Cotacachi / Cotacachi / Cotacachi Indigenous / Ecuador Culture / Living in Ecuador

Tear Gassed Again! The Dance of San Juan in Cotacachi

Gary may never agree to accompany me to the yearly celebration of the dance of San Juan ever again.  And I can’t say I blame him after what happened to us today.  The afternoon was a madhouse of mayhem, murder and tear gas.

We had lunch today with friends, after which I casually suggested that Gary and I stroll down to the main square to check out the festivities taking place.

I could see large crowds lining the steps of the cathedral as they watched the marching groups of indigenous men from several outlying villages.  The men dance in tight circles on each corner of the square.
Each year men from the villages compete aggressively against each other in ritualistic posturing.
They whistle shrilly, swinging whips of steel telephone cable and carrying knobby clubs or wooden rifles. Circling first in one direction and then reversing, they stomp their feet in a militaristic cadence.

They scowl and glare.  To me they often seem to go into an altered state or trance from the long hours of rhythmic shuffling back and forth.  Of course, the aguardiente, which is pure white lightening made from sugar cane, certainly exacerbates the altered consciousness.

Our godson Yauri danced with his big brother.

I snapped pictures for a while and then Gary was ready to leave, but I insisted upon taking a few more pictures.  We crossed the street into the center of the park.

All of a sudden some of the marchers and onlookers began to run from one side of the square, down Modesto Penaherra and past the cathedral.  Again, Gary wanted to leave right then, but I couldn’t see any real reason to go.  The crowds of people sitting on the steps weren’t moving and didn’t seem to be concerned.

There was no evidence of tear gas, no police in sight, and I didn’t want to get caught in the press of the crowd.  I distanced myself from the runners and continued to snap away, keeping one eye on the action.
Then I saw some policemen clashing with a few indigenous. A tear gas canister went off.

The movement of people escalated into a stampede as droves of locals fled like a herd of startled horses. There were loud squeals from women in the crowd.

People began to vacate the square in earnest and so did we.  Gary grabbed my hand and pulled me along.  A whole series of tear gas canisters exploded only about 40 feet away from us.
Within minutes the center of the park was devoid of people and foggy with toxic smoke.

We hurriedly made our way to Calle Bolivar at the edge of the cathedral, but not quickly enough.  Even though we were on the periphery and couldn’t really see the clouds of tear gas reaching us, the fumes overtook us.  We began to cough and stagger down the street.

The pain was immediate and overwhelming.  Breathing was excruciatingly painful.

Our throats, eyes and exposed skin stung as if we’d had acid thrown in our faces. My eyes and nose started to water ferociously.

We darted into a restaurant on Bolivar and sought sanctuary in the bathroom where we could splash water on our faces.  We were both bleeding slightly from our nostrils and our faces were red and splotchy.

I can imagine how absolutely horrible it must be to have a canister go off very close by.  No wonder people sometimes die from being tear gassed.

It took about ten minutes for the effects to dissipate and we started walking back to our apartment.  For us, Inti Rymi and the dance of San Juan is over for another year.

I don’t feel inclined to observe any more of the celebrations, except perhaps the dance of the women on Sunday, which is usually a peaceful affair, designed to have a mollifying effect and bring calm to the end of the festival.
A few blocks from the action, things were more tranquil.  Lots of babies and small children were enjoying the day as if there weren’t a small war going on nearby.

Later, some long-time Ecuadorian residents stopped by our house and gave us their personal interpretations of San Juan.
The dance of San Juan and Inti Rymi have become enmeshed over the years, becoming one lengthy celebration that lasts about 8 days.

Inti Rymi is an ancient adoration of the sun. The dance of San Juan is a more recent addition, dating from Christian times and named for St. John.

The significance of the marching and stomping is to show respect for Pachamama, or Mother Earth.  The harder they stomp, the more they express their devotion to her.  They also dance to Pachamama to bring a good harvest for the year.

According to our friends, if someone dies during the festival the indigenous consider it a successful celebration.

Today was the worst day, with 5 ambulances, lots of fighting, confrontations with the police, and three indigenous men dead. One of the men had his throat cut with a machete and bled to death.

Many of the mountain communities celebrate the dance of San Juan.  So far this year there have also been two deaths in Otavalo and ten wounded in the central park of Imantag, just a short distance from Cotacachi.

The Cotacachi hospital received many injured today. We saw a young man clutching his scalp and blood dripping down his forehead and nose as he staggered down the street, supported by a women.

A motorcycle policeman escorted an open truck to the hospital in Cotacachi.  In the back of the truck was an injured man being given CPR by another man.

When I asked our friend Oswaldo what he thinks of the festival in general, he replied, “Malo, lots of aggression.”

Gary said that this is the first year he’s seen indigenous with guns.  We ran into Haro, the owner of La Quadra hosteria, which is one block from the square.  He said today was very dangerous.

There was erratic shooting and someone, he wasn’t sure whether it was an indigenous celebrant or a policeman, shot a hole in the water reservoir on the roof of his hosteria, sending cascades of water down the walls.  He said the tear gas smoke was so strong that he couldn’t go up to inspect the damage.

