If you’re thinking of Carnival celebrations in South America, you’re probably thinking of the massive parties in the streets in Rio de Janeiro. While Brazil may get a lot of the Carnival attention, Carnival in Ecuador is its own incredible celebration and party, with something to offer for everyone.
Not only is Ecuador Carnival a fantastic party, but it’s also a cultural celebration that is affordable and accessible to travelers in ways that Carnival in Rio is not. Carnival Ecuador celebrations and traditions are varied, community-centered, and unmissable.
After two years of celebrating Carnival in Ecuador, it easily became one of my favorite holidays in Ecuador – and Carnival is one of the most important festivals in Ecuador. Keep reading this ultimate guide to Carnival in Ecuador for my favorite insider tips on exactly how and where to celebrate Ecuadorian Carnival!
What is Carnival?
Carnival is a celebratory season that takes place in countries around the world, originating from the Roman Catholic religious calendar and celebrated before Lent and Easter. Celebrated just before the solemn forty-day religious observance of Lent, Carnival is generally associated with doing all the things that can’t traditionally be done during lent, like eating rich foods, drinking, partying, and more.
While Carnival is celebrated differently in countries around the world, it generally includes public parades, parties, and other celebrations. In Latin America, it is generally celebrated with ornate costumes, dancing, and parades – like many Carnival Ecuador celebrations are known for.
The Carnival celebrations of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Trinidad and Tobago, and New Orleans, Louisiana (known there are Mardi Gras) are particularly famous.
Carnival in Ecuador is celebrated a little differently in each city and town. Some things differ from place to place, and some are pretty universal. The day before Carnival and the day of Carnival Ecuador celebrates national holidays, you’re sure to find special events wherever you go.
Traditions You’ll Find Almost Everywhere:
Parades with bands and traditional music and dance;
Concerts and performances in public parks and theaters;
Food festivals and plazas filled with food stalls selling Ecuadorian food.
In some towns, particularly those with large indigenous populations, you may find unique traditions that mingle indigenous celebrations with those of the Catholic roots of Carnival. Guaranda, particularly, has Ecuador Carnival celebrations firmly rooted in indigenous beliefs and practices.
How is Carnival Celebrated in Ecuador?
One of the most popular and traditional ways to celebrate Carnival in Ecuador includes “playing” Ecuador Carnival games in the streets or in parks or plazas. Traditional Ecuadorian Carnival games include throwing colored powder, flour, water, or eggs.
Even more popular, participants purchase canisters filled with foam – similar to shaving cream – and spray it at friends, family, and neighbors on the streets.
Not everywhere in Ecuador celebrates this way anymore – many large cities only permit Ecuadorian Carnival “games” in certain areas. Unless you’re in a small town or an area where you can see others playing Carnival, you’re not likely to be surprised by flying foam or flour!
If you’re looking to get involved, I recommend checking out Guaranda and Amaguaña – the streets of these towns are filled with Ecuador Carnival games the days surrounding Carnival.
If Ecuador Carnival games sound messy, they are – José even got an egg smashed on his head one year! – but it’s also a lot of fun and an unforgettable experience if you participate! Bring clothes you won’t mind getting stained, and put anything you don’t want to get wet in a plastic bag.
When is Carnival in Ecuador?
Ecuador Carnival is celebrated in accordance with the Roman Catholic religious calendar and generally falls in February or March every year. Carnival immediately precedes Ash Wednesday, which falls 40 days before Easter.
Carnival is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
Carnival 2023 is Tuesday, February 19th.
- Carnival 2024 is February 9th.
However, Carnival is actually celebrated in Ecuador for more than just Carnival Tuesday. The day before Carnival and Carnival Tuesday itself are national holidays, meaning that most festivities extend from the preceding Saturday through Carnival Tuesday. Some celebrations precede this by almost a month, with parades and presentations “kicking off” Ecuador Carnival in early February.
If you’ll be visiting Ecuador around this time, check with your Airbnb host or at your hotel or hostel about any cultural events in town, Carnival related or otherwise.
Excited kids that manage to get their hands on foam canisters before Carnival sometimes play their own Ecuador Carnival games up to a month in advance, though usually with each other rather than bystanders.
Carnival Ecuador Celebrations
Carnival is celebrated in cities and towns around Ecuador. Most cities and towns will have some sort of traditional Carnival celebration, even if just marked by locals taking over a street or park and throwing foam and colored powder or water at each other while eating and drinking together.
However, if you’re looking for the full Carnival experience, there are a few places that really go above and beyond with their Carnival celebrations.
