Alejandro Olivares entered the Red Cross tent after his lunch break, while he adjusted a walkie-talkie that updated him of tired and injured romeros (pilgrims). Dressed in crisp, blue pants and a button-up shirt, he waited for more people with sore feet, headaches and sunburns. A small group of pilgrims rested on cots inside the shaded area. They arrived exhausted, some waiting for medics to tend to their aching knees.
The post Olivares manages is directly outside the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles, in the old colonial capital of Cartago east of San José. From past experience, Olivares knows that muscles, joints and limbs begin to falter when people have been walking for days.
The Red Cross treats thousands of people throughout the country each year who become sick or wounded while completing the romería, or pilgrimage, to honor La Negrita, Costa Rica’s patron saint. Workers treated 3,904 pilgrims at 12 Cartago posts and transported 62 people to clinics and hospitals. Two people died during this year’s holiday after being struck by cars.
About 600 Red Cross workers assisted pilgrims as early as Saturday morning, according to Miguel Carmona, president of the Red Cross. Medics, nurses and psychologists worked with transit police to keep the nearly two million pilgrims safe on their journeys.
While 38 Red Cross posts were set up throughout the country to assist pilgrims, many sought attention outside the basilica, said Red Cross spokesman Freddy Román. Muscle pain accounted for nearly half of the ailments treated in Cartago.
“Their feet hurt, they have cramps,” Román said. “Lots of people walk from San José, which is 23 kilometers away.”
The most dangerous problem for the annual pilgrimage is traffic that passes as people walk along the route. A driver struck 12 people on Sunday, Román said. One victim was transported to San José’s Hospital Calderón Guardia and died on Monday, while the others remain in stable condition. Another pilgrim died Monday night as a result of a separate automobile accident on San José’s Paseo Colón.
Walking along the highway is the biggest risk of the pilgrimage, said Ana María Campos, a romería veteran. Guevara has completed the 12-km walk from her home in Tres Rios, east of San José, for most of the past 35 years.
“We were walking very carefully,” Campos said. “There were a lot of cars coming. There were officers, but the streets were open. All of the cars were coming and going and some drive really fast.”
To help stay healthy, Campos says her family drinks water, wears sunscreen, takes two breaks and takes supplements to avoid muscle cramps.
Sunny weather Monday contributed to some ailments. Olivares said some people were treated for hypertension and heat exposure. The Red Cross treated 54 people for sunburns. Dehydration also was a common problem. In addition, some people forgot their medications.
The Red Cross post outside the basilica is usually busiest the night before the holiday, when the greatest number of people arrives, Olivares said. This year’s holiday was near the beginning of the week and may have been less chaotic for Red Cross workers.
“When people come all in one day, the streets are packed,” Olivares said. “People took advantage of the weekend this year.”