If you’re visiting Argentina this week, I hope you’ve already sorted out your hotel, as it’s one of the busiest times of year. If you don’t already know, it’s Semana Santa, or “Holy Week”, culminating this weekend with Easter Sunday.
If you’re looking for things to do in Buenos Aires, there are Easter parades, as you’ll see from the blog I wrote for Budget Travel Plans during my enforced layoff during the Covid pandemic. You can even follow the Pope’s footsteps through the barrio of Flores, his old stamping ground before he was summoned to the Vatican.
But if you’re on holiday in Argentina in the run-up to Easter, beyond doubt the most colourful place to be is the Quebrada de Humahuaca in Jujuy, where hundreds of pilgrims descend from the surrounding mountains, carrying an image of the Virgin Mary while playing pan pipes.
The tradition of the sikuri bands (siku means “pan pipe” in quechua), dates back almost a century: the oldest existing band, appropriately called Los Veteranos, was founded in 1930.
Thousands of pilgrims accompany the bands to and from the shrines of Punta Corral and Abra de Punta Corral at 3,900m altitude: the bands mostly comprise pan pipe players, but also include drummers, Andean-style majorettes and a “conductor” armed with an old football rattle who marks the start and end of the tune.
This year, with the festival even more enthusiastically observed after Covid restrictions, it was reported that 80 bands set out from Tilcara alone.
The sikuri bands are testimony to the ancient Andean traditions, and the blend of beliefs in Pachamama (Mother Earth) and Catholicism so integral to north west Argentina.
The legend of Punta Corral dates back to 1835, when a shepherd called Pablo Mendez was tending his animals in the hills and was visited by a woman with long black shiny hair.
Despite mockery from family and friends when he related his story, on his return to the mountains, Pablo was disappointed not to see the woman agai , but from a spot nearby he picked up a stone which seemed to bear her image.
He took it home and showed it to the local priest, who decided it bore a strong resemblance to the Virgin of Copacabana, the patron saint of Bolivia, and locked it in the church for safe keeping.
Some time later the stone disappeared and Pablo was arrested on suspicion of thieving it. He persuaded the priest and police to return to the spot where he had seen the woman and there they discovered the stone.
Deciding that the Virgin didn’t want to be moved, work embarked on the chapel of Punta Corral.
As is often the case in Argentina, trouble was brewing further down the line: the descendants of Pablo Mendez, from Tumbaya in the south of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, fell out with the church authorities in Tilcara, where the image of the Virgin of Copacabana was taken every year.
On Palm Sunday 1971, pilgrims brought the image down to Tumbaya instead of Tilcara for the first time.
Believers from Tilcara swiftly commissioned a new image of the Virgin and started construction of another chapel a few kilometres away at Abra del Punta Corral, in Tilcara jurisdiction, making the first pilgrimage there 50 years ago in 1973.
Now there are pilgrimages from different locations to both shrines, so if you’re on one of our private guided tours at this time of year there’s a good chance you’ll see some Easter parades.
We often take guests up on a day long hike from Tilcara to the halfway stage: here are some photos on Instagram of our most recent trek in November.
* If you’re on an escorted tour in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, this year or in the future, remember that the pilgrims in Tilcara take the image of the Virgin up to the chapel two Saturdays before Palm Sunday, returning on the Monday of Semana Santa to bring her down again on the Wednesday. Good Friday is the best day for colourful Easter parades through the town’s streets.
* In Tumbaya, pilgrims go up to Punta Corral shrine on the Thursday before Palm Sunday and descend with the Virgin on Palm Sunday. She remains in the local church for a month before being returned to her mountain sanctuary.