Brazil’s dazzling Carnival celebration attracts more people each year than any other festival in the world, an estimated 10 million.
Germany’s sudsy Oktoberfest sits a distant second in attendance, with about 5 million people.
These two popular world festival icons at the top shouldn’t surprise anyone.
But there is a fast-rising newcomer on the scene.
The Fiesta de la Luz (Festival of Light) in Quito, Ecuador, is drawing millions and growing each year.
The historic capital city drew at least 2.5 million people last August in only its third year hosting a high-tech music and light show, in which the lights are cast dramatically on the colonial architecture of Quito's historic old city.
City officials have been trying hard to put their stamp on the world festival map. Now they are attracting attention with this captivating, high-minded techno approach, which is catching on without the sequined sensuality of Brazil’s Carnival or the beer-fueled blitz of Octoberfest.
Ebullient Quito Mayor Mauricio Rodas tweeted during the 2018 festival that the event raised the economic profile of the city. But most important, he said, was that it “feel(s) appropriate to our Historic Center.”
What’s The Festival About?
On Aug. 10, 1809, Quito became the first city in South America to declare its independence from Colonial Spain, igniting the fires of revolution and independence throughout South America in the 19th century. Hence the Festival uses light to pay homage, bathing well-preserved colonial architecture with contemporary artistic renderings in a dazzling commemoration of Quito’s brave past.
How I Discovered Fiesta de la Luz
I happened to be in Quito planning to spend only a few days there in late July last year when I first heard about the festival.
While techno music-and-light shows are not my favorite art forms, it’s easy to see their broad appeal, especially on such a grand scale, outdoors at night, where blending contemporary technology with music and historic architecture results in beautiful new creations.
This five-night event was developed in cooperation with city officials from Lyon, France, where a similar event is a long-established tradition.
Then I read in the local newspaper that 19 respected Ecuadorian and international artists had earned the right to present their works in a widespread competition.
The more I learned about Quito’s Fiesta de la Luz, the more it started sounding like something well worth sticking around for.
Did I mention that all the events are free?
Join the Crowd
So I extended my stay and went on opening night, joining an estimated half-million other people in the city’s narrow streets. Many, like me, were trying without success to squeeze into San Francisco Plaza, where one of the most popular among 19 different light shows was taking place.
I turned around about a half block from the plaza when I met a staggering mass of humanity squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder from sidewalk to sidewalk between the city buildings on either side of the street.
All I could see was a claustrophobic nightmare with potential for catastrophe if something untoward occurred to cause a panic. The crowd was so thick in there you could pass out and never fall down.
Feeling The Pain
It isn't surprising that the event’s meteoric popularity has come with some growing pains.
While nearly every Ecuadorian I met expressed great pride in the festival and encouraged me to go, some were also wary of the anticipated crowds.
“Too many people,” said my otherwise enthusiastic hostel host, when asked why she wouldn’t attend this year.
Also troubling to me were the darkened plazas where no ground lights illuminated uneven pavement and unseen steps. I stumbled around at times and saw a couple of people fall.
Then there were the unauthorized vendors selling everything from food to selfie sticks appearing en masse despite meager police efforts to disperse them, while impromptu street performers drew attention that further clogged already crowded walkways.
Pickpockets Are Real
Later, as I navigated through the congestion to leave the city center, I encountered a couple of pesky kids ostensibly trying to sell cheap wrapping paper that they kept waving in front of my face.
I politely declined at first, but they persisted and I had to keep swatting the paper away from my face to see.
It was only just annoying until I realized this likely meant that I’d been marked by pickpockets. I turned once quickly and believe I spotted the kids' older accomplices as I kept quickening my pace.
The obnoxious kids kept harassing me, though, until my longer strides cleared the dense crowd and the kids disappeared.
Remarkably, Quito’s Mayor Rodas, after officially denying a newspaper’s report of a sexual assault at the festival, declared that there were “no reports of harassment, sexual abuse or robbery” during the festival.
I really did enjoy the Quito’s Festival de la Luz, however, and returned for a second night to see more.
What Can Be Done?
With some relatively easy creative modifications, I think it wouldn’t be difficult to make Quito’s 2019 festival even more visitor-friendly.
There’s already much to do and see in Quito during the day, though much of it is unrelated to the festival.
More festival-related events such as concerts, lectures, street shows, food fests, and activities for kids, could complement and promote the impressive techno-music-and-light shows at night.
Perhaps inviting the street performers and vendors into certain designated areas before and during the light show, and actually promoting their presence to visitors, would legitimize them instead of using the cops to keep shooing them away from the city center. It also might ease some of the street congestion.
