When traveling the roads of Colombia one often encounters shrines with car headlights around them. It seems that the majority of them are along the twisting mountain roads where sometimes the geological conditions are such that the road just drops away. Truck and bus drivers are known to stop and light a candle.
Recently we found one of the largest on the road between Zipaquirá and Pacho. Well actually the statue itself is the size of most seen along the road, but the painted rocks housing the headlights gets one’s attention.
These places are dedicated to the Virgen del Carmen. She is the patrona de los conductores (patron saint of drivers) as well as the national Colombian police. In English she is referred to as Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The history begins with the Camelites, a Roman Catholic religious order believed to have started in the 12th century. They are so named because their home was on Mount Carmel. Though disputed by some, it is said that on July 16, 1251 the leader, San Simon Stock, had a vision where the Virgin Mary gave him the brown scapular. She told him that all who wore it and led a Christian life would be saved.
Carmelite nuns wearing brown habits are still active. We passed one on the street in a small town in Colombia the other day.
The brown scapular, usually in the hands of the Virgin and Baby Jesus is important. Truck and bus drivers in Colombia will often have a small version of it blessed and placed in their vehicle. Some have said it provides them with the protection that a mother gives her child.
Beyond the statues different towns across Colombia have Fiesta del la Virgen Carmen on July 16. Often there is a carrying of the statue of the Virgin through the streets. Here is a Youtube video of it in 2013 in Puerto Colombia
Sometimes dangerous mountain roads can help one understand why the virgin is so important. The attention paid to the shrines and the observance of her day on July 16 is also an experience for visitors as well as an insight into the culture.