You know you’ve had a good New Year’s Eve when a code of silence has been sanctioned. And while Ecuadorians know how to celebrate New Year’s, the small town of Baños might not have been quite prepared for our group.
New Years in Ecuador was a little bit of Halloween and a little bit of New Year’s Eve. The festivities started in late afternoon. Children taking the streets, dressed up in costumes, asking for small coins. Some boldly blocking traffic demanding money before letting cars pass. Something we couldn’t imagine overprotective parents in the US allowing. As we went shopping for our costumes and pre-festival beverages, a DJ filled the crowded streets around the market with music and dancing. When a couple of people in our group started twerking in front of the DJ, he pretended to shut down until we left. The music silenced.
Leading up to the holiday, shops and roadside stands were selling ‘El Viejos’. These life size dolls were the most fascinating part of the Ecuadorian New Year’s celebration for me. You can make your own, like our guide, Ivan, by sewing some clothes together, stuffing it with paper and attaching a mask. Or you can buy (or make) more elaborate, decorative paper machete dolls, many resembling cartoon characters or public figures. Smurfs seemed really popular. The tradition is to burn the El Viejos at midnight, symbolizing the end of one year (and all the baggage associated with it) and a fresh start to a new year. Some local men dress up as women, or more accurately widows (which I found out later), asking for small coins for their El Viejo.
We didn’t make this crucial connection between the widow and old man. If we had, we might have opted for, um, more tasteful costumes. Instead, we applied the general US rule when it comes to women and Halloween. We slutted it up. Or more accurately, our men slutted it up. (Pictures are not shown to protect the identity of the otherwise respectable and very manly men involved.)
We hit the streets in our costumes, emboldened by a couple bottles of rum. A giant block party had overtaken all of downtown Baños, music playing, crowds walking around, cars slowly parading through the narrow streets, some with El Viejo’s strapped to the roof or hood. As we roamed block after block, our popularity grew, and more and more locals asked to have photos taken with us. When we stopped cars to ask for money, the local men laughed, the women generally looked horrified by our trashy costumes, and I assumed begged the men to pay up before we scarred their poor children for life. As the ‘women’ in our group earned money for our El Viejo, I quietly dropped the coins into the hands of unsuspecting children passing by. Our El Viejo had his own beer money.
At midnight, there was no countdown. No loud noisemakers. No cheap champagne. Just fireworks and cheering. El Viejos being lit on fire in the streets and people jumping over them. And somewhere, maybe, a rum bottle was thrown, but no one knows why.
As the fires died out, we headed to the bars for dancing and drinking and more dancing until the wee hours of the morning. Costumes slowly being shed as we worked up a sweat. A few of us starting to look like our normal selves, a few of us looking like hot messes (sweaty men and mascara don’t mix). Finally, we started heading to the hotel to get a few hours of sleep before hiking the next day. But when we passed a few stragglers still listening to music, we had to stop for a little impromptu dancing in the street. What better way to wrap up an amazing New Years Eve?
The next morning we checked the local newspaper to see if we had made the front page. Alas, we did not. Much to our relief. Especially Crystal’s.