Becoming Cuenca

Life Is Celebrated In Cuenca

Nov 15, 2022

“Life is like a roller coaster, live it, be happy, enjoy life.” ~Avril Lavigne

The Canadian singer and songwriter could easily be talking about the people of Cuenca, Ecuador. That attitude seems to be prevalent throughout the city as it seems that anytime it is possible to celebrate life, it happens.

Every December, Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism announces the national holidays for the following year. How cool is that? This year, there were 20 national holidays. For comparison, the United States only has 11 federal holidays. Most American companies have fewer than that.

Ecuador has a thriving tradition of holidays, festivals, and celebrations. Most months include at least one major festival or long weekend. And the holiday usually involves colorful ceremonies and lavish feasts.

To give you an idea of special days in Ecuador, I have compiled a list for Cuenca. Those marked with an asterisk are officially recognized holidays during which most government offices and businesses close. Please note because of the ever-changing calendar, some of these holidays are not celebrated on a set date.

January 1: New Year’s Day*

January 6: Three Kings Day (Epiphany)

February 27: National Community Spirit Day

February / March: Carnaval*

Easter and Holy Week*

May 1: Labor Day*

May 24: Battle of Pichincha*

June: Corpus Christi

July 24: Simón Bolívar’s Birthday*

August 10: Quito Independence Day*

September: Harvest festivals throughout Ecuador

October 9: Guayaquil Independence Day*

October 12: Columbus Day*

November 1: All Saints’ Day*

November 2: All Souls’ Day (Day of the Dead)*

November 3: Cuenca Independence Day*

December 24: Christmas Eve*

December 25: Christmas Day*

December 31: Year’s End Celebrations

For many of these holidays, there is always something happening in historic El Centro. The New Cathedral (La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción de Cuenca) tends to be the heart of all celebrations. Why not? It is in the middle of the historic district. And Parque Abdón Calderón is right across the street, with Plaza de las Flores on another side of the cathedral.

Although the dates change annually according to the religious calendar, Carnaval is always celebrated as a long weekend prior to Ash Wednesday. Carnaval is the ultimate party in Latin America. No one can beat Brazil for Carnaval (and that includes New Orleans) but, celebrations here are rather big that include water balloon fights and lavish parades.

Holy Saturday (the last day of Holy Week and ends the season of Lent) is the only national holiday which stores must be closed. On the other days of this religious period, merchants decide whether to open or close.

It is a good thing I am not a diabetic.

I am surprised that most of Cuenca does not have diabetes.

Especially with Corpus Christi.

Not the city in Texas, but the religious holiday.

Like many Catholic festivals in Ecuador, Corpus Christi has become a celebration that combines Spanish-Catholicism with Andean culture. Corpus Christi occurs 60 days after Easter Sunday and honors the sacrifice of Jesus.

When Joanna and I went to this year’s celebration, we saw over a hundred vendors set up in El Centro, around the New Cathedral and Parque Calderón with tons of sweets.

I am not exaggerating.

These vendors are selling “Corpus Sweets” of all shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. There is definitely something here for everyone who has a sweet tooth.

This custom was initiated by the nuns of the convents and the families belonging to the nobility of Cuenca, who prepared them to give them to people close to them. Today they are delicacies made with recipes that have passed from generation to generation.

Alfajores (a traditional sandwich cookie filled with dulce de leche and rolled in coconut), cookies, doughnuts, nougat (aerated confection made by mixing nuts and sometimes fruit pieces in a sugar paste), quesadillas, and quesitos (cream cheese-filled pastry twist) are just some of the delicacies that can be found.

Corpus Christi is a seven-day festival.

And why not?

Cuenca loves a festival.

Even if you are not sure about the street juggler.

And certainly, Cuencanos enjoys the sweet offerings.

November is a very interesting month for Cuenca. Right at the beginning of the month, you have All Saints’ Day (Día de Todos los Santos), All Souls’ Day / Day of the Dead (Día de los Difuntos), and Cuenca Independence Day.

