International Writers Magazine :Biblian - Ecuador
Last Hurrah for Two Old Friends
did a double take. While I moseyed toward the middle of Cuenca's
Parque Calderón on that picturesque Thursday afternoon, I
was almost certain that I knew the pair of young, specs-donning
gringos ahead. Intent on clearing any doubts, I picked up my pace,
focusing on the lanky man and his petite female companion, who were
slowly walking side-by-side near the park's central statue.
the help of a much closer look, I discovered that my hunch was right.
They were Matt and Jannan, the lone married couple from my TESOL
class in Quito. In fact, it was the first time I had seen them since
we completed the course almost eight months earlier.
"Hey guys," I said loudly as I approached them.
Surprised, Matt and Jannan swiftly turned and faced me with a smile.
greetings and small talk for a few minutes, I learned that my former
classmates were on their so-called "last hurrah" in Ecuador.
Matt and Jannan were going to be in Azuay's provincial capital for a
handful of days before they were to return to Quito, tie up any loose
ends, and then head stateside. Suddenly remembering that I had two more
English classes to teach, I quickly made plans to hang out with my old
friends on the upcoming weekend and rushed off to the Centros de Estudios
Two days later, I met Matt and Jannan in practically the same spot.
We spent the rest of that Saturday evening catching up over a superb
Argentinean dinner. And when I found out they were looking for something
to do on Sunday, I invited them to join me bright and early for a daytrip
to the Cañar province (a small, mountainous region just north
of Cuenca, which rests at the nation's belt buckle). I was excited,
of course, to see that the couple eagerly accepted.
Despite stopping in Azogues (Cañar's capital) to pick up some
more passengers, our northbound bus had only been on the road for about
forty minutes when I saw three words that abruptly caught my eye: Bienvenidos
Not knowing exactly where to get dropped off and paranoid of overshooting
the tiny town, I told Matt and Jannan, who were sitting behind me, that
I was going to pay the driver a visit. The couple, therefore, immediately
stood up and followed me to the front of the coach, where I subsequently
tapped on the cab's glass door.
"I'm getting off," I told the boyish-looking fair collector,
after he opened the door.
"Here?" questioned the dark-featured driver, who overheard
me and took a second to turn his eyes away from the road.
"Yeah," I answered while collecting my change from the cobrador,
who was leaning against the bus's giant dashboard.
so, the driver brought the vehicle to a quick stop, opening the
door to let the three of us off. With the bright Sunday morning rays in our eyes, Matt, Jannan, and
I squinted at our destination. Teasing us from the steep, green
hillside proudly stood Biblián's prized possession: El Santuario
de la Virgen del Rocío. Still, although we knew where we
wanted to go, the three of us had no idea of how to get there. To
that end, my friends and I ambled along the short stretch of the
Pan-American Highway that sliced through the middle of the miniature
canton (one of seven that divide the Cañar province). We
constantly investigated every eastbound byway in hopes to find the
one that led to the monstrous, beige and blue church above.
went by before Matt, Jannan, and I made a pit stop at a gas station
near the southern edge of the pueblo. Sick of looking lost, I approached
an attendant, who was manning the pumps, for directions.
"Good morning. Excuse me, but how do we get there?" I asked
the middle-aged Ecuadorian while pointing to the towering cliff above.
"The church?" The miniscule man responded.
I nodded, somewhat embarrassed.
"Okay. Follow this road, turn on that street, and stay on it for
a few blocks until you reach the church in the center of town. From
there, take the road straight up towards that church," the weathered
worker continued, indicating where to go with his hands the entire time.
"Many thanks. You're very kind," I replied.
the man's directions, Matt, Jannan, and I consequently retraced
our steps along the Pan-American until we reached a diagonal artery,
which led to the heart of the quiet community.
Upon arrival in "downtown" Biblián, the three of
us couldn't get past the ugliness of the drab holy house that stood
over the center of the township. The milky, light blue chapel was
in urgent need of being sprayed down with a power washer. And after
snapping a few photos of the faded, yet colorful square, we began
our upward journey on the brick road that wound its way to El Santuario
de la Virgen del Rocío.
