Every August 2nd, thousands of Costa Ricans make a pilgrimage to Cartago, east of San Jose. They go to see the beautiful Basílica Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles and pray to the Virgen de los Ángeles, the patron saint of the country.

Although the official day for the pilgrimage is August 2nd, many people start walking as early as July 25th, allowing themselves time to walk and setting up tents and camps along the way. Some Costa Ricans make the pilgrimage from as far as Guanacaste!

It’s not an easy walk, and due to the mountainous terrain and long distance, there are Red Cross stations along the way as well as supporters on every corner rallying the participants to continue. The Red Cross also has advice on its website telling walkers to bring umbrellas, wear layers of light-colored clothing, and carry something reflective to make it easier for drivers to see them along the road, especially in rainy conditions.

When they arrive, participants are welcomed with various stages offering lively religious music and food stands. They then attend a mass at the basilica in honor of “La Negrita,” or the “Little Black One,” a six-inch tall representation of the Virgin Mary.

Legend has it that in 1635, a poor girl of a mixed indigenous and African background, named Juana Pereira, found a small statue of the Virgin de los Ángeles near a spring in the forest. She took the statue to her house and returned a second day, and found yet another statue. The same event transpired a third day. After consulting a priest, the priest put the statues in a tabernacle, but they disappeared the next day. Later, one was found again in the same place in the forest. The conclusion was that the Virgin wanted to be in the woods, and so a small chapel was built there in her honor.

Several reconstructions of the original chapel have been made, with the last being built in 1912 after an earthquake destroyed the previous one. Within the basilica, one will find the famous statue of the Virgin. Additionally, next to the basilica is the spring of holy water.

Since the late 19th century, it has been a tradition to walk to the Basílica Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles, in what is called “la Romeria.” Participants walk to give gratitude, say a prayer, or ask the Virgin for advice. Among the most popular petitions is for the health of loved ones, and it has been said that the Virgin can grant miracles to people making the pilgrimage.

People of all ages participate in this annual event, from the elderly to young people. As a sign of devotion or thanks for a deed attributed to La Negrita, some finish the last several hundred meters on their knees. The walk sounds tough, but it’s a very positive and uniting experience. Even if you don’t want to participate in the pilgrimage, the sight of thousands of people walking side-by-side is truly inspirational and something that you should check out if you have the opportunity!