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South American festivals: Virgen de la Candelaria

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Next week will see the usually sleepy towns of Puno in Peru and Copacabana in Bolivia (both on Lake Titicaca) overrun by frenzied revelers and (a handful) of more pious devotees of the Virgen de la Candelaria, aka the Black Virgin or La Morenita.

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Picture: David Hamill

The legend of the Virgen de la Candelaria actually begins in the Canary Islands, of all places.  In 1392, so the story goes, a statue of the Virgin Mary bearing a child in one hand and a green candle (candelaria) in the other was discovered on a beach by two shepherds. One of the shepherds tried to throw a stone at the statue, but his arm became paralyzed; the other tried to stab the statue with a knife but ended up stabbing himself. And so it was decreed that the statue was a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary and she developed a following which spread from the Canaries to continental Europe.

At some point in the late 16th century, thanks to the influence of Dominican missionaries, the Virgen’s prowess and reputation crossed the Atlantic and she became something of a hit in Latin America. She has a significant following in Oruro (Bolivia), Copiapo (Chile), Punta del Este (Uruguay) and throughout Venezuela, but her real heartland is in the Lake Titicaca region of Peru and Bolivia where her legend has become entwined with the Andean myth of Pachamama, the Earth Goddess.

Both Puno and Copacabana have cathedrals erected in her honor, and although they do see a steady stream of pilgrims throughout the year, this stream becomes a torrent around her saint day on 2 February and – to a lesser degree – in mid August. The celebrations in Puno and Copacabana are similar in many respects: incredibly garishly-costumed dance troupes, enthusiastic albeit slightly off-key brass bands, overzealous consumption of alcohol, and a general lack of piety are where it’s at.

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Picture: Paula Soler-Moya

But there are differences too: Peruvian celebrants are happy to parade statues of the Virgen around town, but Bolivians leave her safely cloistered in the cathedral. Bolivians tend to drink more (although this is a matter of opinion, and Peruvians still drink excessively) while Peruvians seem to take the dancing a little more seriously and do it a little better (once again a matter of opinion).

One uniquely Bolivian custom is the blessing of cars and trucks with beer: although this happens at Copacabana all year round, there is definitely a spike during the annual festival.

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Picture: Sylvain Bourdos

While celebrations in Copacabana last only 3 days (no wonder, considering how much they drink), in Puno they span a week, starting off with more traditional dances and costumes and culminating with the most over-the top trajes de luz on the ‘Octava’ (the eighth  day after the Saint’s day).

For an eye-opening window on South American culture, I can highly recommend attending the celebrations in either Puno or Copacabana (or better still in both towns). Revelers are, for the most part, very welcoming, but I would advise you to keep your wallet and your camera to yourself. It may be a little late to arrange bookings for this year’s celebrations, but why not plan ahead for 2015?

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