World Pilgrims – Salta, Argentina (Virgen Del Cerro)
Aside from the Camino de Santiago, we sometimes write about other similar Catholic pilgrimages around the world where there is little existing information available in English on the internet. Last weekend (18th April 2015) I made a moving pilgrimage to the Virgen Del Cerro in Salta, Argentina. I want to share with you both the history, and provide practical information for those who feel called to make the journey too!
A miraculous appearance?
There have been occasions where it is said that the Virgin Mary appeared to a group of people. Sometimes there is a request for a sanctuary or religious object to be created, or for prayers. Often many people experience miracles both during and after the apparitions have finished. Some well known examples of these are said to have happened in Lourdes in France, or Fátima in Portugal. There is a difficult process to receive official approval from the Catholic Church, which incidentally the apparitions in Salta do not yet have.
Maria Livia Galliano de Obeid, a local housewife from Salta in the North of Argentina, is said to have begun receiving apparitions (visions) of the Virgin Mary in 1990. She kept them quiet until 2000, when she says Mary asked her to build a shrine on the top of a large hill in the city. Since then huge numbers of pilgrims have started coming from all over Argentina, now more than a million every year.
What initially motivated me to go were the powerful stories from Argentinian friends – both Catholic and agnostic alike. Before leaving I read on the internet some articles which cast doubts about the authenticity of the apparitions and cited the hesitance of the Church to approve. However, from the strength of conviction of the thousands of people I saw there (including religious), and the moving witnesses who gave testament to the impact on their lives I felt more confident that there was a deep presence here, or at least a powerful peace from the collection of people coming from far and wide to pray. There was no commercial aspect to the pilgrimage, with free buses up the hill, entry and toilets and a ban on selling religious items. Instead, volunteers hand out small free images of the Virgin del Cerro along with some prayers.
Firstly, the city location. Salta is in the North West of Argentina, towards Bolivia. The easiest way to get there is by plane to the city airport. You can also get there by bus – from Buenos Aires it takes about 20 hours and costs around 1200 Argentinian Pesos/ $100 USD/ £65 for one way. The buses are very comfortable, with food and drinks provided, so 20 hours is not as bad as it sounds, if you have the time that is!
Within Salta, the Virgen del Cerro is located just 10 minutes drive from the city centre, in a region named ‘Tres Cerritos’ (three hills).
When to go
The summer months are hot in the North of Argentina, but due to its elevation Salta enjoys a milder climate. Coming from the UK you will not find it unbearably hot or cold in any month, though in general Autumn is an ideal time to visit the North of Argentina.
The main event happens year round, most Saturdays, from 8am until around 6pm. For an up to date calendar of events look for the dates of ‘Jornada de Oración’ (prayer days) at the bottom of this page in Spanish.
Salta is a big tourist city, so it’s really easy to find well priced accommodation. You can stay anywhere in the centre of the city, with hostels starting at about 100 Argentinian Pesos/ $9 USD/ £6 per night including breakfast. There’s plenty to do apart from the Pilgrimage, so leave a few days to see the sights, museums and make day trips.
Practical information on the day
Ideally you should arrive at the bottom of the hill at around 8am. Ask your hostel/ hotel to call a taxi to bring you to the car park at the bottom of the hill. You can show the driver this location if you are uncomfortable with Spanish:
The taxi should cost around 60 Argentinian Pesos/ $5USD/ £3.50 coming from a city centre hotel. From the car park you have two options: either join those walking up the hill on foot for around 1 hour, or take a free bus. I was running late so opted for the bus!
If you make an earlier start, you can follow detailed maps here to walk from further away, and also pass by a Schöenstatt Sanctuary on the way up. If you’re from the UK you are probably unaware of the Schöenstatt movement – but it’s worth doing some research as it may well be of interest.
Once you arrive at the top of the hill there are portable toilets and a place to go for confessions. You will see a large outdoor sanctuary with white plastic chairs on the left for disabled and pregnant and rather uncomfortable hardwood benches sloping up the hill for everyone else. Behind this you will find a long line of people waiting to enter into a small sanctuary dedicated to ‘Our Immaculate Mother of the Divine Eucharistic Heart of Jesus’. What is most noticeable are the rosary beads which pilgrims leave in the branches of the trees outside this small sanctuary.
After visiting the Sanctuary, and seeing the statue of Mary, walk over to the main large outdoor Sanctuary to get a good seat. Bearing in mind you will be sitting here for hours, the seats with a less of a sideways slope are far more comfortable. Pilgrims wait until just after 12 midday for Maria Livia to arrive and start to pray the Rosary together. It’s a good idea to print out the Spanish words to the Hail Mary beforehand if you are not a native speaker!
When I went, after the rosary there was a very emotional testimony from a married couple who felt so moved by the intercession of the Virgin Mary on a previous occasion. Finally, Maria Livia walks around all the people placing her hand on their forehead. Many are deeply moved by the experience of deep peace, falling to the ground and even staying out for some time. Maria Livia starts with the disabled people, so for everyone else it takes a really long time. Depending on your position in the queue you can expect to be finished and down the hill by 5pm or 6pm.
If you need any other information, feel free to leave a comment below. The best website for further information, in English, can be found here.