According to the most popular story a young shepherd girl daily herded her sheep on a stony hill, where the Virgin Mary appeared to her several times. At one time she indicated the Virgin to her parents, shouting, “Orkopiña” – “There, on that hill”, as the Virgin was ascending towards heaven. On the summit a stone image of the Virgin was found, which since then has been kept in the church in Quillacollo.
In a different version the Virgin had told the shepherd girl that the hill contained riches and that people should come here to pray for wealth and welfare. Yet another variation explains how the young girl was instructed by the Virgin to pick up some stones and take them home. Once the girl reached her home the stones had turned into silver: the Virgin’s first miracle here had occurred.
One way or another, there were stories enough to organize a yearly procession and celebration, which today is known as the Urkupiña Festival, celebrated in Quillacollo, in central Bolivia. Together with Oruro’s carnival and the Grand Poder Festival in Bolivia’s capital of La Paz, this festival has grown into one of Bolivia’s larger and more renowned religious holidays. Urkupiña constitutes a syncretism of Catholicism and paganism, expressed in folk dances and ancient rituals. I felt lucky, to say the least, to be in the neighborhood in August so I could go and check out the festival for myself.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You’ll be amazed at the stamina of the dancers, who dance and celebrate for hours on end just to honor their virgin.
- You’ll be equally or even more stunned by the fantastic dresses, extraordinary masques and most of all: the height of the shoes and heels of the dancers. Let me tell you: participating in this festival is no small feat!
- Good for any visitor to Bolivia, including children. It’s a large-scale affair attracting thousands of visitors but which especially during the day is a safe place to visit. The curtailing of selling alcohol during has contributed enormously to this safety.
Celebrations of the Urkupiña Festival
The official date of the Urkupiña Festival is August 14-18, however, as I arrived in Cochabamba, the nearest by major town, I learned that for the past few years this special event has started on August 13, with the Autochthonous Parade.
It was a quiet evening compared to the rest of the festival. It gave me all the more opportunity to study the groups that flock from surrounding communities to represent the Andean culture, wearing traditional costumes and playing ancient instruments such as the panpipes. Another advantage was the fact that it was easier to take pictures during this procession than on Saturday and Sunday.
August 14 is La Entrada, the main parade of this religious holiday and Quillacollo was packed. From early morning until late at night I joined the thousands of spectators in admiring and cheering on dozens of dance and music groups parading the streets in an amazing display of color and festivity. Part of the parade were eye-catching show of folk dances such as La Diablada, La Morenada and Caporales. Participants often spend more than the equivalent of one hundred US dollars – a fortune to many Bolivians – on elaborate costumes, many of them hand-sewn with intricate designs.
The participants danced up to the church they paid their respects to the Virgin of Urkupiña. Incredibly enough, after so many exhausting hours of dancing, they still had the energy to approach the altar on their knees to show their devotion.
Paganism during a Catholic Celebration
The pagan aspect is represented by, among other things, miniatures that represent the fortunes wished for by devotees, such as a miniature car or house, or passport (to secure a safe journey). Blessings may be given by yatiris – Andean shamans – as well as by priests.
You can ask yatiris for good fortune, which will be ensured by spooning molten lead into cold water, from which the yatiri can read good omens. I had seen this before in Bolivia and was intrigued so I asked for my fortune to be read. Although I had been addressed in Spanish, the yatiri swapped to the local Quechua language while reading my hand together with the molten lead; I still have no clue as what fortunes or misfortunes await me – maybe it’s for the better.
Pilgrimage to Cerro Calvario to the Virgin of Urkupiña
Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to stay longer, which meant I missed an important part of the festival which I think is worth attending. On August 15 the same participants dance again, but this time up to the summit of Cerro Calvario (Calvary Hill), where, according to legend, the first stone image of the Virgin was found.
During the night worshippers walk the fifteen kilometers from Cochabamba to this summit in Quillacollo, to pray for fortune or thank the Virgin as well as Pachamama (Mother Earth) for wishes fulfilled. On the hill people gather stones to take home, assuring them of more wealth. What I love about this tradition is that it demands that the stones are returned the following year and the Virgin thanked. And so the circle is complete.
- Quillacollo is situated 13 kilometers west of Cochabamba (a city with flight connections to Bolivia’s bigger cities like La Paz and Santa Cruz). It is easy to catch a micro (bus) or trufi (taxi) from Cochabamba to this religious festival, which costs only a few bolivianos.
- Quilacollo has restaurants and guesthouses, and during this event streets will be lined with food stalls, providing an opportunity to taste local dishes. The town is especially known for garapiña, a sweetened type of chicha (alcohol made from corn).
- Normally taking photos of people in Bolivia is a sensitive issue. A festival like Urkupiña is a pleasant exception in this respect: many will happily pose for you. To make sure it stays pleasant for everybody, do ask for permission before taking the picture (especially close-ups).
Photos by Coen Wubbels