Ecuador’s Festival of Fruits and Flowers – Ambato, Ecuador

Ecuador’s Festival of Fruits and Flowers
Ambato, Ecuador

The Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans and the revels in the streets of Rio de Janeiro are the most famous Carnival happenings in this hemisphere, but in Ecuador, the place to be to party, or festajarse, is in the dead center of the country: the highland city of Ambato. The celebration is called La Fiesta de la Fruta y las Flores, or the Festival of Fruit and Flowers.

Usually drab, Ambato is a commercial center famous for its huge Monday markets that boast everything from bundles of alfalfa to feed to cuy, the delectable edible guinea pig, to Made-in-China cookware and cheap clothing, to bawling hogs. But in February the city comes to life with parades, exhibitions, wild pyrotechnics, and as many boxes of peach-flavored wine as the population can handle, and then some. Fruit is in season all year in Ecuador, given its latitudinal location, but Ambato’s own fruits, apples and pears in particular, are in their prime in February.

To understand how apt a place this dusty city is for this event, try the sweet claudias, or small plums, or any of the fruits that make the bus roof ride to this trading center from the Oriente, or Amazonian region of the country, and from the coast: papayas, moras (blackberries), naranjilla, taxo, maracuya (all varieties of passion fruit that make fabulous juices), all sorts of citrus, pineapples, mangoes, figs, coconuts, the mini-bananas called oritos, and so on and on and on. Then take a walk through Miraflores or visit the Quinta de Mera, the estate of the famous Ambateño Juan Leon Mera who wrote the national anthem among other things, to see the enormous roses that bloom so profusely in the volcanic soil of this city that sits midway between the volcanoes Cotapaxi and Tungurahua. (Just control yourself from buying a bouquet of these at the airport when you leave Ecuador because the commercially grown flowers are made possible by the legal use of DDT that has made it one of the great rose exporters or the world).

One of the many colorful characters that come to Ambato for the festivities
One of the many colorful characters that come to Ambato for the festivities
Nearly a month is devoted to the Fiestas. There are bullfights, concerts, and barrio parties scheduled throughout the weeks leading up to the final weekend of fun. Then there are the parades and the fireworks, the beauty queens and the folklore dancers. (To see an abridged schedule visit: Fiestas de Ambato)

The highlights are as follows:

Bullfights:
If you can handle the gore (Yes, they do kill the bull), or if you just need to find out what all the fuss is over matadors in pink socks who strut around in their brocade costumes a little like a peacock and then stab swords into bulls that have already been bled by an armored picador on horseback, then this is your chance. There are corridas de toros all each week leading up to the Fiesta and then each day of the final weekend. I went once, told myself that it was a ceremonial slaughter to feed the festival, which helped me stomach it, and have never been to another fight again.

Beauty Pageants:
Another debatable spectacle, but as key to understanding Ecuadorian culture, past and present, as watching the indigenous dances, the beauty pageants are the most popular and discussed of the events.

For the pageants the flowers of Ambato, girls from the local high schools, universities, and even the police academy, vie for the title of Reina, or Queen, of the city. The faces and figures of the finalists are plastered on posters around the downtown for weeks in anticipation of the final selection, when there is a parade of the candidates through the town and then a televised contest. The Reina will become a figurehead and general spokesperson for the community for the next year and it is a highly coveted position – in fact the strongest deterrent of teenaged marriage for many girls.

Parades:

The fruits and flowers of Ecuador wave to the crowds
The fruits and flowers of Ecuador wave to the crowds
The chosen Reina becomes the centerpiece for the largest parade of the Fiesta – the Desfile de las Frutas y Flores. This parade is an all day spectacle that highlights the beauty queens from nearby cities and towns and even a representative queen from the Ambateños who live abroad in the United States. The dolled up girls ride on floats fashioned out of fruits and flowers and little bread loafs (bread in Ecuador is usually prepared in single serving rolls – each town has their own recipe). On the floats with the beauty queens ride small children, representing the fruit beside the flowers.

Amidst the floats are the dancers. There are troops from all over South America exhibiting their regional dances as well as indiginas, as the indigenous Ecuadorians are called, that come down from their villages to perform their particular dances. Less traditional dancers, like one group of young women dressed to look like little girls riding ostriches, keep things varied.

he other big parade of the Fiesta is the Ronda Nocturna, which is more or less a repeat of the daytime desfile, but with fire and fireworks thrown in.

Ecuadorian dancers performing traditional dances in the streets of Ambato
Ecuadorian dancers performing traditional dances in the streets of Ambato
For all parades, arrive early for a good spot and be creative – often people will let you join them on top of trucks or walls if you ask for an invitation. Some hotels set out seats for their clientele.

