Las Fiestas Patrias

Puno Masked Dancer Peru
People visiting Ecuador and Peru during July will have the opportunity to experience the national holiday of Fiestas Patrias, or Independence Day. In both countries, Fiestas Patrias is perhaps the biggest national holiday; during this time the whole nation is in celebration. Colorful parades march down main streets, accompanied by loud brass bands while men and women dance in traditional costumes.

Ecuador celebrates on July 24, commemorating the birthday of military leader Simon Bolivar. Peru celebrates national independence on July 28-29.A quick overview of the history leading to Peru and Ecuador's independence allows foreigners to understand the cultural significance this holiday plays in Andean society. Understanding the history behind Las Fiestas Patrias enriches visitor's appreciation and participation in this fun-filled and festive event.

The history behind this holiday begins with the Spanish Conquest of the Incas. The Inca Empire originated near the shores of Lake Titicaca, between Peru and Bolivia, in the 11th century. The empire began to expand from its capital in Cuzco, Peru, and by 1500 Ecuador was under Inca rule. The Inca Empire was a developed and complex nation. Agriculture was collectivized. Records of populations, seasons, and food supplies were kept. An impressive masonry building style - blocks weighing tons that fit together so perfectly a piece of paper can't fit between them even today, remain as evidence to the success of the empire. Perhaps the Incas most impressive achievement was their network of roads. Eight meters wide and paved with stone, teams of runners traveled from Cuzco, Peru to Quito, Ecuador along the Inca Highway, crossing suspension bridges over at least 100 rivers and resting in roadhouses along the way.

The Spanish Invasion reached the West Coast of South America in 1526. Francisco Pizarro was the central conqueror in both Ecuador and Peru. In 1528 Pizarro explored as far as the Rio Santa in Peru, noting the richness of the Inca Empire. On his third expedition, Pizarro landed on the Ecuadorian coast and began to march overland towards Peru, marching directly into the heart of the Empire. In November 1532 he reached Cajamarca, captured the Inca emperor, Atahualpa, and effectively put an end to the Inca Empire.

The next thirty years were a period of turmoil, with the Incas still fighting against their conquerors and the conquistadors fighting among themselves for control of the rich colony. The rulers of the colony were the Spanish-born viceroys appointed by the Spanish crown. The social stratification of the society placed immigrants from Spain in the most prestigious positions. The Indians occupied the lowest rung in the class system; they were exploited and treated as expendable laborers. Unfortunately, shades of this social hierarchy are still visible in modern Ecuador and Peru.

By the early 19th century, the inhabitants of Spain's Latin American colonies were dissatisfied with the lack of freedom and high taxation imposed upon them by Spain. All South America was ripe for revolt or independence. For Peru the change came from two directions. Jose de San Martin liberated Argentina and Chile and in 1821 entered Lima. Meanwhile, Simon Bolivar had freed Venezuela and Colombia. In 1822 Bolivar liberated Ecuador from Spanish rule; however it wasn't until 1830 that Ecuador became fully independent. San Martin soon left Latin America to live in France and Bolivar continued with the liberation of Peru. Peru became essentially an independent state in 1824.

Simon Bolivar is celebrated throughout South America as a national hero. However, his political philosophy was problematic. Thus, his reputation today finds him characterized as both a heroic liberator and a tyrannical despot. Bolivar believed that the best way to organize the struggling republics would be through a strongly centralized, even dictatorial government. Ideally, a ruler would preside with limitless power that would labor for the greatest good instead of abusing his power. He died without his dream of Gran Colombia, the unification of all South America, realized. One can see evidence of Bolivar's importance throughout Ecuador and Peru today. Not only is his birthday a national holiday, but many streets and schools bear his name.

On Independence Day travelers can expect to find the entire country celebrating through food, music, and costume. From school events to big military parades, Ecuadorians and Peruvians demonstrate their national pride. Even in small rural villages the national flag flies on the roofs of most homes. Wherever the holiday finds one, tourists should join in the local festivities and remember the long history behind the present celebration. Just keep in mind that banks, offices, and other services are closed; hotels are crowded so book in advance!