Chile’s Andacollo Christmas celebrations transform a city

Pilgrims from near and far converge on this Andean city to celebrate Christmas and their own icon, the Virgin of Andacollo.

Hiking through the dusty landscape on Dec. 25, the hot summer sun beating down, thousands of pilgrims make their way along the 16 mile route to Andacollo remembering the journey of Mary and Joseph or perhaps just reflecting on the year and the new one to come.

Cresting the final hill, the travelers see the dome of the city’s main Cathedral within a sea of festive visitors, all marking the occasion with song, dance, and prayer.

Tucked away in this hills of the Andes, Andacollo, an old mining city for the majority of the year, blossoms into an international destination during the Christmas season. From Dec. 23-27 the main square is transformed. The streets are lined with vendors selling mote con huesillo, snacks, and of course candles. Some come from as far as Argentina for the festivities, which can be reached by foot along the pilgrimage route, by car, or by bus from either neighboring La Serena or Coquimbo.

In a corner of the plaza, people of all ages light candles and place them on a fountain and statue dedicated to the Virgin, asking for blessings or giving thanks. In front of the main Cathedral, dance troupes from around the country perform, approaching the entrance under the massive tapestry depicting the Virgin of Andacollo, an icon of the Virgin Mary held sacred in this city. The dancers display the diversity of the country through their variety of brightly colored or traditional outfits. Tourists and pilgrims standing alongside to watch the festive spectacle.

While outside the celebration is lively and colorful, the tone inside the Church is more somber.

A dark room of natural wood, the cathedral is home to a beautiful altar on which the Virgin of Andacollo sits in her golden wardrobe made especially for the seasonal celebration. In the pews and along the sides of the space pilgrims and locals pray together, lighting candles whose wax paints the bare wooden floor.

Down the center of the church towards the altar, devotees crawl on their knees towards the Virgin, asking for forgiveness, help, and blessings. The only sounds inside this humble and sacred space are prayers whispered by the believers who have traveled near and far for the pay homage on this holy day.

This mass celebration lasts four days, of which Dec. 26 is the office “Day of the Virgin of Andacollo.”

Everyone is welcome to participate, whether it is to pray, dance, or enjoy a delicious sweet drink while enjoying the music and joy of Christmas in Andacollo.