Every year for three days around August 15, Quillacollo hosts the Fiesta de la Virgen de Urkupiña, which attracts up to half a million visitors and involves a massive parade of costumed dancers from all over Bolivia, as well as copious eating and drinking intertwined with sincere expressions of spiritual faith – many pilgrims walk to Quillacollo by night from Cochabamba as a sign of religious devotion. The fiesta dates back to the early nineteenth century, when a local Quechua-speaking shepherdess had repeated visions of the Virgin Mary on the nearby Cerro Cota hill. When the villagers of Quillacollo investigated, they saw a brief glimpse of the Virgin ascending to heaven, and later found a carved image of her hidden among the rocks. This was carried to the parish church of San Idelfonsino, and soon credited with numerous miracles. The name Urkupiña is derived from the Quechua for “on the mountain” – the shepherdess’s cry when she pointed out the Virgin to the villagers.

As with most major Bolivian religious fiestas, however, there’s little doubt that its true origins lie deep in the pre-Christian past. Significant pre-Hispanic burial sites have been uncovered in the centre of Quillacollo, and the town’s name means “mountain of the moon” in Quechua – the Incas considered the moon to be a major female deity, and following the Spanish conquest it was often conflated with the Virgin Mary. As well as the procession and dances, a central feature of the fiesta is a visit to the rocky outcrop where the Virgin appeared, during which tourists and pilgrims alike hack lumps of rock from the sacred mountain to take home with them in the belief that this will ensure health and material prosperity. They also make libations of coca and alcohol and burn candles, offerings associated with the Andean earth goddess Pachamama. As in the fiesta of Alasitas in La Paz, pilgrims buy miniature replicas of objects they wish to possess in the belief that by doing so the real thing will be theirs before the year is out.

The best way to visit the fiesta is as a day-trip from Cochabamba, though you’ll need to get to Quillacollo early in the morning to ensure a good spot from which to watch the dances. Accommodation in Cochabamba can be hard to find during the fiesta.

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