Seventh in a series about Bolivia
Our lodging in Copacabana, Hostal Las Olas, was at the foot of the steep cerro El Calvario (Calvary Hill). There seems to be some variation in terms of names, since one sign referred to it as CERRO CALVARIO and another as San Cristóbal, male partner to the shorter female hill cerro Santa Bárbara. According to my GPS, El Calvario’s summit is at an altitude roughly 4,040m or 13,254‘. (Curiously, my Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook gives a figure of 3,966 m or 13,012′.) Either way, the figures are another reminder of the mind-boggling heights of Bolivia’s Altiplano. In terms of sheer altitude, Calvary Hill is higher than Mount Robson, the tallest in the Canadian Rockies. Robson only reaches a height of 3,954 m (12,972′). Yet whereas Robson has a prominence of 2,829 m (9,281′) above the surrounding terrain, cerro El Calvario rises only about 220 m or 722′ above the waters of Lake Titicaca (158 m or 518′ if Lonely Planet’s figures are more accurate than my GPS module). I’d heard that it had a great view of the city, so I convinced Rachel that we should climb it after we got settled in. We left Las Olas around 2:45pm.
Although we had recovered from the acute altitude symptoms that we’d experienced after arriving in La Paz, we’d found that we still felt intense fatigue upon exertion (such as walking uphill to Las Olas after getting off the bus). We took the hike slowly, starting with the steep street running north from the Las Olas gate. I swear that it must have gone up at a 45° angle!
At the end of the road, a set of stairs began. There were good views of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Copacabana (Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana), a beautiful white colonial church.
Partway up the hill, the first of many crosses appeared. Most common in Europe, Calvary hills represent the Calvary in Jerusalem. Many, including the one in Copacabana, have Stations of the Cross set up for pilgrims to visit. Copacabana’s crosses are simple and unfortunately heavily covered in graffiti. We observed that some pilgrims deposited stones at the base of the crosses.
At around 3:10pm we arrived at the saddle between El Calvario and a shorter nearby hill, cerro Santa Bárbara. There was a religious site at the saddle that I’d describe as a shrine, with a sign marked: “BIENVENIDOS A SAGRADO CORAZON DE JESUS DONDE SE SAUMAN CHALLAN TODOS SUS OBJETOS DESEADOS AUTOS CASAS DOLARES ECT.” I’m not sure what “se sauman challan” means (apparently it’s part of a local dialect of Spanish, given that it’s not in either Rachel’s Spanish-English dictionary nor mine). Otherwise it means “Welcome to Sacred Heart of Jesus where [unknown] all your desired objects, cars, houses, dollars, ect.”
One suspects that the hill may have had some meaning for indigenous inhabitants prior to the arrival of Spanish colonists. A sign at Sagrado Corazon mentions that, “This sacred place, also called huaca, (a quechua [sic] word that means sacred place)”.
Update on April 2, 2016: Charles Stanish explains in his excellent book Lake Titicaca: Legend, Myth and Science:
“Huacas are a peculiarly Andean concept; a material object or natural place represents the soul or ‘vitality’ of a people. Huacas can be springs, rock outcrops, carved rocks, special objects, and of course stelae.”
High points were sacred to the Inca, particularly the mountain peeks they venerated as “apus”. The process by which a site of devotion for Aymara or Quechua peoples becomes a Christian one is interesting. Although I have no idea if it applies to the case of cerro El Calvario, I’m reminded of something Annie Murphy wrote in her article “Spirited away in La Paz” (printed in Smithsonian Journeys, Fall 2015 issue and published online with a different title on Smithsonian’s website):
“‘They couldn’t kill off the mountains, so building on them was the next best thing,’ said Milton [Eyzaguirre from Bolivia’s National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore] as he described the arrival of the Spanish. He told me that once the Spanish realized they couldn’t eliminate the Andean gods—they were the Earth and mountains, after all—they decided to erect churches on top of the spots that were most important to Andean religion.”
Update on April 2, 2016: It appears my suspicion was correct. According to Charles Standish, the Inca traveled on pilgrimages from their capital in Cusco to Isla del Sol via Copacabana. He writes in Lake Titicaca: Legend, Myth and Science:
“The town of Copacabana houses one of the greatest Christian pilgrimage centers in South America: the great church and hilltop shrine with its stations of the cross. The founding of these religious institutions in the Copacabana region is no coincidence. The entire area from Yunguyu on the current Peru-Bolivia border to the Island of the Sun was one large ritual area created by the Inca Empire. Spanish religious authorities unquestionably used the grandeur of this place for their own great church.
