Copacabana’s Calavario

The hill at the northern end of Copacabana is called the Calvario, or Station of the Cross. The trail, leading past fourteen crosses, takes about thirty minutes to ascend, and at the top, you’re rewarded with a great view of the city behind you and Lake Titicaca, stretching out endlessly in front.

Copacabana's Calavario in Bolivia

We were in Copacabana just before the celebrations of August 6th, and the Calvario was being used by thousands of pilgrims as Ritual Central. Tents had been erected all along the path, and a number of curanderos (Andean medicine men) were performing rituals for believers. With groups of people holding hands and laughing, thick clouds of incense wafting into the air, and the lake reflecting the waning sun in the background, the scene was one of spectacular beauty.

pilgrims in bolivia smoke offerings

Taking a short break from the ascent, we watched the rituals for awhile. These are the same people who had just been at the city’s Cathedral to pray to the Virgin. Yet here they were, being blessed with incense, pouring beer on the ground, shooting off firecrackers, and touching live armadillos for luck. Why choose just one religion? The gatherings, consisting of three to six people, looked like more fun than the church services I grew up with. In fact, if the Presbyterian belief had included more fireworks and armadillo-fondling, I might still be a faithful member!

At the top of the hill, people were waiting in a long line to decorate the Virgin with pins and ribbons. Around the path, worshipers huddled around little gardens of candles, using the melted wax to sculpt shapes of cars and houses onto whatever empty piece of cement they could find. Stands at the top of the hill sold toy cars, model houses and fake money: all trinkets which provide luck to the owner.

The stands also sold beer. We bought a couple, and sat down to watch the sunset behind the lake. It would be beautiful any time of year, but with the celebrations going on all around us, the scene had a special significance. We didn’t love our time in Copacabana, but the Calvario Hill was certainly a highlight.

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