Gruta del Socavón, Otavalo’s Hidden Shrine

The sacred grotto, with the figurine at its center

photography by: Omri Westmark

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Up until the discovery of South America by European colonial powers in the 15th century, much of the continent was predominantly pagan, replete with myriads of local religions. As the two distinct cultures steadily merged into the Latin nations we all know today, many of the pre-Hispanic temples were either razed to the ground or converted into Catholic churches. Once a holy place pilgrimed by the local Quechua people, Gruta Del Socavón in Otavalo has been a Christian shrine for decades now, offering its devout visitors a sense of serenity and more importantly, its fair share of divine blessings.

Home to South America’s largest handicraft marketplace, the Ecuadorian town of Otavalo is synonymous with its nonpareil assortment of handmade souvenirs and garments, however, beyond the confines of its bustling center, one can find several places to explore, entirely free of throngs.

 

Ensconced in the southern outskirts of the city is Gruta del Socavón, a water-drenched grotto whose spiritual significance transcends time and religion. Well before the arrival of the Spaniards, the spring was regarded as a sacred site by the multiple indigenous groups which inhabited the area. It was during that era that the crystal-clear waters were used for drinking, cloth washing and even bathing.

 

Even long after the area was Christianized along with the rest of Ecuador, the site retained its status as a shrine among locals, who kept frequenting it for solace over the following centuries. In 1961, this ancient tradition was cemented when a replica of the Virgin of Montserrat, the patroness saint of Otavalo (among many other cities around the world) was placed within the grotto, imbuing the place with sanctity.

 

Created by artist Gonzalo Montesdeoca, the sculpture perches on the edges of a natural pool whose bottom is awash with hundreds of coins tossed by the ardent believers visiting the shrine in pursuit of divine inspiration. The 2-meter-tall and 3-meter-wide cave is protected by a wrought iron gate and crowned by a concrete roof, the design of which is somewhat akin to a bus stop, albeit excluding the signage.

 

Under the ceiling is a rectangular tiled platform that borders a semi-circular pond where the grotto’s stream flow through, making it the only near spot with direct access to the holy waters.

 

Though the site is conspicuously empty throughout much of the time, each year, on the beginning of September, it receives tens of thousands of visitors attending the town’s Yamor Festival, during which processions, religious ceremonies and music performances take place across town.

 

Named after a local drink made of 7 types of corn, the festival marks the harvest season, paying tribute to both indigenous traditions and the Catholic faith. In fact, it is amidst this citywide event that two of Otavalo’s most important spiritual figures are being honored side by side – the Andean goddess of Pachamama and our grotto-dwelling protagonist, the Virgin of Montserrat.