Some years ago, I spent Easter in Copacabana. The town is a shrine that draws people from all over, including Cusco, and has for a long time. In Inca times it was one of the more important places in the Empire, often assimilated to the Imperial City itself.
Ramos Gavilan writes of it as a powerful shrine to an idol part fish and part human. Now it is dedicated to the Virgin of Copacabana, who appeared to a member of a local family of Inca nobility in the late sixteenth century and who quickly became one of the most important religious figures in Colonial Latin America.
On the Saturday of Easter, I decided to climb the hill Calvary, also known as Santa Barbara or Llallagua. To go up is not only to defy the grabbing claws of altitude, it is to do the stations of the cross and pass through momentous places and experiences. You leave sins as stones on the crosses; you look and create auguries of futures, hopefully ones you desire, you exercise devotion, you buy goods, and you share with other people.
This volcanic core rises up from the lake shore as if the challenge the mountains around it. Because it stands almost alone, it is the first place to receive the sun most mornings, and on Easter that is very significant.
In the mid twentieth century, the Franciscans created stations of the cross up one side of this two peaked hill and made a path, along which pilgrims go. They travel tot he left and leave the right side for devotions to indigenous deities and ways.
I saw pilgrims approach each station of the cross and stop to pray. They would cross themselves and stand silently. Some would bow, hincarse. Others would touch the cross and even kiss it three times. Others would not. They would just stand and pray. At the end of their devotion they would almost always place or toss a stone onto the base of the cross. Everyone had a little different style, but the minimum was stopping and praying, followed by tossing rocks.*
While I was standing there watching, my friend Adolfo Condori came up with a huge bundle on his back. I had met him when I first did field work on the Peninsula of Copacabana in a community behind the eastern wall of hills. He was carrying hand made miniatures—houses, cars, businesses, and more—to sell at the conclusion of the trek. His wife would spend the day selling to tourist and Alonso said Easter was the second most important time for sales, following the main feast in August.
People stop at the saddle to have their miniatures blessed with incense and beer. They will also outline their desires in wax on the bases of crosses on the upper pathway. Before climbing up Calvario, many went to the Chapel of Candles to the side of the Basilica of the Virgin where they marked their desires in wax on the wall or on the trays of candles.
At the top, people pause, pray, buy some beer or soda, and enjoy time being with their family and friends in a holy spot above the lake and the town. They are up in the sky where they can see far and witness the world and their lives below them they wish to change.
One family told me they were very devoted to the Virgin. They want a house but have not been able to save enough money to buy one. This year they went to the Mouth of the Toad, at Calvary’s base on the lake, and made a petition. Now they are climbing Calvary with candles in order to ask for a house.
This is Easter for many in the Andes.
- Quote from my fieldnotes.