With jam-packed traffic, winding roads, sheer drops and shoddy mechanics, it’s no wonder Bolivian drivers need the help of a priest.
For good luck and safe passage, local commuters visit the shores of Lake Titicaca, in the small town of Copacabana for one main reason – a car blessing. The Bolivian car blessing ceremonies happen every morning at around 10 a.m., outside the cathedral off the main city square.
The blessings begin upon the arrival of the priest. Dressed in a dark brown robe and a white baseball cap, he passes from car to car, zig zagging through the line up of parked vehicles, dabbing the engines with holy water.
Diesel trucks, four-door sedans and buses alike are decorated like Mardi Gras floats. For a few Bolivianos you can outfit your ride with a whack of tacky plastic trinkets: garlands of paper kitsch, bouquets of flowers, bright bows, confetti and toy trucks. The dozens of stalls that line the street also sell bottles of brut champagne, Pilzner La Paz beer and Big Tom Thumbs firecrackers.
Nothing makes a party like plastic lays, booze and mild explosives.
Buzzing around, snapping photographs with the zest of a Japanese tourist, I find myself in the middle of the priest’s blessings. Waving a red carnation around like a magic wand, he dips his flower into a bowl of water and lifts it to my head. Holy water runs down the sides of my forehead as he blesses me in Spanish. With a long journey ahead of me, good luck for my future travels is just what I need. I thank him with a soft “gracias.”
Though Bolivia is primarily a Catholic country, the popular religion is a blend of Christian ideology and pre-colombian indigenous rituals. To this day, blessings, burning ceremonies and good luck amulets are an important part of everyday Bolivian culture.
Once the car and the driver have been blessed, the vehicle gets a champagne bath. Bottles are shaken, corks are popped and bubbly is sprayed all over the engine. It’s a festive but sober celebration, since liquor is a symbolic offering for the car, not for the driver.
I see an indigenous woman, dressed in a long skirt, braided pig tails and bowler hat dousing her husband’s car with a bottle of champagne. It’s strange to see a traditional Bolivian cholita squirt booze from a bottle like a geyser. To complete the ritual, her husband bends to light a handful of firecrackers. A puff of smoke, a series of sparks, some loud unsettling pops. These little pocket rockets are fun, but mostly agitating. My nerves are shaky and I feel like I’m in a mini war zone.
The priest blesses an ambulance and another bottle of champagne pops. The line-up of cars thins out as the freshly-blessed drivers set back along treacherous Bolivian roads.
Here are a few tips:
-Couldn’t find any ATM machines in Copacabana, so it’s best to take a wad of cash and travelers checks during your visit.
-Stay at the Hotel Rosario del Lago, one of the best hotels in town with lakeside suites for as low as $35 US a night. www.hotelrosario.com/lago