Street Fires, Drag Queens & Other Wild Traditions: New Year’s Eve in Ecuador
New Year’s Eve in Ecuador is a passionate, explosive mix of street partying, cross-dressing and publicly burning away the demons of the past. It’s an event steeped in tradition, of which there are many. Strap on your stilettos, jump through the flames and come discover how this tiny country gives a warm, wild welcome to the New Year.
On December 26, 2018, we began a 3-month chapter in Ecuador’s capital city: Quito. This is a first-hand account of our experience in the days that followed.
The story has 3 parts:
- Strange happenings in the streets of Quito
- Fuego, fe, familia y fiesta
- Burning 2018 in true Ecuadorian fashion
Disclaimer: Through the words and photos that follow, our objectives are to educate, generate exposure for, and create excitement about New Year’s Eve in Ecuador. If you leave inspired to experience it for yourself one day, then our job is done. But please do so safely, respectfully & responsibly. It is not our intent to promote or encourage any reckless or potentially harmful behavior. Enjoy!
Part 1: Strange happenings in the streets of Quito
Friday, December 28, 2018. Around 6:00pm.
Standing on the corner of the busy Avenida República de El Salvador, I pay for a triple espresso and thank the barista behind the outdoor coffee counter. As I wait, my attention turns to the surrounding streets, and is soon captured.
Loud chatter quickly fills the scene as a group of people exits an office building on the other side of the street. They stop to congregate on the steps in front. There are maybe 30 in total, all in business casual attire. Spirits are high. The one constant amongst the group: clear plastic cups. No one is empty-handed.
Ahh cool. Probably coworkers celebrating the final workday of 2018. Happy Hour? Muy cool! Feliz Año Nuevo, chicos!
About 10 of the festive professionals begin to walk toward me, crossing half the street before stopping on the narrow concrete median that divides opposing traffic. It’s a tight squeeze on the thin strip of concrete. Cars whiz by in both directions.
What do we have here?
An unfamiliar entity on the median steals my attention: a green creature in a black & green checkered hat. It sits on a knee-high barrel—the kind used to store wine or whiskey.
Stuffed Leprechaun? Possibly a piñata? Looks like a cartoon character…
All eyes are now fixated on the green being atop the brown barrel. I struggle to get a clear view; line of sight obstructed by both passing traffic and the group of closely-huddled humans.
Wait – is it the little green alien guy from The Flintstones…the one who always appears out of nowhere?
Unfortunately, the sand has run out of the hourglass.
One man douses the mysterious creature with a cup of clear liquid. He lights a match, and the crowd goes wild as green and black are engulfed in a sea of orange.
Surely, I’m hallucinating.
After only 48 hours in Quito, we’re still attributing 80% of miscues and misunderstandings—verbal, visual or otherwise—to the altitude. Also, we haven’t been drinking, which comfortably ups this projection threshold to 95%.
She’s inside the co-working space discussing monthly rate plans. Guess it’s just me and the barista.
¿Qué están haciendo?!
Fifteen consecutive seconds of rapid-fire Spanish in an unfamiliar accent. I pick up maybe 4 words, then reply with a nod of confident understanding.
The spontaneous street fire has earned the attention of others in the neighborhood. The crowd grows. The drinking and cheering continue. No one seems to be concerned.
Say what you will about the questionable disregard for public safety, this company knows how to party.
Saturday, December 29, 2018. Shortly after noon.
As we stroll down Avenida 6 de Deciembre, I’m again befuddled at what’s transpiring on one of the main thoroughfares of Ecuador’s capital city. Thankfully, this time I’ve got backup.
Uh-what. Do we. Have. Heeeeerrrrrre…D murmurs under her breath.
Two scantily-clad girls prance about in the middle of the street, less than gracefully. Neither appear comfortable in 4-inch stilettos. Both have facial hair I’ll openly admit to being jealous of.
As cars come to a stop, the ladies approach on the driver’s side and lean in. Their bras support ample, balloon-enhanced bosoms and require frequent adjustment.
In the left lane, a middle-aged man rolls down his window and hands something to the solicitous young lass. She blows a kiss of gratitude and prances flamboyantly to the next car.
The bearded beauty in the right lane doesn’t receive quite the same warm welcome. Through a closed window, a taxi driver delivers the “NO!” message loud and clear, with a disapproving finger wag that would make Dikembe Mutombo proud.
From the sidewalk, rowdy onlookers cheer and boo, depending on the response from the drivers. The one constant amongst the group is a familiar item in each of their hands; one that brings back flashes of yesterday’s business-casual street blaze: clear plastic cups.
Evidence is piling up, but we’re still just clueless gringos.
Disclaimer: according to several police officers we spoke with, drinking in the streets is not legal in Ecuador. Do your homework before your trip.
Part 2: Fuego, fe, familia y fiesta
At this point, we’re pushing 72 hours in Quito, and already we’ve witnessed a business-casual street fire and cross-dressing traffic cops. Sensing something is afoot, we turn to technology.
