The pamphlets you’ll find at the tourist booth in the central plaza of Luján feature photos of the famous “Our Lady of Luján” national basilica, emphasise religious tourism, and invite you to explore your spirituality and to find inner peace in the quiet provincial city.
The two towers of the neo-gothic church measure some 106 metres in height, a pretty clear landmark in the flat and expansive plains. Everything in the main plaza seems small beneath them. When we hear about Luján or see it on television in Buenos Aires, it’s usually in October, when multitudes embark on foot for the 60-km pilgrimage to this very church.
However, while it is a religious capital of the country, Luján is certainly home to other destinations. And whether you want to witness the pilgrimages that fill the central plaza this time of year, muse over the religious and cultural elements of the Argentine national identity, or just leave for a quiet weekend or day trip, Luján is just a few dozen kilometres and an inexpensive bus-fare away.
First stop on most visitors’ lists is Plaza Belgrano, which stretches out in front of the Basilica. As you walk closer to the looming church, you’ll find a whole assortment of Virgen de Luján and Basilica-related products: miniature statues, candles, key rings.
History of an Icon, and a Country
So, what is this giant basilica doing here? And what about this Virgin of Luján, the protagonist of the church and the pilgrimage associated with it? These are the questions you might ask yourself as you step off the bus in Luján. Luckily, the Historical and Colonial Museum (part of the Complejo Museográfico ‘Enrique Udaondo’) is a superb – as well as beautiful – place to answer some of these questions, although the information and guided visits are only available in Spanish.
The history of the virgin of Luján goes back to a story that allegedly takes place in the year 1630. Before it was formally established as a town, the land that now makes up Luján was situated along the colonial camino real, where goods were traded and sold along the Spanish imperial route that connected the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata with the Viceroyalty of Peru. According to legend, a Portuguese landowner in what is today the province of Santiago del Estero asked that his friend bring him two religious statues of the Virgin Mary along the commercial route. When passing along the banks of the Río Luján, the horses carrying the caravan of items that included the statues refused to move forward – the only way to get them to continue was to remove one of the icons and leave it there, in present-day Luján.
This is the so-called “Miracle of the Virgin of Luján”, which gave rise to a private sanctuary in the home of a wealthy landowner in the area, later a temple to the Virgin, and later still to the neo-gothic church we know so well today.
It wasn’t really until the late 19th and early 20th century that this religious icon, and the sleepy town of Luján, became protagonists of national and religious narratives in Argentina. At the time, the country’s elite, along with eradicating “savage” (i.e. indigenous) cultures, was determined to establish a distinct national identity in the face of huge waves of European immigration. This identity would be specifically Hispanic and Christian, with the romantic and literary imagery of lone gauchos and endless pampas sprinkled on top.
In 1887, construction began on the Basilica, which was completed in 1935. Huge pilgrimages organised by ecclesiastic and political leaders celebrated the crowning of the Virgin, in 1887, and the naming of the Virgin as patron of Buenos Aires Province, in 1900. The image of the Virgin also began to appear in pubic buildings throughout the nation’s capital city.
This period also saw the rise of the nation’s first and most important museums, which also worked to solidify national narratives and identities.
In 1917, Luján was granted national funds in order to renovate the abandoned colonial-era town hall building, and convert it into a museum. The museum was to be specifically colonial in theme, and was meant to pay homage to the Catholic and Hispanic roots of Argentine (and particularly provincial Bonaerense) heritage.
At the Colonial and Historic Museum, you can learn much more about the founding of the museum as well as the building and the city’s role in other historical processes.
It’s obviously a must to enter the basilica, which is always quite full of followers of the virgin and the church, and where you can observe the structure’s interior sanctuaries and pieces of religious art.
Walk behind the museum and just a few blocks away from the plaza, down a dusty path, you’ll find yourself at the Parque Ameghino, in front of Río Luján, which is dotted with picnic tables. Along the river are a few restaurants, as well as a boat excursions, which make up a relaxing, water-side environment. The whole area has a family feel, with pony rides and other activities for kids and parents grilling meat or serving mate in the picnic area of the park.
Estancias, Tigers, and Other Attractions in (and around) Luján
While you’re still in the central area of the town, there are a number of other museums that you can visit. The Museum of Transport, attached to the Colonial and Historical Museum, has a range of antique carriages and transportation equipment. The Fine Arts Museum, located on the other side of Plaza Belgrano, and the Cupula building (which is by the river in Parque Ameghino), feature exhibits from local and national artists. There are also two main theatres in the city, the Municipal Theatre and the Galpón.
If you have the time to reach the outskirts of the city, there’s a whole world of estancias and rural tourism, and you can also reach the well-known Luján Zoo. Entrance to the zoo is a little pricey ($130 for foreigners, $90 for residents), but you are allowed to get exceedingly – and frighteningly – close to a number of wild animals.
Although much of the cultural and touristic scene seems to revolve around the emblematic Basilica, there’s certainly more to do in Luján than entering the famous structure. As well as opportunities to learn all about Argentine history and identity, there are a number of other places and situations that might help you find the inner peace you need after time spent in Buenos Aires – perhaps strolling through the quiet town streets, sitting on the benches of the gorgeous indoor patio of the Colonial museum, or joining the families and Lujanenses for a mid-afternoon mate by the river.
The 57 bus departs to Luján from both Plaza Italia and Once, and the $10.50 ride’s final stop leaves you conveniently next Plaza Belgrano.
If you want to observe, or join, contemporary Argentine pilgrimages, two of the most important ones are coming up in back-to-back weekends this springtime.
The “Gaucho” Pilgrimage, which takes place during the last weekend of September, is made up of thousands of members of traditionalist cultural groups who arrive on horseback to pay homage to the Virgin of Luján.
Then, during the first weekend of October, multitudes of largely young people set out for the famous Youth Pilgrimage on foot, beginning in the city of Buenos Aires.