By 5 a.m. Sunday, there was already a small trickle of marchers making their way through the streets of San José on their way to Cartago.
Within a few hours, the walkers were taking up one lane, and by late morning the trickle had become a flood.
The procession, in which an estimated two million people participated, was largely absent of religious paraphernalia or Catholic ritual. And, except for a handful of people whispering rosaries or walking barefoot – and the huge turnout – it almost could have been any philanthropic walk.
It was only once walkers arrived at the plaza in front of Cartago’s Basilica de los Angeles that they swapped water bottles for plastic crucifixes and MP3 players for hymns of the church. At the threshold of the basilica, many fell to their knees and covered the last hundred meters on the ground and in prayer.
“It’s gratifying to be here,” said 33-year-old Paula Torres, as she sat with shoes off after making the long walk from Desamparados, south of San José. “Each year, we come to say thanks for a year of good health, work and family.”
The romería has taken place every year for the past 228 years, except for 2009, when it was cancelled due to the H1N1 flu virus.
The pilgrimage is made in honor of a small statue of the Virgin Mary, affectionately called La Negrita, which is said to have miraculous powers. Each year, thousands of Costa Ricans pay homage to this small statue in the hope it will bring health and happiness to their families.
Thirty-seven-year-old Leiner Zuniga, who was massaging his feet on a curb outside the basilica, said he made the journey for the first time because of a promise he had made relating to the health of his father and his eight-year-old son.
“They are doing well and I am here,” said Zuniga, who had walked from San José that morning.
Ana Julia Campos, 41, whose face still glistened with sweat from her trek from Heredia, north of San José, said she made the walk in honor of her mother.
“We came here slowly, but with strength,” she said. “It was painful, but we are here.”