What to do in Ecuador on Christmas

Otovalo Woman in Traditional Dress
Otovalo Woman in Traditional Dress

Traveling during the holidays is an amazing way to learn about the culture and traditions of a country, and maybe pick up a few new traditions of your own.  It also means that you have to arrange your trip a bit differently to accommodate the holiday schedule in that country or make special plans to observe local traditions.  Our Ecuador Holiday Travel Guide will let you know what to look forward to and how to plan your vacation over Christmas.


Christmas day and Christmas Eve in Ecuador is mostly a family event, but there are plenty of public celebrations in every town and city.  Seeing as the Catholicism is the most widely observed religion in the country, Christmas is a big deal and quite interesting to any observant or non-observant traveler.

The big family meal and present-openings happen on the night of December 24.  One of our friends, Cristina, who lives and works in Quito, has her family over for a huge turkey dinner, along with salads, potatoes, rice desserts, and plenty of wine.  Her family has secret friends (kind of like a secret Santa, except Santa isn’t very well known in Ecuador), and they exchange gifts.  Kids usually receive toys like dolls, cars, and soccer balls.  And they pray as a family.  On December 25th, Cristina and her family go over to her in-laws home for lunch.

As mentioned, most people in Ecuador are Catholic, and many traditions celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Families get together every evening  from December 16th to the 24th to pray “La Novena,” a series of prayers for the poor and the sick, and reflections on how to help.  Usually families will also sing Christmas songs and eat desserts together.  As travelers, you are also welcome to attend any Catholic mass as well; the churches tend to be very welcoming, but of course, you’ll want to show the utmost respect (in dress and behavior) if you do attend a mass.

No matter where you’re traveling in Ecuador during the Christmas season, try to catch a “Pase del Niño.”  Pase del Niño is a parade with music and dancing to celebrate the birth of Jesus.  These parades take place all over the country, each city or town hold it on a day between mid December and Christmas Day.  Just ask a local when there will be one in the town you’re staying in.

In Quito, you’ll have to go check out the “Naciemiento” (Nativity) in Panecillo.  The Panecillo is the large hill located near the historical center with the huge statue of the Virgin Mary with wings –it’s hard to miss!  At the Naciemiento, you’ll find all kinds of festivities from music, dancing, singing, plays, puppets, traditional food and desserts, and traditional craft demonstrations.  This generally happens every day from mid December to the first week in January.

As for eating out, it might be a bit hard to find a restaurant open on December 24th.  In the bigger cities (Quito, Cuenca, and Guayaquil), the best way to ensure you’ll have a decent meal on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day is to make reservations far in advance.  If you’re somewhere less populated or didn’t make reservations in advance, you’ll want to talk with your local guide or hotel staff to make a reservation as soon as you arrive.  Other than Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there should be many more restaurants open and reservations aren’t exactly necessary.

The Panecillo in Quito
The Panecillo in Quito

Christmas Day itself can be kind of a quiet day since most people spend it at home with their families.  However, one big exception to this is that later on Christmas Day, Ecuadorians begin constructing their traditional, extremely elaborate effigies.  These dolls are typically quite large, and are stuffed with straw and fireworks.  They are built between Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve, and since they’re quite large, it’s not too difficult to find them being built in open air — just ask your guide if they know where some of these are being constructed.  When these effigies are ignited, it’s quite a sight — but, we go into more of that in our Guide to New Year’s in Ecuador post.

If you’re on a trip with a guide over the Christmas holidays, most guides in Ecuador work on a contract basis, and all who are working have chosen to work over the holidays. Don’t be shy about asking your guide how he or she celebrates Christmas!  And share what you and your family does to celebrate.

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