Being forced to drink the local brew

Mama Negra – pigs on crucifixes, local spirits and shaman healings


Latacunga is our last adventure in Ecuador, although we plan to stop just one more night in Quito before heading to the Colombian border.

For 364 days a year this town should be firmly off any traveller’s plans. Arriving from Banos, we pass through a grey, concrete suburbia. It’s not pretty, although towering volcanoes help distract, with many stopping off here for trips to the largest, Cotopaxi. We are here for one of the biggest and most bizarre festivals in Ecuador, Mama Negra.

Our depressive hostel owners told us there’s not much in town, not really any bars or restaurants and we would probably not get to see any of the festival as it’s so busy and a little dangerous.  Rubbish, we got there early (9am), found a great spot, bought some plastic chairs, some silly hats and awaited the mayhem.

The Mama Negra festival is a strange mix of Spanish-brought Catholic religion, local native belief in ‘spirits’ and a good old excuse for a knees up.  The festival is traditionally led by a religious effigy of the ‘Virgin de las Mercedes’ who it is said saved the city from the numerous eruptions of local volcano Cotopaxi. As with many religious fairy tales the fact is far from the truth, the town has been all but obliterated three times. Recently the festival has adopted the slightly dubious racial figure of a ‘black mother’. A local priest decided to cut back the free wine and food at the festival and was visited at night by a black lady who warned him of evil consequences.  Local men now dress as pantomime dames with blackened faces and dance through the procession. Hmmm…

If you didn’t think this was weird enough, local custom calls for roast pigs to be carried on wooden  ‘crucifixes’ through the town, dead guinea pigs, bottles of whiskey and cigarettes are also stuck into the side of the carcass. They must weigh a ton, many of the guys carrying them have friends following with a stool to sit down and rest every few hundred metres. Also in the crowd you can spot shamen who will stop you, brush you with twigs, prod you with deer antlers and then spit sugar alcohol over you, a spiritual cleansing.

Basically, it’s a bit of a piss up (excuse the language, but I feel it describes the event perfectly). As the procession goes past they feed huge amounts of free local-made alcohol into the crowd, and as it turns out, if you’re a tourist they really love to include you in the fun.  As it’s rude to turn down the drink, I was pretty drunk by 1pm.

That’s Mama Negra, you couldn’t make it up. There’s a video below that’s got most of the weird bits in it. It’s doesn’t quite show the mayhem and the crazy heat, but I don’t think you would have believed half of the stuff above if I’d not got it on camera.

Look out for the ‘tree people’, the old ladies with the hula-hoops and the worrying Ku Klux Klan types.

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