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El Cobre: Cubans' Spiritual Retreat

Eastern Cuba, known by its mountains, fighting traditions, historic attractions and the first villages founded in the country, is also famous for being one of the centers of Cubans' spirituality.

In 1540, the frenzied quest for gold in the current province of Santiago de Cuba led to the accidental discovery of a copper field - which is still under exploitation and is considered one of the oldest copper mines in the American continent.

However, the presence of that mineral, which led to the foundation of the town of El Cobre (copper), was not enough to include that region in the list of world-known sites, an achievement that was made when the town became the sanctuary of Cuba's Patron Saint.

The Lady of Charity, surnamed of El Cobre because her sanctuary was built in that urban center, became one of Cubans' religious preferences almost immediately, since she represents Ochún, the symbol of femininity, fresh water and happiness, in the Afro-Cuban syncretic cult.

Several legends about the Virgin's apparition - almost 400 years ago - have contributed to the attractiveness of that figure among believers, town dwellers and visitors in general, mainly foreign vacationers who visit the Caribbean Island from many regions of the world, as a result of the fast development of the leisure industry.

One of the legends is related to a "cacique" (an aboriginal chief) who was always accompanied to combat by the Virgin.

Caridad del Cobre Sanctuary. Entrance
Caridad del Cobre Sanctuary. Aerial view
Caridad del Cobre Sanctuary. Image of the Virgin

However, the most widely spread and believable story says that three young men (two aborigines and a black slave) found the Virgin in the open sea during a storm. The virgin was floating on a board on which the name of Lady of Charity was written.

Many places have been home to the Virgin since she was found, including a hospital chapel, a parish church and the current sanctuary, built in 1927.

The town's life, in addition to the limited mining activity, was closely linked to the cult of Cuba's Patron Saint - who was crowned by Pope John Paul II in January 1998 - in an atmosphere that characterizes a place for pilgrimage.

Prayers and whispers that barely violate the sacred silence prevailing in the sanctuary accompany thousands of visitors who go there to present their requests to the Virgin, keep a promise or even out of mere curiosity.

The temple, which shows a sober architectural style, consists of a central nave adorned with beautiful stained-glass windows with the Virgin's image, and a solid-silver altar with valuable ornaments.

Many offerings, including toys, jewels, letters, photos, awards and medals from the most diverse origins, are kept as silent witnesses at the Chapel of Miracles.

The Holy Virgin herself rests on her Altar, surrounded by flowers and essences. She holds Boy Jesus in her left arm and a cross in her right arm, as if patiently waiting for believers who come to pay tribute to her and expect her to fulfill their wishes.

The town's religious spirituality is complemented by a natural touch from the nearby Sierra Maestra mountain range and fresh air impregnated by the aroma of a natural environment in a perfect state of preservation.

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