Millions expected in annual Costa Rica pilgrimage

July 27, 2012

From the print edition

Nearly 400 years ago, a small black stone statue of a Madonna and child was discovered perched on a boulder in the forest surrounding Costa Rica’s then-capital, Cartago. Attempts to remove her magically failed. Thus began the recognition and celebration of the day of the Virgen de los Angeles, Costa Rica’s patron saint, famous throughout the region for her miracles.

“La Negrita,” or the “Little Black One,” is a crudely carved, 6-inch tall representation of the Virgin Mary. Legend says that a young indigenous girl, Juanita Pereira, found the statue on Aug. 2, 1635, while gathering wood in the forest outside the city, which at the time was racially segregated. Today, the little statute rests on a golden and jeweled platform above the altar at the Basílica Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Cartago, east of San José, built over the rock where she first appeared. 

An annual Aug. 2 pilgrimage draws some 2.5 million people to visit La Negrita and thank her for miracles performed. Visitors to the basilica can see the rock where she appeared and display cases filled with tokens of appreciation for prayers answered. They also collect containers of holy water from a spring underneath the church.

Many walk the 22-kilometer distance from San José to the church, and some choose to complete the last few hundred meters on their knees. Pilgrims, or romeros, come from all over the country, some on horseback. A few romeros have already begun the journey.

Numerous streets will be closed and special lanes on major highways blocked off for the pilgrims, who will be watched over by police and Red Cross volunteers.

This year, pilgrims will have three new options for leaving Cartago without having to travel on the highway Florencio del Castillo.

“The routes include Llano Grande leading to Rancho Redondo, La Angelina [behind the National Oil Refinery] and the new road between Coris [an industrial park] and Desamparados,” Cartago Mayor Rolando Rodríguez said in a press conference.

In response to large amounts of garbage generated by the huge quantity of people participating in the walk, EARTH University created the program Eco Romería in 2011. A press release from the Health Ministry said that 80,000 plastic bottles and 27 tons of organic material were collected last year. This year, 70 garbage cans – one every 500 meters – will be installed along the Antigua Galería from the eastern San José suburb of Curridabat to the basílica.

“The pilgrimage is an act of love for the virgin, but also an act of responsibility and awareness with nature,” said San José Archbishop Hugo Barrantes in a release from EARTH University.

The Lumaca bus company has promised 270 buses to provide transportation from San José to the basilica on Aug. 1. On Aug. 2, an outdoor mass will be held for the crowd.

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