The marshes of the Fuquene lagoon glisten as a morning mist retreats, revealing a landscape of green and a narrow lane bending its way through the savannah of Bogotá.
An early departure from the capital gave us time to skirt the satellite towns of Chia and Cajicá before joining the ebb and flow of vehicles on the road to Chiquinquirá. Every several kilometers, there are arched shrines with brightly painted Virgin Marys and a welcome sight as equally brightly painted buses speed past us, overtaking milk trucks, and leaving us to enjoy the elongated red brick chimney stacks of Tausa and the furrowed fields of the Boyacá highlands.
With Semana Santa, or Holy Week, less than 60 days away, the road to Chiquinquirá is well traveled, as Bogotanos like to escape to their weekend cottages in towns such as Ubaté and Simijacá. For the more devout, Chiquinquirá, is home to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, Colombia’s most venerated Virgin Mary and “Queen of Colombia.” Draped in a gold shroud and adorned by a crown of emeralds that were mined centuries ago in the hills of eastern Boyacá, she looms above the Basilica’s central altar.
Many flock to Chiquinquirá for a blessing, to ask the patroness for a petition, or to leave a “votive offering” for a loved one who was healed after a long illness. Here, every day is a holy day, and even though Semana Santa fills the central square with visitors, the on-the-hour religious services inside the basilica show the pre-eminent role this Virgin Mary occupies in the hearts of catholic Colombians.
Not far from Chiquinquirá — on the western edge of the department — is Monguí, where Semana Santa is the time for concerts in the main square, café poetry readings, and processions modeled in the Spanish tradition. The many monasteries and convents of nearby Villa de Leyva also open their doors to visitors during Holy Week, and the week-long Cultural Pilgrimage Festival features traditional and sacred music ensembles.
As the capital of Boyacá, Tunja is the religious epicenter of the region. Its many churches put on concerts, host expositions of religious art, and invite outsiders to join in the festivities that begin Palm Sunday and end Easter Sunday with midday concert in the city’s Cathedral.
Given the urge for Colombians to hit the road at a moment’s notice, it’s never too soon to start planning for Semana Santa, one of the busiest travel weeks in the year. Although for many, Holy Week means making a pilgrimage to nearest tienda to stock up on beer, especially if visiting warm-weather hotspots like Melgar and Girardot, Colombia’s rich cultural and religious tradition offers myriad events across the country from April 9 to 16.
In Santo Tomás, a town 25 kilometers south of Barranquilla, Easter week is chock full of fried fish, rice with coconut, and self-flagellation. Men and women cover their faces in shrouds and whip themselves to receive divine favors during a four-kilometer-long procession.
In Popayán, known as the Ciudad Blanca (White City), there are six processions in the colonial: one during the day on Palm Sunday and one each night from Tuesday to Saturday. The city’s 400-year-old Holy Week tradition was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible World Heritage Sites in 2009.
One of the most sacred places in Colombia is the sanctuary of Las Lajas, where the Virgin Mary appeared to María Mueses con Rosa, a poor indigenous woman, one stormy night as she crossed the Guáitara canyon. The year was 1754, and word of the apparition quickly spread across the Viceroyalty of New Granada. A small wooden chapel was built by the friars of nearby Ipiales to allow farmers to venerate La Virgín de Las Lajas, who to this day looms over the steep rock face.
A recently inaugurated cable car has facilitated the pilgrimage for many with disabilities, and the chapel can be accessed directly from the Pan-American Highway, saving a 30-minute walk down the narrow stone path. Due to Las Laja’s stunning setting and isolation, thousands make the journey every year to this religious site and ask the Virgin for a miracle. The blue-and-white church has been named as one of “the world’s most beautiful churches” by U.K. newspaper The Telegraph.
Then of course, there’s Mompox, with its Good Friday procession, one of the most solemn on the Holy Week agenda. With elaborately decorated statuettes of saints and a bruised Jesus, the Momposinos parade through the town’s storied colonial streets with a tradition that dates back more than five centuries.
But if you can’t get away this Holy Week, then Bogotá’s Barrio Egipto holds several cultural events on Good Friday, including a midnight mass, dramatizations in which people dress up as Roman soldiers, and a procession through La Candelaria. Or, the night before the week begins, you can visit seven religious sites in the city’s historic center, including a trip to the shrine atop Monserrate.
Holy Week is ever-present in this mostly Catholic nation, and if you find yourself on the road, flanked by the Magdalena River, take a quick detour to the village of Carmen de Apicalá. Here during Semana Santa, the local priests will bless your car — and if you want — even the passengers inside.