La Caminata al Quinche, or the ‘hike to Quinche’ is a yearly tradition through the Roman Catholic church in which hundreds of thousands of people from Ecuador and all around the world travel to a region in Ecuador to participate in an all-night pilgrimage to reach the church, Quinche. The majority of the people who hike each year see it as a devotion to their religion, or an opportunity to make a sacrifice for God and to give thanks for their lives and health. People hike to the church in Quinche because it is home to a specific statue of the Virgin that is believed to have shed tears of blood many years ago.
I heard about this pilgrimage when working part of my days in the kitchen of the Ecuadorian diner that is part of the youth and cultural center I work at. Some of the cooks were chatting about it and they asked me if I wanted to come along. All they told me was that we hiked throughout the night through mountains with no trails to arrive at a church at sunrise. How could I turn that offer down? I clarified to make sure that it was okay with them that I’m not Catholic, as they said that when you arrive you talk with God and participate in Catholic traditions that I am not familiar with. They told me it was fine and that they were happy to have me join them just for the experience.
With three other GCY fellows who live in the area, we met up with the family who works in the diner and departed on a bus towards the starting point. I watched the news before we left which indicated that 700,000 people would be making the pilgrimage this year. Wait, what!? Seven-hundred, thousand people.
The bus stopped on the side of the highway to let us and many others off. On the side of the highway were those really steep mountains that you always drive by on the highway but never see anyone hiking them because it just wouldn’t work. Nonetheless, we could see tons of tiny specs ascending a pathless mountain that pointed straight up into the sky. We began our climb at 6 p.m. as the sun was setting.
The first mountain, or the one we could see from the highway was the steepest and most dangerous to climb. However, we had a bit of a reality check when the three of us Fellows, all decked out in our hiking gear and backpacks, were being passed by indigenous women and men with no shoes on, carrying their kids on their backs while ascending this rocky slope.
This is the view from the peak of the first mountain. We arrived at the top just as the sun set. The stream of lights at the bottom is the passing cars on the highway below the mountain.
After the first mountain, we took a break in a tiny town center atop the mountain to eat some food and dance a little bit of salsa. At that point it was about eight o’ clock, and we continued the second part of the walk that brought us on never-ending, winding, rural roads up through neighboring mountains. The terrain was easier but we walked at an upwards slant for about four hours straight until arriving in another little town at 12 A.M. in which the church was just barely visible.
In the background you can see the top of the glowing church at night. At this point we were in a village with streets packed with people getting closer and closer to the church.
We walked for about an hour more before arriving at the church at 1 a.m. The level of exhaustion was pretty overwhelming.
At the front of the church, from left to right, the four GCY fellows include Omar Arteaga, Caroline Pocock, Lily Shaffer, and me.
After arriving at the front of the church, the majority of the people were in the back to pray with lit candles, listen to the mass, and spend the night before the statue of the Virgin. I have never seen anything like this scene. Thousands of people were sitting in silence with lit candles before a group of priests sitting high up in part of the church speaking out over a huge microphone system delivering mass. Once wearrived, the family we were hiking with gave everyone around them a hand shake, a kiss on the cheek and said only “La paz,” which means “peace.”
Around 2 AM we set up some blankets to sleep among the masses of people in the church yard, some of whom were sleeping, some praying, and thousands still coming and going. We awoke at sunrise to begin our descent before catching a bus back to Ibarra after a couple more hours of walking.
I was blown away by the number of people who made this voyage, and the devotion they have to their religion. Ecuador’s population is roughly 95% Roman Catholic. I also find it interesting that some hundred years ago, the beliefs of the indigenous peoples who occupied Latin America were solely in the spirits of nature. After Spanish colonization Roman Catholicism swept the land, and as you can see the direct effects are quite present.