After the fall and disappearance of the Tiwanaku culture, the Kollas (Aymará) rose to power in the Titicaca region. Their most prominent deities included the sun and moon (who were considered husband and wife), the earth mother Pachamama (Mother Earth) and the ambient mountain spirits known as achachilas and apus. Among the idols erected on the shores of the Manco Capac peninsula was Kota Kahuaña, also known as Copacahuana (Aymará for ‘lake view’).
Once the Aymará had been subsumed into the Inca empire, Emperor Tupac-Yupanqui founded the settlement of Copacabana as a wayside rest for pilgrims visiting the huaca (shrine) known as Titi Khar’ka (Rock of the Puma), a former site of human sacrifice at the northern end of Isla del Sol.
Before the arrival of Spanish priests in the mid-16th century, the Incas had divided local inhabitants into two distinct groups. Those faithful to the empire were known as Haransaya and were assigned positions of power. Those who resisted, the Hurinsaya, were relegated to manual labor. It was a separation that went entirely against the grain of the community-oriented Aymará culture, and the floods and crop failures that befell them in the 1570s were attributed to this social aberration.
This resulted in the rejection of the Inca religion, and the partial adoption of Christianity and establishment of Santuario de Copacabana, which developed into a syncretic mishmash of both traditional and Christian beliefs. The populace elected La Santísima Virgen de Candelaria as its patron saint and established a congregation in her honor. Noting the lack of an image for the altar, Francisco Tito Yupanqui, a direct descendant of the Inca emperor, fashioned a figurine of clay and placed it in the church. However, his rude effort was deemed unsuitable to represent the honored patron of the village and was removed.
The sculptor, who was humiliated but not defeated, journeyed to Potosí to study the arts. In 1582 he began carving a wooden image that took eight months to complete. In 1583 La Virgen Morena del Lago (the Dark Virgin of the Lake) was installed on the adobe altar at Copacabana and shortly thereafter the miracles began. There were reportedly ‘innumerable’ early healings and Copacabana quickly became a pilgrimage site.
In 1605 the Augustinian priesthood advised the community to construct a cathedral commensurate with the power of the image. The altar was completed in 1614, but work on the building continued for 200 years. In 1805 the mudéjar (Moorish-style) cathedral was finally consecrated, but construction wasn’t completed until 1820. In 1925, Francisco Tito Yupanqui’s image was canonized by the Vatican.