm fronds, making their way to mass. If you’re in Quito, stop by the Plaza de San Francisco to see a ceremonial blessing of the palms. Traditional dances and hymns fill the streets, and nearly everyone carries a palm frond.
This week even has its own soup, a dish called fanesca. Salt cod is one of the main ingredients. It’s stewed along with a hodgepodge of other traditional ingredients.
Holy (Maundy) Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday
According to Catholic tradition, Holy Thursday commemorates Jesus’ Last Supper. On Holy Thursday, Ecuadorians visit graveyards with offerings for departed loved ones. These offerings usually consist of bread that is baked especially for the occasion.
In the evening the churches of Quito open their doors, with the glow of the candle-lit altars reaching the streets. Visitors to Quito should make sure to walk around the historic district on the evening of Holy Thursday.
Good Friday is a solemn holiday, and Ecuadorians take to the streets to perform dramatic tributes to the crucifixion of Christ. Quito has an especially massive parade on Good Friday. Visitors are usually taken aback by the purple, pointed hoods worn by a large number of participants. These hoods are traditionally worn as a sign of penitence, a custom that dates back to the middle ages.
Ecuador’s loveliest masses take place on Holy Saturday. Holy Saturday masses take place in the evening, in anticipation of Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday is an intensely religious celebration for Ecuadorians. Easter masses take place all day, and carry on into the evening.
Ecuadorians celebrate Carnival in an effort to eat and drink enough to stay satiated throughout the fasting period of Lent. The exact date varies from year to year. It takes place either in February or March, on the weekend closest to the New Moon.
Carnival in Ecuador has its own distinct traditions. Throwing water balloons is one of the most common activities. Strangers (including visitors) are fair game, so wear clothes that you don’t mind getting wet!
Independence Day and Simón Bolívar’s Birthday
On May 24th 1822, General Antonio José Sucre defeated the Spanish in the Battle of Pichincha. On May 24th, military parades commemorate the decisive battle, which took place just outside Quito.
Ecuadorians also celebrate the birthday of Venezuelan Simón Bolívar to commemorate his role in the liberation of South America from Spanish rule. This holiday is celebrated on July 24th.
All Saints’ Day and All Soul’s Day
On All Souls’ Day, Ecuadorians visit the graves of loved ones with offerings of baked goods, a continuation of the Andean tradition of leaving food for the departed. The souls of the dead are said to return to the Earth for 24 hours during the first days of November. Ecuadorian tradition dictates you risk the spirits’ displeasure if you don’t have a snack ready for them. These holidays are celebrated on November 1st and 2nd.
Do note that you may find food left on graves. Ecuador’s poor are welcome to take the food that is left on graves, but visitors are not.
Christmas and New Year’s
On Christmas Eve, Ecuadorians celebrate a special mass called the Misa de Gallo, or “Rooster Mass.” On December 25th, Ecuadorians go all out with citywide Christmas pageants. This is the day of the Paseo del Niño children’s parade. Children dress up as different characters from the Christmas nativity, and march down the street with statues of the baby Jesus. These statues typically have a special place in the family home.
Cuenca is famous for its large Paseo del Niño parade, which begins at the San Sebastian Cathedral and ends at the Plaza de Armas square.
There are several days of parades leading up to the New Year’s countdown. Popular activities include burning effigies that represent the passing year. On December 28th, the traditional parades feature clowns and masked revelers.
Ecuador’s festival calendar varies according to the region. Many parades and festivals commemorate city-specific events. Each of these festivals reflects the character of the city where it takes place.
La Virgen de la Merced Festival – September 23rd and 24th
This festival revolves around a statue of Mama Negra, an African-American depiction of the Virgin Mary. Locals parade the statue down the street in the midst of loud, percussive music.
While the statue has taken on a Catholic identity, she is said to have cultural ties to female African deities. This festival has roots in Afro-Ecuadorian culture, as well as indigenous Ayamara traditions.
Guayaquil Foundation Day – July 25th
On July 25th 1537, the famous Spanish Explorer Francisco de Orellana founded the city of Guayaquil. It’s not known what existed here before the arrival of the Spanish. The Spanish established it as an important port city, and Guayaquil continues to have the same role in Ecuador today.
Guayaquil Independence Day – October 9th
On October 9th 1820, Guayaquil declared itself independent from Spanish rule. This is the revolt that paved the way for the independence of Ecuador as a whole, declared in 1822. Modern-day Guayaquileans mark the occasion with a huge parade.
Corpus Christi – First Half of June
In Cuenca and the surrounding central Sierra, Corpus Christi is a major festival. Religious processions make their way through the streets for a full week. Candy plays a central role in this celebration, and you’ll see vendors with colorful piles of homemade sweets lining the streets and the plazas.
Cuenca Independence Day – November 3rd
Like Guayaquil, Cuenca celebrates its own independence day. This is a good festival for browsing art and souvenirs produced by locals at the many street vendors that gather for the celebration.
Foundation of Quito Day – December 6th
December 6th marks the Spanish founding of Quito by the conquistador Sebastian de Benalcázar. The city existed long before the arrival of the Spanish — historians believe the indigenous Quitu people originally established it as an important urban center. The founding of Quito is officially commemorated with bullfights, a tradition which is a relic of Spanish colonial rule.