Letting it Burn

Burning the Year Away on the Streets of Ecuador

The tradition is said to be more than 100 years old, and no one is safe from the flames — not superheroes, dictators, politicians or even Homer Simpson. On New Year’s Eve, the people of Ecuador take to the streets in revelry to figuratively “burn away the year” by throwing effigies into roaring bonfires. Writer Justin Ludwig joins the festivities in Baños de Agua Santa in the northern foothills of the Tungurahua volcano and examines the tradition through the lens of Ecuador’s recent history.

Boys in drag begin stopping cars for spare change early in the day. Their wigs are bright and cartoon-like, their dresses are cheap and some even sport make up that looks like it was applied by a sister or mother in a hurry. The boys set up barricades all over town, little terrors with big grins and open palms pouncing on passing vehicles like a pack of wolves. Some of the boys don’t even bother with the girls’ clothing and are dressed in what North Americans would assume to be Halloween costumes, holding up traffic with jump-ropes, dressed as devils or skeletons or clowns.

Dressed in these costumes, the boys are called the Viudas fin de Año(Widows of the Old Year), and they are partaking in a distinctly Ecuadorian New Year’s Eve tradition that dates back as long as anyone here can remember. Like most of the unique local holiday rituals, it is thought to be a combination of Indigenous and Spanish traditions from different celebrations. The “widows” are out collecting alms for the new year since their husbands will be burned in effigy that night, so the story goes, but of course the few coins that are gathered from passing motorists and onlookers is going to pay for candy or beer, depending on the age of the boy. Like other local traditions celebrated at the year’s end, the viudasjoyously personify the Spirit of Death on this holiday, as the old year is put to rest and a party breaks out in the streets like one long, celebratory funeral procession.

I am in Baños de Agua Santa, and I feel well-positioned for the action tonight: far from the clustered chaos of Quito, the spring break-like rave of Montañita, or the clattering of car stereos on Canoa’s dusty streets. Baños is a small town that is buried deep in the central Andes of Ecuador, nestled between forested peaks and waterfalls. For a country that has remained off the radar of many travelers, Baños is well-prepared for visitors of all sorts, particularly on New Year’s Eve. The holiday brings out the best in the earnest locals who turn the city streets into a dark and jovial carnival once dusk descends.

“Rebirth” is an appropriate theme for the nation, and makes Ecuador’s fabled New Year’s Eve celebrations all the more impactful. The country has long been plagued by instability. Between 1997 and 2007, eight different heads of state took power, two of whom were ousted from office by both force and/or popular upheaval. The flashpoint was the economic crash of 1999, which saw the collapse of corrupt banks that required a federal bailout in a manner that foreshadowed the American collapse of 2008. Precipitated by both the severe El Niño weather system and the drop in global oil prices in 1997, unemployment rose from 9% to 17%, while the currency depreciated 195% and family incomes plummeted. By the time President Jamil Mahuad was forced out of office by a military coup in January 2000, his approval rating was a mere 6%.

The nation’s current president, Rafael Correa, enjoys a very different tenure, and one of the highest approval ratings in the continent, between 60% to 85%. The charismatic, populist leader has brought not only political stability to the country but a renewed economic prosperity and sense of hope. Oil revenues have provided major infrastructure and educational improvements, and the poverty rate fell from 37% to 27% between 2007-2012. For years, Ecuadorians have been burning away the memory of darker times, and they finally seem to have not only some room to breathe, but reason to celebrate.

In preparation for the party ahead, my traveling party and I decide to double-down on dinner and start with a late afternoon snack of barbecued guinea pig, called cuy. The animals are roasted whole over smoking wood coals on the street, and are served as such, adorable face and all. The meat is delicious, like a fatty chicken with extra crispy skin, and the family serving it is so happy to see us enthusiastically devouring the meal in their tiny street-front dining space that they actually ask to have their picture taken with us. Like most of the people we encounter throughout the country, they’re gracious, funny and happy to have us.

