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The Pilgrimage of El Quinche

There is confusion as to whose idea it was. Perhaps mine, very doubtful it was Kate’s…quite probable over a glass of wine, while struggling to put together the current puzzle in the dining room, one of the volunteers brought it up in passing and then I said, “Ya, let’s do that.”

The Pilgrimage of El Quinche happens every year, as it has for the past 400+ years. It is said to be the largest demonstration of religious faith in Ecuador. I would say it’s the largest demonstration as to what not to wear on a 20+ mile pilgrimage. Anyway, this year the event was held on Nov 20-21 where an estimated one million people were to participate in this 20+ mile pilgrimage.

In short, the Lady of the Presentation of Quinche is a wooden sculpture carved in the 16th century by Don Diego de Robles, a highly regarded artist. The sculpture was commissioned but not paid for, so Robles traded it to the Oyachachi Indians for some cedar he needed. Fifteen years later the local bishop ordered the statue moved to El Quinche where it resides today and received it’s name.

There are many legends, myths, stories and miracles associated with the statue, one notably being that of a child who was mauled to death by a bear. This story I personally found interesting as the only bears in this area are Spectacled bears which are 95% herbivores. Maybe 400+ years ago grizzlies lived here, I don’t know. Either way, the story goes, the parents, retrieving the child, carried him to the statue, where in short time his eye’s opened and he was resurrected. 

We met at 6:30 p.m. Our group consisted of Olivia, a volunteer at the center, Lourdes and her 3 boys, who Olivia had taught at the center, Kate and me, the two Gringos, and we later connected with 3 more “pilgrims.”

We jumped on a bus headed to Calderon, one of three starting points for the pilgrimage. The bus had a nice neon blue glow, similar to that of a Hungarian disco-tech. Crowds of teenagers packed on, all headed to participate in the journey wearing perfectly and not so perfectly applied make-up, (tight) designer jeans, glittery sandals and Chuck Taylor knock-offs. Kate, Olivia and I wore clothes that said, “I’m walking a marathon tonight,” clothes that wicked, boots that hiked…nothing cotton or denim. We were clearly bucking the trend.

Once the bus stopped, we found ourselves merged into a group of tens of thousands of people, from teenagers, to families pushing strollers and carrying kids, to the elderly walking with help of a cane, all surrounded by hundreds of vendors selling everything from wool hats, scarfs, lollipops, various meats on a stick, fruit, water, sweetened milk in a bag (it’s a thing)…everything but wine and beer much to our disappointment.

Smoke billowed from home made hibachis as dogs wandered the streets looking around asking themselves, “WTF is going on on?”

For about 10 miles, hundreds of thousands of us descended and ascended along the Pan-American highway, shutting it down for two days. Now let’s stop and think about that, the Pan-American Highway is the longest motor-able highway in the world stretching 19,000 miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina – with a small interruption between Panama and Columbia called the Darien Gap – and we shut that shit down for a pilgrimage.

After 3.5 hours of walking down and back up a mountain and doing our best to practice Spanish, we arrived in the town of Guayllabamba, where we took a hard right through a park and then onto a narrow roadway. From here it was a strenuous uphill that lasted for about 4 miles and then a gradual uphill until we arrived in Quinche. 

Aside from being passed by families pushing strollers while wearing sandals, the walk was uneventful and reminiscent of many of the marathons I’ve run – that being passed by people pushing strollers and wearing sandals. 

We finally arrived in Quinche around 1:50 a.m., chafed, cold, sweaty, dehydrated… Part of our group, the part that actually knew how to get back to Quito, insisted on dinner. I drank two bottles of water and wanted nothing more then to just lay down and sleep…sleep in a bed, my bed, which was 1.5 hours away by bus.

Dinner done and no beer to be found, we strolled to the church where hundreds of thousands of people packed the streets, walking, selling, probably robbing…and sleeping on any square inch, or centimeter as we use metric here, they could find.


I suddenly turned hypoglycemic and thanks to German (pronounced Her-mahn) and his pocket full of jolly ranchers, I was able to make it up one more climb to the bus.

It was 5 a.m. when we got back to the centre. I took a shower, applied ample amount of soothing lotion to my chaffed inner thighs, after which, I fell directly asleep andI spent the next 5 hours dreaming of candy-canes and sugarplum fairies.


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