Day 216: Cuenca, Ecuador
After a long 14-hour bus ride from Otavalo I arrived in Cuenca on a Saturday night without any idea that it was the beginning of the city’s 190th anniversary of their independence from Spain.
This was not as great as it seemed when the first hostel I tried told me everything in the city was booked, but someone was looking down on me and a wonderful hostel owner saw me wandering the streets and gave me her last hostel dorm bed.
I’m not known to turn down a party so now that I no longer had to sleep in the streets I decided to stay a few days as the celebrations promised to be plentiful.
I was not disappointed as there were throngs of people everywhere, dance troupes and bands lining streets. This afternoon I stumbled upon this parade and was overwhelmed by the energy of this group.
An Introduction To Independence Day In Cuenca
One of the most interesting parts of the culture in South America is that each country has its own Independence Day. However, in Ecuador there are several cities that achieved independence before the country as a whole was liberated.
Cuenca is one of these cities, and the annual Cuenca Independence Day festival, which is held on November 3rd is one of the biggest events in the city’s calendar. In fact the holiday draws crowds of over 100,000 people.
One of the most interesting times to visit the city, and if you have an interest in the cultures and traditions of the region this is the time to visit.
The History of Cuenca’s Independence from Spain
In 1819 the Spanish Empire territory of Ecuador began independence into becoming the country of Ecuador – and it took 11 years.
Like most of South America it started after several years of dissatisfaction with the Spanish regime. Guayaquil was the first city to achieve independence after it overcame the local garrison on October 9th. The news spread like wildfire and then city of Portoviejo declared independence on October 18th.
At this time, Cuenca was the economic hub and the administrative center of the region. Eventually on November 3rd the local garrison in the town was subdued, and Cuenca also declared its independence.
The war against Spanish rule would continue with success. The territory of Ecuador joined the independent state of Gran Colombia in 1822 formally ending Spanish rule. Eight years later, in 1830, the country we now know as Ecuador was formed. The country’s national Independence Day is celebrated on August 10.
What to See at Cuenca’s Independence Day
The celebrations in Cuenca begin October 29th and incorporate the Day of the Dead events as the two events are so close. While Cuenca is a relatively small town in 2015 there were over 300 scheduled events. However, the best thing to see in Cuenca during independence day is the parade that streams through the main streets of the city on November 3rd.
The parade is a great opportunity to see traditional costumes, music and dance. As the evening continues there are dances, parties and fireworks throughout the city as people pour into the streets.
Local cafes, hostels and hotels prepare for outside visitors and have city guides to the organized events.
Impromptu Celebrations And Independent Events
Along with all of the celebrations and organized events, the party atmosphere is one that spreads throughout the city, with many districts having their own parties.
As you explore the city, you will find small bands or musicians playing in a square or park, and people quickly congregate around them to dance and to party. While the big showpiece events of Independence Day are spectacular, you really get a local feel with the smaller informal celebrations.
Shopping in Cuenca
Supporting local artists is important in Cuenca and this is also the best time to visit the markets to see local arts and crafts.
If you are looking for authentic souvenirs the largest market is at the Escalinatas stairway, where the stalls fill a large courtyard and also span a large area on the banks of the river. The products range from wooden trinkets and decorated items through to textiles and paintings.
What to Eat on Independence Day
As you would expect street food is the staple for most people during the event, and there are plenty of options to try.
Among the traditional Ecuadorian food Cuenca street food to enjoy is the pork sandwiches and grilled sausages that are sold from stalls across the city. If you’re looking for a sweet treat you’ll find strawberries and grapes dripped in chocolate and served on a stick.
As the evening progresses, look for the bubbling pots of a spiced version of canelazo, a local alcoholic drink that is strong but delicious.