It’s humid as the sun sets behind the mountains and the forecasted thunderstorms are nowhere in sight. As darkness falls just after 6 p.m. — as it does every day of the year here — the streets start to swell with activity and a palpable mischief that invites rather than intimidates. Huge papier-mâché figures are parades all over town, each of them seemingly hand-painted. Families hang effigies in front of their houses and people take to the streets wearing homemade masks, knowing that once the clock strikes midnight, everything will be burned.

The sculptural figures are called años viejos, and represent the pain or the challenges of the past year. Masks were for sale throughout the country for days leading up to New Year’s Eve, selling for one dollar apiece to those who didn’t want to make their own. They line the city streets, spilling out of shops and on sidewalk displays, surely a nightmare for anyone with a phobia of clowns or dummies. While they have become a seasonal industry for the local people, the scarecrow-like effigies range from pop cultural celebrities to personal acquaintances, and some are impressive enough in scale to tower over vehicles and block streets, like demented parade rejects that are taking back the city. While the masks for sale on the streets seem to exclusively depict the faces of politicians and celebrities (as I’m told by locals), families create effigies in the likeness of other family members or friends for whom better tidings are wished for the new year. The crude paint jobs and humorously scrawled messages that hang on signs from the necks of the effigies only further serve to make the ritual feel like a family affair, an intimate tradition of sorts.

This tradition of burning off the old is thought to have been born in 1895, during a yellow fever outbreak in Guayaquil, the country’s main coastal port city and “gateway to the Galapagos.” Following the epidemic, families created coffins and filled them with the clothing and keepsakes of the deceased, then burned them as a means of spiritual cleansing (but also for obvious sanitary reasons). Over the years since, the tradition has evolved from burning coffins to burning the dummies we see today, and while they may still represent the struggles or losses of the families who build and burn them, they now symbolize a greater collective cleansing for the country, purifying the communities of political ills or cultural phenomena. Although, these days, some families opt to take a less-serious approach, and the effigies they create don’t carry any emotional weight — like the brightly-painted SpongeBob SquarePants and Bart Simpson dummies that will be burned alongside the more serious political figures and revered deceased family members.

Competing stereo systems and DJs line the streets pumping over-driven Latin rhythms into the thick air, and to punctuate the cacophony, firecracker blasts are sent out like the Bat Signal to attract nearby partiers. We’re told people are communicating through the sonic explosions, with the number or volume of the blasts relaying information about the party, but of course they’re more startling than expressive, as if the Chinese firecracker thrower from Boogie Nights were to suddenly have a lot more firepower. We eat another meal on the street — carne asada with cheap, liter-sized beers — before pulling out our own masks that we bought the day before in Quito to blend in with the hordes.

The Ecuadorian people of the Andes are short in stature (again, having descended from Indigenous tribes and the Spanish colonialists) so as we join the slow-moving crowds we stand a head above most. Despite standing out, we’re welcomed with open arms, and everyone is engaging and generous toward us, perhaps because they understand the potential tourism has to transform aspects of life in the country. “In Baños in particular, the [tourism] industry has exploded,” explains a fellow gringo from Toronto who I meet on the street while smoking cigars and soaking up the madness. It’s his third New Year’s Eve in Baños, having first visited the country for a friend’s wedding, and now he’s in the process of moving to the city to open a tour and adventure company. “The opportunity is here and the time is now,” he tells me, and his enthusiasm for the country is intoxicating.

Earlier in the day, our hotel proprietor told us this is the “busiest holiday season in twenty-five years.” Highways are congested from the mountains to the coast and hotels are full. He was enjoying the swell in business, of course, laughing and looking back at his livelihood, which he clearly maintains with pride. “I’ve been turning people away all week. It’s crazy.”