Where to Celebrate Carnival in Ecuador:
The small city of Ambato and town of Guaranda don’t draw many visitors the rest of the year, but fill up during Carnival times and put on some of the largest and most festive celebrations in all of Ecuador.
Cuenca and Quito also have large Carnival celebrations including parades, parties, and plazas set up with food stalls to celebrate culture and enjoy the holiday.
- About an hour outside of Quito, the small town of Amaguaña also has a very large Carnival celebration that many come from Quito to celebrate.
Since Carnival is a long weekend and national holiday, many Ecuadorians will flock to the coast or other popular destinations for vacation, like the cloud forest of Mindo, Quilotoa Crater Lake, or the Amazon city of Tena. Expect this long weekend to be a busy one for travel in Ecuador, whenever you go.
Carnival in Quito Ecuador
Carnival in Quito Ecuador focuses Carnival celebrations on cultural events like parades, concerts, and performances, which make it a great time to visit the city if you time your trip right.
There is plenty to see, do, and eat in the city around this time of the year, and it’s a fantastic way to experience one of the favorite holidays in Ecuador.
Carnival Parades in Quito
Quito generally hosts two Carnival parades in the Old Town center of the city, one starting on the Monday morning before Carnival and the other on the morning of Carnival Tuesday. These are fantastic events to attend, and are highly recommended if you’ll be in Quito for Carnival.
You’ll also find musical performances and dance performances on stages around the city, and food tents set up to sell street food around the city, as well near concert or parade sites.
While traditional music and dance are popular to celebrate Carnival, there are also events with more modern music. Check out concerts at Quito’s Parque Bicentenario, the city’s old airport which has been transformed into a park in the north of the city. There is often a famous headliner that you might recognize.
Playing Carnival in Quito
In 2013, Quito banned the traditional Ecuador Carnival “games” of spraying foam, throwing flour and colored powder in public spaces and in the streets. Carnival Ecuador traditions in Quito are now more focused on cultural celebration rather than these popular Carnival “games.”
If you’re planning on spending Carnival in Quito and are looking for a more traditional Carnival “games” experience, spraying foam and throwing water and powder in the streets, make sure to make a short trip to the small town Amaguaña, just outside the city. It’s one of Ecuador’s best Carnival celebrations and an unforgettable experience.
Carnival in Amaguaña Ecuador
Amaguaña is a rural community outside of Quito, a little more than an hour away by bus or about half an hour by car. It is considered one of the best places near Quito to celebrate Carnival, and many Quito residents come here to celebrate Carnival. Every year, nearly 75,000 people visit Amaguaña just to celebrate Carnival.
Quito’s Carnival Destination
After Quito largely banned playing traditionally Ecuadorian Carnival “games” like spraying foam and throwing flour and water, Amaguaña attracts those looking for that traditional experience while staying close to Quito. If you’re going to spend Carnival in Quito, making a day trip to Amaguaña can be a great way to get a small-town, more traditional Ecuador Carnival celebration.
On Carnival Tuesday (and the preceding weekend and Monday) Amaguaña is overtaken by traditional Ecuadorian Carnival festivities, with many parks and streets throughout the town overtaken by those playing Carnival games. You will get covered in powder and water, so come prepared!
In addition to parades and music, you’ll find food carts and stalls set up, particularly near the fairground and amphitheater, as well as some games for kids and carnival rides. Fritada (boiled and fried pork), mote (corn) and cuy (guinea pig) are popular Ecuadorian Carnival foods eaten here.
Carnival Parades in Amaguaña
There are parades through the town during the weekend before Carnival and on the day itself, though their route and exact schedule can change each year. Traditional dance groups, music, floats, and theatrical performances make these parades very well attended. In the Coliseo de Amaguaña amphitheater in town, there are back-to-back music and dance performances throughout the weekend.
Transportation to Amaguaña from Quito
From the Playón de la Marin bus station near the Old Town in Quito, take the Amaguaña bus line until the end of the line, about an hour or an hour and a half depending on traffic. On Carnival days, the bus will leave you at the entrance of the town, as streets are generally blocked off.
Once you see people covered in foam and colored powder, you’ll know you’re in the right place. Buses leave Amaguaña regularly to return to Quito throughout the afternoon, though are less frequent in the evening.
Carnival in Cuenca Ecuador
While celebrations for Carnival in Cuenca Ecuador might not be as well known as celebrations in Ambato or Guaranda, celebrating in this gorgeous colonial town is still very special. Carnival or not, Cuenca is a great addition to any Ecuador travel itinerary – check out this guide to Cuenca, Ecuador for more on the incredible things this town has to offer.
