Last February, a friend and I found ourselves walking to class on a cobblestone path in Cuenca, Ecuador. It was our first day in this unfamiliar city and our spirits were high as we took in the new sights and culture. Suddenly a flash of orange flew between us and crashed at our feet, dousing our toes with a fresh spray of chilled water. We looked around baffled for any sign of a threat, but found none. There were no birds discarding their droppings, the street jugglers were not tossing buckets of water, and no, Chicken Little, the sky was not falling.
Then all of a sudden we were under rapid fire as balls of water were rocketed towards us from all directions. Gringas under attack! Cuenca was like a war zone as we scurried around the sidewalk to avoid the unpredictable land mines. This was just the preview for the next couple weeks.
We soon discovered that it was Carnival season, a celebration in Roman Catholic communities that represents the overturning of daily life. Technically, Carnival falls on the weekend or day before Lent, celebrated with parades, masquerades, and feasting before the sacrifices of Lent begin. However, just as American super stores have taken to selling holiday decorations months before the event, Carnival also makes an early appearance thanks to the diablitos – “little devils” that play with water.
Over the years this highly celebrated holiday has expanded into joyous weeks of throwing bombas (water balloons), sprinting with squirt guns, dumping buckets of water off roof top balconies, spraying colored foam, and tossing fistfuls of multicolored flour on unsuspecting passersby. The street carts stock up on cans of foam and bags of water balloons while kids use their lunch breaks to dunk their friends in the river.
What does this mean for the gringo tourists? Well, basically we stand out as great targets, blond hair acting as a signal flare for the diablitos to spray foam, throw flour, and toss a refreshing burst of rubber and water to the side of your face. Thus, based on my experience I have a few pieces of advice for those of you who dare to visit Ecuador (or any Roman Catholic city) around the holidays and survive with your dignities intact:
1. Bring a spare set of clothes and bring those clothes in a waterproof bag.
2. Do not wear white. The saying “Don’t wear white after labor day” takes on a whole new meaning come mid February under the threat of buckets of water.
3. Do not carry anything that can be permanently destroyed by water (i.e. important documents, expensive cameras, plane tickets, the only copy of the phone number for the house at which you are staying…)
4. On second thought, you may want to risk using your phone or camera. Based on my experience those items can be considered a “no throw zone” to kids who are unwilling to risk the consequences of destroying technology.
5. Adopt a survival strategy. What do I mean by this? Become observant of your surroundings, trust no one, and travel in numbers. Attacks can come from any angle; this means all sides, below, and most importantly above. Rooftop balconies are prime locations for dumping buckets of water. Chances are the fastest, slowest, tallest, and blondest will be the targeted victims in your group so in this case being average is key, until they are the ones dunking you in the river.
6. Protect your mouth, nose, and eyes. Something about the Ecuadorian children makes them target your face. Now, if water was the only threat this could be as refreshing as an Olay commercial. However, when blue foam and multicolored flour suddenly explode into your eyes, you risk wandering into oncoming traffic or off the single track hiking path that boarders a cliff. Note: if you are blinded by the diablito’s ammo don’t panic. Chances are that another child will soon toss a bucket of water in your direction, or you can ask to borrow a spare water balloon from a friend.
7. Participate: Now that you have the hang of survival strategies, it is time to enjoy the festivities. Buy bottomless bags of water balloons from roadside stands, and learn how to fill them as quickly as possible in any available sink.
8. Master the art of discreetly carrying 3 or more water balloons while walking down the street. This is more difficult than it sounds, and if poorly executed it may make you a more profitable target for kids in passing cars.
9. If you throw water balloons at strangers, try to make sure they are not older South American tourists. Often times they don’t find diablitos as entertaining as others, so you risk fleeing behind the nearest lockable door while your spunky Spanish teacher explains local customs to the now soaked, angry man from Venezuela.
10. Lastly, it’s best to assume a costume if you are committed to carnival. Adopting official attire will open opportunities for water battles, and lessen your laundry loads at the end of the week.
The Top 10 Strategies for Surviving Ecuador's Carnival