Holy Week (Semana Santa in Spanish), is arguably the most important festival of the year in Ecuador, and it’s a fascinating time to be in the country to witness the mass outpouring of faith that takes place, along with some curiously Ecuadorean tradition.
Ecuador and many other Catholic Spanish-speaking countries are known for their elaborate processions and celebrations during this week. Colourful religious processions are held, the most spectacular being the procession of cucuruchos (penitents wearing purple robes and conical masks) on Good Friday.
Cucuruchos in Semana Santa processions typically wear a nazareno, or a cloak and hood with a pointed cap or capirote. The uniform has been in use since the Middle Ages, designed to let people practice penance publicly without revealing their identity. The penitents may walk the streets barefoot wearing chains or carrying crosses in imitation of Christ’s Passion. Ironically, the anti-Catholic terrorist group Ku Klux Klan later used the nazareno as inspiration for their own uniforms.
Quito is the only city which hosts the “Cross Drag” whose origin has more than 500 years. This traditional act that deals with the sacred rituals of Holy Week is held every year in the Cathedral of the historic centre of Quito. The cross drag tradition appeared in the XVI century, when funeral ceremonies in honour of the Roman army generals killed in battle surrendered. Later, the ritual was welcomed by the Catholic Church and adapted to commemorate the death of Jesus and celebrate his triumph over it.
Quito is probably the best place to base yourself for Semana Santa, as it has the largest public celebration of Holy Week in Ecuador, in the form of the Jesus de Gran Poder procession. As many as a quarter of a million people pack the central Plaza de San Francisco to see an image of Jesus brought to Quito’s cathedral by a group of 800 purple-robed cucuruchos.