Almost half of the country's population—1.5 million people—travel on foot to the Basilica of Cartago to pay homage to the patron saint of La Virgen de Los Angeles every 2nd of August.
Most travel at least 22 km, but some arrive from the Panamanian or Nicaraguan borders.
My journey was 20 km/12 miles and 5 hours or non-stop walking (Well, I did of course have to stop twice to go to the bathroom, hence the 30 minute deduction).
We left downtown San Jose at 8:30pm and arrived at 2am on the dot (as we approached the plaza, we heard the church bells strike twice).
Whether to fulfill a promise to the Virgin, to participate in the ritual, to have fun with friends,
People principally go for faith; some on knees, many barefoot, more with only sandals.
There are people of all ages walking, from viejitos to babies in their mother’s arms.
It was my first time being a part of such a grand-scale religious pilgrimage, and I went with various intentions.
The roads are closed to accommodate the mass movement of humanity.
There are sections where it is wide, but there are points—like at the bridge—where you must force yourself to shuffle along like a herd of cattle to fit through the small opening.
The route to Cartago is uphill for most of the journey from San Jose to climb 1,000 feet in elevation.
This makes the journey a bit difficult after 3 straight hours in the middle of the night.
Upon arrival, devotees wait another 2-3 hours to enter the church where the original Virgin is displayed.
There are 2 entrances, one for foot travelers, one for those coming on hands and knees. The knees line was almost even with those on foot.
In the massive plaza surrounding the impressive church are thousands of prone romeros who camp out after their journeys with nothing more trash bags or loved ones for coverage.
I did not have the capacity to wait to go inside at 2am unfortunately, but I am excited to return when the action has calmed down a bit.
The Virgen of the Angeles is a stone Madonna statue that was appeared twice in the spot where the Basilica rests.
She appeared to a peasant girl first, who brought her home only to find her disappeared in the morning and back at the original place she found her.
The girl then brought her to a priest who locked her in a box for safekeeping. The next morning she was found in the same distant location.
Church constructed in her honor at a different location was unsuccessfully finished due to several earthquakes. It was taken as a sign that the Virgin wanted her church to be exactly where she appeared. It’s final location was completed in 1639 (although also partially destroyed by another earthquake years later).
I bought 2 small replicas and a rosary from a stand on the road for a dollar.
The Basilica has 3 different sections that have been restored and expanded since the 19th century.
The front section is the most commanding, with its Byzantine-era architecture that resembles the cathedrals of the Greek Orthodox.
At night, only the front is illuminated, giving it this flat, doll-house quality of cartoonish perfection in front of a backdrop.
When I first saw the structure as I emerged from the carnival street leading up to it, I was amazed by its large scale and clean walls. Nothing else in Costa Rica is as big and white as the Basilica (not even the gringo tourists).
My highlights of the night are following a guitar-carrying youth group singing worship songs;
Being inspired by the faith of others displayed in a way I have not previously understood;
Eating a red frozen gelatina (frozen jello in fat Otter Pop plastic) and discussing world politics with my companions;
Feeling a part of Costa Rican culture in a profound way.