Ha! As if I could hope to cover such a topic in one short post, and having just visited a few cities in a few countries. But what I can do is share my experiences of religion on my trip to date.
On arriving in Cusco for the Inca Trail, I was lucky enough for my visit to coincide with the start of the Corpus Christi festival. The saints of each of the parishes were taken to the Cathedral, from where they were paraded through town, and returned to their homes a week later. The saints were displayed in all their glory: one wore a beautiful pink and silver dress and carried a parasol and a bird; another was riding a horse; yet another looked like Michael Jackson. (There is, of course, a Santa Ana, and I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that she is the patron saint of corn beer…) The Plaza de Armas was filled with people, there were food stalls with pile after pile of cuy (guinea pig), and brass bands were playing everywhere I went.
Corpus Christi, like the Catholic religion as a whole, was imposed by the Spanish over Incan traditions. The Incas used to carry their mummies around the main square, to honour their ancestors; the Spaniards simply superimposed images of their saints and virgins. The Virgin Mary, for example, is said to represent Mother Earth, or Pachamama. Santiago, or Saint James, is Illapa, god of lightning and thunder.
To achieve this change in belief system, the Spaniards had to educate the local people on their new religion. As the Incas had no written language, this education was often done via images. The Iglesia de San Pedro, en route from Cusco to Puno, is built on Inca foundations, with original murals from the Jesuits and paintings with ornate gold frames as well as Moorish ceiling art added by the Dominicans. Two murals at the back of the church convey the nature of hell, on the left, and heaven, on the right, a departure from the Incan cosmology of three worlds. The murals being painted by indigenous artists, hell is not underground – the earth world was sacred to the Incas – but instead is depicted off to the side. An old white man is crossing the bridge to heaven, but on his back is a rope that is being pulled by the devil, representing temptation. The doorway holds text in Latin, Spanish, Quechua (phonetically written down by the Spaniards), and Aymara, the language spoken in the Altiplano region of Bolivia and around Lake Titicaca. Even more divergent is the mural depicting judgement day and hell in the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, a few minutes away: here, you may be a little surprised when you find that a pope is among the eternally damned.
Elsewhere, other incongruities can be found as a result of this syncretism. The painting of the last supper in the Cathedral in Cusco includes a plate of cuy, the local corn, and the Andean drink chicha morada on the dinner table, along with a viscacha (wild chinchilla) instead of the more usual lamb. You may also be surprised to find a black Jesus (though his colour is not due to some great statement but simply having darkened with time), El Señor de los Tremblores, credited with the ending of a great earthquake in 1650. (Interesting fact: many churches collapsed in successive earthquakes in 1650, 1950, and 2007, while the Inca-built constructions survived.) In the Museo de San Francisco in La Paz, Bolivia, you will find the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus wearing the feather crowns of Andean royalty, and paintings depicting the passion of the Christ in which it is the Spaniards, not the Romans, who are whipping and crucifying Jesus.
The whole nature of Catholic churches, the world over but even more so in South America, is quite foreign to me, having grown up with the Lutheran churches of poor Sweden, where we had only wood, sometimes painted to look like marble, as well as the still relatively simple Anglican churches in the UK. The churches I’ve visited in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile are in contrast incredibly ornate, with gold and silver, mirrors to reflect the sunlight and conjure illumination, and all those patron saints and virgins. In San Francisco, La Paz, I happened upon the end of a special mass, and was intrigued to see people filing out with statues, paintings, and glass cases in their arms, having had these objects blessed. In Copacabana, the priests throw holy water on the bonnets and engines of people’s cars.
Although foreign to me, and providing no specific religious benefit or solace, I still appreciate the peace and serenity you find in an (empty) church. I like to go inside and light a candle for my grandparents and for my cousin, to show that I’m thinking of them. But sadly many churches now have electric candles, which completely lack the spirituality of a real flame.
And local traditions remain. Witches’ markets sell lama foetuses to bury under house foundations in honour of Pachamama. When drinking corn beer, the first drop is always poured onto the ground in her honour as well. In the Aymara region, small clay bulls are placed as the final touch in a new house to bring the family luck and protection. And in the bull-fighting ring, a condor is tied to the bull to symbolise the fight against the Spanish.
While we’re on the subject, the conquistadors of course did not conquer the continent with only their faith. When Pizarro came to Peru in 1532, the Inca empire was still young, less than 100 years old, and had been weakened by a civil war between two brothers after the death of their Inca king father. The victor, Atahualpa, was easily captured and his unarmed guards killed in their thousands. He bargained for his freedom and offered a huge ransom of gold and silver, which Pizarro gratefully accepted, after which he killed Atahualpa anyway.