Mama Negra festival: A must-see spectacle in Latacunga, Ecuador

For the vast majority of travellers, Latacunga acts as the gateway to the avenue of volcanoes and the perfect destination for mountain climbing and hiking. This was not the reason for my visit though. I planned my Ecuador itinerary to coincide with the famous Mama Negra Festival. Check out this post to get more inspiration for your Ecuador trip! 

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What are the origins of the Mama Negra festival? 

The Ecuadorian festival occurs annually and pays homage to the Virgin de la Merced (Virgin of Mercy). It is said that the beginnings of the celebrations stem from the eruption of nearby Cotopaxi volcano in 1742. The locals pleaded to the patron of the volcano, that is to say, the Virgin of Mercy, for their city to be spared from the devastation.

The legend says that she took mercy on the citizens and from that day on they vowed to remember her through an annual celebration. Also at this time, African slaves were brought into Latacunga to work in the mines and on the plantations. Their presence was heavily dramatised by the locals and it wasn’t long before the association in time made them integral to the Mama Negra festival, meaning Black Mother.

Lady dancer at fiesta de la Mama Negra
Mama Negra is a hugely important celebration in Latacunga.

When is the Mama Negra festival?

The Mama Negra festivities traditionally occur on the 23-24 September, however, the event is usually celebrated on the weekend that falls closest to these dates. The festival takes place in November as well, usually to coincide with Latacunga’s Independence Day on the 11th.

What is the Mama Negra festival?

The festival is an eclectic celebration of music, colour and dance. It is the byproduct of a whole different range of cultural traditions including Spanish, Mayan, Inca and African. The party begins at nine in the morning and continues all day long as the parade marches through the city. The Ecuadorian festival is not for the faint of heart, some of the rituals are shocking and the partying is hardcore!

Group of dancers at street festival
The streets are filled with dancers in a beautiful display of colour.

Ecuadorian men and women take to the streets to perform traditional dances in flamboyant clothing. There are both group performances and more intimate partner dances. 

Flag bearer in festival
The flag bearer has an important role within the festival.

The flag bearer is an essential part of the proceedings as he precedes the Captain. This is the individual who is accountable for the success of the festival. 

Pig carcasses paraded through the streets
I was shocked to see the pig carcasses on display!

During the celebrations, the carcasses of animals including pigs, rabbits and chickens are paraded through the streets. Individuals will take it in turns to carry the heavy burden along the route and are given regular breaks to counter for the strenuous task. Other members of the party will carry a stool to rest the carcass on. This relieves some pressure from the person carrying the pig, albeit temporarily. 

Bottles of spirits and cigarettes
Bottles of spirits and cigarettes are presented as gifts to Mama Negra.

Dead animals will sometimes be dressed up and the carcasses adorned with offerings to the Mama Negra. Commonly, these are bottles of spirits (always full) and packets of cigarettes. Groups will try to out-do each other so that their pig is the most embellished and impressive in the line-up.

Little children are given foam pigs
Even children can get involved with foam pig replicas!

The size of the carcass generally determines the size of the carrier which means that usually, adults will bear the burden. However, it is possible to see teenagers carrying smaller carcasses. For the very little ones, they are given foam pigs to wear on their backs so that they can still get involved in the proceedings.  

The guacos are integral to the Mama Negra festival.
The guacos are responsible for banishing bad spirits.

The job of the guacos is to cleanse bystanders of any bad spirits. They do this by performing a clapping ritual with antlers which culminate in the spitting of alcohol over the cursed person. It is not uncommon for the guacos to use live guinea pigs in their healing rituals.  As well as being used in festivals such as these, Ecuador also has a long history of eating guinea pig

Who is la Mama Negra in the festival?

The Mama Negra is a highly sought after role which is always given to an upstanding man in Latacunga’s community. He is elected to preside over the festivities in the role of the Mama which is a huge honour. Serving as Mama Negra will mean he is required to dress as a woman and paint his face black.

Mama Negra squirts milk and water over bystanders.
Being given the part of the Mama Negra in the celebrations is a huge honour.

Mama Negra usually has bright red lips, wears a curly wig and an outfit  adorned with bright colours and flashy jewellery. He will also be required to carry a black doll called Balthazar, like the Black Magi. The person playing the Mama Negra will change from festival to festival. 

Man celebrates Mama Negra festival
Mama Negra celebrations take place all day long.

The party is a day-long affair and continues late into the night when there will be a display of fireworks. Throughout the festivities, strong home-brewed liquor is handed out in shot glasses to the crowds and consumed by the performers. By around 10 pm, expect to see full on carnage as the streets descend into alcohol-fuelled excess.  

How do I get to Latacunga?

The easiest way to get to Latacunga is via bus from Quito. Purchase your tickets on arrival at Quitumbe Bus Terminal for just $2.15 each. Buses leave from Quito to Latacunga every 25 minutes or so and the journey takes between 1-2 hours depending on traffic.

People party on streets
Attending the Mama Negra festival was one of my Ecuador highlights!

Where should I stay during the Mama Negra festival? 

During the Mama Negra festival, accommodation books up quickly so make sure you arrange a reservation in advance. 

There are a few accommodation options around the city but during our visit, we stayed in Hostel Tiana. The hostel is close to the centre of town and easy to find. Dorm beds begin at $9.50 per night and private rooms come in at $32 per night. Breakfast is included and there is a rooftop terrace with amazing views over the city below. 

Alternative accommodation options that are rated well include Hostel Sendero de Volcanes which has restaurant, bar and shared kitchen. Dorms start at $9 per person and privates begin at $22 for two people in a twin room. 

Visitors looking for a little more privacy and comfort should check out Hotel Los Ilinizas. Still reasonably priced at $28 for a family room, this hotel is located just a 10 minute walk from the bus station. It is rated highly by guests and offers free toiletries. 

Have you been to the Mama Negra festival? 

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