All Saints Day is celebrated on November 1st. It is the smallest of the three holidays as it focuses on children who have passed away. Guagua de Pan is a traditional bread that is shared with family for this special day. It has a similar shape to the Gingerbread Man in the 2001 movie, Shrek.

This sweet bread is usually accompanied with Colada Morada, a rich, purple fruity drink that literally translates to “strained purple.” The Ecuadorian drink is made with fruits, spices, and purple corn flour. Colada Morada is the traditional drink of Ecuador and dates back to pre-colonial times.

What is interesting to note is that All Hallows Eve (October 31st) is not observed religiously. Like the rest of the world, the American-style Halloween celebrations have started to gain in popularity in recent years. Every year you will see more people dressed up in Halloween costumes. It is another example of American culture creeping into other societies.

All Souls’ Day is the most celebrated as it honors all who have died. The cheerful and hearty ceremony is designed to celebrate the lives of those who have passed away. On All Souls’ Day / Day of the Dead, families visit cemeteries to dance, drink, eat, and to leave flowers and other offerings for deceased friends and relatives.

The Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism said the following about this holiday: “Some indigenous communities go to the cemetery to visit their relatives and loved ones and symbolically share a meal with them at their gravesites. This ritual is based on the belief that death is just another step to another life similar to this one.”

The culmination of three days of festivities, is Cuenca’s biggest annual celebration: “Independencia de Cuenca.”  Several people (expats and Cuencanos) have told us that Cuenca’s Independence Day is bigger than Christmas. Wow!

After the First Proclamation of Independence on August 10, 1809, and the Declaration of Independence of Guayaquil on October 9, 1820, patriots from Cuenca were inspired to declare independence.

According to a historical document, “Patriots in Cuenca learned about Guayaquil reaching its Independence on October 9, 1820. This event inspired them to prepare a plan to hold an Open Town Council and to swear the Independence of Cuenca in it. Patriots came up with a plan to stock up on weaponry. The plan was executed on November 3, 1820, and it consisted of disarming the military escort. With very little weapons in their power and commanded by Tomás Ordoñez, patriots barricaded themselves in the Plaza de San Sebastián along with a large number of citizens who supported them and this way they proclaimed the freedom and independence of the Province of Cuenca.”

The Spaniards retreated with all their ammunition. On the very next day, the Spanish, isolated and with no public support, decide to surrender their weapons to the patriots and the government to the revolution.

That same historical document adds, “The triumphant patriots made their way to the Central Plaza amid cheers, shouts, and acclamations of freedom. They entered the street, today known as Juan Jaramillo, and that before, due to this event, was known as Calle de La Victoria.”

For this year’s celebration. it seemed that the whole city of Cuenca was out and about. I think half of the city was selling things while the other half was browsing, eating, and having fun.

Everywhere we went, red and yellow were hanging and waving in the wind. Even on our walk along Paseo 3 de Noviembre, the colors of Cuenca were omni-present.

Everything you could think of seemed to be for sale in the hundreds of tents from Plaza Otorongo all the way down river to Broken Bridge (Puente Roto). Though it was a long day for the vendors, most had smiles.

Taking it all in for four days can make you dog tired (I think that is what happened to this beautiful dog outside at Jodoco Belgian Bistro).

On Christmas Eve, Ecuadorians celebrate a special mass called the Misa de Gallo, or “Rooster Mass.” Bigger than that is the Paseo del Niño (Walk of the Child) parade. This is a Catholic tradition where locals take part in a huge procession and accompany the statues of the baby Jesus on a walk through the city streets. These statues typically have a special place in the family home. Children dress up as different characters from the Christmas nativity, and march from Iglesia del Corazón de Jesús to Iglesia del Carmen de la Asuncion.

Cuenca’s Christmas Eve parade is by far the most famous and well-known in the country. It is not an exaggeration to say this famous parade will last at least eight hours. One reason is that it seems that everyone in the city participates in the parade as well as watches the parade. It is definitely a community event.

To give you an idea how huge Cuenca’s holiday parade is, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City is billed as the world’s largest parade. With an estimated 2 to 3 million spectators, the parade lasts a mere three hours. Spend five more hours in El Centro!

