San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica’s Midnight Pilgrimage

CARTAGO – There he was: Jesus, drinkingwater out of a used Sprite bottle. He wore shabbywhite robes cinched with a rope belt, and his barefeet, moving forward slowly but surely under theweight of a massive wooden cross,were dirty and cracked. As I passedhim, I wondered if the cross wassolid or hollow, but then realized it didn’t matter. Ateight kilometers or so out of San José on the 22-kmwalk to Cartago, my light backpack was alreadyplenty heavy enough for me, and I had no doubtthat the twisted expression of pain on this man’sface was entirely genuine.He and I were two of the approximately 1.5million people who participated in the annual pilgrimageto the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de losÁngeles (Our Lady of the Angels Basilica), east ofSan José, last year. Then, I was drawn to make thetrek partly for religious reasons, partly because ofcuriosity. This year, something in the strange mixtureI’d found – Jesus with a soda bottle, prayingpilgrims among endless street vendors – drew meback to do it again.In the days preceding Aug. 2, a nationalholiday in honor of the Virgin Mary,people of all ages pour from their houses to walkhours or days – weeks, for those who come fromneighboring countries – to see La Negrita, a statuemade of black stone that depicts the Virgin and,according to popular belief, reappeared multipletimes in the same spot in Cartago after her discoveryin 1635 by a young girl. Many Costa Ricans attribute miraculous healing power to the statue,and visit her each year to give thanks.Setting off on the uphill climb fromSan José on Monday evening – most peoplemake the pilgrimage at night, out oftradition and to enjoy the coolest temperatures– I questioned my own sanity for amoment or two. Why would I walk four orfive hours and stand in line for hours more,not once but twice, to celebrate a traditionthat is not my own? Is it because there’ssomething about a bone-wearying highwayhike that seems like a worthy challenge,or that it’s exciting to join an ambulatorycast of thousands? Is it the fact thatCosta Rica seemed more awake and aliveon the road to Cartago that night than atany other time, or is it that my parents dida better job than I realized of instilling religiousbeliefs in me?I don’t know – and neither does CostaRica. The mix of motivations for makingthe trek becomes obvious with one look atthe murmuring, endless crowd. Some handsclutch beer cans shrouded in damp paperbags, while others rub rosary beads. Theromería is equal parts marathon, mall,Mardi Gras, church service, county fair,family reunion, high-school dance andbizarre dream. Families bicker. Nuns’ habitsdot the crowd. Scores of high-school kids,drunk with freedom (some with alcohol aswell), scamper along the road, girls glued totheir boyfriends as they romp parent-freethrough the wee hours of the morning. Achain of elderly women prays in unison,eyes half-closed, arms linked. Cops part thewaves on horseback.At the side of the jam-packed road,travelers sleep in tumbled heaps, gazeblankly at the passing crowd, receive massagesor injury treatment at the many RedCross tents along the way, or rub relatives’cramped calves with the ubiquitous musclebalm Cofal Fuerte, which fills the air withthe smell of peppermint.Or they shop. Oh, do they shop. Fromthe eastern San José suburb of San Pedro tothe Basilica’s large square, vendors hawkevery ware imaginable. Each bar, restaurantand store, and almost every privatehome along the route, is lit and packed; it’sa national all-nighter. People sell Poweradefrom their porches, and in a few houseslong lines snake through living roomswhere pilgrims hand over coins inexchange for a turn in the bathroom.Outside, smoke rises from grills where beefskewers sizzle. Women turn thick corn tortillason iron skillets. Fruit tumbles fromoverfilled truck beds, pejibayes steam intubs of hot water, and sellers’ familiarsingsong chants inform us there are potatoes,plátanos, piping hot churros. “Eat,eat, you look pale!” one vendor chastises usfrom his spot next to a tall rack of pastries.Not all the commercialism smelled, orsounded, so good this year. Even over thescuffling sounds of thousands of feet movingthrough discarded water cups and othertrash, the advertisements blaring at us fromspeakers in store windows were deafening.(If the pilgrimage had a soundtrack, itwould drive you insane; at one point,descending the hill from Ochomogo, weentered what appeared to be some sort ofspecial Christian-rock hell, with screechingpunk curdling our blood to the left and“That’s how we praise the Lord” hands raisedcumbia rattling our bones to theright. The only good track on the wholedisk would come from two long-hairedhigh-school students in kilts who playedguitar outside a house just past the town ofTres Ríos, their fingers wandering over thestrings in a mellow serenade.)Outside one appliance store, a 15-foot-high inflated plastic blender, filledwith an ominous hot-pink substance,gyrated slightly in the breeze. Ads wereeverywhere, including TV ads on a giantscreen erected near the highway specificallyto target pilgrims. The products forsale along the route included posters ofglistening pop stars, glowing crucifixes,and all kinds of La Negrita replicas andnecklaces. One vendor seemed to beenjoying himself a little too much as heshouted, “Take this Virgin home for only¢2,000! Get her right here!”I won’t pretend to be shocked by anyof it. I am, after all, a Protestant from theUnited States, so I’m used to swallowingmy religion with a walloping dose ofEaster Bunny car commercials and after-Christmas sales. Still, it was a bit jarring tohave Coca-Cola urge us, on large red billboardsalong the path, to “pray with devotion,”and assure us that Coke “is withJesus and Mary, walking to the sanctuary.”Cristal-brand water, signs told us, was alsoaccompanying us on our holy journey. Atthe end of the trip, after fighting our way(almost literally – people get a bit rabid atthe end of the long trip, and throw elbowsto get forward in the crush outside thechurch doors, even if kids or old people arethe recipients) into the basilica, we foundlarge banners from the dairy cooperativeDos Pinos marking the center aisle wherepilgrims move forward on their kneestoward La Negrita herself. The statue isonly a couple of inches high, but plenty ofcorporations want their share of it.If the pilgrimage to Cartago was everpure, unadulterated religious fervor, it certainlyisn’t anymore. But my most recentjourney left me unsure as to how much thatmatters. “Why do you do this, year afteryear?” I asked one of the friends withwhom I was walking, a person who prideshimself on his cynicism.Matter-of-factly, and without missinga beat, he said, “Well, to thank the Virginfor everything good that’s happened thisyear. It’s like a promise we make, and weall have to keep.”Who knows. Maybe it’s all right.Gyrating plastic blenders and glow-in-the darkcrucifixes aside – not to mentiondrugs, crimes and casualties (see separatestory) – the fact remains that more than athird of the country’s citizens step out oftheir daily routine and keep on steppinguntil they’re exhausted. Year after year,people sleep on the streets surrounding theBasilica so they can be there for the Aug. 2mass. In the crypt where the stone onwhich La Negrita was found stands on display,they leave gifts and mementoes that,to them, are evidence of the miracles sheeffects: school report cards, letters, sportstrophies. And while the kids kicking beercans back and forth across the path toCartago don’t have the same mindset asthe silent nuns, their teenage years aremarked by some element of faith.

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