Virgin de Urkupia

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Virgin de Urkupiña
August 25, 1997

We arrived in Cochabamba in time for the annual fiesta
"Senora, your bottle!"

That's all it took for Nan's bag to be snagged. They'd always warned us about bus stations in the guides, but how easily you forget. I looked around the crowded terminal, people teeming everywhere.

"Stay here!" I shouted to Nan, and ran off. Seconds later I had a policeman searching among passengers in the terminal, while I ran outside, figuring the thief would be looking to make a quick getaway.

I stormed down the sidewalk, turning my head with manic attention, my eyes cutting through the traffic of vendors and people awaiting taxis in the pre-dawn light. There — a flash of red fabric along the fence behind a cloth bag. I leaned closer and amazingly recognized our missing bag.

"This is not your bag" is all I could think to say to the startled thief as I picked up our sack and walked off.

"This never happens in Cochabamba," an embarrassed policeman explained. "It's only all these people coming into town for the fiesta."

Fiesta? This was the first we'd heard of the fiesta. "The Fiesta de Urkupiña, the biggest fiesta of the year."

Reading through our guidebook I'd come across mention of the celebration. The Fiesta de la Virgin de Urkupiña is held every year sometime between June and August. Obviously we'd made little effort to coordinate our schedule. It was bike parts we were after in Cochabamba. We'd met some cyclists who told us the city was our best bet to find spare parts. The fiesta was just an added bonus, or so we thought.

Pedalling through the lights of a Cochabamba morning, the streets were curiously packed. Breakfast stalls did quick business, and the areas outside the hotels thronged with people. Riding past the skid-row dwellings near the terminal, we found the first hostel recommended by the guide. "No vacancy. Don't insist," the sign on the door ordered. It was a harbinger. Not only did we find similar signs throughout town, but by the time the sun filled the sky and traffic the street, even the fleabags were booked solid.

We settled in with a group of revelers to watch the festival
Fortune intervened, and we found a hotel that had just opened. By just, I mean not only was this the first day, we also happened to be the very first guests. Perhaps out of appreciation, we were given a suite, where we stashed the bikes and joined the flood of people on the streets.

The micros were already cruising like hungry sharks. The normal routes abandoned, all had improvised signs reading "Urkupiña" taped to the window — free enterprise at its best. The morning's panic over the lost bag and our desperate search for lodging combined with a sleepless overnight bus ride was a perfect recipe for the unstable mentality the fiesta required. As vendors of everything from ladies' underwear to popcorn set up their displays, costumed revelers began pounding beers. We'd been up for so many hours we had to remind ourselves it was still only 8:30 in the morning.

We eventually found bleacher seats and settled in among a group of revelers from La Paz. The women all wore sequined skirts, and topped their customary bowlers with pink frilled chapeaus. The men wore suits and toted mini-kegs, which acted as giant noisemakers. On top they had nailed the head of a grinning bearded man, whose expression of intoxication was obviously the exemplar.

By 10 a.m. the majority of our group was staggering and the parade was more than two hours away. Ramon made us a present of his mini-keg, which couldn't have pleased his wife much, as she kept beating him over the head with her pink frilly bowler cover. However, he steadfastly refused our attempts to return his icon.

Half-drunk ourselves by noon, we began wandering the streets. We were unable to discern when the parade might start. With characteristic Bolivian individuality, we found that groups basically danced wherever they liked, accompanied by the monotonous melody of brass bands, perhaps resting for a beer and dancing again, or perhaps not. We heard rumors that the previous day's display was more orderly, but I have my doubts.

Exhausted by 2 p.m., we threaded through the crowds packing the streets around the church hosting the namesake virgin. At one point I was so naive to think we might actually get into the church, but a crowd larger than that for a papal decree killed such thoughts. A half-hour later we were asleep, still among the few residents at our secret hotel.

The next day half of Cochabamba walked up a hill outside of town to honor the virgin. With the streets empty we took in the sights and searched in vain for our bike parts. By noon we were on our way to La Paz. Cochabamba never gave us what we came for, but instead we learned a lesson in what makes Bolivia so magical: No one ever knows exactly what's going on, and any moment you can stumble across a party.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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