Español The Festival of the Virgin of Urkupiña, often spelled Urcupiña, is celebrated on August 15 in the city of Quillacollo, 14 km (about 9 miles) from the city of Cochabamba, in the Department (state) of Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Legend has it that in the late 1700’s, when Bolivia had not yet gained its independence and was still a colony of Spain, there lived a very poor family near Quillacollo, a little town located on the outskirts of the City of Cochabamba. They were subsistence farmers and had a small flock of sheep. Every day they sent their youngest daughter into the hills nearby to pasture the sheep near the Sapinku River. There was plenty of grass there and fresh cool water.
One day, as the girl was watching over her flock and entertaining herself near the river, a woman appeared nearby. The woman was carrying a beautiful little boy in her arms. She began to speak to the shepherd girl in Quechua, their native language and from this day forward, the two met in the hills and held long conversations while the shepherd girl herded her sheep and played with the little boy. This caused the girl to lose track of time and she would return home later than usual.
After this had happened numerous times, her parents began to worry. When they asked her why she was arriving late so often, she told them about the woman and the boy, whom she called "la mamita" (the little mother). This caused her parents to become suspicious, so over the next few days they went to the hills each day to see if she was telling the truth. Soon, the woman and the child appeared once more to the girl so she ran to find her parents and some of the elders and priests of the town and brought them back to the hills. The woman, in the meantime, had climbed to the top of the hill to see where the girl had gone.
When she returned with her parents and the priests, the girl saw that the woman and child were already at the top of the hill. She pointed to them and shouted, "Urqupiña jaqaypiña, urqupiña!" In Quechua ”urqu” means ”hill” and ”piña” means ”already”, meaning that they were already on the hill.
When they were just about to reach the top of the hill, the woman and her child suddenly vanished but they caught a glimpse of a seemingly celestial being disappearing into the trees. They ran back to town and the priest called all of the villagers and town leaders to meet at the place where she had disappeared. The townspeople built a small shrine at the top of the hill in Quillacollo with her image. Catholics belief it was the Virgin Mary who appeared to the shepherdess, holding the child Jesus in her arms and from then on it became known as the chapel of the Virgin of Urkupiña. There the townspeople venerated her and told of many extraordinary miracles she did for them and prayers she answered.
It’s important to note that the hill (called Cota Hill) near Quillacollo was already known as a place of worship by local indigenous people. The Quechua have many gods, all of whom are related to something natural such as the sun, moon, lakes, mountains, hills, trees, animals and birds. Each of the gods is either male or female. When the Spanish began to colonize South America, and attempted to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism, they often simply mixed their traditional beliefs and gods with what they were taught about God by the Catholic priests. Thus, they already believed that Cota Hill, a female hill, was infused with female energy. When the woman and child appeared to the girl on Cota Hill, it came naturally to them to believe she was the Virgin Mary.
It is said that she blessed the little shepherd girl and her family with much money, but in exchange for all of that wealth, she took the girl’s voice and she became mute. This helps to clarify once again why it was not difficult for indigenous Bolivians to adopt Catholicism, without giving up their own pagan beliefs. In most Andean cultures, it is believed that when the Pachamama (Mother Earth) or any of the other natural gods blesses you with something or answers a request, you must give something in return. Over 80% of Bolivians profess to be Roman Catholic. They also belief that when a request is made of God, the Virgin Mary or one of the saints of the Bible, that something they greatly treasure must be given (or given up) in return.
Thus, the Virgin of Urkupiña has become one of the most venerated patron saints in Bolivia. Every year, on August 15th, thousands and thousands of Bolivians travel to Quillacollo for the festival of Urkupiña where they pray to the Virgin Mary, making requests for blessings (such health for an ailing family member, money for certain needs they have, a job for someone who has lost theirs, etc.) In exchange they make her certain promises. If she answers a prayer for a job, one might promise to be more generous and charitable with others. If she answers a prayer for healing, one might promise to go to church every Sunday without fail.
During the festival of Urkupiña a statue of the Virgin Mary from the chapel of in Quillacollo is lifted onto a platform and paraded through the streets in a religious procession with believers following behind. There is plentiful food and drink and colorful handcrafts to purchase in the streets. There are decorations and flowers, along with music and dancing in traditional garb. Indigenous traditions mix with Catholic rituals as hundreds of dancers dance through the streets in caporales (dance groups who practice throughout the year). The Festival of the Virgin of Urkupiña has become one of the largest, most beautiful cultural events in Bolivia, attracting up to half a million believers and tourists each year, comparable only to the Carnival of Oruro, which takes place in late February or early March each year in Oruro.
The festival traditionally begins on the 14th of August with up to 15,000 dancers dancing all day in traditional costumes to Bolivian folkloric music. Each dance represents a different moment in Bolivia’s history. On the 15th, while dancing and parades continue, thousands of devout Catholics make their pilgrimage to the church for prayers, penance, and blessings.
On the 15th at midnight, thousands more will begin what is known as “el calvario”. People of all ages (children, parents, and elderly) will spend all night walking the roughly 8 miles from the city of Cochabamba to Quillacollo, either as a promise or as a penance. All along the route, vendors sell handcrafted miniatures of anything one’s heart could desire. People purchase a miniature of the items they hope the Virgin will give them during the year to come. Similar to the Festival of Alasitas (also known as the Festival of Abundance which is celebrated in January each year in La Paz) at Urkupiña one can find tiny houses, cars, household appliances, dishes, food, suitcases and passports for those who hope to travel, diplomas for those who hope to graduate, and more.
The pilgrims will arrive early in the morning of the 16th to attend mass at the town’s church knows as the temple of St. Idelfonso. This is known as the "misa de gallos" (which translates literally as the "rooster church service" but is so called because it takes place at dawn when the cock crows), after which many of them will make the climb up to the top of Cota Hill. Some people bring small pick axes and chip a little piece of rock to take home with them. Before leaving, they will take their rock and miniatures to the local priest to be blessed. This is to ensure that their petitions will be answered during the coming year. Throughout the year they will take very good care of their rock and their miniatures and will bring them back to Quillacollo for the next Urkupiña Festival the following year.
This YouTube video, although narrated in Spanish, shows many of the festivities we've described for you, including an artistic version of the girl's vision of the Virgin Mary on the hill, festival, folkloric dancing, traditions, pilgrimage, and more. It's worth watching even if you don't know Spanish.
If you want to visit Quillacollo for the Festival of the Virgin of Urkupiña, plan to arrive a couple of days early so that you won’t miss the dancing on the 14th. The festival normally lasts for 3 days, ending on the 16th. Book a hotel or hostel room at least 3 months in advance. Accommodations are hard to find and many people have opened their homes and rent rooms by the day. You may find some on Airbnb.com or Couchsurfing.com as Bolivians become more comfortable advertising online. Most people simply stay in Cochabamba and make a day-trip to Quillacollo. Click here to find places to stay near Quillacollo.