San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Pilgrims march to Cartago in devotion to Costa Rica's patron saint

On horseback, on foot and even on their knees, pilgrims from across Costa Rica have begun the trek to the the Basílica Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in the colonial capital of Cartago, east of San José. This year’s pilgrimage, or romería as it is known here, is sure to take on additional meaning for the faithful after the Vatican’s confirmation of a miracle that took place in the province of Cartago and allowed for the canonization of the late Pope John Paul II. 

Last year, The Tico Times reported more than 2 million people from around the world — mostly Central Americans and Costa Ricans in particular — participated in the ritual honoring the Virgen de los Ángeles, Costa Rica’s patron saint.

Pilgrims march to attend a mass at the basilica on Aug. 2 in honor of “La Negrita,” or the “Little Black One,” a six-inch tall representation of the Virgin Mary. Legend says that on Aug. 2, 1635, a young indigenous girl discovered a small, crudely carved black stone statue of the Madonna with child on a rock in a forest outside the city. When attempts to remove the statue magically failed, word spread and the Virgin eventually became Costa Rica’s patron saint.  

Some pilgrims, or romeros, start walking to the basilica days before the celebratory mass. As a sign of devotion or thanks for a deed attributed to La Negrita, some finish the last several hundred meters on their knees. Legend has it that the black statue is responsible for miraculous healings.

One such healing brought international attention to a small village in Costa Rica. Floribeth Mora, who lives in Dulce Nombre, Cartago, claimed John Paul II miraculously cured her of a brain aneurism. Mora arrived at the Calerdón Guardia Hospital in San José in May 2011 complaining of a headache. After undergoing diagnostic tests, doctors told her that she had an incurable brain aneurism, a bubble-like bulge on a blood vessel.

Upon hearing the news, Mora said that the late pope came to her and told her to “Get up.” After a second checkup, the aneurism disappeared without a medical explanation, according to the doctors who attended her. On July 5, the Vatican confirmed the miracle and gave credit to Pope John Paul II, paving the way for the late pontiff’s canonization. A date for the canonization has not yet been set.

Camino La Negrita

A screenshot from La Nación’s Camino de La Negrita application. The newspaper’s Nation editor, Otto Vargas, called the mapping app a “novel tool” for users to experience the pilgrimage by incorporating social media and useful information, like police and Red Cross station locations.  

Zachary Dyer

During his recent visit to Brazil, Pope Francis I, Latin America’s first pontiff, said that he hoped to visit Costa Rica “as soon as possible and would visit the Basilica Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Cartago to pay homage to the patron saint of Costa Rica,” according to a statement from the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry. 

The Spanish-language daily La Nación developed an interactive map that walkers can use to track their trip using a Global Positioning System-enabled smartphone or other mobile device. Users can share their progress on Facebook. The map also displays the locations of police and Red Cross stations, along with trash receptacles and recycling bins.

Romeros feeling the ache of the 13.6-mile hike from San José to the basilica can even check how much longer they need to walk before reaching the elaborate façade of the gray and white church.

For those planning on making the pilgrimage this year, the Costa Rican Red Cross offered several recommendations. The organization said on its website that walkers should bring umbrellas, wear layers of light-colored clothing, and something reflective to make it easier for drivers to see them along the road, especially in rainy conditions reported in Vieja Metrópoli.

The Costa Rican Red Cross announced that it opened help stations along the route at Tres Ríos, Ochomogo and the basilica on Saturday and Sunday. According to the humanitarian group’s website, there will be 1,225 staff and volunteers along the trail’s principal routes.

The organization reported Sunday that it had attended to 44 people during the first day of its operations related to the romería.

On the morning of Thursday, Aug. 1, the Red Cross will open seven additional help stations at Galera, El Fierro, Taras, Juan Viñas, El Cristo (Cot de Oreamuno), La Cangreja, and Paraíso during the pilgrimage’s peak hours.

AFP contributed to this report. 

Update Monday, July 29, 9:57 a.m.: This report was updated to include comments from the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry.

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