Carnival or Carnaval - a Watery Fun Time in Loja Ecuador

Carnaval is the first public event of the new year in Loja, Ecuador. Observed widely throughout Latin America, the central question for visitors and new residents to the city is how and when is it celebrated here in Loja? North Americans, unless they are from New Orleans or Toronto - both of which have big versions of it with Fat Tuesday or a Caribbean themed Carnaval - will be less familiar with this style of mass revelry.

This particular festival in a city with a number of large festivals starts the Saturday before Ash Wednesday signaling the beginning of the solemn and less fun season of Lent which runs for 40 days until Easter. Because Easter falls on a different day each year, so does the commencement of Carnaval, happening sometime during February and early March.  

You may say Carnival but in Loja we say ‘Carnaval.’ To most North Americans, a carnival conjures up visions of corndogs, cotton candy, midway arcades, and rickety portable rides. If you miss that vibe, Life in Loja suggests you put the annual Feria de Loja, which claims to be the oldest fair in South America and has been continuously held in August since 1829, onto your calendar of events.  

Neighbors enjoying a water fight in "olden days"

For most of the globe, including Ecuador and Loja, the moment before Lenten fasting in the Christian world commences is a time for indulgence and celebration. In contrast, activities in North America may be as low key as chowing down a mess of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday to finish up the butter, milk, and other perishables in the house, on up to wild partying in the streets in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

The most famous carnaval celebration in Ecuador  takes place further north in the Andes in Riobamaba on the first Sunday of Holy Week and continues until “Fat Tuesday.” That festival, which is known as the “party of fruits and flowers,” pulls out all the stops with parades, concerts, costumes, and more like other carnavals around the globe spanning the continents from Italy to Brazil.

"Weapons" include cans of spray foam and water guns

For the most part, instead of public spectacles, carnaval in Loja is about getting out of town to one of the surrounding valley communities and getting wet. Vilcabamba, Malacatos, Catamayo, Quinara, and Yangana are popular destinations in Loja province for the holiday. The small communities are warmer than the city with natural springs and creeks perfect for splashing in and staging the traditional water fights that are part of Loja’s carnaval season. Many of these parishes will also organize concerts, small parades, and street fairs to entertain visitors and residents alike.

For those who remain in the city for the holiday, the types of public events happening in Loja proper depend largely on the current administration. Parades, concerts, and other activities have all occurred for carnaval within the city limits at one time or another. If you would like help learning what the goings on will be when you are here, contact Life in Loja for an up-to-date carnaval schedule.

Like many Christian festivals, Lent and Easter are actually overlays of much older festivals dating to Roman times and before recorded history. At first, the church attempted to ban carnaval among European pagans or indigenous in the new world. Wisely, the holy fathers eventually figured if you can’t beat ‘em then join ‘em and allowed chaos to ensue for a short time as a counterpoint to the renewal and restored order of Lenten sacrifice and the resurrection of Christ. In Ecuador, the Huarangas of Chimborazo had already been celebrating the second moon of the year by throwing water and flowers when the Spanish arrived.

These local traditions are still in evidence throughout Ecuador with water gun fights and streams of spray de espuma (from cans of foam known as ‘carioca’) being launched at bystanders and revelers alike. In the near past, Lojanos often had water battles between neighboring families. Enjoy the holiday but be aware that a few high-spirited school kids may be armed with water balloons, messy carioca, and the occasional pocket full of eggs when school lets out prior to carnaval weekend. Be ready to duck or risk becoming collateral casualties if you are out in the street. Also be sure to look up in the city of Loja because buckets of water have been known to be poured off of roofs and balconies to the narrow walkways below from time to time during the festival!

Andean Guinea pigs prepare for battle (AI imagery magic)

This is a schedule of the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday for the next few years. In Loja, carnaval fun will start the previous weekend:

2023: Ash Wednesday: February 22
2024: Ash Wednesday: February 14
2025: Ash Wednesday: March 5
2026: Ash Wednesday: February 18
2027: Ash Wednesday: February 10
2028: Ash Wednesday: March 1
2029: Ash Wednesday: February 14
2030: Ash Wednesday: March 6

Photos and story: LaHora, El Commercio, El Universo, Wiki, knowreligiondotcom


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