14th – 16th August, Cochabamba
Cochabamba plays host to the festival of the Virgin of Urkupiña from 14th to 16th August. It is held in the town of Quillacollo and is one of Bolivia’s largest celebrations, steeped in religious, indigenous and folkloric tradition making this event a must for any tourists visiting the area.
The celebration has a long history and begins when the Virgin of Urkupiña, believed to be Mary, first made herself known to a young shepherdess in around 1880 on a hill in Quillacollo, where the church now stands. The story tells that Mary talked to the young girl in her native language of Quechua and told her that the hill held many riches and others should come to the hill and pray. Mary’s presence was also witnessed by the girl’s parents and other villagers who had heard the child talking of her new friend. The festivities not only commemorate the religious aspect of the story but also bring to life Bolivian traditions and beliefs, and their respect for Pachamama or Mother Earth through dance and music which the visitor will find both amusing and dramatic due to the varied and colourful displays.
The festivities last for three days and start on the 14th August. In Quillacollo you will find folkloric street dancing, which is the first of many offerings to the Virgin of Urkupiña. The different range of folkloric groups dressed in elaborate costumes and masks and their accompanying bands make this a colourful experience. On the 15th August, the actual day of the Virgin, the party atmosphere continues with more dancing and drinking, this day is less orderly than the previous. At midnight the pilgrimage begins, and 100,000 people can be witnessed starting their journey from Cochabamba to Quillacollo. Before dawn, mass is held and wishes, in the form of miniature models that range from small cars to small work tools, are purchased. The crowd then ascends the hill to break off slivers of rock to take home. These represent the money or other kinds of goods that people have asked for from the Virgin, this is considered as a loan and part of the people’s promise is to come back to Urkupiña next year and put the rock back in the mountain to pay back the Virgin. Like many other Bolivian celebrations a lot of faith is involved in this ritual and the participation of the Catholic Church features heavily. Once participants have their rock they continue on to the church for services and blessings.
Whatever the visitor makes of the Urkupiña festival it is bound to be an unforgettable experience, and an insight into the variety of cultures found in Bolivia.