New Year’s Eve in Ecuador: Embracing Local Culture

I’d been living in Quito for a few months when the year-end holidays rolled around. I was eight months pregnant at that point—too far along to travel to Seattle or Rome to spend Christmas and New Year’s with either my family or my husband’s. Instead, a friend of ours flew in from New York City to visit us in the mitad del mundo, or so-called “middle of the world,” to escape the cold and spend New Year’s together.

A band plays in front of colorful effigies prepared for the Anos Viejos festival in Quito.
Monigotes along Amazonas Avenue in Quito, December 31, 2017. Photo © Alejandro Miranda/Dreamstime.

Given my advanced state, we decided to cook dinner and stay in that night. But despite being in our own apartment, it still felt like we were far from home—instead of wearing gloves and heavy jackets when we stepped out onto our balcony, I simply threw a purple pashmina over my sleeveless top. And instead of singing “Auld Lang Syne” when midnight struck, we set a dummy on fire.

Ecuador’s biggest tradition on New Year’s Eve is that of the año viejo—a masked dummy stuffed with sawdust or paper and cardboard and dressed in old clothes. Año viejo means “old year” and the effigies represent the misfortunes of the past year. They are set on fire at midnight and must be burned completely, or else it is believed that any bad situations that plagued you during the previous year will return. Handmade papier-mâché masks in the likeness of political figures, movie characters, sports stars, animals, and more are sold everywhere. I remember seeing masks of everyone from the Ecuadorian president to the American commander-in-chief, from SpongeBob to Spider-Man.

We had picked out our dummy earlier that day while walking down Avenida Amazonas. The boulevard had been closed to traffic and was filled with people admiring giant dummies, or monigotes, set up in theatrical scenes on stages—decrying political scandals, asserting salvation through Jesus, supporting political movements, and generally providing a platform for social protest and proclamations. There were tables selling effigies of all sizes and rows of masks. We chose a small dummy and a dog-faced mask to burn, and we picked out masks for ourselves for fun.

An additional custom is to burn the effigy in the street and jump over it as it burns, once for each month of the year, to bring good luck. The fire can get big as the effigy burns, and dummies that have firecrackers stuffed inside are a special challenge. Leaping over a live fire while I had a belly bigger than Santa’s seemed beyond foolish, so we decided to ignite our dummy in the barbecue on our balcony instead.

Once the fires have been lit, those out on the street past midnight will be accosted by the viudas, or “widows,” of the smoldering remains—men dressed in drag who dance in the street and beg for money to pay for the “funerals” of their recently cremated husbands. (These funerals look suspiciously like beer binges!)

There was no “funeral” for us that night—just one small sip of champagne for me—but we had taken the tradition and made it our own. There’s no better way to make a new place start to feel like home.

Amy E. Robertson

About the Author

Amy E. Robertson has been passionate about volunteer vacations since she was 13, when she took her first service trip with Habitat for Humanity. Since then, she's traveled far and wide, visiting more than 60 countries and living in six. She has lived in Ecuador and Honduras and traveled in 12 other mainland Latin American countries (plus four in the Caribbean). In that time, Amy explored the snow-capped mountains, animal-packed jungles, sandy beaches, and temples of the Maya that make up this diverse area. She fell in love with the rich culture of the modern Quechua and the ancient Incas and found passion for salsa dancing. The volunteer experiences she had—from building homes in Honduras, to monitoring presidential elections in Ecuador, to working with youth in Bolivia on the creation of social documentaries—helped her to better understand the people she met and enriched her as much as it did those she supported.

Amy has a background in international development and nonprofit management, and has worked in both private and nonprofit sectors. She applied that expertise, as well as the advice and experiences of her extensive network of passionate “voluntourist” friends and colleagues, to her evaluation of volunteer programs for this book.

Amy is a Seattle native who has long been obsessed with travel. She studied in Boston and Madrid for her bachelor's degree and London for her master's degree in development studies (where she also met her husband, who hails from Italy). In 2012, after eight years living in Latin America, Amy moved with her husband and two children to Beirut, Lebanon. She spends three months a year divided between her family's hometowns: Seattle, Rome, and Messina, Sicily. She is the author of Moon Honduras & the Bay Islands, and her writing has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Christian Science Monitor, and Travel + Leisure, among others.

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