Semana Santa in Bolivia: What two atheists made of South America’s biggest religious festival

We’re both pretty clear that God doesn’t exist. In fact we’re defiant about it, at least within the parameters of organised religion. But we’re still strangely drawn to the religious symbolism and iconography whenever we see it.

It’s hard to deny its beauty a lot of the time. The cathedral or church is nearly always near the top of a city’s to do list, isn’t it?

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So when we arrived at 5am into La Paz’s dilapidated bus station, cold and tired and smack bang in the middle of Semana Santa (Holy Week, the seven days before Easter), we were intrigued as to how this majority Roman Catholic country would celebrate.

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Initially, it seemed that the main method was sugar based. Squares, plazas and side streets teemed with traditionally dressed ladies selling home made cakes and pastries the day before Good Friday.

Easter eggs were laid out on stalls in every direction. Jesus’s crucifixion seems to be as much of an excuse to gorge in Bolivia as it is back in Blighty.

But the Easter bank holiday booze-up most of us indulge in back home is definitely absent here; Good Friday is subject to ‘Dry Law’, where no alcohol is served in shops, bars or restaurants.

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Thankfully, one of La Paz’s party hostels wantonly ignored said rules, and allowed us the hangover JC would have wanted! Thanks to our Salt Flats buddies Ester, Amy and Emilie for some top dancing-on-the-table action!

There was plenty of serious religious worship to be seen as well, though. Churches and cathedrals were full of prayers, while the streets prepared for something neither of us had ever seen.

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Processions are the cornerstone of Good Friday in Latin America. Thousands line the streets as effigies of Jesus and other religious figures involved in the crucifixion are paraded through the streets.

So we see Jesus being betrayed by Judas in front of King Herod, depictions of his crucifixion and burial and the subsequent visit of Mary Magdalene, all carried on sedan chairs by dozens of people dressed in robes with conical head dresses (oddly reminiscent of Ku Klux Klan outfits), music playing as they shuffled slowly by.

Religious or not, the spectacle was impressive. Thousands lined the streets, brass bands and drummers playing as the procession snaked its way around La Paz for the best part of three hours.

The rest of our 48 hours in Bolivia’s capital consisted of the aforementioned night out and its associated hangover, weaving in and out of one of Bolivias many street markets, and a trip on the city’s much-vaunted cable car public transport system, Mi Teleferico.

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It’s much needed in a city effectively built within the bowl of a valley; homes teeter precariously from every hillside, and by all accounts the cable cars have revolutionised how people get around (at 3 Bolivianos, or 40p, a ride, it’s cheaper than the bus and 10 times as quick). But the irony of the gleaming, obviously expensive cars gliding over poverty stricken neighbourhoods wasn’t lost on us either. Couldn’t the money have been used more productively?

We spent an hour riding the Red Line to the top of the plateau of the city, where La Paz meets its much flatter neighbour El Alto, and then on the linked Blue Line, which has been built inexplicably along the middle of a long stretch of flat suburban road, not in to a hillside. It’s no wonder locals objected; we could see straight in to everyone’s living rooms!

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We left La Paz to head into an arguably even bigger religious festival; the annual pilgrimage to Copacabana, on the edge of Lake Titicaca.

Each year thousands walk the 90 miles from La Paz to the Lake and camp on the beach, to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection. Copacabana was, for centuries, the Inca’s spiritual centre, and now, it’s the Catholics’ meeting place, too.

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The nearby Isla del Sol and Isla de la Luna is where the Inca believed the sun and moon were created. That strong sense of attachment has been transferred to the Christian faith, too.

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We arrived in time for Easter Sunday, and another unusual spectacle we weren’t expecting.

Effigies of the Virgen de Copacabana (Bolivia’s patrons saint) were on sale at every stall and shop. Children and adults played parlour games in the main square. The place was alive.

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Then we saw dozens of cars lined up to pass the town’s main church, festooned with flowers, to be blessed by the local priest.

He circled each car, flicking water on it and its passengers as he went. A bizarre ritual, but perhaps blind faith in the Lord is required in a country where MOTs are non existent, and everybody drives like a bloody lunatic!!!

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3 thoughts on “Semana Santa in Bolivia: What two atheists made of South America’s biggest religious festival

  1. Those pointy hats and face masks look remarkably similar to the Ku Klux Klan. I suppose there is some historical significance to the similarity, but kinda creepy all the same.

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