Beautiful Basilica de Voto Nacional

“Are these people nuts?” It seems that I ask this question frequently in South America although not often in a church. I am looking at a rickety, unenclosed, 3 story ladder (unless you count the netting and I do not) that leads to the top of the one of bell towers of the magnificent Basilica de Voto Nacional in Quito. A stiff wind is blowing and as I watch, a septuagenarian makes the very wise decision to turn around and descend the ladder on her rear. There is a line of people waiting to ascend and the look of horror on my face makes it clear that I am not planning the climb. Another lady confesses that she made it three steps and had to turn back. I console myself with the fact that the view from the base of the bell tower is fantastic and causing an international incident by getting stuck on the ladder isn’t really necessary. While I am a wimp when it comes to climbing – actually descending – open staircases, this climb isn’t for the faint of heart. The Basilica sits high atop a hill in the city and the towers are 377 feet high.

Basilica de Voto Nacional

Basilica de Voto Nacional

The funny part is that I didn’t feel that the rest of our climb around the Basilica was particularly safe. On the second story balconies we had to climb across crumbling corners and navigate electrical cords everywhere. Guardrails? Please. Apparently, your faith will protect you from harm! But touring the Basilica was well worth the risk – it is as spectacular as its views. It is patterned after Notre Dame and the Gothic design is fantastic. My favorite part was the native species gargoyles although the brilliant stained glass was a close second. The nave itself is unfinished and a bit cold feeling, but there is a small chapel, La Capilla de Sacramento, that is stunning in its decoration. Unfortunately, photos are not permitted in the Chapel.

Pope John Paul II blessed the Basilica in 1985 and this welcoming entrance was one of my favorite parts of the building.

Pope John Paul II

Pope John Paul II

A Great Good Friday in Quito

I was having flashbacks to my Catholic school upbringing. I had stumbled into the courtyard of the Basilica del Voto Nacional on Good Friday and discovered a live enactment of the Stations of the Cross. It was odd – tourists were crowded about, taking pictures and videos, teenagers were cracking up over the fake whippings with ketchup used as blood, no one seemed to be relating the spectacle to the event. But as I watched longer, it seemed appropriate – a crucifixion was entertainment in its day, not unlike the horrific public stonings or executions in other countries in the present day. Or maybe that was just my excuse so we could take pictures too.

Welcome to Good Friday in Quito, Ecuador. A mix of sacred and carnival, Quito has a Good Friday Procession, Jesus del Gran Poder (Jesus of Great Power), that draws thousands for the 4 hour event. Many of the faithful dress in the purple robes and cucuruchos (cone hoods) of the penitent. Others dress as Jesus or Veronica, the woman believed to have wiped Jesus’s face, or Roman soldiers. Many carry crosses, some whip themselves with stinging nettles or have them wrapped around their bodies, the red welts apparent, and others have barbed wire wrapped around themselves, eating into their flesh. The parade also includes priests broadcasting sermons and prayers and marching bands. It is quite a spectacle.

View of the Procession and Virgen De Quito from the Cathedral

View of the Procession and Virgen De Quito from the Cathedral

Many of the crosses are huge and carried by several people. They stagger a few yards with the cross before dropping it with a thud.

Over halfway through the procession, we saw this father and son on a side street getting dressed to join the procession.

Also notable were the number of children in the parade. Just what did they have to be so penitent about?

This man also seemed to have suffered enough in his life.

Injured Cross Carrier

Amputee Cross Carrier

After the procession we enjoyed another Semana Santa (Holy Week) tradition: Fanesca. A special soup made only for Semana Santa it contains 12 grains and milk and is served with salted cod, boiled egg, fried plantains, slices of peppers, fried empanadas, fried empanada dough (masitas) and fresh cheese. The proprietors of the restaurant in which we ate were very friendly, eager to explain the special nature of the soup to us and concerned that we were happy with our meal. We were – it was delicious and filling.