Holy Week in previous Ecuador

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The drive from the city's airport to Quito takes a winding route that winds through the volcanoes around Ecuador's capital. As we begin our descent into the city proper, we have a bustling metropolis with 2.6 million souls in front of us that spreads out like a concrete lake in a valley surrounded by high peaks. The Virgin of El Panecillo stands above everything.

I am at the foot of this huge statue made of concrete and aluminum, whose figure stands about 40 meters high on a globe. It is winged and its head is crowned with stars; At her feet lies a dragon, who represents the devil, in chains.

Since its erection in 1975, the statue has become the symbol and icon of the city, representing and inspiring Quito in the same way as Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer. Tourists can enter the building on which the Madonna stands for a small fee. Through a room surrounded by stained glass of the Mother of Christ, we reach a balcony at the feet of the Virgin and look out over Quito's breathtaking expanse.

I am here in Holy Week, just a few days before Good Friday, and from this point of view my eyes are drawn to a small grid of low stone buildings located in the old town of Quito, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dominated by churches. Since the conquistadors arrived in the 1530s and tried to restore late medieval Catholic Spain by placing a European-style city grille on the existing Inca settlement, Quito has been shaped by Christianity.

TIM WYATTThe retired Archbishop of Quito waves a black and red flag during the Arrastre de Caudas service

Many of the 40 churches in the old town were founded shortly after the Spanish conquest and built and named after monastic orders, while others were built by the state or pious people. Simón Bolívar, who led the struggle for independence and is known colloquially as El Libertador, declared Quito the "Monastery of the Andes".

Starting at the foot of Panecillo, a street leads straight through the old town and to another hill, Itchimbia. This is Garcia Moreno Street, a partially traffic-free street, better known by the earlier name Calle De Las Siete Cruces: the street of the seven crosses. Each of the stone crosses should be in front of a church, and to this day during Semana Santa – or Holy Week – people in Quito (known as prettyños) go up and down the boulevard to pray at every cross and church.

The street is also evidence of the Quito, which has been lost under its Christian veneer: Before the Spaniards arrived, two temples, one on each hill, dedicated to the moon and the sun, were venerated in a calm manner. A gorge that ran between the two became a sort of sacred route for the locals.

When the conquistadors leveled Quito to force the city gate onto the undulating valley, they filled the gorge and built the street with seven churches on it.

We plunge into the old town and soon find ourselves at Independence Square, which in 1809 honors the martyrs of Ecuador's first attempt to overthrow Spanish colonial rule.

The Archbishop's Palace is on one side of the square and the cathedral is opposite. Although a church was first built here in 1608, the extensive whitewashed structure is today the result of numerous additions and frequent repairs after the earthquake. Inside, the sanctuary is full of activities. There are fairs every day during Semana Santa. Large stone vaulted columns hold up a lavishly decorated wooden roof, which is illuminated in all directions by hard headlights.

TIM WYATTThe sculpture of the Virgin of El Panecillo, also known as the Virgin of Quito

We shuffle outside the crowd and slide into church pews and circle paintings of the stations of the cross for worship. The cathedral has long been a strong cocktail of religion and nationalism. Just a few steps away are the tombs of the revolutionary general Antonio José de Sucre and Gabriel García Moreno, an ultra-conservative and strictly Roman Catholic president who was murdered outside the country in 1875. Cathedral doors of his liberal opponents, angered by his increasing authoritarianism.

Just around the corner is the final resting place of a Bishop of Quito, who was murdered in 1877 for opposing anti-clerical reforms. Supporters of the then liberal president are said to have murdered the bishop by inserting strychnine poison into the wine that was used at the presancitifed mass on Good Friday.

The intoxicating mixture of faith and flag is completed by a large mural of the Last Supper, painted by Marcos Zapata in 1753, in which Christ eats one of the most popular delicacies in Ecuador: the guinea pig.

We may take our places for the main event: the Arrastre de Caudas (pulling the cloaks). In this elaborate traditional ceremony, which takes place every Holy Week, a black flag with a red cross is processioned around the cathedral. Apparently the ritual is borrowed from an ancient Roman tradition of pulling a dead general's cloak over his troops to transfer his honor to the soldiers upon death. These fairs were once commonplace, but today Quito is the last place where the spectacle is experienced.

