Burning Away Misfortunes in Cuenca, Ecuador
New Year’s Eve is always a night for celebration. In most countries people celebrate the coming of the New Year.
Ecuador is unique by having a ceremony to say goodbye to the Old Year. All throughout the country on the 31st of December, young people and old go to extraordinary efforts to maintain one of the magical traditions of Ecuador.
Symbolism is rife. The Old Year, or “Año Viejo” is represented by various creations. A model house is made of branches and burnt to ashes. Life-size dummies, akin to our Guy Fawkes, made of sawdust and dressed in old clothes, are sold in the streets. Ornate masks are sold for adornment of the dummies.
The idea is to represent some happening, activity, or person, that has resulted in a negative impact on the community, or your well-being. Often this is a politician, judge, army leader etc, whose actions you disapprove of. The appropriate mask is worn by the dummy. A controversial political happening may be the subject of a very elaborate construction, which is put to the torch at midnight. What a great idea for Australia!
The creativity of the people is encouraged by having a competition for the best effort. In Cuenca, where I was, the Amistad Club and Azuy Union of Journalists organise such competition. You have to register your creation and explain what or who it represents and detail why public notice should be focused thereon. A jury of Club members commences its tour of exhibits at 4pm and deliberates over events. Prizes are given. What a rich feed stock for newspapers the next day!
The final day of the Old Year is lots of fun. Young people dress up as widows, witches and skeletons, etc, symbolic of the Old Year. They stop cars in the street and beg for a donation, which I suspect goes to buy fireworks. I approached a group of kids in fancy dress on a Cuenca street and admired their dummy.
“This is the President of Ecuador” they inform me proudly.
“Can I take a photo of him?” I ask, slipping a few thousand sucres into an outstretched paw.
I admire a fancy procession of floats with pretty girls on horseback, that stops briefly at a church for a blessing. Towards dusk, the centre of town around San Francisco Church and the market is blocked off to vehicular traffic. From the balcony of my room in Hotel Milan, I watch in amazement as people stack wood for bonfires in the middle of the street.
The quantity of rockets and bangers available is enough to start a revolution. I ponder over events, safe in my hotel eyrie, camera at the ready, fortified with rum and Coke, watching all these preparations for who knows what?
Periodically I venture down to street level for an empanada, and to see what’s going on. Close to midnight the groups in the plaza below light their bonfires. Sparks are flying from a particularly big construction one block away. I watch them beat the dummies with sticks and then hurl them onto the bonfire. There is great cheering and revelry as the dummies burst into flames and sky rockets soar into the night.
The outcome of the burning is that it releases a great euphoria. Misfortunes and bad memories of the past year are burned away. There is a purification of one’s thoughts. The path ahead is made clear for new hope and happiness. In this moment, resolutions for the New year are made.
The old year has gone. There is hugging and kissing and tears. The celebration of the Old Year in Ecuador is a wonderful tradition and truly a magical event not to be missed.
Cuenca, Ecuador Fast facts
How to get there: American Airlines flies daily into Quito, the capital of Ecuador, from Los Angeles, Dallas and Miami. Coming from a Central or South American country it is necessary to use one of national airlines.
Quito, population 1.2 million, is situated on the Andean altiplano at an altitude of 2850 meters. It is only 22kms south of the equator but enjoys a temperate climate. It is a great place for tourists and backpackers, with heaps to see and very economical. Quito is one of my favorite South American cities. Tour agencies are everywhere. The country is safe for DIY travellers.
What about Cuenca?
Cuenca is about 300kms south of Quito. It is Ecuador’s third largest city and the most beautiful. It is a UNESCO cultural heritage site.
The city center is a delight with Spanish colonial buildings and cobblestone streets. You can fly there from Quito, but to see the country it is best to go by bus (ca 8 hours, cost US$8). Other towns worth stopping at (either going to or coming from Cuenca) are Baños (hotsprings, etc) and Riobamba (to see Volcan Chimborazo, 6310 meters).
I stayed in two places that I fully recommend. For New Year’s Eve I stayed in the city center at Hotel Milan on Presidente Cordova 9-89. It’s balcony rooms overlook the Central Market and San Francisco Church. Cost US$6/night con baño and TV. Hotel restaurant was convenient for breakfast.
Later I moved 3km out of town to Cabañas Yanuncay on Calle Canton Gualaceo 2-149, with rooms in a family house and adjacent cabins (US$12/night with breakfast). It is in the countryside on the banks of the Rio Yanuncay. Local tours are arranged and Spanish language classes given.
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.