Fiestas:
There are barrio parties in neighborhoods throughout the month of February. For example, the night of the Reina selection, the barrio in which she lives will throw a party in her honor. The printed schedule, usually available for free from the kiosk near the front of the Cathedral, will list some of these parties, others are announced by word of mouth.

The Festival de Luces y Estrellas (the Festival of Lights and Stars) is a frightening display of fireworks both in the sky, shot from a hill above the city and in the streets where elaborate scaffolds light up, spin around, shoot colored sparks and basically burn up.

During all of these parties, there will be shaving cream, spray streamers, and confetti, not to mention spilt wine, so be prepared (see Precautions for more on this).

The Blessing:
While much of this celebration is one of fertility, fun, and fire, Carnival is a religious holiday. Therefore, on the Saturday prior to Lent, an outdoor mass is held in front of the Cathedral. It is called the Bendición de Flores, Frutas y Pan, the Blessing of Flowers, Fruits, and Bread, and as an offering to this cause an enormous mural constructed entirely of these three elements is hung across the front of the Cathedral. The mural is different every year but is usually a depiction of Jesus amidst local symbols. Arrive early for a good perch on the fence around Parque Montalvo.

The evening prior to the mass, many people come to oooh and ahhhh at the hanging of the mural. This is actually a better time to see the piece since the crowds are jammed in to hear the Bishop in the morning.

Precautions:
1. This is the biggest Carnival celebration in the country, thus, everyone who is anyone is there. This does not exclude the thieves. I lived in Ambato for almost a year and was never touched until things started to gear up for the Fiesta. Then, boarding a bus, I got grabbed and pushed suspiciously and returned the gesture with a hard elbow to somebody’s breast. Once free of the milieu, I discovered my bag, a shoulder bag that I wore under by arm, pressed against my body, had been slashed. So be sure to wear all valuables (cash, passport, etc…) under your clothing as the Ecuadorians themselves do. If you plan to partake in the peach wine and caña (cane liquor), hide your things in your hotel room or check them at the desk if you dare rather than take them with you.

2. Drinking in Ecuador is a strange beast. If you want to watch before you play, an acceptable excuse to bow out of drinking is to claim you are taking medication for stomach critters. People drink by passing around a cup of caña, wine, or cheap liquor of choice. The entertainment is not only drinking all together, but pressuring others to keep up and then some. As a newcomer, you are likely to be a focus of attention and as good hosts, they will not let you go until you fall – which might not take long at an altitude over 9,000 feet. This game goes on until there is no man still standing (women may play a toned down version – often playing with fruit wine while men drink liquor – but it is less acceptable for them to get really drunk). I have seen a room of 5 men drink as many bottles of rum. Drunk driving is rampant, and you are guaranteed to see at least one man passed out across a sidewalk the next day, missing a shoe but still gripping his bottle. Just be careful and know that there are taxis available at all hours in all barrios.

3. Less dangerous but potentially annoying are the people who “play Carnival.” In most of Ecuador, playing Carnival means throwing water on people – a small child will blast you with his squirt gun and his shy-looking mother and everyone around will crack up laughing, or a man on a passing bus will take the opportunity to toss a cupful of water on your head as you walk down the street. The best one I had in Quito was a bus that had apparently rigged a water gun behind the front grill and as I crossed the street in front of it, I got drenched. In Ambato, which is very arid, water throwing is illegal. Instead, people use shaving cream, spray foam, confetti, or whatever else they can think of. Gringos are a popular target. People who take offense, run, or otherwise resist increase their risk of being hit. It is best to be prepared to laugh it off, or, better yet, come prepared for the fun with your own arsenal.

When you go:
The nicest hotels are in Miraflores. They are overpriced but private, quiet, and secure. Avoid staying around Parque 12 which is central but shady. The Hotel Ambato claims to be the finest there is. Do reserve ahead of time because places will book up for the holiday.

There are many so-so restaurants in the center of town but nothing fabulous to speak of. La Fornace on Cevallos has nice atmosphere, exceptional service, and wood oven pizzas. The shwarma place across the street and a few blocks down is cheap and very good. The coziest bar is Cuba Son and the hippest with local kids (some do not look over 15) is Martha’s, a.k.a los vinos after their heated and spiced peach wine, across from Hotel Ambato.

Finally, on your way back to Quito, ignore everything your doctor told you about what not to eat abroad and try the helados in Salcedo (a girl will get on your bus with a cooler full). This fruit ice cream on a stick is better than any I’ve eaten in my whole life and worth any risk.

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