Easter in Britain is a sorry affair, when compared to carnivalesque Quito

Men in horned masks and winged Virgin Marys: Tim Wyatt revels in Easter in Ecuador

Published by the Daily Telegraph

Easter in Britain can be a sorry affair: a tired donkey processing up a provincial high street, and maybe a half-hearted egg hunt in the church. But to experience this festival in its all glory, glitz and glamour, head to Quito, a city whose inhabitants delight in being even more Catholic than the Spanish who converted them half a millennium ago.

During Semana Santa (Holy Week), you can barely move inside the historic Old Town, without stumbling across a gaudy procession or stupendously extravagant church service. My Ecuadorian Easter begins at the city’s cathedral, which sits in the heart of the colonial plazas and narrow streets. Just a few days before Good Friday, this centuries-old sacred space is host to a special mass which, across the entire Catholic world, can only be seen here.

The Arrastre de Caudas, or dragging of the cape, is borrowed from the ancient Roman custom of lifting a dead general’s cape over his troops, transferring the honour he earned in death on to them. In Quito, this has evolved into the Archbishop Emeritus – resplendent in luscious purple robes with ermine-trimmed hood – waving an enormous black flag emblazoned with a red cross at the congregation. But before the main event, the crowd of Quiteños squeezes into the cathedral and enjoys several hours of liturgy, choral music and processions up and down the aisles.

The dazzling array of coloured robes, candles and bells is only matched by the riot of gold leaf and rococo sculpting which covers the building from floor to ceiling.

There is no relief from the assault on the senses after I squeeze back out of the cathedral into the central square of the Old Town. A candlelit procession emerges from the sanctuary just as night begins to fall. Led by the Archbishop, at least 20 white-robed seminarians chant “Save Ecuador” while clacking wooden boards and waving incense from side to side. Meanwhile, crowds begin to line the boulevard to observe the painstakingly slow progress of the procession.

Flanked by police motorcycle riders with flashing red and blue lights, an eccentric collection of people steadily makes it way along the historic Street of the Seven Crosses. Some are simply holding candles, but others are dressed as winged Virgin Marys or in traditional indigenous clothing. Soldiers in uniform march by carrying a glass funeral bier on their shoulders with a figurine of the crucified Christ inside. There is a marching band, and more women in frilly dresses and golden crowns, carrying baby dolls. A man I cannot see is shouting into a loudspeaker over and over that this is the “night of the light” and that “Jesus is the light of the world”.

No Easter experience in Ecuador is complete with satiating just the eyes, ears and nose. There is food to taste, too. The next day I arrive for lunch at Altamira, an unpretentious restaurant just to the north of the Old Town. I am here to learn how to make the dish fanesca. Although this complex soup is only eaten during Holy Week, everyone in Ecuador has their own recipe. Despite my guide’s insistence his mother’s method is the best, the friendly kitchen team at Altamira soon have us chopping, frying, simmering and assembling a blizzard of ingredients along their own precise directions. There are slabs of local white cheese cut into neat triangles, large lettuce leaves, mashed sweet potato, salted cod wrapped in pastry parcels, diced chillies and cubes of deep-fried plantain, which all act as accompaniments to the pièce de résistance: a soup made from 13 different beans (one for every disciple and Jesus). For a dish with so many ingredients, fanesca is hearty, uncomplicated fare which we quickly polish off with gusto.  

Our appetites sated, we dive back into the Old Town, dodging street vendors hawking piles of salted cod and honking cars winding their way through the narrow, cobbled roads. But on the way my guide insists we make a brief stop at a market which bears the name of St Francis.

Wondering what I am letting myself in for, we begin wandering the stalls of fruit and vegetables. Ecuadorians, despite their self-evident Catholic fervour, have never quite let go of their pre-Christian beliefs either, as I discover when I am steered into a small booth in one corner of the market. Locals believe many of their indigenous herbs and flowers have restorative, and even spiritual, effects. As well as healing sickness, certain formulations are said to improve mood and even procure the love of one’s beau. An elderly woman inside the cramped booth bids me sit. Without warning I am then slapped in the face, arms and body with a bouquet of flowers and herbs she has doused in a perfumed oil. The treatment is repeated with a bowl of petals, and then, as suddenly as it started, it is finished.

