Easter in Quito in an undeniably special experience, but it’s when you step outside the city’s borders and explore some of the surrounding small towns, or pueblos, that you feel the true scope of the ceremony. Each one, perhaps with only a few hundred inhabitants, has its own detailed rituals, traditions that date back centuries, from masses and ceremonies to bizarre, devilish costumes.
The floats of Puéllaro
On Holy Tuesday, San Pedro of Puéllaro becomes the centre of a beautiful, night time ceremony. The little village is tucked away in the Andean dry forests, on the Ruta Escondida, or hidden route around 60km from Quito. The faithful are alerted to gather by an ancient wooden contraption, to mark the Passion of Christ.
Throughout the day, fraternities and devotees have been painstakingly cleaning the different religious icons and preparing 12 floats, which, having gathered dust for most of the year now take pride of place, displaying statues of the saints, Virgins, and Christ. With all the care of a doting mother, devotees bring down the statues from their shelves, dress them, and place them on floats surrounded by ceremonial decorations. When darkness falls, the floats are filled with candles, illuminating in gold the faces of the faithful. Each statue is lined up outside the Basilica of Saint Peter of Puéllaro, and after welcome prayers, the procession begins.
Sad, sombre music drifts over the evening breeze, bringing the community together in this Holy Tuesday act of faith. It’s a quiet, intimate ritual in a sleepy village, whose residents observe each year alongside visitors who come and pay their respects.
Once the march comes to an end, the musicians warm up with a few, cane liquor-based drinks, watching as the statues are lifted from their platforms and put back in their places. But this isn’t the last time they’ll get an outing: on Good Friday, they’ll be taken out once more, in a spirit of reverence and penitence.
Easter Weekend in Alangasí and La Merced
Catholic tradition meets Andean folklore in the colourful and singular festivities in Alangasí and La Merced. Located 25km outside Quito in the Los Chillos valley, the villages spend months preparing for Holy Week. The devout communities come together to create an impressive re-enactment of the Passion, with a procession of the path to the Cavalry including at least 60 people dressed as the Holy Souls, the saints, Veronica (who wipes Jesus’ face), Simon (who comes to Jesus’ aid to carry him to the cross), the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, John and Peter, and the angels. There are Roman soldiers lined up in columns, staying earnestly in character as they maintain order among the onlookers and participants, and the devotees who come each year to observe the montage from the wings.
Each of these living portraits is well-rehearsed, with leaders who look after their groups, ensuring that they are fed.
Some of the characters in the procession are strange to the point of surreal: cucuruchos representing penitence with absurdly tall, pointed, black head-dresses decorated almost like Christmas trees; holy souls who have reached heaven all in white; shamed souls in black.
On Good Friday, the good thief, Dimas, and the bad thief, Gestas, join the scene, flanking a crucifix. And the most nightmarish part of it all is the arrival of the devils. A cocktail of the devil of Andean legend and Satan of Catholic belief, these characters paint their half-naked bodies red and fling on red cloaks, with spurred boots and elaborate masks with gnashing teeth and horns, each one hand-made by the wearer in an arduous exercise of arts and crafts.
Again, completely in character, the devils make mischief, laughing aloud in church, chasing children and threatening adults.
To earn this dubious honour, devils must go to confession every Sunday and must play the same role at Easter for 12 years, or risk disgrace and nightmares.
On Easter Sunday amid the smoke and thunder of fireworks, a rag doll is hung from a tree to represent the devil. Christ is brought down from his cross and the nails are removed and handed to the 12 angels. The Virgin, covered in a mourning cloak, comes with an entourage to the town centre at midday, accompanied by religious music. Amid rose petals, incense, singing and the playing of dozens of instruments, a path opens for the Virgin, who has just arrived from “Heaven”, represented by a blue and white stage decorated with fabric and mirrors. She’s met by a singing angel, who exchanges her mourning cloak for a white veil, and releases a white dove of peace.
Mary is reunited with her resurrected son and they return to church, in the greatest expression of good triumphing over evil. Technicoloured, dreamlike, and more than a little overwhelming, these celebrations are the product of Ecuador’s extreme culture clash and the magic of its people.
“The streets vibrate with extraordinary animation under the pomp of the Church.”
The traditions of Easter in Quito are known to date back to the 16th century when the Spanish Inquisition applied pressure to Catholics to perform ostentatious displays of faith. In the celebration of Holy Week, this translated into extravagant processions of the devoted in strange and uncomfortable costumes, often in self-afflicted pain.
In 1841, French traveller Alcide d’Orbigny was in Quito for Easter and managed to document the festivities, describing with precise clarity each of the strange characters of the parade, with beautiful illustrations to match. Below are some extracts from d’Orbigny’s book, ‘Voyage Pittoreque’, reprinted in the book ‘Imágenes de Identidad: Acuarelas Quiteñas del Siglo XIX’.
“…we saw pass under our windows five ‘mannequins’, or strange figures dressed in white, preceded by a troupe of children, singing little songs. Each of them had their heads covered by an enormous bonnet of sweet bread of five or six feet high, from which were hanging two pieces of fabric or long, thin ribbons, that sometimes floated all the way to the ground. A white skirt, cinched in with a belt, and falling down to the heels, covered the rest of the body. Each was carrying in their hand a little bell that they shook repeatedly. They call these figures Holy Souls; I don’t know the reason.”
“A second procession, more considerable than the first, left San Francisco and passed under our windows, from where I could examine it without missing a single detail. At the head marched first a certain number of men, carrying lanterns at the end of long sticks, two of which preceded the others had the shape of stars. They came followed by two mannequins, representing, according to what I’ve been told, Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Magdalena; after three Holy Souls, the same as I already described, except that the one in the middle was a whole head taller than the others, and was wearing a long white train, carried by a child dressed as an angel with two big wings.”
“Behind them were walking two by two the barbers of the city, with their heads uncovered and dressed in their picturesque suits of great ceremonies, consisting of a narrow poncho, folded all the way down, and short trousers without stockings or shoes.”
“The barbers were followed by an immense float of golden wood, covered in a cloth and embellished with lamps, mirrors, and images of saints, above which appeared the Saviour, dressed from head to toe in a dress entirely embroidered in gold and carrying a cross.”
“This last character was slim, tied up to the ears, with the head covered by a hat arranged insolently to one side, with two thick and formidable moustaches. Women, with altar candles in their hands, followed the float, the twenty carrying it bending under the weight.” Alcide d’Orbigny
Though the rituals detailed above happened almost two centuries ago, many of the customs remain the same in Easter in Quito, with participants of the Good Friday Jesus the Almighty Procession dressed in these strange attires. An enduring tradition, one would hope that it will continue for centuries to come.