I had heard about the pilgrimage to “El Quinche”, I read that it is a traditional event that happens every year around November 21st for the past 420 years. Every year about half million people walk to El Quinche, a town located in the north-eastern side of Quito from four different points (Pifo, Sangolqui, Calderón and Cayambe). They walk around 5-8 hours. I had heard that is one of the biggest faith demonstrations of religious faith in Ecuador. I had never been there until this Saturday, when I realized the magnitude of the event.
On Saturday afternoon, I was talking with my uncle (44) and cousin (12). They planned to walk to the sacred village of El Quinche that night. It was my cousin’s first time and I joined the plan at the last minute to share this experience with him. I am a mountaineer, and more than faith I think about preparing properly to achieve this goal. I took hot tea, walking sticks and headlamps for all of us. Chocolate and granola bars, a first aid kit, a thermal blanket, extra jackets and gloves, etc. I was not going to leave this one to faith alone.
Everything started when I arrived to the meeting point in Carapungo (north of Quito), I could’t believe it. There were 2 km of an 8 lane highway filled with people. Most of them were in groups. There were groups of highschool kids, families, colleagues, etc. Some groups were carrying these huge “radios grabadoras” (boomboxes) and were drinking wine and alcohol. A typical contradiction of the Catholic faith if you ask me.
There were people of all ages: old ladies wearing skirts, hip-hop guys, heavy rock guys, 10 year old kids that seemed to be walking alone. The youngest I saw were a 2/3 month old babies carried by their mothers in a blanket. In the street, there were people selling shoes, insoles, gloves, hats, band-aids, flashlights, batteries, water, wine (I don´t know how they were selling 1 liter of wine in $0,75), cigarettes, alcohol and food.
We started walking around 21h45 (9:45 PM) and for the first mile I was still shocked looking at so many people sourrounding me. The noise of the boomboxes mixed with the vendors’ megaphones selling their stuff, and the people chatting.
After a few miles I was feeling a little more relaxed. The first detour was in Calderon, where we started walking on a sandy dark road, and used our headlamps for first time. The first third of the journey is a long and in some parts steep downhill towards a bridge in the main road. At this point we stopped to eat and rest a little bit before the hardest part of the trail, a steep hill of around 200m.
The trail itself is not that bad in this part, but the crowd made it dangerous. There were rocks falling and thousands of people pushing and trying to climb a very steep mountain of rocks and sand. I was scared in that part and I just focused on keeping my cousin safe (hard task), and because of that we lost his mother. We found her again in the top of the hill, where hundreds of people were in the same situation, trying to find their friends, shouting their names, it was a big noise up there. After climbing that hill we were tired and dirty, covered with sand, and took a second rest. But I was glad I had prepared for the pilgrimage.
From that point on, you walk in stone roads. Easy but long, too long for my cousin. He was so tired and sleepy, we needed stopped four times more to rehydrate, eat some candy and chocolate, sleep a little bit and to massage his feet.
For three hours, we took turns hugging and encouraging him while walking so he can still walk with his eyes closed. I actually think that he was walking asleep. When the sun rised, he started walking a little faster again, and finally we arrived at 6h30 to the main square of “El Quinche”. We ate something and had to keep walking for 1 more hour out from the town to take a bus back home.
I think that for one half of the pilgrims this is a faith thing. But for many others it is a challenge to face, phisically and mentally. I am very proud of my 12 year old cousin. He said that we will never do it again, but I hope he changes his mind in the future.
I experienced a very intense feeling. Not necessarily religious, but it was very rewarding sharing this journey with my cousin and thousands of other people. It was awesome to feel the strength of a community of complete strangers coming together to achieve one single goal and to be able to share this with my little cousin was a one in a life time experience.