It’s not like this everywhere in the country, of course. Driving to Baños from Quito means taking a highway through town after town of dirty, dusty streets that are lined with concrete houses without paint or siding or amenities. It’s tough to say whether the countryside looks half-finished or half-destroyed, as people with little to do and no working prospects spill out of these homes and onto hammocks or patio furniture on the roadside. After the agriculture and resource-based economy — which supplies the United States with a third of its roses, along with coffee, mangoes, tuna and cocoa — crashed in 1999, the country adopted the US dollar as its official currency in an effort to clot some of the blood that was lost from its own decimated sucre (Ecuador’s previous currency). While the fallen value of the sucre was a major contributing factor to Mahuad’s forcible removal from office in 2000, the subsequent administrations remained committed to the dollar and the situation has stabilized, for the most part. Stability is a precious and relative term: even the popular three-term President Correa suffered an attempted coup in 2010 by the National Police, and the current slump in global oil prices does not bode well for the country in 2015.

The country has been recovering for years, but particularly in rural areas largely populated by Indigenous peoples, poverty is the reality. Extreme poverty may have dropped to 17% for the total population by 2011, but for the native peoples it has remained as high as 44%. Increasing tourism helps a great deal, but that wealth becomes concentrated geographically and socially. This is evident in Baños, where an array of tourism adventure companies (sometimes expat-owned) offer pricey tours that range from one-kilometer-long zip-line excursions to trips to the “Swing at the End of the World” (where visitors can hang from a treehouse on a mountain peak). All the while, natives in traditional dress sell bags of cherries for a pittance on the street.

In the thickening chaos of the party, narrow intersections are filled with costumed partiers, dancing and drinking and laughing. More teams of aggressive teenage boys in crude drag perform choreographed dance routines before the crowd parts just enough for a caravan to slowly sail through, with more crazed characters dancing on the vehicle’s roof. Old, frail-looking locals dance and sing together, while kids barely old enough for school throw small firecrackers at passersby and run away cackling.

As midnight approaches, we join the slow march that descends upon Baños’ main square, which lies in front of the town’s historic cathedral. Many locals are just rejoining the party after having concluded another tradition that dictates a large family meal is shared around 11 p.m. (which we thankfully did not partake in). My wife and I buy hot punch from women standing behind boiling pots — a blend of homemade liquor and fruit juice that is served in plastic bottles for fifty cents. The excitement begins to reach fever pitch as the fireworks start a half hour before midnight, joined in the night sky by dozens of handheld sparklers that go off in every direction to ward off the evil spirits.

The first bonfire of the night is lit just before midnight in the main square, and the giant head of the huge, central effigy is lowered onto wood poles while the scaffolding-like structure that was holding it up is quickly dismantled. There is no main clock to guide the crowds, and various countdowns start happening all over the square with different pockets of people erupting into celebration like a wave. “Tres, Dos, UNO!” and the head is dropped into the bonfire and the new year has officially began – or more importantly, the old one has been laid to rest.

This is when the fires really start to pop up. Across the city and all over the main square, they are lit in the middle of the streets so that masks and dummies can be burned. People take turns jumping over flames that reach a few feet in the air and lick the soles of the jumpers’ shoes as they soar across. Kids do it, of course, but so do adults who are holding small children. It is said that the brave jump over the fire twelve times for good luck — yet another tradition that goes along with eating twelve grapes right before midnight, one grape for each month of the year in which twelve wishes are made. Drunk on the spirit of the moment (and several cervesas, of course) my father-in-law, a burly 60-year-old with bad knees, pushes his way through the crowd and leaps, just barely clearing the fire but coming out the other end gleefully transformed by the experience. Costumed partiers cheer him on in Spanish. This is truly a celebration that belongs to everybody.

