“A mini-break means love,” said Bridget Jones and you would definitely have to harbour a lot of love to walk the 65 kilometres from Buenos Aires to Luján, but it’s not called the Capital of Faith for nothing. If your faith doesn’t stretch quite that far, but you want to see where six million pilgrims go every year, hop onto the bus at Plaza Italia and make your way to the religious capital of Argentina.
In 1630, an oxcart carrying two statues of the Virgin got stuck in mud near the river of Luján and it wouldn’t move until the statue showing the Immaculate Conception was removed. The owner took it as a sign that the statue should stay and left it in Luján. Since then, the Virgin of Luján has been credited with performing a variety of miracles. She is now the patron saint of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
If you really want to join the faithful out in force, make a trip to Luján when all the pilgrims gather. The Virgin’s day in Luján is like a godly Glastonbury. The main square is overtaken by an enormous stage and the crowds are entertained by sermons and music. It is rare to see so many Argentines in such a quiet crowd; everyone from the priest at the front to the boy-scout at the back is quiet and entranced by the prayer and singing.
This festival of faith is staged just in front of Basilica Nuestra Señora de Luján, a pale yellowy-pink church that will make you feel like you’ve been transported to Mediterranean Europe. There is something about the imposing,sharp lines of the neo-gothic architecture and the neatly arched buildings that converge around it in the quiet town that could easily have been transported straight from Italy or Spain.
Inside the church, the original statue of the virgin sits in her own tiny cave behind the main altar. Even as masses congregate within the church, there are small groups huddled around the dark recesses by the statue, paying their respects and hoping for their own miracles. The stones lining the wall near her statue are inscribed with the names of families that contributed money towards building the church. A little more exploring will take you to a side chapel dedicated to St. Patrick and a crypt, where many more virgin statues are housed.
Once you leave, you might be lucky enough to be baptised – or at least get a good drizzle of holy water. Priests stand on a makeshift stage in front of the church with a microphone and a bucket, talking to the crowds and flicking water over their heads. If the pope hooked up with Oprah, it would probably be like this.
Nearby is the transport museum, which houses a variety of vehicular treasures including some horrifying funeral carriages and a snowmobile used on an early expedition to Antarctica. The best exhibition, however, features two embalmed horses called Gato and Mancha. Their owner, Aimé Tschiffel, was a teacher from Quilmes. He rode them from Buenos Aires to Washington DC from 1925 and 1928. They travelled 22,500km through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. After this epic journey, their owner was so proud of them that he had them embalmed so that they could be remembered forever.
If you peer closely at them, you can see where they have been stitched together and it’s a strangely haphazard job. Perhaps bits of them started falling off and had to be patched back on again. Though it is slightly grotesque, they’re also quite surreal, so it’s not quite as gory as a Damien Hirst exhibit.
Also worth a look is the Complejo Museográfico Enrique Udaondo. Luján is, after all, in gaucho region and this colonial museum complex is filled with gaucho artefacts and historical items that link to the conquest of the desert and various Argentine presidents.
Whilst you are out of the city, take your time to enjoy the peacefulness of such a small town. Head down to the river where children will be playing on the fairground rides and rent a pedalo. The river does have some trash in it, but it’s nice to float along and watch families eating choripan and drinking mate along the river.
If you want to take in the scenery, get on the chairlift, but be warned, the chairs are plastic so you will feel a little precariously attached to the pole. Nonetheless, it offers a beautiful view over the river and town and across the back of the basilica.
For lunch or dinner, there are food stands along the river or any of the restaurants that line the streets coming off the main square offer a good value asado. There is also a German and French restaurant in the centre for anyone feeling the European vibe.
It’s no Vatican city, but I’d venture to suggest that there are more stalls selling religious memorabilia. The stall-keepers wear strangely clinical white cloaks and whatever saint you are after, whatever size rosary bead tickles your fancy, one of them will have it. Luján is worth the journey to get out of the city for a day and it certainly is a “holy see” to see thousands of pilgrims congregate in the town square, holding their hands up in worship.
Good days to visit Luján:
First Saturday in October for the pilgrimage
8th May – The Virgin’s Day
8th December – The day of the Immaculate Conception