18 September 2011

Pilgrimage to the Santuario del Señor de Huanca

Before I start, let me just say that I am not a religious person, so the idea of going on a pilgrimage did seem a little strange. But our journey (I went with volunteers Pilar and Cary) was a good opportunity to explore a new place and experience an important religious festival with the local people.

We did a lot of walking in the process. First, we walked about a kilometre to catch a bus with other pilgrims to San Salvador. After leaving the main highway, the road wound through a narrow gorge, with huge hills sloping steeply down to the Urubamba river. The small town of San Salvador sits alongside the swiftly flowing river, at the other end of the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu. But we didn’t stop there. The Santuario del Señor de Huanca perches on the majestic slopes of Apu Pachatusan (a Quechua word meaning "one that sustains the Earth"), high above the town, and our bus struggled up the dirt road to deposit us nearby.

The fields below the sanctuary had been turned into a sea of blue plastic-covered stalls, selling all types of religious paraphernalia and memorabilia, as well as food and drink. There was even a woman selling whips – self-flagellation anyone? There were also lots of fortune tellers – I guess pilgrims wanted to see if the things they wished for at the sanctuary would come true.

Religious bling
The whip seller

The chapel of the Señor de Huanca was erected in 1676 to commemorate the appearance of Jesus Christ in a cave on this site. Every year, on 14 September, thousands of devotees from all over Peru and even from as far away as Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile, visit the sanctuary to receive the blessing of the Lord. (If you’re interested in the details, I found a good write-up here).

The beautiful chapel

Pilar and I in the chapel

When we climbed up to the chapel with hundreds of other people, the Mass was in progress. We stayed for a while to soak up the atmosphere, and I was surprised to recognise one of the songs (hymns?) being sung – the tune was that of Blowing in the Wind. We then moved on to the nearby area where the faithful light candles and pray for health, wealth and happiness. Further up the hill are two sources of water attributed with miraculous healing properties, so we joined the queue of the faithful to anoint ourselves with the holy water. We only washed our hands and splashed some water on our heads, but others were stripping off quite openly to wash much more of their bodies.

Feeling purified, and refreshed – it was a hot day! – we decided to walk the kilometre back down the hill to San Salvador. The views were dramatic, the air was fresh, and the countryside pretty. The main road of the town was lined with stalls, offering food to hungry travellers but we decided to catch a van to nearby Pisac to eat.

Our visit to the Santuario del Señor de Huanca was enlightening. We were the only gringos there, so we attracted some attention and a few comments. But our respectful attitude and our participation in the water purification ceremony were well received by the other pilgrims, who were friendly and more than willing to provide information and advice. I left feeling calm and peaceful. I’ll report back if my wish comes true!

A small girl clings to one of the
religious statues
A beautifully adorned cross

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