The city also could consider extending the festival a few more nights to spread out the attendance and perhaps reduce the frustration of people actually trying to see the light shows.
Not Such A Bad Problem
Of course, having too many people at a festival, with the prospect that many more soon will discover this entrancing upstart on the world festival scene, is not a bad problem to have.
Quito’s Fiesta de la Luz, one of the newest among the many charms of a magnificent, historic old city, now seems poised to rank among the world’s top annual cultural attractions for many years to come.
What About Those Attendance Figures?
Official attendance estimates at Quito’s Fiesta de la Luz have ranged from 2.5 million to 4 million people. The city’s initial count for the first four days, using highly touted observations by airborne drones, was more than 3 million people.
The fifth day was expected to boost total attendance to nearly 4 million. But the city backed off its original number and later, without explanation, reported the total five-day attendance at “more than two and a half million.”
Meanwhile, Lyon’s four-night festival reportedly draws three to four million people annually.
Vienna's Donquinselfest music festival attracted a reported 3.1 million in 2016, and the Mawazine music fest in Morocco drew a reported 2.65 million 2015. These few, along with Oktoberfest and Brazil's Carnvival are major players.
But after sorting out these and many other reported attendance figures from festival events worldwide, any of the reported numbers still secures Quito's place among the biggest cultural festivals in the world!
If You Go … Tips For Enjoying The Show
Quito Has Much More to Offer
Quito is a splendid capital city about 9,350 feet above sea level, giving it a comfortable temperate climate despite its proximity to the equator.
With some of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture you’ll find, along with fine restaurants, shops, and cafes in its historic city center city, it is delightful for walking.
If that’s your fancy, check out the free City Walking Tour (donations requested) to get your bearings on the Old City where the Festival de la Luz will be taking place. You’ll also get a good overview of the city’s history, the lowdown on local landmarks, and a sumptuous food market tour where you can sample the local tropical fruits and vegetables, all with a knowledgeable, personable guide.
Getting The Big Picture
Outside the downtown district, you shouldn’t pass up a ride on the Teleferico, one of the highest cable-car lifts in the world that will take you up the side of Pichincha Volcano to the lookout at Cruz Loma where you’ll find stunning views of the city. It’s US$8.50 per person (non-residents). Buy your tickets at the entrance. Taxi drivers all know the way.
Street Food Heaven at Navarro Park
For a change of pace, a mere 10-minute cab ride from city center will take you to La Floresta, a hip neighborhood with fantastic street art and fabulous food. Have your driver take you to Navarro Park, where every day from 4-11 p.m. vendors peddle traditional Ecuadorian foods prepared fresh from age-old recipes. They roll in their food carts to serve crowds of locals from the surrounding community who dine on stainless steel stand-up tables cemented into the sidewalk. It’s a lively setting often with free entertainment.
Adventurous eaters might try the traditional Mishqui tripe, but there’s a wide variety of dishes, including empanadas, pork hornado, and thick sweet morocho to drink, all at street-level prices. If you’re any kind of foodie, you can’t pass this up.
The local newspaper, El Comercio, calls Navarro Park “a mandatory stop for the gastronomic tourism of the capital.”
Seeking Middle Earth
Finally, if you are really keen on straddling the earth’s equator, it’s located about 16 miles north of Quito, where within relatively close proximity there are competing claims for the equator’s exact location.
La Mitado de Mundo has the iconic monument; Intinan Solar Museum offers interesting demonstrations by indigenous guides; Quitsado Sundial probably has the most accurate location.
Buses that connect with the city’s metro system are your cheapest transportation option. Taxi tours are also available. Ask your hotel desk or host where you’re staying for details.
David Hunter Bishop is a retired journalist from Hawaii who quickly tired of retirement life and hit the road as a solo traveler in August 2016. Since then he's traveled in 18 countries on four continents and is currently enjoying life in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. For more about David's journey, see his blog at www.davidhunterbishop.com. David's also been interviewed by Nomadic Matt and Expat Focus, and for an article titled, A Confluence of Adventure Writers, by veteran Borneo news writer and author James Ritchie.
David's Articles On Other Travel Blogs
GARIFUNA SETTLEMENT DAYS: Colorful festivals celebrate Caribbean History and Culture
SELVAMONOS: An Alternative Arts and Music Festival in the Amazon highlands
ANIQUEM: Reinforcing Human Connections Through Travel
PROMISES, PROMISES: Tourists High and Dry in Siem Reap Rip