The ascent proved
to be quite challenging. Not only was the sun intense, but the grade
was pretty steep as well. Within a few minutes, Matt and Jannan were
removing layers while I was already sweating bullets. In addition, the
climb was even more of a battle for Matt, who was gimping on a wrapped
ankle that he recently sprained in Quito. As a result, our tired trio
often paused to rest, see how much closer we were to the mammoth church,
as well as appreciate the lush hillside and views of the verdant valley
After a good half-hour of slowly snaking uphill, Matt, Jannan, and I
finally panted our way to the base of the huge holy house. Ogling the
sheer enormity of El Santuario de la Virgen del Rocío, I was
also impressed with how the ornate edifice was built into the rocky
hillside. Moreover, I was intrigued with the several groups of people
who had also trekked to the church. Everywhere I glanced, I noticed
individuals pacing above, around, and below us. It appeared that this
climb was a pilgrimage for our fellow Sunday hikers. (Although the church
receives worshippers year-round, thousands of Ecuadorian and foreign
pilgrims annually flock to it on September 8th to honor the Virgen del
Rocío, the region's venerated patroness.)
the late-morning sun continued to intensify, the three of us wandered
around the colossal sanctuary, taking countless pictures of the
Andean vistas and of the church itself. We also ascended its winding
stairways and stood on various platforms, only to find more steps
and balconies. The possibilities of exploration were seemingly endless.
And just when my friends and I thought we had seen every inch of
the grand structure, I came across more stairs near the sanctuary's
peak, which zigzagged to the leafy hilltop above. Furthermore, the
steps were accompanied by white crosses, which were not only housed
in stout, stone altars, but also labeled with roman numerals, apparently
to guide the way.
Initially, Matt, Jannan, and I ascended together. Jannan, however,
climbed her way past the first few crosses before dropping out.
Exhausted, she then descended to a bench close by in order to rest.
Agreeing that we had to find out how many crucifixes there were
and what they led to, Matt and I carried on nonetheless.
As Matt continued
to fight through his injury and I kept on perspiring, we eventually
found ourselves standing in front of cross XIV, which rested just below
the prize awaiting us on the tiny, tree-lined mountaintop. My tall friend
and I had, in fact, discovered the Sacred Heart of Jesus...another church.
Although the teensy, white and baby-blue chapel was rather unimpressive,
our vertical trek wasn't a waste. The opposite end of the wee hilltop
did provide Matt and me with excellent views of Azogues, which was distantly
snuggled in the Southern Sierra Andes. It was interesting to see where
our bus had been just a short while earlier, irately weaving its way
through the thriving valley below. With that said, Matt and I soon left
the puny peak, feeling like we had accomplished something after all.
Reconnecting with Jannan and eventually leaving holy ground, the three
of us then discussed what the plans were for the couple's last few days
"Are you going to have a farewell party with those who are left
in Quito (two classmates were already back in the U.S.)?" I asked
"I don't know. Justin (our TESOL course facilitator) thinks we
should have one," Matt answered.
"I would almost prefer not to have one. It's really hard for me
to say goodbye to people," I added.
"Yeah, it is really awkward saying goodbye to someone you may never
see again," Matt replied.
Realizing that my friends would be leaving Cuenca the following morning,
I suddenly became tongue-tied as we slowly descended into Biblián.
Sadly, Matt couldn't have explained it any better.
© Tyrel Nelson July 2008
We finally pulled into a small, dusty lot in front of a giant, light-blue
church, which sat atop a small hill a few miles southwest of Cuenca.
Walk in El Cajas
With some free time at last, I felt relieved as the monstrous bus
roared westward through the green hills just outside of Cuenca.
Afternoon in Azogues
not a superstitious man. In fact, I think its funny that my so-called
16-unit building really only has fifteen apartments
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