South America Travel: Your Guide to Carnival in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia
Carnival festivities are full of characterful costumes, entertainment, and foam . . . lots of foam. Originally a Catholic event, Carnival began as a time to celebrate and eat amply before the solemn 40 days of Lent. Carnival celebrations in South America are stunningly diverse. While they share many similarities—specifically carrying the same spirit of mischievous antics and infectious party vibes—each country and even each city has its own twist on Carnival. No matter which country you visit on your South America travels, you will have the time of your life, partying among street parades and indigenous traditions.
In between watching dancers with feathery costumes to throwing water balloons, Carnival is sure to please. If your South America travels include the carnival holiday, check out our guide to Carnival in 3 different countries. Carnival is just around the corner, and here we highlight the best celebrations in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
No one is safe as both kids and adults spray foam at each other in the streets of Quito. They also throw water, eggs, and flour. In Quito’s Old Town, you’ll find parades with dancers and bands dressed in traditional garments. However, some of the best carnival celebrations are actually in smaller cities outside of the nation’s capital.
The city is most notorious for its Festival of Fruits and Flowers. Cloaked in bright colors and fresh fruit, this celebration takes place every year during Carnival and holds special meaning to the locals. It began in 1950 as a symbol of hope and resilience after the destructive 1949 earthquake damaged most of the city. The festival grows bigger and bigger each year, currently boasting a massive amount of floats and dance troupes. Floats are donned with fruits, especially apples and pears which are so readily available during this time of year, and an abundance of flowers. A Queen of Ambato is elected and she serves to guide the festival celebrations. The same floats can be seen again as the parade is enjoyed again at night, now lit up with bright flashing lights.
Both Ambato and Guaranda are considered the Carnival capitals of Ecuador. Carnival in Guaranda is a vibrant time with people filling the streets daily, watching parades of bright floats, dancers, and bands. Celebrations begin when Father Carnival strolls in with a climactic entrance. He is an important figure, serving to guide the parade and festivities. Guaranda is known for its alcoholic drink, Pájaro Azul or “Blue Bird.” Those in attendance of the festivities will be regularly offered sips of the beverage, and party hosts will relentlessly insist that you take a drink. Large crowds attend Guaranda’s party celebrations and you can expect to be hit with water, flour, and foam. Be prepared and buy a can of foam to hit back!
Montañita, known as surfers’ paradise, attracts more of a younger crowd. Known for being a party destination year-round, the parties are even bigger during Carnival. The people, live music, parties, and craziness are all amplified during Carnival, and streets are full of people engaging in foam and water fights.
Lima throws hundreds of parties all around the city. Because the city is so large, there is no one centralized Carnival party. Make no mistake, Lima is still a great Carnival destination as there are parties all throughout the city. It is especially hot in Lima during this time, so the water balloon fights feel particularly cooling. The city is full of colorful parades and free concerts, but similarly to Quito in Ecuador, grander parties can be found outside of the country’s capital city.
Carnival in Cusco is a unique and traditional experience. The festivities are merry and chaotic, and the streets are a splash of color, decorated with confetti, balloons, and streamers. Rag dolls are hung from lampposts. A popular tradition called yunza is reminiscent of hitting a piñata. People attempt to knock down a tree that is dressed with gifts and balloons. People dance around the tree while couples take turns trying to chop it down with an axe. Whoever causes it to fall is the host for next year’s yunza festivities. When the tree falls, children run up to grab the gifts. As with most Carnival celebrations, you are sure to end the day wet from water balloons and foam.
Peruvians know Cajamarca to be the best place to celebrate Carnival. It is the most exuberant and largest celebration in the country. Among highly decorated streets, people gather in the Plaza de Armas during this jubilant weekend. This sleepy town becomes lively in February, entertaining the craziest Carnival party in the country. One can enjoy water fights, dancing, music, and the yunza tradition. Different communities wear brilliant colorful costumes and dance in parades on Sunday and Monday. Carnival Monday is an especially big deal, hosting a massive parade that attracts thousands of onlookers every year.
Carnival in Ayacucho is known as the most traditional celebration in Peru. In fact, Peru’s National Institute of Culture proclaimed it to be a significant aspect of Peruvian heritage due to its authentic and spirited depiction of Andean culture. Primary celebrations take place on Sunday and Monday with grand parades full of animated floats, vivid costumes, dynamic dancers, and musicians playing drums, accordions, guitars, and flutes. In 2017, it was predicted that over 25,000 visitors, from both Peru and around the world, would attend Carnival in Ayacucho. Ayacucho attracts large crowds, and guests ought to book lodging in advance. Everyone ends Carnival in Ayacucho wet, doused in colored powder and bright paint.
Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia is one of the most fascinating in all of South America. This little mining town hosts one of the most famous Carnival celebrations in South America. The festival takes place the entire weekend, and this never-ending party contains splendid dances depicting traditional folktales as well as festive music and fanciful costumes.
Hundreds of thousands of people visit Oruro for Carnival with crowds of up to half a million people. The main parade is on Saturday and can last up to 20 hours involving over 20,000 dancers. Participants pull out all the stops with their exorbitant costumes containing masks, horns, capes, and boots. Adorned with serpents and sporting bulging eyes, crooked teeth, and grotesque masks, these costumes are often scary as they are impressive.
The parades consist of many processions with ancestral dances and traditional characters. Carnival here originally began as an indigenous celebration, and Christian observances were later added, giving respects to the Virgin of Candelaria (Virgin of Socavón). Therefore, Oruro’s Carnival is a blend of indigenous traditions with Christian influences.
One notable procession centers around the theme of Good and Evil. Angels and devils emerge, and the angels try to kill the devils. Pachamama, or Mother Earth, appears among the scene, and they try to kill her as well. She is ultimately freed.
Another procession, called morenada, pays tribute to the sacrifice made by African slaves in Bolivian plantations. The parade’s main dance is La Diablada, or “Dance of the Devil.” Dancers are dressed in devil costumes and gather around El Tio, representing Lucifer. The dance ends when Archangel San Miguel claims victory and conquers El Tio.
Carnival in Oruro, Bolivia is UNESCO-recognized as a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” It is an incredible celebration which should be experienced by everybody at least once in their life. Of course, like every Carnival celebration, you won’t leave without getting wet. You will probably be splashed with a bucket of water, hit by water balloons, and sprayed with foam. You will have no choice but to join the fun and spray other people as well! With many visitors flocking to this small town, accommodation sells out fast. If you choose to partake in this exhilarating experience, be sure to book your hotel far in advance.
Many of these places on this list attract visitors far and wide, so we recommend booking accommodation well ahead of time. It’s certainly not too early to begin planning your Carnival 2021 trip and start looking into accommodation and flights. For those visiting South America this weekend for Carnival 2020, we wish you a great time!
Carnival is thrilling holiday full of frenzied fun and saturated colors. It can also be quite chaotic, and without knowing the areas and festivities well, it can be difficult to navigate. To make the most out of your Carnival holiday in South America, consider visiting any of these countries with a Gulliver tour. Contact us to start planning today!