I had so much fun this year during Semana Santa! Growing up in Maryland I was raised Catholic and was really active in our church. Being part of the church choir, I am used to a full week of Holy Week activities, but I am also used to the commercialization of the Easter holiday. I mean really, who doesn’t love Cadbury mini eggs?! In Ecuador there is ZERO commercialization of Easter.
Eduardo and I are usually traveling most federal holidays, but this time we decided to stay in Cuenca. Its my third Easter living in Cuenca and I’ve finally seen it all! Woah baby! Easter is a purely religious holiday here. Starting with Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter), the city calms down a bit as most Cuencanos begin to honor the celebration. Ecuador is about 99% Catholic, so you can imagine how dedicated Ecuadorians are to this holiday!
I want to share with you some of the traditions I experienced this past week. It was beautiful to witness the religious devotion of the Ecuadorian people and how they honor this holiday.
All photos in this post are by my stellar boyfriend, Eduardo Merchan.
Recorrido de las 7 Iglesias (Walking the 7 Churches)
The night of Holy Thursday everyone heads downtown to express their devotion with a 7-church walk. Ecuadorian Catholics go from church to church reading bible passages from the Last Supper through the Stations of the Cross. This is an activity that can be done individually or as a family. You’ll see folks from all walks of life downtown from 6pm until midnight! We absolutely love being out, people-watching, seeing all of the churches, and saying short prayers in each location. While the tradition is religious, it can be enjoyed by anyone as a bystander! My favorite part is all the snacks along the way 🙂 Outside of each church you’ll see all of the typical street foods in Cuenca – candy apples, corn on the cob, grilled meats, empanadas, chocolate covered strawberries, espumilla – so, come hungry!
The churches that participate in this Holy Thursday tradition are the following:
- La Iglesia del Corazón de Jesús, San Sebastián, El Cenáculo, El Carmen de la Asunción, La Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, Santo Domingo, San Francisco, Las Conceptas, La Merced de los Padres Oblatos, San Alfonso, La Merced de El Vecino, María Auxiliadora, Cristo Rey de los Ancianos, Cristo Rey de Cullca, Todos Santos, San Blas, son algunas de las iglesias que se encuentra en la hermosa ciudad de Cuenca.
Stations of the Cross Street Processions
This tradition caught me off guard as we went out for an afternoon walk! We come out to our street corner and all of a sudden see a man mounted on a cross being dragged through a main downtown street. As to be expected in many parts of Latin America, the Good Friday service is public and mildly graphic. In Cuenca you will see some smaller street processions throughout the week, and a large one on Friday night. This year it started at 8pm at San Blas and continued down Calle Simon Bolivar until reaching the New Cathedral where participants entered mass. Hundreds of Ecuadorian Catholics participate in this Good Friday procession, dressing up in costume and carrying a candle as they honor the Stations of the Cross. The streets are lined with speakers so all participants can hear the Bible passages and songs. There were numerous church groups participating, each of whom had a group acting out Jesus’ carrying of the cross to his crucifixion and the individuals that accompanied him. Whether or not you’re Catholic, this is also a site to see, and something we definitely do not see in North America.
If you are looking to celebrate Easter with a Catholic mass, Cuenca is definitely into the Saturday Vigil Service (typically starts at 10pm). My Ecuadorian in-laws told stories of their church and how they brought their own chairs for the three-hour service since it usually fills up quite fast! I also heard that some conservative Catholics fast all day Saturday, go to a long 6 hour Vigil mass, and then eat after. I am used to church on Easter Sunday being the more common tradition in the US, but in Ecuador you’ll definitely want to go Saturday night if you want to have the full experience!
This is THE traditional Holy Week food in Cuenca! Fanesca is a heavy soup made of 12 ingredients which represent the 12 apostles, and fish which represents Jesus. It is full of numerous types of beans and often served with a little hard boiled egg and mini-empanada on top. The preparation time for this dish is very lengthy as each of the 12 ingredients needs to be prepared separately. My mother-in-law estimated that our batch took her about 10 hours to cook. I love the home-cooked Fanesca, but it is also very common in restaurants all around town, and usually costs $4.
Good Friday is a federal holiday, thus most do not have to work that day. Though it is a relatively quiet 3-day weekend compared to other holidays, this year the city was full of tourists from all over. It is pretty common that Cuencanos go to the coast for holidays, and folks from the coast come to Cuenca. We love walking around all day, enjoying the sites and Eduardo practicing photography. This time we ran into an incredible concert offered by the city along the Tomebamba River at the bottom of the Escalinatas steps. A small orchestra and quartet joined together for a series of religious opera songs. It was such an awesome surprise!
As it is a federal holiday, be sure to reserve your lodging at least a couple weeks in advance. Also this time of year (late March – all of April) is the rainy season, so come prepared! Typically in Cuenca you will have a really sunny morning (aka get outside!!), and around 1pm or 2pm you’ll see rain for most of the afternoon.