I need to add that if you love celebrating Christmas and enjoying the holiday spirit, Cuenca is the place to be. Cuencanos get into the Christmas spirit very earlier… a lot earlier than Americans.

Decorations for Christmas are up before the end of October at many homes. We have a neighbor who lives on the third floor, whose departamento faces the street. Their beautiful blue Christmas tree is usually up in the window by the second week of October. Our next-door neighbor had his small Christmas tree and lights up before the big four-day holiday weekend in Cuenca.

As the Scottish-American financial journalist and author, B.C. Forbes, said, “Christmas is a tonic for our souls. It moves us to think of others rather than of ourselves. It directs our thoughts to giving.” That is Cuenca.

Don’t let the fiery photo scare you! Starting with the Day of the Innocents, the entire nation symbolically prepares to enter a new year by burning human effigies in the streets.

Day of the Innocents is also known as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It is commemorated on December 28th. On this day, the Catholic Church honors the first martyrs. These were the children of Israel killed by King Herod in his quest to find baby Jesus.

On New Year’s Eve, there is no shortage of monigotes. All along Av. Primero de Mayo you will find vendors in tents selling the dolls stuffed with sawdust, cardboard, or newspaper. A couple of years ago, our taxi had to stop for the late-afternoon traffic jam as Ecuadoreans were out en masse buying monigotes that represent a character from politics, cinema, music, or even the family. The options are diverse and endless.

Made from ​papier-mâché, they are waiting for New Year’s evening to arrive. Similar to the lost British tradition “Penny For the Guy,” it is traditional to donate small change for the best prepared effigy dolls. Some of the monigotes are life-sized mannequins.

They represent the Año Viejo (Old Year). The Ecuadorean tradition with the monigotes is to leave behind all of the trials and tribulations of the current year, and to welcome better luck and fortune in the coming one. It is to receive the New Year with renewed energy, projects, and goals.

For this reason, political figures are very common. People remember the bad things that came from politics that year that adversely affected the country. Animals seem to be very popular. I have no idea why a cow is represented in this December 31st tradition, but it was part of the collection at La Yunta Restaurante. It is where Joanna and I celebrated a previous New Year’s Eve with ​our dear friends​, Niki and Lee.

At the stroke of midnight, the Año Viejo dolls and face masks are set on fire in the street. That is what you see in my fiery photo above.

The monigotes occasionally contain firecrackers and Chinese rockets. In our case, employees of the restaurant stuffed firecrackers into the monigotes before setting them ablaze ​with disinfectant alcohol. Tradition dictates that you jump over the resulting fire twelve times to ensure happiness and prosperity in the coming year. We passed on that one.

What many people don’t know though is that the Año Viejo ritual originated from tragedy. Back in 1895, a yellow fever epidemic hit Guayaquil, devastating the city. Family members stuffed coffins with the clothes of the dead, and set them on fire, symbolizing purification from the disease and new beginnings. A vaccine for this deadly viral infection was not developed for another 44 years.

At our New Year Eve’s celebration, the wonderful owner of La Yunta Restaurante, Sole Riquetti de Gould, brought out a couple of sky lanterns. Also known as Kongmíng lantern or Chinese lantern, it is a small hot air balloon made of paper, with an opening at the bottom where a small fire is suspended.

When lit, the flame heats the air inside the lantern, thus lowering its density and causing the lantern to rise into the air. The sky lantern is only airborne for as long as the flame stays alight, after which the lantern sinks back to the ground. How these lanterns fit into Ecuador’s New Year’s Eve traditions, I have no clue. All I know that it is rather popular these days.

New Year’s Eve in Ecuador is one of the biggest events of the year. Both Joanna and I think it easily outdoes Estados Unidos. One example is that for a solid fifteen minutes (from midnight to 12:15 a.m.), the skies above Cuenca will be full of fireworks. These pyrotechnic displays are from the residents of Cuenca.

If you move here, you better get used to fireworks. New Year’s Eve may be the time for fireworks, but anytime of the day and week may have you hearing fireworks. That includes 6:45 a.m. as I finish writing this post.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.



Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.