In the heart of Ecuador, at the foot of the Tungurahua volcano is a fertile agricultural valley where we will find the commercial centre of Ambato. Ambato, a main transportation hub on the Pan-American Highway, is considered the Garden of Ecuador.
It is very well known for its fresh fruit, produce, flowers, and breads.
La Fiesta de la Frutas y las Flores, held during carnaval each year , was originally started as national encouragement for the local recovery from the latest earthquake that destroyed most of the city in 1949.
The Festival rivals Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans and the "granddaddy of Carnaval" in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. It's tremendous success has made it a major tourist event and one of the best festivals we have experienced in our time here.
Carnaval is an important festival in Latin America and Ambato's celebration is considered one of the best In Ecuador. Colourful masks are worn to enhance uninhibited behaviour, and much dancing to the rhythm of lively music.
The festival lasts several weeks when the otherwise dusty, drab city comes alive with parades, concerts, popular beauty pageants, exhibitions, international artesans, music, fireworks, fiestas, and bullfights.
Peaches, apples, plums, figs, mangos, tuna, taxo, pears, citrus and traditional breads are bountiful.
An incredible variety of stunning, colourful flowers are displayed in a variety of shapes and arrangements with their pungent fragrances.
And panaderias showcase their fresh variety of traditional breads, and pastries. Bread in Ecuador is normally prepared in single serving rolls with each town having their own recipe. Ambato's bread recipes are popular throughout the country.
With its religious origins from Catholic Lent, on the Saturday before Lent, there is a well attended outdoor mass at the Cathedral alongside Parque Montalvo. This Blessing of Flowers, Fruits and Bread, is held in front of the Cathedral by the bishop. A huge mural - depicting Jesus is constructed from flowers, fruits and bread is on display.
The Desfile de las Frutas y Flores is an all day spectacle with the floats featuring the local beauty queens and those from nearby cities, are colorfully decorated in fruits and flowers as well as little loaves of bread.
Between these floats are national dance troops representing their countries traditions, from all over South America. The parade traverses through 40 blocks of city centre streets.
Traditional village girls perform their unique regional dances and contemporary dancers in outlandish costumes showcase their talent and imagination in a swirl of bright colours.
The second big parade of the Fiesta is the Ronda Nocturna, which is fundamentally a repeat of the daytime desfile, but with the floats lit up, and fire and fireworks, and much more emphasis on music and dance. The audience was intrigued and entertained by a masterfully clever promotion by the local police performing a variety of stunts and gymnastics on motorcycles. From several hundred meter wheelies, to impressive handstand driving, and driving doing a variety of acrobatics the crowd was in awe with appreciation. Tremendous image and relationship building for police in this country who very often have a bad reputation. There was a number of tricked out cars with professional audio systems.
For all the parades you must arrive early to get a good spot. Some hotels will set out seats for their clientele, and other grand stand seating may be purchased.
The International Folklore Festival showcased the countries of Belgium, China, Chile, Mexico, and Argentina who had sent their best national troops to perform. It was the highest quality and variety of talented performers that we have ever seen live, and the admission was free !
Belgium representatives impressively juggled flags; Argentina dancers showcased the tango; Chile, Mexico, and Ecuador national dancers reflected their countries cultural folklore; but most entertaining was about 60 Chinese gymnasts and artists whose quality performance thrilled the audience.
While beauty pageants are controversial, here they are one of the strongest deterrents of teenage marriages for many girls aspiring to represent their community in the highly coveted position of Reina.
The current reigning Reina of Ambato is Senorita Ximena Iveth Castro Nuñez, and Guang Jiao from China was crowned queen of the International Folklore Festival.
There was a magnificent display of fireworks known as Festival de Luces y Estrellas. In the central park elaborate scaffolds light up, spin around, shoot colored sparks and burn up in flames.
