La Festival de la Virgen del Urkupiña

By Scott Squires

Aug. 16, 2014

COCHABAMBA, Boliva – The streets are empty.  It’s a festival day, and I’m late to the party.  I approach a shared taxi driver, idly waiting curbside, not paying attention and looking lost, which is out of character for someone who is supposed to escort people around town.

“Are you going to Quillacollo? I’m going to the Festival of the Virgin of Urkupiña.”

“Quillacollo? Sure,” he says quickly as he discreetly removes the destination placard on the minibus’ front windshield – he was headed somewhere else.  “I just moved here from La Paz, so I don’t know Cochabamba that well.  But I can take you to Quillacollo.”

“Great,” I say as I hand him a little plata as we take off.  In a few minutes the cab fills up as other latecomers wave down the van. We shift and move seats to accommodate a few extra party-goers until we’re full up and hit the highway.

I’m headed to the region’s biggest annual celebration, La Festival de la Virgen de Urkupiña, dedicated to a local apparition of the Virgin Mary.  In reality, the festival integrates traditional and Catholic religious beliefs with colorful parades, dancing, and a pilgrimage in which the faithful ascend a mountain and extract rocks from the hillside to ask favors of health, wealth and luck of the Virgin.

Urban sprawl slips by the windows. Thirty minutes of grey skies, trash lined highways, a lack of sidewalks characteristic to the developing world.  Everybody is moving in the same direction – we’re all going west in trufis, on bikes, on foot – a Bolivian hajj.  We speed by school buses filled with teenage girls in sparkled marching band outfits, epaulettes fit for Simón Bolívar, made up and hair done like they were competing in a beauty pageant.

The traffic gradually thickens, until it’s a honking, stagnant diesel soup.  Our newcomer driver gives up.  “OK, this is it,” he yells.

We clamor out of the trufi to meet the day’s dusty squall. Covering our faces with shirts and handkerchiefs, we get swept up in the tide of people moving up-road.  Gradually, the crowd turns into a market.  On the outskirts, men with racks of cheap sunglasses all made from the same factory in China hawk wares, women sell deep fried doughnuts with icing that looks like its made of drywall, wheelbarrows filled with Kleenex and aspirin, juice carts piled high with peeled oranges and the only advertisements rising above the din are the spirited declarations of vendors’ goods and their rock-bottom prices.

The din becomes more structured as I approach a set of bleachers and a packed crowd.  Through a small gap in the seating, I spy what I came for – a parade of costume and glitter like none I’ve ever seen. A small human, no bigger than a ten-year-old child, dressed in robes like a withered wizard with a drooping rubber mask transforms him into an otherworldly sage-like figure.  He is leading a throng of similar, mystically dressed wizards/men, stepping slowly in time to the beat of a large drum, supported by gnarled staffs and the cheers of the crowd.


The sagacious actors are then followed by colorful, intricately designed personifications of Lucifer himself leading dancers who represent the seven deadly sins.  Then, a troop of devils fronted by Saint Michael make complex choreographic shapes and move in impassioned, circular patterns as the angel feigns battle against them.  They are performing the Diablada – a traditional dance characterized by intricate footwork, impressively designed and cumbersome costumes, and a blend of local Aymara and Catholic imagery.

Dancers continue to arrive, some in flamboyant Spanish dress dance something similar to the Tango.  A troupe of traditional Aymara dancers show off their costumes and leap high into the air, all while wearing eight-inch high platform sandals. Fronted by men and women playing zampoñas, or pan flutes, tambourines, and large animal skin drums, this dance, called the waka tokoris, satirizes the Spanish bullfight.


The dances have been going on since early morning, and don’t stop until long after the sun sets.  Meanwhile, onlookers and dancers celebrate by imbibing gallons of chicha, a fermented corn beer, their cheeks bulging with wads of coca leaves.

My own head, swimming from a chicha-coca buzz and over-stimulation, finds its way back to sobriety as the streets are thinning out.  Dancers and their families, proud and sweaty, stumble back through the nearly abandoned market as we find trufis going our direction, back to Cochabamba, back to reality.


(photos to come…)

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