Saturday, February 13, 2010

Off to Carnaval

Fiesta de Frutas y Flores

Mural of Fruits, Breads and Flowers

Eric is arriving home from Galapagos today, and has a colleague flying in from Montreal late tonight, so he will not travel to Ambato with us to celebrate Carnaval until late tomorrow. Maya and I drove to Ambato with my friend Maria, her husband Hernan, and their son Gabriel, who is eight. They were concerned about the holiday traffic, so arrived at 7:30 AM, armed with a briefcase full of books to keep Maya and Gabriel occupied. The route south was not horribly congested, and we made good time until the area around Cotopaxi, where the cars slowed to a crawl. It turned out that a truck spilled its load of cartons of beer bottles, so there was beer and glass all over the road, and we were diverted to avoid damage to our tires.


Lunch in a Grotto

Cotopaxi was resplendent and visible first thing in the day, but faded behind clouds by mid-morning. I was stunned at how cold it was when we took a break near the bottle crash site. It warmed up when we arrived at Latacunga, where we took a detour to taste 'Chuchucara', the local pork specialty. We stopped at a very bizarre restaurant designed as a fantasy grotto, with four levels of fanciful stonework. The children loved running up and down the stairs and checking out the hiding places. Chuchucara consisted of a platter with chunks of pork, potatoes, plantains, canguil (popcorn), tostados (toasted corn), mote (type of white corn) covered in pork drippings, cheese empanadas and fried pork skin. Dessert was helado de paila in a nearby town called Salcedo, which specializes in the product and has store after store offering their own ice cream concoctions. I chose layers of mora, vanilla, guanabana, taxo and naranjilla.

Ambato is a large, dusty, spread out city. It was destroyed entirely in 1949 by an earthquake, and has been rebuilt more than once in its history. The city is famous because of a handful of important native authors; Juan Leon Mera and Montalvo are two of them. Eric and I had booked and paid for our hotel ahead of time because we were concerned that we would not find anything over Carnaval. The selling point of the room was that it looked over the parade route and we would not have to leave the room to have a great view of the main event. The hotel and room were barely acceptable, but we had no choice but to make ourselves comfortable.

Flowers Everywhere

We walked to the main cathedral, which is decorated all across the front with a huge mural entirely made of fruits and flowers. This is what Ambato is known for, and the artisanship was impressive. The main square was full of tourists (Ecuadorians) and local revelers. Kisoks were set up everywhere, selling all sorts of food options, as well as carioca (spray). Although I had heard that water and other missiles were illegal, it appears that carioca has replaced the tradition of throwing water or flour or eggs or whatever was once thrown about. Children and adults sprayed each other with delight; this never stopped the four days we were celebrating Carnaval. In Guaranda, the other city in Ecuador known to celebrate Carnaval to the max, is famous for going all out with the use of water and flour and eggs as missiles. I am not sure I understand the dousing of friends and strangers with water or foam or whatever, I wonder why and how such a tradition started.

At the local museum/art gallery Hernan met his mother's sister's family, who were very friendly and engaged in a spirited discussion with us for almost an hour. Meanwhile Maya and Gabriel checked on the art, and I joined them later. We were all hungry, so ate at 'Los Alamos', which was designed as a western saloon. I chose llapingachos, which are a specialty of the region, and they were delicious. I was desperate for a coffee, since I had missed one with our 6:30 wakeup call, and ordered a cappuccino, which was mostly milk and a teaspoonful of coffee. When I asked for more coffee and less milk, the waitress added Ecuadorian style coffee, the kind that is dripped very slowly through a thick layer of coffee grinds, so the final result was killer coffee, which resulted in a remarkable alteration in mood and energy; I think I finally woke up!

Cows in the Park

Mural Made of Fruits and Flowers

Bread and Flowers

Maria and Hernan suggested we go to Quisapincha, a small town high up the mountain, where leather goods are sold at a discount, but the road to the town was closed due to a race, so we drove back to Ambato, not sure what our plans were, and found Juan Leon Mera's house attached to an extensive botanical garden. Maya and Gabriel were thrilled to be able to run around this huge area, which extended from the wall above and the nearby original home of the author, to a small river below. The children hid from us, surprised us, threw missiles at us, explored the river and found a way to extend a log across so they could get to the other side. The botanical garden was a great diversion for all of us, the flowers and trees all native to Ecuador, beautifully laid out, and peaceful after a day of driving and fighting traffic.

Botanical Gardens

Hernan and Maria had not booked a hotel, so left before dark to drive to nearby Patate, where they found a lovely hostal with a pool and peace and tranquility after their afternoon in Ambato.

Maya and I returned to our rather shabby room and looked out of the window and saw people setting up their chairs for the parade in the morning. More and more people were gathering, and food stands and stereo equipment were being set up and I wondered whether we would sleep tonight.


  1. Hi there my family and i will be in ambato tomorrow for several days. If you need anything please dont hesitate to call us at my wifes aunts cell 59392949096. Her name is Isabel.