Too inebriated to walk without a little help from amigos

Each community has a leader who is supposed to keep order, but the combination of machismo and alcohol is deadly.

The indigenous save money all year and spend it on the festival.  They wear huge black hats with symbols on them or sometimes frightening knitted masks.  They invest in chaps made of cow or sheep skin.  Painted faces are prevalent.

They dance for three days, beginning on June 24th, then take 3 or 4 days off to rest before dancing again.  But there is little respite from drinking.

A visitor from the U.S. told us that she’d seen drunken indigenous men passed out all along the road from Cotacachi past the village of El Batan. “They drink like crazy all week in the communities,” said Oswaldo.

“Last weekend was the dance of San Juan,” he told us.  “The night of the 28th is vespers and it’s more peaceful.  People come from other areas to play music together.  Today, June 29, was the worst day, the most fierce.

“The dance of San Pedro is on the 29th, followed by the dance of San Pablo on the 30th.  San Lucia is July 1 when the women dance and it’s another peaceful day.

“The change now is the increased aggression among communities,”  Oswaldo’s wife told us.  She says that when she was a child, her father would take her up to barrio San Jose.

“First all of the community danced in the park in Cotacachi.  Afterward they would walk up to San Jose, eating and drinking together along the way, very agreeable.  They would fight only with their hands, a clean fight, without that many participating.

“Now the young have a very different mentality.  They don’t respect their ancient traditions.

“These days it’s more a show of force to see which community is the strongest or more dominant.

“Groups of young men like to rob, get drunk and use drugs.  They are considered very bad.  We call them pandilleros, which in English translates into gangs.

“The indigenous are often very religious but they can get so aggressive during San Juan.  It’s a puzzle.  I don’t really understand how this has happened.

“They are usually docile and mild, humble most of the year.  They see the mestizos  as a higher class and at this time of year the indigenous see an opportunity to elevate their self esteem.

“Their dress is quasi-military.  They ritualistically ridicule the mestizos by their dress and actions. It’s a way to express their pent-up aggressions and negative feelings.”

I’ve inhaled the noxious breathe of tear gas twice before while photographing the dance of San Juan from our penthouse balcony, but the effects have never before been so severe.  A warning: if you ever join the throngs who observe or take part in the dance of San Juan, take precautions and do your best to stay alert.

The dancers throw rocks with deadly accuracy.  Tear gas can waft unexpectedly.

And let’s pray that spilling gringo blood doesn’t become the new hallmark of a successful dance of San Juan.

To read the blog about the 2008 Dance of San Juan, click here.

More about dance of San Juan.



  1. And you Gary had me convinced to retire in your town. I had planned to go visit this August, spend a few weeks there to get the feel of it. Cancel that!

    • Hi David,

      Frankly, that doesn’t disappoint me. We already have many expats in Cotacachi, perhaps too many. We certainly don’t need any more people who can’t accept the Cotacachi indigenous culture as it is. The dance of San Juan has been going on for generations, and I doubt it is going to change.

      People really need to understand that Ecuador is not the U.S. If people come down here with expectations that they are just moving to another suburb of the U.S., they are going to be greatly disappointed. So thank you for your decision. It is a good one.


  2. I think it’s good to see all sides of places and people, and I appreciate you sharing this story. We have many gangs in the USA, and way more blood gets spilled in the streets here. We just don’t have it centered around rituals like these folks. Ours is more random, 24×7.

  3. ‘Cotacachi, now only a dream?’ soon may become a gringo nightmare brought on my too many expats in this area, encouraged by the likes of International Living, Gary Scott, etc. injecting too many people and raising the price of land. How many new developments lately?

  4. International Living rates Ecuador as the best place in the world to retire….four times! This is an entirely different slant on things. The pictures and article are scary to say the least. It doesn’t look to me like it would take too much, under these drunken/drugged conditions, to go after the “gringos”. I think I’ll look for a more civilized country to retire.

    • Yes, I guess that kind of tells you the state of the world.

      When you find that “more civilized country” please let me know of it. I may join you there. Of course, first, they have to let us in. Ugly American’s are not in that great a demand any more. Our reputation precedes us.

  5. Fascinating story. The indigenous men better think again, if they think faux machismo and violence raises their self-esteem. It is the behavior of people attempting to compensate for some very strong inferiority complexes.

    I would not want to live in Cotacachi, and the drug use is scary. I hope that is not going to become more pervasive throughout Ecuador.

    I will stay in civilized Cuenca, were the primary word Cuencanos use to describe the people and its city is “tranquil”. Despite the class discrimination which exists here, the vast majority of Cuencano indigenous can hold their heads high with pride. They are a very hard working and loving group of people.

  6. What an amazing story! You definitely get the ‘intrepid’ award, and I admire that you absorbed as much as you could before dashing for safety!

    I also understand Gary’s qualms, as my instincts have saved my tail more than once! Great post! (I still cannot figure out how to subscribe to this blog!)