White hearts with purple trim
Culture & tradition,  Ecuador

Viva Cuenca: one weekend, three festivals

Why celebrate one festival when you can celebrate three? We hadn’t planned our visit to Cuenca to coincide with this particular weekend, when the city parties, but we were lucky to be here at this special time and to be able to join locals and other visitors in some of the fun.

On 1st November each year Cuenca, like the rest of Ecuador, marks All Saints Day; and the following day is the Feast of All Souls or Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), which is almost as significant here as it is, more famously, in Mexico. A day later, on the 3rd, the city marks the anniversary of its independence from Spain. The three festivals form one merged celebration; and when they fall at a weekend, the city really takes on party mood.

All Saints Day

We arrived here on Friday 1st to find the Parque Calderón (the old town’s main square) full of locals watching the All Saints Day procession which wound slowly round two sides of the square. We hadn’t at that point learned of the independence festivities so were a little puzzled by the floats that seemed to depict periods in the city’s history. But when we picked up a leaflet called ‘Viva Cuenca’ later in the day, all became clear.

As this was a holiday weekend the whole square was especially lively, with a variety of entertainments laid on for the local families who had flocked here to join the celebrations. There were stilt walkers, musicians, photographers with props (you could have your photo taken as a cowboy sitting on a model pony, for instance) and people selling all sorts of food and drink as well as cheap toys.

Colourfully dressed man on stilts
On stilts and selling balloon figures
Men in traditional Native American dress
Traditional musicians
Large floral displays in flag and crest forms
Floral tributes from local companies and organisations

Viva Cuenca

Viva Cuenca – Long Live Cuenca – is the cultural festival that the city stages on and around this time, with live music in the streets, art exhibitions, dancing and much more. As well as the parade we enjoyed part of a festival celebrating the cultures of all the Latin American countries. There were dancers from Cuba and Argentina, among others, and stalls selling alpaca scarves from Peru and wood carvings from the Brazilian Amazonia.

Día de los Muertos

But the Day of the Dead is of course a festival with a serious side. It is commemorated in Ecuador as in many South and Central American countries, although not to the same extent as in Mexico perhaps. Its observance is strongest among the native people, the Kichwa, and especially so here in Cuenca. It is the custom to pay these relatives a visit on this day, much as you would if they were still alive. You take them a gift, enjoy a meal (usually a family picnic on or next to the grave) and maybe play some favourite music while reminiscing about days gone by. We saw lots of stalls selling the typical decorations in white and purple, which people buy to decorate the graves of their relatives when they visit them for the celebrations.

One element of this festival that is peculiar to Ecuador is the consumption on and around the festival time of colada morada and guagua de pan. The former is a thick drink (or some would say a thin porridge) made from purple maize and Andean blackberries, flavoured with cinnamon and other spices and served hot. The guagua de pan that typically accompanies it is a small (usually sweet) loaf shaped to look like a swaddled baby. Guagua means baby or small child in the native language, Quechua, and pan means bread in Spanish, demonstrating the dual nature of the origins of the custom, mixing native and Roman Catholic beliefs.

Small loaves shaped like babies and decorated
Guagua de pan

We hadn’t planned to be in Cuenca when it put on its party clothes, but we were very glad that we were able to join the celebrations!

I visited Cuenca in 2012


  • rosalieann37

    Some places in the Caribbean, the people go to the cemeteries and light candles on the graves. There was an incident in Grenada where a ship captain mistook the cemetery candles for the lights of St. George when it was really on the opposite side of the island. His ship crashed on the rocks instead of entering the harbour.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Oh dear, that sounds tragic. It reminds me of the time when I was a child and a foreign pilot mistook the RAF airport at Northolt for Heathrow. He managed to land safely, thankfully, but the runway was too short for him to take off again. They had to deplane the passengers, take off all the luggage and the plane was still too heavy. In the end it had to be stripped of everything not essential to flying (seats, for instance) and he finally got it off the ground. But at least no one was hurt, although it was said at the time that he lost his job as a result.

  • margaret21

    My goodness, you have some especial experiences. And I’m glad that you, unlike me, are not afraid of taking candid, vibrant shots. It really brings the event to life!

  • starship VT

    Wow, what an interesting time to have arrived in Cuenca! I really like how your photos of people were perfectly candid. The atmosphere of celebration must have been pretty extraordinary and I hope you had an excellent visit there.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Sylvia 🙂 And yes, as I should maybe have added, we had a wonderful time in Cuenca. I loved the city and would have liked to have stayed longer! I must post some more about it one day soon.

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