Cuenca hosts a huge parade the Thursday before Carnival, on what is known in Cuenca as El Jueves de Compadres y Comadres – a traditional day to celebrate with friends sharing treats and traditional foods. There is generally another parade the Saturday before Carnival throughout the city with elaborate costumes and prizes awarded for best costume.
You can find people “playing” Carnival games by throwing colored powder and spraying foam in Cuenca, though as it is a larger city, it won’t be as likely as it would be in a smaller town like Guaranda or Amaguaña. Ask at your accommodation or with other locals where and when you can expect to find this if you’re interested.
Ecuador Carnival Food
Cuenca also places a lot of emphasis on celebrating its traditional foods during Carnival – you can expect to find special food stalls and stands set up in the markets around town to try them. Do a self-guided Ecuadorian Carnival food tour of these markets:
Mercado 12 de Abril;
Mercado 9 de Octubre;
Mercado el Arenal;
Mercado 10 de Agosto.
A popular Carnival food in Cuenca is the “mote pata” – a stew consisting of boiled corn with bacon and chunks of pork.
Carnival in Guaranda Ecuador
Guaranda is a small town in central Ecuador, and hosts perhaps the Carnival Ecuador is best known for. This is one of the best places in Ecuador to celebrate Carnival – Carnival in Guaranda Ecuador is the town’s claim to fame, so much so that it is called “the City of Eternal Carnivals.”
The Carnival Ecuador is most known for kicks off every year with a welcome from “Taita Carnival,” the symbolic host of Carnival, recalling the traditional indigenous roots of Carnival mixed with Catholic roots as well.
Indigenous Roots of Carnival
In Guaranda, the indigenous roots of Carnival are more on display than in many other cities in Ecuador. While Carnival comes from Catholicism, it also represents an indigenous celebration to thank the gods for fertility and productive agriculture.
Ecuador Holidays and Traditions
There is a Carnival legend in Guaranda that two young lovers – Carna and Valerio – fell asleep in a field and were blessed by the “Gran Taita,” the great Father. He was so moved by their love that he ordered Nature to write a song for them from the bird song and wind. The chief of the village was so taken by the song that he ordered a three-day festival to celebrate. Thus, Carnival in Guaranda Ecuador – “Carnavales de Guaranda” – was born.
Carnival Parades in Guaranda
Carnival celebrations in Guaranda kick off a full week before Carnival Tuesday, meaning there is plenty of time to visit Guaranda and experience Carnival here. There are parades throughout the small town during this entire period, and you’re never going to be far from a musical performance, traditional dance exposition, or food stalls set up in the street.
Guaranda is about an hour and a half away from Ambato, which means you could easily enjoy Carnival celebrations in both cities during one long Carnival weekend.
Carnival in Ambato Ecuador
Carnival in Ambato Ecuador hosts one of Ecuador’s biggest and most festive Carnival celebrations. It coincides with the Fiesta de las Flores y las Frutas (Festival of the Flowers and Fruits), a 70-year old celebration of life and abundance started in Ambato after a devastating earthquake in 1949. These events collide for a massive and varied Carnival well worth visiting.
Ambato can be reached in 2 ½ hours by car from Quito, or about 4 hours by bus – buses depart frequently from Quitumbe bus station in south Quito.
Carnival Parades in Ambato
The Festival of the Flowers and Fruits colliding with Carnival means that there are multiple large events in Ambato, especially parades that we well worth visiting. There is a popular Desfile de la Confraternidad parade on the Sunday before Carnival, although I recommend the Ronda Nocturnal if you can make it!
On the last evening of the festival, the day of Carnival, the Ronda Nocturnal is the crowning jewel of the celebration. This evening parade features countless floats that are covered with flowers, fruits, and even pastries – they are extremely ornate and impressive. The parade also includes bands, traditional dance groups from Ecuador and across Latin America, and more.
The route of the parade starts on Avenida Pedro Fermín Cevallos until Calle J.J Olmedo, and continues down Avenida Simón Bolívar.
While there are some areas with bleachers set up along the route, many stand or sit on the curb. Some wise entrepreneurs sell plastic stools for $5 as well to those lining the curb.
We were both very impressed by the parade, even after witnessing many other traditional parades and activities while living in Ecuador for years. The Ronda Noctural sets Carnival in Ambato Ecuador apart and definitely warrants the bus ride to Ambato!
While local authorities have technically banned and limited playing Carnival “games” like throwing foam and powders, you’re bound to encounter some, especially the evening of the Ronda Nocturnal.