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Pilgrimage To Ayquina

Aymara women stop for a quick prayer in the square just outside the church in Ayquina

I have to say that lately I have been too comfortable. I don’t like it. Comfort hardly ever amounts to motivation. A person gets comfortable and it makes them not want to get out and explore beyond that “comfort zone.” I get home from a long day of teaching English, weekend comes, and the part of me that wants to stay home wins out over the part that wants to get out and see the world. Too much of that and we’re in “stagnation zone.”

All week I had been talking about traveling to Ayquina to experience the annual religious-cultural pilgrimage that draws people by the thousands. People from Northern Chile, Southern Peru, Bolivia and Northern Argentina  – and tourists from every corner of the world – come to this dusty small town to pay tribute to the Virgen de Guadalupe de Ayquina, who according to legend appeared in the spot where the tiny church stands in her honor. Thousands walk across the desert from Calama to reach Ayquina.

Me, at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, giving thanks for safe travels

Chris and I arrived in Ayquina in the late afternoon by bus. We had made a last-minute decision to experience the annual religious-cultural pilgrimage in the desert town where about 50 mostly Aymara people live. Incredibly, the town swells to almost 75,000 people for this week in September. During the week, the faithful come to pay their respects to the religious icon known locally as “La Chinita.” I didn’t want to miss this event and so the voice that tells me to get out and discover doled out a bruising defeat to the one that promotes idleness.

I must say it felt good to be back on a bus headed to some unknown place. Chris and I joked that the bus company had pulled a fast one by displaying one of those new, double-decked buses with comfortable reclining seats and other modern conveniences, then at the time of departure revealing the actual bus we’d be traveling in. It was tucked way in the back, hidden from view: an old, rickety, smelly bus that had seen better days. Oh, it didn’t matter to me, really. During my travels across South America I had been on worst modes of transportation, some downright dangerous, if not cruel and unusual to man and beast aboard. I was just happy to be off on another adventure, even in a bus that looked like it could not make it down the street.

The Virgin Guadalupe of Ayquina

We arrived in Ayquina in the late afternoon and immediately launched into snapping photos. Chris – oh did I not introduce this Canadian character Chris? He’s from the sticks somewhere just outside of Toronto. He’s my newest housemate – with now five people in the house. He wears the Maple Leaf on his sleeve like some Americans wear the Stars and Stripes. I’ve never met a Canadian more patriotic. At every opportunity he talks up Canada – Canada’s tourism board ought to give him a medal – and takes good-natured swipes at the United States. We have this ongoing Canada versus U.S. banter that provides for some comic relief. But I swear the man has maple syrup running through his veins!

So Chris and I walked all around the town shooting pictures of the Aymara dancers dressed in their traditional dress. The Aymara remind me of the Incas. Their dances, their manner, their traditions are similar. The Incas did conquer this part of Chile, but their culture did not really take root because the Spaniards arrived soon after. Still, the Aymara – heavily concentrated in neighboring Bolivia – are close cousins of the Incas. In Cusco, I was fortunate to experience the traditions of the Incas. And now in Northern Chile, which was once part of Peru and Bolivia, I was now witnessing the traditions of the Aymara. It was simply spiritually uplifting.

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