There is a town in which all Cubans have a home, no matter their creed, ideology or baseball team filiation, they all call it: El Cobre. In this old mining settlement, among hills and lodes, reigns the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, Patron Saint of Cuba, mother of all Cubans.
Sacred even to atheists, the shrine is a must-see tourist destination, because very few places like this tell so much of the spirituality of Cubans. The legend goes back to four centuries ago, when three fishermen found the image of the Virgin floating on a piece of wood in the Bay of Nipe. They brought the figure to El Cobre, where they started to worship her in the local chapel, and soon its cult spread throughout all of Cuba.
The "mambises" (Creole independence fighters from the 19th century) were particularly devoted to her, and at the turn of the 20th century, after they had won the war against Spain, they managed to proclaim her Patron Saint of all Cubans. That fervour of devotion still lives on, albeit it never falling into fanaticism. What's more, Cubans love their "mulata" (brown woman) saint so much that they affectionately call her Cachita (a diminutive of the name Caridad). In the afro-Cuban rites they know her as Oshun, the Deity of rivers and sensuality.
Feeling curious about seeing her for the first time and hungry for adventures, I set off to the Cuban temple, ordered Minor Shrine in December, 1977. Just 27 kilometres from Santiago de Cuba, the trip itself is not a problem because the local hotels offer a tour to the Shrine. The taxi fare from your hotel should not go over $20.00 CUC, and you can bargain with the drivers before you hop on.
Two routes to get to El Cobre
There are two routes to get to El Cobre: by the old road or through the new one. I took one and returned by the other, just to compare and get a fuller experience.
The charm of the old road lies in that it passes by the scenic Santa Ifigenia cemetery and through some of the suburbs of Santiago, but the road itself is in a very bad condition. Luckily, I wasn't driving; otherwise I would have had to pay much attention to the numerous potholes, curves and ditches that would have stopped me from enjoying the beautiful landscape of Santiago.
I returned through the new road, in a much better condition and dotted by dusty industrial facilities, which might have formerly been productive, but today only stand as aging relics of socialism. It makes for quite an eerie yet interesting sight and another plus is that this road has steep slopes offering beautiful views of the city.
Justo donde se entroncan ambas carreteras hay un punto de venta de girasoles, la flor consagrada a la Caridad del Cobre. Es bueno llevarle sus flores a Cachita, pero escuche varios precios, nunca ceda a la primera oferta: por 1.00 CUC se puede conseguir un ramo decente. Hay arreglos mas caros.
Just at the junction of both roads, there is a sunflower stand, with sunflowers being the kind of flowers traditionally offered to La Caridad del Cobre and used to represent her. It's a good idea to take some flowers to Cachita as you get acquainted, but try different offers, never accept the first; for $1.00 CUC you can get a decent bouquet. There are more expensive arrangements, of course, but those are most suited to people who make promises to the virgin, after all, you're just meeting her for the first time.
Watch out for the mongers of the temple
"Y si vas al Cobre, quiero que me traigas, una virgencita de la Caridad. Yo no quiero flores, yo no quiero estampas, yo quiero una Virgen de la Caridad…"
These words belong to the verse of an old popular Cuban song whose lyrics translate as:
"If you visit El Cobre, I'd like you to bring me a little Virgin of Charity. I don't want flowers, I don't want stamps, I want a little Virgin of Charity".
I arrived to El Cobre following that old song's recommendation, determined to get a souvenir, but when entering the town, the famous "mongers of the temple" rushed toward me.
I had been warned about these vendors of figurines, sunflowers, copper stones and candles. "That's how the bulls in San Fermin Festival must feel like", I said to myself while trying to avoid the smiling, but single-minded mob. Some wanted me to buy stamps and bits of copper (El Cobre literally translates as "copper"), but as I always say in such cases, it's better not to buy from the first vendor and take a good look around first.
Their way of selling the alleged relics overwhelms and seems violent, but they all try not to frighten or bash about the tourists. The wooden figurines cost $10.00 CUC or more, particularly those made of black guayacan. Some handicrafts are more expensive. I had already seen an isolated stand and, on the way back, I went straight there with the idea of buying several pieces and bargaining over the price. I managed to, and as an extra gift, they gave a small sack of little stones. I don't really know if they were copper ones, but they definitely were from El Cobre.
More than a church, more than a museum
The Basilica, of beautiful sobriety and not of great architectural value, rises on the Maboa Hill. Hundreds of visitors go there every day. They go for the golden Virgin, to see her, to pray to her, to fulfil their promise or, simply, to get to know this place which is more than a church, more than a museum.
Here, even the least religious people find a spiritual harmony. The silence, only broken by the whisper of the wind through the palm trees, or by the faltering pray of some worshipper, is king inside the temple, founded on 8th September, 1927, the date that automatically became the Patron's Day.
I was moved by the Chapel of Miracles, with the written testimonies of gratitude, ranging from crutches from paralytic people to sports uniforms, Olympic medals and even the Nobel Prize medal of Ernest Hemingway (he famously gave it to the virgin during his time living in Cuba).
I was able to take pictures and make a video at a distance from the high altar: the shrine welcomes you and you respect its hospitality. Another way to show respect is to dress humbly and discreetly.
The journey to El Cobre is a short, but obligatory stop to get to know Cubans better and see what moves them spiritually, beyond the salsa-dancing and the hard-die baseball fans, spirituality, faith and optimism is what truly inspires their lively and carefree personalities. Aside from the mystical experience, here you will also enjoy the landscape, the temple and its neighbouring facilities - the "Casa de Retiro y Convivencia" and the "Hospederia" (guest house).
Don't leave without donating some money and putting it in the offerings box, and worse still without having some faith in the Charity of El Cobre, asking her for health, fortune and "ache" (blessing). Language is not a problem, because they say Cachita always listens to you. And, please, don't question me about what I asked her: that's between her and me …