Here is our long walk to Cartao, Romeria!
An estimated 2 million people from across Costa Rica – and other Central American countries – walk to the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles in Cartago to give thanks and make requests to the country’s patron saint: the Virgin of Los Ángeles, or La Negrita.
The traditional date for the walk is 2 August, but many people start a few days before to avoid the crowds. We had decided to do the pilgrimage with a few other English teachers and after speaking to students, we were encouraged to go Monday night – 1 August. We began our journey – roughly 25km – from San Pedro at around 9pm.
What To Expect:
It first I was a bit worried – with such a late start time, I had visions of walking through pitch black streets alone in the early hours of the morning. Google Maps estimated the walk should take about 5 hours. I’d be walking into Cartago by 2am. Surely that’s not safe? Where would I pee on my journey? What if I run out of water?
I was so wrong! The vibe was unbelievable. There were literally hundreds of thousands of walkers taking part in Costa Rica’s Romeria. All the shops along the route were selling everything from water and food, to phone chargers and shoes. Anything you could possibly need, you could get throughout the night. Music was blaring and store vendors were promoting their products on loud speakers. It was absolutely amazing! The energy was indescribable.
I should probably mention that Costa Rica’s Romeria is not easy!
It feels like you’re walking up a constant incline and halfway through the road twists and turns – leaning to both the left and right – it’s not a flat walk.
But people of all ages were doing it, so it’s definitely not impossible.
Red Cross had set up first aid tents along the route and there were ambulances nearby for any emergencies. Also, you could get a quick massage if you were in the mood. Something we were seriously considering!
The History Of The Romeria:
The history behind Costa Rica’s Romeria is pretty awesome. In 1635 a girl found a small statue of the Virgin Mary on a big rock in the forest where she was collecting wood. She took the statue home, but the next day she found it again on the same rock. The statue had miraculously reappeared. Again she took it home, and again it simply reappeared on the rock in the forest. Something supernatural was definitely going on, so she discussed it with a local priest who then kept the statue, but again it simply reappeared on the rock. Eventually, they believed that the Virgin Mary wanted to remain on the rock, so they built a small church at that spot. That church then became the Basílica and today they keep a replica of the statue above the altar (the original statue is held at the Vatican).
I was amazed at how well Costa Rica’s Romeria was organised! The crowds are huge, but I never felt overwhelmed. In fact, I had been warned that we probably wouldn’t get a chance to go into the Basílica. With literally millions of people arriving throughout the weekend, the queues could stretch for hours. The last thing you want after walking 5 hours, is to wait another 2 hours to go inside the church. But that wasn’t the case for us at all. We didn’t wait more than 15min before we could go inside.
Inside The Basílica:
Here’s a fun side note – rodillas is Spanish for knees! Something I wish I had known before entering the Basílica.
The church is essentially divided into two parts. One part is for those wanting to walk into the church, the other is for the penitent to crawl down the aisle on their knees. We had accidentally joined the “Rodillas” group. By this time my lower body was screaming in pain – my back hurt, my calves hurt, my hips hurt! Completing the journey on my knees nearly killed me. I can’t describe how sore it was. In fact, it’s common for church assistants to help pick you up off the ground if your legs fail you.
It was around 4am when we finally left the Basílica. We were hoping to catch the train back to San Pedro but the queue was far too long. In the end we negotiated a taxi ride back and finally got home at 5am.
The sun was just beginning to rise and it seemed like the perfect ending to an unbelievable night.