La Virgen Morena del Lago (the Dark Virgin of the Lake) lives in Copacabana, and she’s responsible for the bizarre ritual of the Ch’alla.
Immediately after the conquest, Spanish treasure-seekers looted Inca temples around the lake, and priests destroyed any remaining shrines and idols, including a large female idol with a fish’s tail at Copacabana. When subsequently a series of devastating frosts ruined crops, locals became convinced of the need for a new goddess and the town was rededicated in honour of the Virgen de la Candelaria; one of the most popular representations of the Virgin Mary during the Spanish conquest of the Americas. Francisco Tito Yupanqui, a local man of Inca heritage, noted that there was no image for the altar and set about producing one. His early efforts were rejected by Spanish priests, so he went off to Potosi to study sculpture, and eight months later returned with the wooden image that graces the cathedral today. This new image was called the Virgen de Copacabana, and was immediately credited with a series of miracles – hence the little town’s status as the most important Catholic destination in the southern Andes.
A befitting cathedral was built to house the virgin. Moorish with whitewashed stone walls, domes, arches and an extensive courtyard, it looks a little out of place in the seaside village atmosphere of Copa. Inside the vaulted, painted interior, the slight Virgin, with a brown, Andean face, sits high up on the gold altar. She’s dressed in robes embroidered with gold and silver thread, and crowned with a golden halo; a wide silver crescent moon – a symbol of female divinity in traditional Andean religion – rests at her feet. A woman kneeled and crossed herself, before the altar. Others sat praying in pews, or simply gazed on high. This image is never moved – townsfolk believe that to do so, could trigger terrible floods. In a chapel at the side is a more accessible replica Virgin, which is paraded at fiestas and festivals. Women touched the fabric of her garments, and put their fingers to their lips and to the Virgin’s hem.
Outside, the ritual of the Ch’alla was in full flow. Men parked pick-up trucks, vans, and cars. Two abreast, the vehicles trailed back from the plaza down the narrow street to the waterfront. Row upon row of stalls sold fresh flowers; gladioli, carnations, roses, in bunches, petals, and garlands; and beribboned rosettes, miniature bowler hats, bottles of champagne, candles and little Virgins. Families decorated their vehicles together, stringing ribbons of flower heads across windscreens and bonnets. Small boys attached floral arrangements to bumpers, and mums holding babies stood back to admire their handiwork. They frowned in concentration, stood on stools to reach roofs, and pursed their lips to wet wool to use as ties. Satisfied, they awaited the blessing, as the ever increasing line of vehicles grew.
At the appointed hour, the priest appeared, carrying a plastic bucket containing holy water and a small hand-mop. He walked to the front of the line, and the bonnet of the first car was lifted. Solemnly a prayer was intoned, the sign of the cross was made and holy water sprinkled over the engine. The owner tried desperately to call his wife, who’d gone walk-about. She arrived, all shy smiles, in time to see the priest scatter more holy drops over the interior. The owners then offered open palms to the priest, and more water was splashed over their heads and hands. Finally, a photo-call – owners with priest and happy vehicle, before the priest moved on to the next, and the next, and the next. There were so many vehicles that three priests worked in tandem, each one pocketing twenty bolivianos each time, and receiving lots of handshakes and grateful smiles.
It’s believed the ritual ensures the safety of the vehicles. Maybe. But where there’s a ritual in Bolivia there’s alcohol. Once the priest has moved on’ families spray their cars with champagne, beer, throw flower petals and let off fire crackers. Of course, not all of the alcohol is poured over the cars, plenty finds it’s way down the throats of the supplicants. After a picnic on the beach, they all drive home – maybe a little the worse for wear, most likely without car insurance, but blessed.