Horn of Plenty
There is plenty to thrill you in Ecuador and this beautiful country has no shortage of unforgettable sights. Tucked in the northwest of South America, it’s crossed by Andean peaks that have earned the local Pan-American Highway the sobriquet “the Avenue of Volcanoes.” Ice-capped, cone-shaped peaks billow smoke on either side as you take the road to the high altitude capital Quito, itself a visitor’s delight with an old quarter crammed with colonial churches and cobbled streets. To the east lie lush jungles and cascading waterfalls and to the west sweeping beaches and ideal waves for surfing. Farther out in the Pacific are the famous Galápagos Islands, with their astounding wildlife (see ) that will make any photographer snap happy. Yet of all these arresting visions, there is none more unforgettable than the sight of one ton of raging black muscle storming toward you on a village square while a jeering crowd bay for your blood.
The locals say that a fiesta patronal is not a success unless at least two ambulances cart off some hapless victims to the local hospital. The green rolling hills and volcanoes of Imbabura province north of the capital hide a heap of indigenous villages where the locals love to gather once a year and get gouged by an angry bull. Each town has its own patron saint party on a certain weekend where brass bands take to streets playing jaunty military tunes and kids light bonfires on the corners, burning effigies and parading in costumes.
Otavala, 95km (59 miles) north of Quito and just across the equator, is one such place. This famous artisan market town has proud Indian routes where the men wear long straight black hair in distinctive ponytails and women wear multi-stranded bead necklaces, their short round bodies wrapped up in ponchos and petticoats and topped with a slanted bowler hat.
For the festival, a rickety wooden stand is built around the central plaza and a set of stockades set up around a newly laid sand pit. A tall greasy pole is raised at its center and crowned with a sack full of goodies. Inebriated men jump from their seats and race across to the pole, which they hopelessly attempt to climb while a bull storms into the arena.
Mayhem breaks loose as the bull makes a bull’s-eye of the man’s hind quarters and charges for it. Other members of the public rush from their seats to distract the animal and are subsequently chased to the surrounding walls where they leap the fence just as the animal’s fiercesome horns crash into the woodwork. Just as proceedings are getting a little chaotic, another raging male cow is released into the arena for good measure and general pandemonium breaks loose; inevitably one of the public slips and is tossed in the air like a rag doll. Blood streams from his forehead as he rushes to the stockade with his hand held forward. People try to help him jump but no, he does not want out, he just wants a sip of their beer.
Ecuadoreans love a good party and are some of the most committed drinkers on the planet, frequently fired up by $1 bottles of industrial alcohol. No doubt such beverages have an influential role on who is brave enough to leave the stands and take a chance across the arena. The great thing about bull running here is that nobody gets hurt, at least those who don´t deserve to. That includes the bull who survives to gouge another day in another nearby village.
Exploring Ecuador (www.exploringecuador.com).
When to Go: June. Check local normals for exact dates.
Quito (95km/59 miles).
$$$ Hacienda Cusin, San Pablo del Lago, Otavalo ( 593/6/2918-013; www.haciendacusin.com). $$ Hacienda Pinsaqui, Pan-American Hwy. Km 5, Otavalo ( 593/6/2946-116; www.haciendapinsaqui.com).