The 2nd November is “All Souls Day” in the Catholic calendar, the “Day of the Dead” in Mexico, the “Día de los Difuntos” (Day of the Deceased) in Ecuador. I didn’t realise it when making my plans, but Otavalo turns out to be one of the best places in all of Ecuador to experience this important day.
The tradition (particularly strong amongst the more indigenous peoples of Ecuador) is for families to visit the cemetery, taking food and drink for a picnic on the grave of the deceased. Yes, you read that correctly, ON the grave of the deceased. The idea is that the souls of the dead visit on this day, and families need to provide plenty of food so that these souls can gain strength to continue on their journey to the after life.
I asked at the hostel when the celebrations started, and they advised me that between 11am and 1pm would be the best time to see what was going on. So off I set in the blazing sun to the indigenous cemetery. It was not hard to find – really, you just had to follow the crowds!
Lining both sides of both access streets were people selling flowers, wreaths, fruit (especially sweet pepinos), and food. Lots and lots of food – the most popular seemingly being the fish Tilápia, fried, of course.
And everywhere you looked, there were women selling the most traditional of treats for this particular occasion – Guaguas de Pan (bread babies).
These are sweet breads shaped like babies (guagua or wawa means “baby” in Quechua) that have been wrapped in swaddling (note, they don’t have arms), and decorated with colourful icing. They can be plain or filled with a fruit jam, and in some parts of Ecuador, they can also take the shape of an animal.
Food and flowers purchased, the families then entered the cemetery to find the plot of their deceased. And what a spectacle it was!
It was absolutely packed! And full of action! From people tending the graves
to musicians playing for the deceased
to everybody laying out a picnic on top of the graves.
It was incredibly difficult to move and find a place to stand to take it all in. It was just amazing to see such a healthy attitude towards death!
After about 2 hours of wandering around, I left with a touch of sunstroke (why I didn’t put my hat on, I don’t know!) but returned at 2:30pm to see how the day had unfolded. Wow! What a difference! There was almost nobody left at the cemetery!
It was a great opportunity though to wander around admiring the freshly-tended graves and marveling at the bootprints that trampled the dirt mounds. I felt really self-conscious walking all over the graves, but it is what everybody did and nobody blinked an eye.
I was also surprised at the lack of rubbish left behind in the wake of so many people and so much food! Very a-typical for such a large gathering in general, and for Latin America in particular.
From the cemetery I headed back into town for a very late lunch and decided I had to go the full traditional spread. So fried Tilápia, Guaguas de Pan, and Colada Morada – a thick, sweet, drink made with purple (or black) corn, spices and berries. Yum!
The Día de los Difuntos really was quite a sight and if you happen to be in Ecuador on November 2, I’d encourage you to definitely experience it.