The saddle had views of the glittering water of Lake Titicaca. I couldn’t identify it at the time, but apparently Isla del Sol is visible from the viewpoint.
We began slowly hiking up cerro El Calvario itself. The trail is a series of steep switchbacks which took us about 20 minutes from the saddle between the hills. The trail was crowded with people. Most of them were Bolivians, along with a handful of Western tourists.
The common cause of hiking seems to break down barriers across the world. In Japan, I’d been surprised when Japanese hikers greeted us with a cheerful “Konichiwa!” despite how reserved most Japanese were when interacting with strangers. Similarly, although no Bolivians outside the service industries had previously interacted with us (unless we asked for directions or something), descending pilgrims gave us words of encouragement as we hiked upward. Rachel translated one woman’s words as, “Almost there!”
We reached the top of the hill around 3:30pm. It was an interesting place, hopping with activity. The views of Copacabana, Lake Titicaca, and surrounding countryside were all excellent. Pilgrims lined up to pay their respects at a shrine decorated with ribbons. There were also oven-like enclosures containing burning candles.
There were a lot of stalls set up selling all sorts of things including food and beer. The stalls I found most curious at the time were those selling all sorts of miniature houses and vehicles. I didn’t quite understand during the visit, but according to an article about the hill on the website Sacred Destinations, the idea is pilgrim would “buy mini replicas of various material possessions that they hope the Virgin will grant them during the year.”) Presumably, that’s what the sign at the saddle was referring to in regards to this being “where [unknown] all your desired objects, cars, houses, dollars, ect”.
If accurate, the concept seems related to the Aymara festival of Alasitas, celebrated nearby in La Paz during the month of January. Murphy writes that “people collect dollhouse-sized miniatures of everything they hope to have in the coming year, from cars and houses to diplomas, plane tickets, sewing machines, and construction equipment.” However, as a general rule, she explains, “you must receive the miniatures as gifts” and have them “properly blessed by noon on the holiday, which causes midday traffic jams every year as people rush to make the deadline.”
We sat enjoying the lake from a rocky area west of the summit. Rachel wanted to keep our tradition going of getting a daily photo holding our “JUST MARRIED” sign. She suggested I approach a couple of women who’d been speaking French amongst themselves. (As a Spanish-speaker, Rachel had been doing the heavy lifting in the communications department during this trip, so I bet she just wanted me to prove my language prowess.) My French from grade school was pretty rusty, so after trying to remember the verb conjugations for a minute or two, I approached one of the women.
“Pardon,” I began (it really should have been “excusez-moi” for interrupting purposes). “Est-ce que tu-”
“Yes, of course,” she cut me off in English, having either overheard us previously or simply making a pragmatic inference from the fact I was holding a camera. (FYI, the full phrase should have been “Est-ce que vous pouvez prendre une photo?”)
After descending from cerro El Calvario, we decided to climb the shorter hill to the south, cerro Santa Bárbara. That ascent only took a few minutes.
Views on Santa Bárbara weren’t significantly different from those atop El Calvario, but it was significantly less crowded. There were a handful of women relaxing on the hilltop, along with a small black dog which followed Rachel around briefly.
The dog apparently belonged to a woman who was manning a concession stand down at the saddle. He accompanied us down the hill before rejoining his master. After taking in our fill of the views, we headed back down the hill towards town.
As a bonus, since there’s a dearth of English language material about the hill, here’s the full, if somewhat awkwardly translated, text about the hill from a sign at Sagrado Corazon:
“This sacred place, also called huaca, (a quechua word that means sacred place), Copacabana’s Calvary is located between two twins hills, one of them is the male called San Cristóbal and the other is the female called Santa Barbara, to arrive at the top crosses a way with very pending stone launching slips, that follows the 14 Stations of the Via Crusis. This sacred place is a natural bow window as well, from where it is possible to be appreciated the Island of the Sun, the Bay of Titicachi, the community of Chani and the incomparable beauty of the dusk from five of afternoon. At Copacabana’s Calvary there are ceremonial tables, which are used for different intentions, such as: the blessing of objects, perfuming, and also ill people’s cure by Andean priests.”
Series on Bolivia
Planning a Trip to Bolivia and Peru (introduction)
Ascending Cerro El Calvario (Calvary Hill)