Ecuador’s Sardine Festival


1st Annual Sardine Festival of San Clemente, Ecuador

Festival de Pinchagua

Saturday, August 13, was the first annual Festival de Pinchagua in the Manabi province of Ecuador. This event was organized by the Board of Tourism to increase visitor traffic to areas affected by the devastating earthquake that occurred earlier in the year. As residents of San Clemente, this is the first public event or holiday, that we have seen being observed since our move to the village almost 4 months ago. We were thrilled for the activity, and it was fun, just for one day, to see a couple thousand people in the streets of this typically quiet fishing area.

Non-Food Vendors were selling toys, bubbles, jewelry, and hats.
A street vendor, walking on foot selling inflatable toys.

The town center was full of lively activity, the streets lined with food tents, historical presentations, vendors on foot, and of course, the public. Soon after our arrival, we watched as a few determined men attempted to blow up a larger than life inflatable beer bottle. In my humble opinion, it was the epitome of ego at its finest. The obstrocity had no place being pinched between the power lines, a street blocking stage, and hundreds of bystanders. But, none the less, by sheer determination, the men finally wedged it up onto the opposite side of the street.

The monsterous Cervesa!

We tugged our children through the crowds, curious to see what there was to be discovered around each corner. While, there were 2 tents that displayed historically important antiques, all else was related to food, beer and music. There is no such thing as an open container law here, and the legal drinking age seems of little importance. Kids can drink alcohol at the age of 18 in this country, but the coming of age milestone, lacks the stigma that it does in the states. I’ve never seen a police officer checking someone’s ID or issue a breathalyzer. Drinking or not drinking does seem to be of great significance and nobody really pays much attention to who is legal and who is not. Still, we haven’t come across many rowdy over-indulgers in our time here.  Even in the wee hours of the morning, we have occasionally been woken up by music that is far too loud for 3 am, but harmless none the less.  We once heard that the worst the party goers do, is try to steal chickens in the middle of the night! It is incredible how a culture is affected when something like drinking alcohol isn’t viewed as forbidden or taboo.

Tents and people in the streets at San Clemente’s 1st Annual Pichagau Festival

There were far too many food tents, to consider trying each different sardine dish, or even to consider eating at two. Each tent was competing against the others for an award as the best pinchagua or sardine dish in the village. For awhile we wandered through canopies covering the tables, eyeing the plates in front of the customers, and sniffing at the air. It was hard to decide which plate to pick, especially when I’d never had sardines before. I let my husband do the selecting, while subtly reminding him that myself and our young children (age 2 and 4) would be partaking as well. Even after almost a half a year in Ecuador, I still get squeamish when it comes to fish. I have no valid reason for my hesitation, as I’ve always loved fish. But, then again, it’s something of a different circumstance here, as fish is almost always served with the bones still in. Actually, many times the skin still intact too, and dare I say, I’ve seen more fish heads staring back at me, than I care to remember. So, naturally, when I hear “fish dish”, I know that I will have to forgo my first visual impression, and dig right in, knowing that the taste will far exceed the appearance. This is a tough thing to do, when you’ve spent you’re entire life in America, the land of skinned, de-boned, and dyed everything. But, as strange as it may seem, I have definitely learned that in a place like this, you can’t and shouldn’t judge food by its appearance.

Yum! Pinchagua Hornada with Plaintain Chips!

All of that being said; I didn’t even look at the food that my husband chose, until it was steaming beneath my nose. At first glance, it really wasn’t that bad. It easily could have been mistaken for shredded pork. And then I peered closer, and saw the undeniable metallic shine of sardine skin…and tiny white bones! I watched my husband scarf in his first few bites, one after the other, with no pause between. He exclaimed, “I think you’ll all love it, babe! It tastes just like Tuna!” I hate to admit it, but I did not believe him at all, and even let him give each kid a bite, before I trusted his taste buds.  So then I ate it, and to me, it tasted just like Chili. I don’t know how it’s possible, but the skin and bones were virtually not existent in every bite. Yes, I could see them, but I couldn’t taste or feel them.  Apparently, the skin is thin and the bones are soft, and even if I tried, I couldn’t notice them. The dish passed the test for the kids too, as they ate right alongside us, not even noticing what I expected them to spit out.

The lovely ladies who made our lunch at the Barrio Norte Orfrece

After lunch, we spent some time perusing the tents and stands, even listening in on a fascinating account of antique Ecuadorian kitchen equipment, given by a woman sporting a traditional Manibitan festival dress.  As we departed from the tent, the music was just starting up again, after a brief pause. Ecuadorians like their music, and they like it loud, really loud. Like, blast away any thoughts floating in your brain, and forget the concept of conversation, kind of loud. Sometimes at night, we can hear the music from the local Discotek at our house, at least half a mile away. It streams in the windows so clearly, that it’s hard to believe we don’t have a teenager blaring a stereo downstairs. So, as our toddler bobbed his drowsy head against my shoulder, we figured, this was as good of a time as any, to make our departure.

Just as we turned to leave, the speakers cut out, leaving the singer standing center stage with a voice that couldn’t carry. Next to the stage, the larger than life beer bottle slowly drifted sideways as it began to slump without air. We looked around at the scene and chuckled, what a terrible time for one of the village’s customary power outages. They happen at least once a week, usually only lasting a few seconds to a few hours. We didn’t think much of it, and figured it was just a good excuse for an afternoon siesta.

Waiting for Raspados, a typical hand shaved iced treat.

We trudged home beneath the baking mid day sun, talking just the way our parents once did, about how the kids had way too much sugar for one day. But, really what was the harm in a little indulgence? How could we say no the towering pink clouds of cotton candy

Fully stocked Cotton Candy vendors, ready for a busy day!

soaking up the salty air? Or to the rainbow syrup drenched snow cones that misted us with their hand shaved ice as they were being made? And while talking about indulgences, we may as well include the overpriced blowing bubbles that would be dumped out on the street before nightfall.

After all, this is stuff memories are made of, the icons of summer-time and vacation, and childhood.  And lucky for us, these are the symbols of our first festival in Ecuador, and the markers of our first year abroad.

Note:  (FYI: by over-priced, I mean, by Ecuadorian standards. The entire day full of events for all four of us, cost  just $26).


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