Google “Ecuador fire in the streets” or “cross-dressing in Quito” and you’ll come across a laundry list of articles. “Countries with the best New Year’s Eve parties” and “unique New Year’s Eve traditions around the world” are common themes.
Ecuador is on every list. We did not know this.
Fire • faith • family • party
These four pillars don’t just capture the essence of these articles; they perfectly encapsulate our recent experience in Quito.
In a nutshell, New Year’s Eve in Ecuador is about saying goodbye to the negative, welcoming a fresh dose of positive, and having one hell of a good time doing it—together.
Scapegoats of the current year: los año viejos
While the rest of the world eagerly anticipates the arrival of the New Year—many with eyes glued to a TV, waiting for the ball to drop—the masses of Ecuador have a more practical matter to attend to: burning away the sins of the past.
We’ve all got demons that need to be dealt with. Ecuatorianos bundle theirs up in a nice flammable package—usually a doll or dummy personified as someone they dislike—and burn that sad sack of negativity to ashes, on or shortly before December 31. These dolls are sometimes called monigotes. But around the capital city, most Quiteños refer to them simply as año viejos (“old years”).
As the tradition goes, año viejos are burned in effigy to represent the purging of bad vibes, negative spirits and all things toxic from the current year. For several days leading up to New Year’s Eve, it’s common to see small “casual fires” along sidewalks, in the streets, and within non-vegetated areas of public parks, as groups of friends, family members and coworkers set their año viejos ablaze.
But it’s not enough to simply burn away the bad; one must now jump over the fire to welcome the good. The smoke of the año viejo serves as a spiritual cleanser. The act of leaping through the flames is a purification rite that helps usher in the new year with a clean slate.
travelhelix trivia: in 1895, a yellow fever epidemic wreaked havoc on coastal Guayaquil—Ecuador’s most populous city. In an attempt to suppress the spread of the disease, those not afflicted packed the clothing of the dead into coffins, and incinerated them. Many believe that the late 19th century tragedy in Guayaquil inspired the modern-day tradition of burning año viejos.
The many faces of año viejos
In many Ecuadorian households, the annual assembly of año viejos is a creative & fun family affair, much like carving pumpkins on Halloween. Begin with the clothing, stuff the body with newspaper or sawdust, then draw a face or attach a mask. Sometimes, each family member adds a hand-written list of things, names, memories or events from the current year that they wish to leave behind entirely.
For those of you who lack either an Ecuadorian family or the skill needed to craft an año viejo, fear not: somewhere in the streets, there’s a pre-made doll ready to be purchased and incinerated by you.
The options are endless:
- Styrofoam superheroes
- Colorful cartoon characters
- Papier-mâché caricatures of pop-culture icons
- Blatantly offensive representations of controversial politicians
According to several sources, one well-bronzed American figurehead was a best-seller in 2017.
During the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, you’ll find the full array of año viejos prominently displayed for sale around many of the city’s public spaces. In central Parque La Carolina, for example, look for the pop-up tiendas under large white canopies.
Vendors—ranging from inexperienced teenagers to seasoned abuelas—hock masks for wearing, dolls for burning and other assorted knick-knacks. Prices range from $5 to more than $100 for the most gargantuan.
If you’re not ready to make a purchase decision, fifty cents will get you a photo; a warm smile will likely buy you another. It’s all in good fun, and these kind people absolutely radiate positive energy.
reflection on the vendors of Parque La Carolina: this time of year, these people are the local healers. The Shaman of the streets. Whatever your brand of medicina—Eastern, Western or alternative—they’ve got what your New Year needs. And when you’re done burning it, you’re gonna feel gooooooood.
Risky business: las viudas del año viejo
As the tradition goes: for every año viejo that burns in effigy, a viuda (“widow”) is left behind to mourn. But the tradition of the viuda requires more than a political grudge and some papier-mâché. It calls for reckless abandon and role play.
And who better to play the role of the grieving widow than young Ecuadorian men…who dress up as women…stop traffic in the streets…and panhandle local passers-by.
For the days leading up to the new year, these juvenile drag queens flood city streets throughout the country. Most viudas operate in small groups of three to five, supported by a sidewalk committee of friends and fans who cheer them on with beverages in hand.
Viudas will use whatever provocative means necessary to bring traffic to a halt, including, but not limited to: flirting, flashing, lifting, lowering and/or providing unsolicited “lap dances” to the hoods of cars. Once ensnared in the seductive song of these street sirens, a driver is granted permissions to pass after offering a small “donation.”
Now, some say that this reckless behavior equates to no more than the younger generation’s shameless exploitation of beer money from civilians during a brief period of permissiveness from local police.
We prefer to think of it as a slightly-twisted yet fun-loving approach to collecting on a deceased loved-one’s life insurance policy.
