Virgen de El Cisne Festival Kicks Off August 16
Fiesta de la Virgen de El Cisne is perhaps Ecuador’s most remarkable display of religious devotion. Known for its arduous pilgrimage and solemn adoration, the most famous of these celebrations begins on August 16 in the small town of El Cisne in the southern province of Loja.
The popular ceremony kicks off with a huge festival in honor of one of the nation’s most venerated images, the Virgen de El Cisne, after which thousands of pilgrims from Ecuador and northern Peru carry the famous statue of the Virgen on their shoulders from the town of El Cisne to Loja.
After a 70-kilometer trek, the Virgen is ceremoniously installed in the magnificent Loja cathedral on August 20, where it will stay until November 1st. Then the process is reversed, returning the Virgen to El Cisne on November 17th where, after being greeted with pageants, festivities and masses, the image remains until the following August.
For the past few years, on the last day of the festivities, traditional brass bands have played and there have been firework displays. Throughout these pilgrimages the image of the Virgin is escorted by thousands of followers and protectors, the latter known as gancheros.
For people who can’t make the pilgrimage, the occasion is observed with several masses. There is said to be a mass for nine consecutive nights, a vaca loca, the burning of the castillo, bailes, and other traditional fiesta activities.
El Cisne is a big deal in this part of Ecuador; it would be the equivalent of a Virgen Mary in Italy or Guadalupe in Mexico. Thousands of the faithful make the pilgrimage on foot to El Cisne during this time of year, some traveling hundreds of kilometers on foot through the Andes to reach El Cisne.
All along the route between El Cisne and Loja there are merchants selling food and trinkets with the image of the Virgin, also known as the Churona (curly-haired woman), the patron saint of soldiers, and the patron saint of tourism.
Throughout Ecuador, but especially in the Loja province, you’ll find figurines, shrines, pendants and trinkets dedicated to the Virgen del Cisne (Virgin of the Swan). According to legend, the Virgin Mary protected a medieval knight who appeared before his lover in a boat shaped like a swan. Franciscan monks were inspired so much by these stories of chivalry and the Virgin’s kindness that they erected statues of the “Virgen del Cisne” throughout Europe. The Franciscans later hauled one of these statues to Ecuador, where she was credited with miracles involving sickness and storms.
Her followers have attributed many miracles to her. The first chapel dedicated to the Virgen was built because many of her devotees wanted to build a shrine to her in gratitude for their prayers being answered. Over time, the number of followers grew and the chapel was rebuilt, bigger each time so that it could hold all the believers. The current chapel is the fourth one built.
The Virgen seen today, first installed by adoring campesinos (peasants) in the town of El Cisne in 1594, wears gilded robes and a towering crown. This Virgen, the ‘original,’ lives in El Cisne’s El Santuario gothic cathedral most of the year.
The Virgens del Cisne in other parts of Ecuador are adorned in vestments inspired by local indigenous costumes, and sometimes even the Ecuadorian flag (especially when the national football team is playing a big game).
For most of the year, tours and buses make day trips to El Cisne from Loja and Catamayo to visit the beautiful El Santuario cathedral and the Virgen statue. But on procession days you’ll have to walk like everybody else – the road is so full of pilgrims that vehicles can’t get through. In recent years, cyclists have taken to riding this beautiful route through the mountains alongside the pilgrims.
No matter how you go, this is an amazing display of devotion.