Even 30 minutes before the service begins, the cathedral is so crowded that people wait in the corridors. After a long series of processions of clergymen in robes with increasing seniority, the emeritus archbishop, dressed in purple and dressed in white fur, takes his place on a golden and maroon throne in the middle of the choir, while the huge black flag is over the Altar placed.

The drama is intense: elderly monks lie down on the ground, while the archbishop artfully censors the flag. A golden crucifix, said to contain pieces of the true cross, is carried under its own canopy around the sanctuary while a choir sings Latin chants.

The parish then breaks out of the cathedral filled with incense into a heavy downpour. The Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús is less than a minute's walk from the cathedral and is an imposing baroque building. The facade was started in 1605, but was only completed a century and a half later. It consists of a dazzlingly dense row of columns and ornate statues made of gray stone. The entire interior is covered with rococo gold leaf, and statues of the Virgin and other saints fill the walls, all from the Quito School, the artistic tradition that dominated the Spanish colonial period (1542 to 1824).

My guide Miguel leads me to a corner where there is a shrine dedicated to Ecuador's first saint: Mariana de Jesús. In the early 1600s, when Quito was hit by earthquakes and disease epidemics, she decided to consecrate her life and live among the Jesuits as a hermit dedicated to prayer. She died in 1645 after sacrificing herself to save her city. She was canonized in 1950 and declared a national heroine by the State of Ecuador.

TIM WYATTThe Jesuit Compania Church

Syncretic touches can also be observed: local fruits and images of the sun and moon can be seen in carvings around the pulpit.

Despite this mixture of Ecuadorian tradition and Christianity, the Jesuits were not allowed to enjoy their church for long. Only two years after the building was finally completed, the order was driven out by the Spanish king and the Jesuits had to leave the church for more than a century.

A similarly impressive building next door, which the Jesuits built as a university, was also confiscated by the government and now functions as a community archive and cultural center.

Despite the ups and downs of Quito's relationship with Christianity during the stormy 19th century, the church won. The Jesuits may not have got their university back, but they – and the other orders that arrived with the conquistadors – still dominated public life. The Jesuits and Franciscans controlled all public education in Ecuador until 1987, and a number of prominent banks and other institutions are still in religious hands to this day.

A block around the corner is the Franciscan Church, commonly known as El San Francisco. From the outside it looks simpler and more reserved; It is no surprise to hear that it is one of the oldest churches in Quito, founded in the same year that the conquistadors took over.

But inside it is decorated even more gaudily than the Jesuit church. Each free centimeter is covered with gold leaf, rococo sculpture or a painting or a statue. On the edge of the sanctuary there are recesses with private altars that refer to the families who contributed to the payment of the building. There is a baroque altar at the front, although Miguel explains that it is unusually decorated with mirrors because the indigenous Ecuadorians treat it as a relic. There are also many examples from the Quito School of Art. It is noteworthy that their virgins often have dark skin and indigenous characteristics.

A monastery next door functioned as the first art school in Latin America and became a cultural center that exported art to the Catholic world.

The next morning we get up early and return to the old town. Our first stop: the San Andres High School, which is run by the Franciscans and is located behind the church and the monastery complex. The school, which was built for the first time in Quito, stands behind high stone walls, and when we arrive a lot of people gather in front of the narrow gates.

TIM WYATTThe Jesuit Compania Church, a short walk from the cathedral

The scene feels more like a sports game than the beginning of a religious ceremony: police officers struggle to hold back the masses, while many hold up donkey-eared paper tickets in the thronging crowd.

We push ourselves through and squeeze past the security into the school playground. And there we saw the main event – on which Holy Week was built – hundreds of penitents patiently queuing up and down the concrete, wearing full-length purple habits in a vibrant, almost episcopal, purple. Strapped around the waist with a simple knotted white rope and covered with a conical hat and mask that covers the entire face, but with two eye holes.

These are the famous Cucuruchos: Stettyños, who march through the city every Good Friday in front of statues of the Virgin and Christ in a historical and widely visible act of penance. The robes are reminiscent of the clothing of pilgrims in medieval Spain – the cone hat is a symbol for the range of the sky (Cucurucho literally means "cone").

We walk between the lines. Many carry icons or crucifixes; other men have stripped their robes to the waist and sprinkled their bare breasts with red splashes of paint to imitate blood.