Ask a more “mature & experienced” Ecuatoriano about the viudas of New Year’s Eve and many will roll their eyes. But ask a Millennial or Centennial, and they’ll tell you with unbridled enthusiasm that the tradition of the viudas is awesome.
We must admit: despite being the cornerstone of Ecuador’s many New Year’s Eve traditions, año viejos don’t offer much in the personality department.
The far-more-lively viudas, on the other hand, bring the party to the people.
So, let’s party.
Part 3: Burning 2018 in true Ecuadorian fashion
Now that we’re fully caught up on why we’ve been witnessing all this insanity in the streets, let’s get back to the insanity in the streets.
Monday, December 31, 2018. Around 2:00pm.
Today’s objectives include exploring the streets, talking to strangers, and purchasing:
- An año viejo for burning
- Street food for consuming
- A yellow wig to ensure another Warriors championship a year of prosperity
travelhelix trivia: another tradition calls for Ecuatorianos to wear red & yellow underwear throughout the New Year’s Eve festivities. Red represents love & passion, while yellow symbolizes prosperity & good luck.
During the afternoon of December 31, in Quito, Mariscal Sucre (aka “La Mariscal“) is the place to be. The main drag is Avenida Amazonas. Chain-link fences surround the 13 blocks between Avenida Patria and Avenida Cristóbal Colón—blocking vehicles and transforming the area into a massive street party.
The all-day affair features several stages with live music, parade floats with political puppets, a diverse mix of street performers, and of course: clear plastic cups.
We begin at Parque El Ejido and gradually make our way north along Avenida Amazonas. An hour later, we find ourselves in the beating heart of Quito’s party scene: Plaza La Foch.
Shortly before dusk, we arrive back in Parque la Carolina to seal the fate of our sacrificial scapegoat, through a commercialized process of random selection (sorry Darwin).
From afar, we spot what appears to be a “blue devil”—a seemingly-perfect fall-boy for the sins of 2018, and one whose fiery demise would double as a tribute to our Tarheel family back in North Carolina. But after a failed negotiation ($20 is too rich for our blood, and this “blue devil” turns out to be a turquoise cat-like character), we move on.
As the final sun rays of 2018 beam down upon us through ominous Ecuadorian clouds, we light the proverbial match on a poor, unfortunate soul; a soon-to-be-martyred Minion, who somehow seems to sense the end is near.
The final hours
Back at the apartment, as we enjoy our few final moments of alone time in 2018, a champagne toast feels appropriate.
Soon, we depart to join our amazing new Ecuadorian family for dinner. The hours of 10pm to midnight fly by, but it’s a night we will not soon forget.
Eating, drinking, laughing and bonding with this warm group of people, reminds us how fortunate we are to share in this experience, and reinforces the most important pillar of New Year’s Eve in Ecuador.
Just a few days ago, we were strangers. Tonight, we’re still the gringos, but they welcome us like family.
The traditions continue
Shortly after midnight, we eat 12 grapes (as is customary in Spain and other Latin American countries), make slightly fewer than 12 wishes (short attention spans), and watch from a terrace as fireworks illuminate the mountains surrounding Quito.
On the streets below, we witness a group of people running around the block, pulling what appear to be suitcases behind them.
Yes, those are suitcases.
According to yet another tradition, if you’d like to travel more in the new year, simply run around the block carrying an empty suitcase.
Definitely doing this every year, moving forward!
Leaping through the flames of 2018
Soon, we make our way down to the street where our año viejo will meet his inevitable demise.
Silver lining: in the Ecuadorian tradition, our brave Minion doesn’t go it alone. He shares his fiery concrete grave with a large Incredible Hulk and a small human-like doll (which we believe to be a rugby player).
The process is quick and painless. We jump over the flames, solo at first, then again arm-in-arm with our new Ecuadorian brethren.
We are cleansed, and ready for the new year.
Some jump through the flames 12 times, which is said to ensure happiness and prosperity for the coming year. Others make a unique wish during each fiery leap. We feel that 2 fire jumps + 12 grapes will sufficiently cover us for 2019.
The night does not end there, but this story does.
Setting a high bar for a global holiday
As you’ve now discovered, Ecuador is a country rich with New Year’s Eve traditions. Many are built upon a foundation of faith. At least one is rooted in historical tragedy. And although though some ultimately serve at the individual level, they’re all celebrated in a group setting: 2 family members, 4 friends, 30 coworkers, or 1000 strangers…it doesn’t matter. In this tiny corner of the world, people are the key.
If you’re not entirely comfortable putting yourself out there and talking to some locals, here are two surefire ways to get past the awkward “we hardly know each other” phase: 1) compliment a stranger dressed in drag or 2) burn some sh*t with them in the middle of the street.
When the stakes are high—and a years’ worth of demons need to be dealt with in one night—a little bit of camaraderie goes a long way…and adds a bit more fuel to an already-festive fire.
Come find out for yourself.
¡Feliz Año Nuevo a todos!
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