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Latacunga’s Mama Negra Festival

Latacunga, Ecuador- I write this listening to the party continue outside. I should go out and join the party but I’m fiesta-ed out. It’s Sunday and the party began on Friday continuing on until Monday which once again proves that anything worth celebrating in Latin America is worth celebrating for multiple days. I know the [...]

Latacunga, Ecuador-

I write this listening to the party continue outside. I should go out and join the party but I’m fiesta-ed out. It’s Sunday and the party began on Friday continuing on until Monday which once again proves that anything worth celebrating in Latin America is worth celebrating for multiple days.

I know the people are celebrating but I can’t tell you why. If I ask them they just say, “Mama Negra!”

Duh. But why?

Mama Negra

What I have found out is that it seems to be a mish-mash of indigenous, Spanish and African traditions. At times it’s supposed to honor the ‘Virgin of Mercy’ who is believed to have saved Latacunga from an eruption of the Cotopaxi Volcano in 1742. But then there is a ‘Black Mama’ involved which is still a mystery to me as to how she’s involved in the whole thing but she has obviously been incorporated through African influences. She is always the last person to be paraded around town like Santa Clause on Thanksgiving Day parades. The random skits that take place in front of the La Merced Church and across town I think are supposed to re-enact what this festival is all about but I can’t understand the mumbles of the small children actors on horseback. All I know is that they mutter something and then yell ‘Banda!‘ and a marching band begins to play as the kids march their horse in a circle as a woman throws flower petals at them.

When you put this hodgepodge of traditions together what comes out is one good time. On Friday morning I hit the street and followed the noise of the bandas and exploding fire crackers to the front of a church. A mass of people and colors greeted me and I immediately started snapping photos.

Of all the parades and festivals I’ve seen in Latin America this one ranks near the top. Parades like this are why I love Latin America. I would never get pulled into a parade, poked with antlers, rubbed down with a bushel of herbs and then have my back spit on with a mouth full of alcohol anywhere else. I also wouldn’t be offered booze out of some random plastic jug and have a guy yell some chant in my face as I drink back home. Both are common occurrences. Alcohol is freely passed around and public drunkenness is displayed without shame or remorse morning noon and night for four days. That morning as I was soaking it all in I thought that I could really get into this. And I did.

"Can we take a photo with you?" Of course.

Traveling around I’ve found that I’m just as much a spectacle to Latinos as their festivals are to me. It’s a normal occurrence during these times for a random group of women to ask me for a photo with them. And that’s exactly what happened that made me go from enjoying the Mama Negra Festival to loving it. As I was sitting with a beer in my hands and people watching nine women in black hats, white blouses and pink skirts started whispering to one another, pointing at me and looking in my general direction. I knew a photo request was coming and it was only a matter of time before one of them asked me. They asked. I smiled and obliged.

We snapped photos, talked and shared a few bottles of beer. That led to me receiving an invitation to eat lunch with them at one of their houses.

Should I go? Let’s consider. A dozen girls with two men inviting me to eat and drink with them. Of course I’m going.

Lunch consisted of a chicken foot soup, plantains, trays of meat, chicha (an alcoholic drink fermented through mastication) and, of course, beer. On previous occasions I would eat the soup and leave the chicken feet but I saw everyone else nibbling away so I joined in. I can’t say there’s much flavor or meat in the foot of a chicken. Just a lot of pruney, gelatinous skin.

After filling up on chicken feet and some spit juice each person was handed a bottle of booze and headed out to the parade route. The drink of choice was a watermelon or peach flavored Zhumir. Never hearing of Zhumir I looked at the bottle and all I found out was that it’s a ‘Latin Spirit’ containing 15% alcohol. Beginning their march on the parade route the girls cracked open their bottles of Zhumir and started shoving shots down each others throats. The parades are the core event in which all of the drinking, eating and dancing revolves around; two parades a day for four days.

In one of the Mama Negra Parades with Alfredo and a bottle of Zhumir

Halfway through the parade I was pulled into the route by two of the girls, handed a bottle of Zhumir along with a sombrero and a poncho and told to dance. I was now part of the group handing out shots of alcohol to the crowd. I would like to say that most of the alcohol they carried along was given to the crowd but then I would be lying. For every one shot to the crowd five were drank amongst the group. When a bottle went empty a new bottle appeared from a backpack. The supply was unlimited.

We returned to the house for more eating, drinking and dancing to finish out the day when I was pulled into a group of four men to take part in what I can only refer to as social binge drinking. The tradition of one cup and countless bottles of beer continues here as it did in northern Peru but at a much more rapid pace.

Taxi Ride Home
Later that night I headed across town where the partying continued with a few guys. I’m always a bit baffled by this part of the Latin culture in which men prefer to drink only with men. They cordon themselves off from the women to drink heavily and once they get started they don’t plan on stopping until their heads hit the floor.

This was the case on this particular night. Having more than my fair share and sensing the night was coming to a close I went to catch a cab to my hostel. When I got in the cab I took no particular notice that there were two men upfront instead of just the driver. This should have been a huge red flag. Never share a cab or get in a cab if there is someone else besides the driver. I should have taken notice but didn’t.

I knew where I needed to go so when this cab ride was taking a little longer than normal I began growing suspicious. When the cab turned down a dark unpaved road I hit code red and started flipping out and yelling at the both of them. Repeating, “I know what your trying to do! Take me home now!”

I knew if they stopped the car things could get bad so I pulled out a key in my pocket and put it against the drivers neck. They knew at this point I was serious and not going to take any of their crap. They turned back onto a paved road and drove me to my hostel. A close call.

Add this to the long and always growing list of why I hate taxis and almost never use them.

Photos of the Mama Negra Festival and Lake Quilotoa:

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Filed under: Cubicle Ditcher, Ecuador, Security

About the Author:

Sam Langley left a comfortable and profitable job with an insurance company in the USA to travel the world. He has been going for years, and has not stopped yet. Keep up with his travels on his blog at Cubicle Ditcher. has written 147 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.