During all of these festivities and especially with the large crowds after the end of the parades (although forbidden by authorities) the people " play carnaval." There will be shaving cream, spray streamers, flour, eggs, confetti, water balloons and squirt guns, flour, not to mention split beer & wine flying everywhere. Gringos are a popular target. People who take offense, run, or otherwise resist increase their risk of being hit. It is best to be prepared to laugh it off, or, better yet, come prepared for retaliation and fun with your own arsenal.
In addition to enjoying Ambato's festival we visited the estate and former house of the famous Ambateño writer Juan León Mera who wrote our national anthem. They were showcasing a variety of artisans in the beautiful landscaped grounds and rose gardens. Built in 1874 on the north river bank the botanical and rose gardens surrounding the villa are truly inspiring.
During the early years of the Republic of Ecuador the city was an important cultural and economic center. Ambato was the setting for rewriting of constitutions and produced excellent artists and thinkers like Montalvo and Mera. Ambatenos refer to the city as the "cradle of the three Juanes." Juan Leon Mera - a writer and poet who wrote our national anthem. Juan Montalvo - a famous writer named the "Cervantes of South America". Juan Benigno Vela - a renowned teacher and champion of the Country's youth. All are immortalized in Ambato's parks, museums and buildings.
The Cathedral is a colossal sized, modern building which opened in 1954 replacing "Iglesia Matriz de Ambato" which was severely damaged in the 1949 earthquake.
Parque de la Familia is a large family gathering area with wonderful views of the city below. About 7 miles away, marked with the gigantic Ecuadorian flag, it has sporting facilities, gardens, orchards, petting zoo, and walking paths for your enjoyment. On a clear day you can see the smoke escaping from the Tungurahua volcano.
Out of curiosity we attended our first bull fight - Corridas de Toro. This controversial Spanish "blood sport" , with over 500 years tradition in Ecuador, contains no elements of competition. On today's ticket there were 5 bullfighters and 7 bulls in Ambato's Plaza de Toros.
The theater is an old, round, steep sided, concrete bleachers, open air stadium seating about 10,000. Today's attendance was about 4,000 spectators. On the initial entry of the bull to the ring there is a brief dance with a colourfully costumed matador who struts around like a peacock. Apparently it is a common misconception that the red cape angers the bull – the bull is colour blind. Now a picador enters the arena on horseback armed with a lance (vara) to deliver a fierce blow to the bull. The horse is wearing protective armour (peto). On one occasion the bull was able to overturn the armored horse and picador. Then 3 banderilleros enter the ring, each with the objective of planting a pair of sharp barbed sticks in the bull's shoulders to anger, agitate and further weaken the bull. The bull now bleeding, confused and exhausted from the lance and 6 banderillo injuries will face the matador. Some competition - the macho matador now enters the ring to perform the final barbaric event - estocada (killing thrust of the sword).
The ceremonial slaughter filled with pomp and circumstance was our first and will be our last experience.
In 2011 the majority of people in Ecuador approved a referendum to end the 500 year old tradition of bullfighting. Controversy continued and it is the " public killing " of the animal that is banned excepting several regional exceptions where the barbaric tradition continues.
Ambato has suffered from several major earthquakes that have caused significantly devastation in the city. On August 5, 1949 an earthquake reduced the city and surrounding 50 villages, and claimed 6,000 lives. And previously one in 1797 that leveled the city.
We stayed at Roka Plaza a charming elegant boutique hotel that originally was an upscale residence, then discotheque, and now re-purposed to a 9 room boutique hotel.
Along with enjoying the bread, and abundance of fresh fruits we had traditional llapingachos, and hornado. We enjoyed a fine dining experience at Roka Plaza
and the atmosphere and wood oven pizzas of La Fornace on Cevallos.
Nearby the village of Guaranda, in the province of Bolivar also hosts popular festivities – less commercial and more traditional customs and folklore.
Clearly the colorful Festival of Fruit and Flowers is an event not to be missed ! Do make arrangements and reserve well ahead of time because places easily fill up for the popular holiday.
Some more excellent photography of the Ambato 2015 Festival.