The bonfires attract music and dancing as they do on beaches and backyards all over the world, with clusters of musicians and drummers congregating around the blazes, sending a tribal pulse into the night sky. As crowds work their way down the congested streets from block party to block party, people stumble into new drum circles and spontaneously break into dance before laughing, taking a swig of beer and moving onto the next party. Some of the dancers themselves attract a crowd of cheering onlookers who whistle and take photos on their way to the myriad of live entertainment on more formal stages that are dotted throughout the neighborhood.

From then on, the next couple of hours go by as they do in most places on New Year’s Eve: with competing spirits and elixirs sloshing around dancing bellies alongside spinning vision. While the US dollar and local economic upswing keeps most goods and services at only about half their North American price — hardly the few dollars a day one could live off of in this country not long ago — booze is cheap, especially light, fizzy beer, which ensures a steady pace for the night thanks to the low alcohol content. It also demands several bathroom breaks, which is not ideal in the midst of a crowded street party, and I find myself frequently sneaking off to back alleys in search of a moment of privacy. After making our rounds through street-front bars, bonfires and block parties, my wife and I stop in the central square for a quick meal of fried chicken with rice and beans that is served by a trio of aged matriarchs who know exactly what our bellies need.

While the world’s shrinking oil prices will be a serious hindrance on Correa’s ability to maintain certain populist economic policies in 2015, Ecuador’s upswing is thankfully diverse, built upon growing tourism, exports and increased spending power in the region, which is exemplified by the fact that neighboring Colombians make up the largest population of tourists visiting the country. The Ecuadorians also seem very aware of the power and necessity of their relationship with North America, but aren’t afraid to confront its South and Central American policies with a seemingly socialist agenda. Such contradictions are ideally embodied by President Correa — a self-proclaimed vociferous leftist who also maintains a strong relationship with Ecuador’s business community. Ecuador exports to major international clients such as Whole Foods, who stock their shelves with Ecuadorian quinoa, produce and coffee. Correa, one of the continent’s last military leaders, is representative of the current state of the Latin American left: capitalizing on resource profits domestically, yet working in coalition globally.

And it remains a populist movement. Correa won his last election by thirty points, and at the time, research out of Quito’s Center for Research and Specialized Studies showed that over 50% of Ecuadorians felt happy about the trajectory of their country — a far cry from a decade prior. This is not a Marxist utopia nor a suffocated dictatorship, but an economy working to strike a balance between its people’s communal instincts and its vital presence in the globalized market. And they will continue to burn off the stigma of the old, with eyes clearly focused on better days to come.

As we start our slow walk back to the hotel — a beautiful villa that is under the comforting crash of a waterfall and guarded by a lemon tree that produces lemons the size of pomelos, the streets are calmer and less congested, though the dancing continues in front of the cathedral. This crowd looks different than most of the others, with fewer crazed-looking young folks and tourists. It’s made up of families, couples and older folk who look like they’ve been dancing the night away on this block for decades. Despite how thin the gringo crowd is at this point, we’re still welcomed with huge grins and we can’t resist dancing along to a few more songs despite our sore feet and exhaustion.

By the time we awake the next morning, the streets have already been swept clean, but the music and celebrating continues. There is an order to the chaos, and nothing I see takes an ugly or violent turn. I burn off my hangover partaking in a waterfall-and-zip-line tour, and by the evening I am ready again to join the locals for hot food and strong drink.

I live in Vancouver, a city that is globally regarded for its illusion of perfection, from its coastline to its hood of mountains to its face of glimmering glass, and all I could think about during New Year’s Eve is how the celebrations in Baños could never happen in my hometown. The perfect harmony of city-wide communal celebration would only be ruined by police authorities, or by drunk rioters, or by the tense fear the authorities would have of giving too much slack in the reins to the rowdy crowds. And frankly, we’re not all in it together. We sacrifice a great deal for the order that we rely so heavily on, and while I wouldn’t trade it to start life anew in the Andes or the Amazon or the often-rotting neighborhoods of urban Ecuador, it’s exhilarating to escape and for at least one night, take back the streets with the other beautiful freaks.