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Cotacachi Dance of San Juan is Starting: Get Ready to Rumble

We are entering one of the most exciting times of the year here in Cotacachi, and in other areas in the Northern Andes. The celebration of the solstice has historically been a major event in these mountains. Cotacachi is no exception.

Tomorrow, June 24th, starts the famous Baila de San Juan. This is the time of the year when the indigenous from the lower areas in the valley confront the indigenous from the highlands. The lowlands people are traditionally dressed in dark colors, the highlanders in white, symbolically the forces of light and dark confronting each other in the town square.

For four days, the groups will dance, whistle, and drink sugar cane liquor–and on top of that, fight. Yes, they fight, the purpose of which is to draw blood–the more blood that is spilled, the better the harvest will be in the coming growing season.

Police are typically on hand to monitor the crowd, and to try to prevent it from getting out of hand. Last year, we smelled several whiffs of tear gas wafting by as we observed events from the safety of our fourth floor terrace. The police attempted to quell the fighting.

Cell phones have made it easier for the two sides to avoid the police. The leader of one group will call the leader of another group and arrange for a street corner rendevous.

This is serious business. Last year, three people died in the fighting. Nearly every year, some person sacrifices his life in this celebration of the new season.

At first, it shocked my sensibilities. “Why would people do this?” I asked myself? But as I examined further, I began to understand that to the Quechua people, this is a sacred event. Prior to the start, all of the men involved do ritual bathing in Lake Cuicocha or the Peguchi waterfall, as they fast, meditate, and pray.

Then they dress up in their costumes and move out onto the street. This is a most serious/fun work to provide their families with a bountiful harvest.

Later, I reflected on some of our North American rituals–the Friday night and Sunday afternoon football game, boxing, wrestling–where grown men bash each others brains out for the sake of….something. . .

Then there’s stock car racing–where the most exciting thrills are the crashes–and bull fighting, where sometimes the bull wins. At least here the men believe they are achieving a higher purpose. Or perhaps for many it is just an opportunity to let off steam and take out aggressions that are suppressed the rest of the year.

The final day of the celebration is the day of the woman. Women from all the surrounding communities now dance in the streets in harmony, a symbolic representation of the restoration of peace and the acceptance of the blessing of God for the coming harvest.

Whatever the purpose of this ritualistic behavior, the excitement in the air is palpable, even today before the event really starts. The whole town is in a sort of buzz.

Oh, I forgot to mention, another symbolic aspect of the dance of the Cotacachi Dance of San Juan, we’ve heard, is a retaking of the town square from the Spanish. May as well throw that in for good measure. Actually, I don’t think they need an excuse. Get ready to Rumble.

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One Comment

  1. Hi Gary:

    This is a really nice description of one of the cultural festivals in Ecuador. I don’t get out of Quito much to learn about these events; I appreciate such a great description. Keep up the good work!

    Jeff