In both the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guidebooks the Mama Negra Fiesta is billed as one of Ecuador’s must see attractions. Living only a 20 minute ride from Latacunga, the small town where the Mama Negra takes place, it would have been rude not to see what this festival was all about.
Mama Negra Fiestas take place twice yearly, near the end of September (this year it took place over the weekend of September 25th and 26th) and the week of November 11th, celebrating the independence of Latacunga from Spanish rule. This journal entry focuses on the Mama Negra Fiesta in September.
One of the first surprises of the Mama Negra is that not only do the large entourage of paraders, dancers and mischief makers parade on both Saturday and Sunday, but on both days they parade twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The first parade takes place at 9am, while the second starts at 2pm. True to Ecuadorian time though; it seems you can add a good 60-90 minutes on to these starting times before the action starts rolling.
The September Mama Negra Fiesta is a supposedly religious festival, although the actual reason behind it is still debated. Some believe it is to celebrate the Moors expulsion from Spain while others (including me!) believe it is held to recognize the astonishment of locals upon seeing black slaves for the first time, who had been bought by the Spanish to work in the nearby mines. Personally though from experiencing the Mama Negra, I am not quite sure where the religious aspect comes in to the equation, especially considering the amount of alcohol on offer. I have a feeling though if you were to find this much alcohol on offer at all religious festivals you would never be able to find any atheists.
On both days at both starting times, the festival starts in the same place, outside Iglesia de la Merced on Calle Juan Echeverria and Calle Sanchez de Orellana. From here though the different times take different routes. The morning parade is much shorter, more or less making it’s way directly to El Calvario, the concrete monument on the hill to the east of the town (this is the same hill that you should make you way to if ever Cotopaxi erupts). The afternoon parade takes a longer, scenic route going down Calle Quito and around Parque Vicente Leon and back up Calle Sanchez de Orellana towards El Calvario.
Each parade seems to cater for different people. The morning parade seems more family orientated and there are definitely a lot less people watching this one compared to the parade in the afternoon. The afternoon show seems to have much more alcohol flowing freely, which attracts a younger more boisterous crowd, which gives the festival a party atmosphere. If the party atmosphere is what you are looking for, then try and get a spot near to Parque Vicente Leon for the afternoon parade, as this is where the crowd swells to it’s largest.
Sadly as with all big crowds come the inevitable pick-pockets and snatch-and-grab thieves. A girl standing next to me had her phone grabbed from her hand in full daylight and in full view of myself and the rest of the watching crowd. This Mama Negra Fiesta is not quite as dangerous as the November 11th festivities, but you still need to be on your guard and take all necessary precautions.
Once the parade starts, I think the biggest piece of advice I have is to make sure you stay firmly on the side of the road. Unfortunately I learnt the hard way when taking a few steps out on to the road to get a better view as the fiesta employs numerous mischief makers, dressed in drag to keep the crowd in order. Those taking even a few steps out in to the road to get a better view face the prospect of even being whipped or having a rather pointy stick thrust into their genitals. Of course it is always in good humour, but the performers seemed to be much harsher on the watching Gringo’s than on any of the locals!
Once the festival has started, especially the afternoon rendition, you can sense the party atmosphere in the air. Before you know it, a variety of performers start passing before your eyes. You have the traditional dancers dressed in your typical Andean clothing, as well as a variety of other performers including whip-yielding men dressed as women, and people dressed all in white with big feathery triangular masks, that makes them look scarily like members of the KKK. You can see what I mean from the photos taken at the Mama Negra Fiesta.
Most impressive though of all the paraders are those who somehow manage to walk, dance and run the whole route with a giant roasted pig on their bag, along with an impressive selection of other smaller roasted animals, cigarettes and a large number of large liquor bottles. I would hate to think of the total weight and the damage it must do to their backs. Of course it was too heavy to carry non-stop around the course, so after every few hundred meters or so, they would rest their formidable luggage on a table carried by their entourage. At this point I would have expected them to take a few gulps of water, compose themselves and be on their way. But as seems the main priority of this festival, they instead poured a couple of swift shots of hard liquor down their throats, took a few puffs on a waiting lit cigarette and then decided to move on, where a few hundred metres down the line, the same routine was practiced.
Alcohol certainly seems to be the order of the day as many of the performers are carrying a mixture of alcoholic drinks, which they hand out willingly to members of the crowd, and anyone who wants it.
At the end of the parade come the main focal points of the fiesta. Firstly comes the Virgin of Iglesia de la Merced (the Church where the festival starts), a young girl dressed all in white, riding a top a horse. It is this virgin that supposedly has protected Latacunga many times from the erupting Cotopaxi Volcano. She must have been on vacation or something though the 4 times that the town has been totally destroyed by the same erupting volcano. After the virgin comes Mama Negra him/ herself, a man dressed as a women, wearing a black mask and riding a black horse. As already mentioned this supposedly represents a vision seen by locals when the first black slaves came to the area.
Although the morning parade is more family orientated, it still doesn’t stop most of the performers consuming copious amounts of alcohol. So much that by the time they reach El Calvario, some are already plastered. It is therefore amazing that the same drunk performers manage to sober themselves up in time to do the parade again in the afternoon, and still have enough room in their stomachs to drink even more alcohol. It makes for some very amusing moments, as some of the performers who can’t handle their alcohol as well as others stumble past, oblivious I think to where they are or what they should be doing.
All in all a highly enjoyable experience, as long as you watch your surroundings and don’t enjoy too much of the free alcohol. Sadly I wish I had followed my own advice as the Saturday night I was very ill after taking care of far too much free alcohol. Latacunga is approximately a 2 hour bus ride from Quito costing $1.50. Accommodation is cheap and plentiful although the Rodelu (Quito 16-31, Tel. 03/800956) and Cotopaxi (Padre Salcedo 5-61, Tel. 03/801310) seem to be the most popular with visiting tourists.