San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

As 2 million walk to Cartago, vendors work to turn a profit

Fatima Ruiz sold rosaries, cigarette lighters, and rocks all embellished with a small black Virgin Mary. She and two friends handmade the assorted trinkets two months in advance to joining the hundreds of vendors trying to make a buck off the romeros, or pilgrims, during the days dedicated to honoring Costa Rica’s patron saint.

“Anything with the Virgin is what sells best,” said Ruiz, 38, adding that the rain over the weekend hurt her sales.

Ruiz has been coming to Cartago as a vendor for about 20 years. An overabundance of shops encircles the Basilica de los Angeles in Cartago, 18 kilometers east of San José. Each year on Aug. 2, two million Catholics make a romería (pilgrimage) to the basilica to honor the Virgen de los Angeles, known affectionately as “La Negrita.”

On Monday, romeros weren’t the only ones who had a busy day, as vendors saw the holiday as a moneymaking opportunity. A variety of goods, from ponchos to meat kebabs to glow sticks were sold along the way. Using outhouses on the route carried a fee of a couple hundred colones (less than $0.50). Once in Cartago, the area surrounding the basilica had an atmosphere reminiscent of a county fair. The smell of churros and sounds of reggaetón music filled the air.

Those passing through San José received bottles of water from the Bubble Teahouse in La Lomita Shopping Center in San Pedro, east of San José. The owners of the teashop began giving away water at 7 a.m. on Monday.

“We just know that they’re going to be tired of walking,” said Jay Reyes, 29, of the U.S. city of Houston, Texas. “We’ll be out here until the crowd dies down.”

A few blocks down the road, José Luis Carmona, 31, sold women’s tank tops. Carmona said he knew the weather would be blistering around this time of year. He also figured that once people arrived at the church, they’d want a change of clothing because of Cartago’s rainy weather.

Carmona offered cotton tank tops in multiple bright colors and prints for ₡1,000 ($2) each. He said he sold about 30 tank tops by 1 p.m. on Monday.

As people trickled into the basilica at 2 p.m., two lines formed for entering the front door: one for those walking and one for those kneeling in veneration. Those kneeling crawled toward the church center, holding rosaries. The walking spectators stood to the side, some taking photos and others with their hands clasped in prayer. Miguel Mora, 50, sold shaved ice to both groups at the basilica’s exit for a dollar.

Mora said his “granizados ricos,” snow cone variants covered with sweet condensed milk and fruit flavors, were most popular in the morning. The intense morning sun built up a thirst for many pilgrims.

While tourists, walkers, and vendors stayed busy with the events in Cartago, others helped clean up what was left behind. An organization called EcoRomerio set up stands where romeros and vendors could separate trash by organic waste products, plastics and glass bottles. Volunteers would then recycle the waste.

Diana Ortega, a 16-year-old volunteer, helped people divide the trash. This was her first year participating with EcoRomerio.

Said Ortega: “We just don’t want the place to be filled with trash.”

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