The next day is Good Friday, and it begins with a painfully early start at a secondary school run by Franciscan monks. Long queues of people snaked up and down the concrete playground, but what really catches the attention is what they are wearing: long, deep purple robes, which cover them from head to foot, belted around the waist with a knotted white rope. On their heads are tall, conical hats and masks with eye holes cut out. It is no exaggeration to say they are essentially a purple version of the infamous outfits worn by the Ku Klux Klan.

These are Quito’s famous cucuruchos: locals who process in this bizarre garb through the streets every year on Good Friday to make penance for their sins. As a man repeats endless prayers to Mary through a loudspeaker, I wander among the lines, chatting to some of those patiently waiting for the procession to begin. Many are here to ask for miracles from God – for family members to be released from prison or to heal from cancer – while others come back every year in an act of piety. Still, others come to mirror Christ’s suffering 2,000 years earlier: many are carrying whips or chains to flagellate themselves and a few have even lashed barbed wire and thorns into their skin.

Eventually, the extraordinary caravan of purple penitents winds its way out of the staging area and into the streets of Quito, which are now heaving with 200,000 tourists who have come to witness the spectacle. And what a spectacle: once the full procession has marched on to the Street of the Seven Crosses it stretches like a river of purple as far as the eye can see in both directions. The atmosphere is a strange mixture of sombre reflection and festivity. Street vendors sell kitsch purple cucurucho-themed religious tat while wandering through the crowds like we are at some kind of strange sporting event.

When the highlight of the procession finally arrives – two wheeled statues of Jesus and Mary – lines of elite Swat-style police teams are needed to hold back the surging, excited hordes who hurl bouquets of roses at the feet of the statues. Finally, the march winds its way out of the Old Town and up a hill towards another cathedral and the masses begin to disperse in the steady drizzle. But our Semana Santa experience has one last stop, in a small town just outside Quito called Alangasi. This otherwise unremarkable municipality is famous for its own Easter tradition of driving out the “devils” before Jesus is resurrected on Sunday. For a time supposed to be marked by mourning after Christ’s death, the mood is defiantly carnivalesque. Trucks selling street food and candy floss have taken over the small plaza outside the town’s church and nearby a local rock band thrashes through a few of its hits as the crowds build for the main event.

Finally, we file into the church for a mass which starts in total darkness. Suddenly, the “devils” burst through the door: dozens of men dressed in grotesque hairy and horned masks, clanking chains, leering and grunting at the congregation and waving long tridents festooned with flashing lights. The only other light is the flashing of smartphone cameras – which casts gargoyle like shadows of the demonic figures on the walls – and the only sound is screams from children when the devils get too close.

Finally, the good guys – people in white robes carrying candles – arrive to scare away the demons who surge back out in the square where an enormous bonfire has been built on the cobbled street. The devils, clearly having a whale of a time, leap and dance around the fire while offering wads of cash and cigarettes at us to “tempt” the faithful. Once the service comes to an end the devils run towards the fire with a shout and thrust their tridents into it, lighting fireworks precariously attached to the ends. As I back-pedal furiously to avoid a leering man waving a spinning Catherine wheel, he gets close enough for me to see he is wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Lucifer is my homie”.

Rockets and streamers erupt from across the plaza, and with that my Ecuadorian Easter extravaganza finally draws to a close. 

How to do it

Tim Wyatt travelled as a guest of Quito Turismo (quito-turismo.gob.ec) in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. Most Semana Santa festivities were cancelled last year because of the first lockdown but this Easter a small number of in-person activities are going ahead in Quito’s historic Old Town, although tourist numbers are expected to be a fraction of the norm. Travel to Ecuador from Britain is currently banned because of Covid.

Staying there

Try the Vista del Angel boutique hotel (hotelvistadelangel.com), which is around £100 a night per person.

Visiting Quito

For an organised tour over Holy Week 2022, Adventure Life (adventure-life.com) offers a short three-day trip which takes in the cucurucho Good Friday procession for £600pp, including flights and accommodation.