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Car Baptisms in Bolivia
Américas / January-February 2002

By Larry Luxner

Mention Copacabana, and people automatically think of samba, dental-floss bikinis and the glittering lights of Rio. But there's another Copacabana -- with its own colors, customs and carnival -- and it has nothing to do with Brazil.

Founded ages ago by the Inca warrior Tupac Yupanqui, Bolivia's Copacabana sits 3,840 meters above sea level, on the edge of shimmering blue Lake Titicaca. Its name comes from Kota Kahuana, which means "lookout over the lake" in the Inca language.

A four-hour bus ride from La Paz, the town is a convenient jumping-off point for discovering the nearby ruins of Tiwanaku and Isla del Sol. No less than 42 hotels and youth hostels crowd the downtown area, with many more restaurants, souvenir shops and Internet cafes lining Avenida 6 de Agosto, the main boulevard.

On the outskirts of town is El Calvario, a steep hill that can be climbed in 20 minutes if you're in particularly good shape, 45 minutes if you're like the rest of us. Devoutly Catholic pilgrims ascending El Calvario stop to pray at each of the 14 stations of the cross, and are rewarded at the summit with a spectacular view of Lake Titicaca and the Peruvian shoreline in the hazy blue distance.

Also worth seeing is the Asiento del Inca, an ancient rock carving just outside the town cemetery, as well as the Horca del Inca -- a monument with two huge vertical rock bars that once served as a pre-Inca astronomic observatory.

Copacabana's main attraction, however, is undoubtedly the Basílica de Copacabana, a beautiful cathedral completed in 1640 and forming a perfect cross. The freshly painted white building has several domes covered with colored tiles, making it stand out from the rest of the town.

It is here where tourists can observe Copacabana's most unusual ritual: the blessing of newly purchased vehicles.

"Faithful people come here from all over Bolivia, and also Peru, Argentina and even Brazil," says Padre Victor Chacón, a 36-year-old priest who spends his weekends sprinkling holy water over the open hoods of cars, trucks and buses. On a recent Sunday, Chacón hardly had time to breathe as he moved from one vehicle to the next, blessing everything from an ancient Volkswagen Beetle to a shining new Volvo tour bus.

People bring their cars to Copacabana throughout the week, but Saturdays and Sundays are are when the parking lot in front of the Basílica really comes alive. Chacón says he blesses an average of 50 vehicles a day on weekends, receiving tips of five bolivianos (a little less than a dollar) per car. The procedure is usually accompanied by lots of colored balloons, streamers, firecrackers and noise.

"This ritual begins around 11:30 a.m., after the Mass," he says. "For a Catholic, it's clear what the significance of this is. We bless a life, a project, a purchase. These cars are an instrument for these people to earn their daily bread. We also get at least 200 tourists a day. But you have to distinguish between tourists and pilgrims. The tourists come to discover new places, and pilgrims come to pray."

Chacón, who does his work together with Father Joe Ward, an elderly American priest originally from Rochester, N.Y., says "what we want is for pilgrims who come here to feel blessed."

And any tourist who's lucky enough to spend at least a day in Copacabana should feel blessed, too.

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