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 they found a stone image of the Virgin, which since then has been kept in the church in Quillacollo.
Visiting these sites is part of the 3-day Urkupiña Festival.
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 Virgin instructed the young girl 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. 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 (find the other Bolivian festivals here).
Urkupiña constitutes a syncretism of Catholicism and paganism, expressed in folk dances and ancient rituals.
The Urkupiña Festival
The official date of the Urkupiña Festival is August 14-18 and it draws thousands of spectators from all over Bolivia. However, as I arrived in Cochabamba, the nearest 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 the opportunity to study traditional dance and music groups from surrounding communities who had come to represent the Andean culture. They wore traditional costumes and played ancient instruments such as the panpipes. Another advantage was 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. 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. They paraded the streets in a never-amazing display of color and festivity. The participants danced up to the church where they paid their respects to the Virgin of Urkupiña. Many approached the altar on their knees to show their devotion.
Part of the parade was the eye-catching show of folk dances such as La Diablada, La Morenada and Caporales (read more about them here). 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 pagan aspect is represented by, among other things, miniatures. They 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, as is common during the Alasitas Festival in La Paz.
You can ask yatiris for good fortune. They spoon molten lead into cold water from which they read omens. I had seen this before in Bolivia and was intrigued so I asked one to read my fortune. Although the yatiri had addressed me in Spanish, he swapped to the local Quechua dialect while reading my fortune. I had no clue as what fortunes or misfortunes awaited me – maybe it’s for the better.
Pilgrimage to the Cerro Calvario
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. It’s on Calvary Hill where, according to legend, people found the first stone image of the Virgin.
During the night worshippers walk the fifteen kilometers from Cochabamba to this summit in Quillacollo. Here they 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.
Tradition demands the stones to be returned the following year, and the Virgin thanked. And so the circle is complete.
Practical Information about the Urkupiña Festival
- Quillacollo lies 13 kilometers west of Cochabamba. It is easy to catch a micro (bus) or trufi (taxi) from Cochabamba, which costs only a few bolivianos.
- During this event streets are lined with food stalls, providing an opportunity to taste local dishes. Try the town’s specialty called garapiña, a sweetened type of chicha (alcohol made from corn).
- 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).