I ask Miguel to translate and try to speak to as many cucuruchos as possible before the procession makes its way to the Church of San Francisco and then out into the city where hundreds of thousands have packed the streets to watch.

"My mother had cancer seven years ago," a woman tells me. "When I prayed, I said," If my mother changes these problems, I will go to the procession every time. "

An 18-year-old, who wrapped his bare chest in barbed wire, said he came to "repent for a miracle." His brother is in prison for murder and marches to ask Jesus for forgiveness.

We approach an older man who quietly flogged himself with rose stems. The words scratch in his back: "Thank God, for another opportunity for life." He explains how he tried to kill himself seven years ago, but was discovered a few minutes after the death of his daughter, who took him to the hospital. He now comes every year to take part in the Good Friday procession.

Many women wear slightly different purple robes without a conical hood, and I find that they represent Veronica, the woman is said to have given Jesus her veil, with which he is to wipe his face on the way to Calvary. A woman who is participating for the third time tells me that she is here to "ensure peace around the world and change the way women play the role". During the procession, she prays for the poor and for solutions to global warming.

A handful have avoided the purple cucurucho robes in favor of homemade outfits. A man is disguised as a Roman centurion and plays the flagellation with his cousin, who came as Jesus. "It is very important to be part of the procession to continue the good life and positive energy," he says. "I am very proud to be part of this procession that makes Ecuador famous."

Suddenly, penitents shuffle from the playground towards the church. In San Francisco, two statues – one of the Virgin Mary and another named Jesús del Gran Poder – were rolled out on platforms on red and white rose beds. The Christ the Redeemer statue, also a product of the Quito School, is only released once a year for this procession and is closely guarded by a heavily armed elite police force.

Gradually the church fills up with all kinds of people: seminarians in white robes, students, then the cucuruchos and veronicas. The facial covers and veils that give the demonstrators such an eerie look reflect the history of the ritual, Miguel explains. Originally, the penitents joined the procession to ask for forgiveness for particularly grave sins (and they did not want one of their neighbors watching from the street to recognize them).

TIM WYATTTourists and locals crowd the streets of the old town to watch the Cucurucho procession

In the centuries since the tradition was imported from Spain, it has developed into a world-famous event, and in the square outside, despite the constant drizzle, hundreds of thousands of Stillños and visitors are waiting in anticipation. On the way to the procession we find a comfortable balcony. There I see a river of purple flowing towards the two towers of the cathedral that are currently visible on the skyline.

Among the dark cucuruchos and veronicas are more expressive penitents: some lash themselves with chains or belts, others tumble under the weight of wooden crosses; they even whipped a cactus plant on their back. Street vendors scurry along the edges of the procession and sell postcards from Jesús del Gran Poder for a dollar to people in the crowd.

Finally, the statue of Mary appears, flanked by at least a dozen police officers on each side. Monks walk nearby and hold baskets where viewers can throw cash. Some fling bouquets of roses.

Then the high point of the procession comes. Jesús del Gran Poder is guarded by police officers in camouflage and body protection and slowly appears around the corner and arrives on the famous street. The statue is generously censored as a bloody Christ wearing a black and silver cross and wearing his crown of thorns. Right behind it, a huge amount of at least tens of thousands recites the Lord's Prayer.

The procession used to be much longer, Miguel says, when we return to the damp and crowded streets. Historically, it started far outside the city and crawled through the old town for at least six hours compared to today's more touristy two to three. On the way back through the lively hordes back to our hotel, it is clear that Quito has preserved almost all of its old – and decidedly Ecuadorian – passion.

Tim Wyatt traveled to Quito, the local tourism association, which is a good first point of contact when planning a trip in 2019 as a guest of Quito Turismo. Direct flights from the UK to Quito are rare, but stopovers are common with a number of international airlines. Prices start at around £ 500 one-way round trip. There are dozens of good hotels in the city, many of which are within walking distance of the historic old town. Try the Vista del Angel boutique hotel, which costs around GBP 100 per person per night. For an organized tour of Holy Week 2021, Adventure Life (adventure-life.com) offers a short three-day trip that includes Cucurucho's famous Good Friday procession for £ 570 per person including flights and accommodation. quitotravel.ec

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