If this is the year you’ve decided to lace up your sneakers and follow Costa Rica’s Catholic faithful on the march to Cartago, you won’t be alone.
This year, 2 million people are expected to make the Aug. 2 pilgrimage. Most will leave on Sunday, but some are already on their way, walking, riding horses, biking and crawling from points as far away as Guanacaste and Panama.
If you do decide to join the mass of romeros (or pilgrims), it’s best to heed the advice of veteran marchers, as the day can be a mix of pain and inconvenience for those who are not prepared.
Forty-eight-year-old Any Vargas, who has made the trip five times from her home in San Pedro, advises walkers to wear shoes that have been broken in and carry plenty of water.
“I wouldn’t do it if you are not in good physical condition,” she said. “It can be very difficult.”
Though people along the route offer food and water and some open their homes and bathrooms to walkers, it’s always a good idea to bring some food yourself, said Ana Isabel Ureña, as she emerged from a church in San Pedro on Wednesday morning.
Also, don’t forget a sweater, said the seven- time romera, as you’ll be walking through the mountains into the cool Cartago night.
The tradition of the Romería began in 1782, in recognition of a mysterious black statue of the Virgin Mary, which appeared in 1623 to an indigenous girl named Juana Pereira. Pereira, according to legend, took the statue home, only to have it return to the rock where she found it. When she brought the statue to the local priest, it again returned to the site where it first appeared.
The priest interpreted the event as a sign that Cartago, a racially divided city, should become integrated, and that a church should be built on the site. The statue, affectionately called “La Negrita,” now sits above the alter of the Byzantine-style basilica built on the site, and is visited every Aug. 2 by thousands of Costa Ricans (TT, July 2004).
The march was cancelled for the first time in its 227-year history last year by health officials worried about increasing the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, which was then at its height. Instead of walking, many logged on to the Internet to march virtually on a website internationally recognized for its creativity (www.romeriavirtual.com).
While a few people did march last year, it was nothing on the scale of what authorities are expecting this Sunday.
Most people in the Central Valley will leave during the day on Sunday to arrive in Cartago in time for a 10 p.m. vigil. From San José, 22-kilometer (13-mile) walk takes about four hours.
Some choose to go in the morning to avoid the afternoon showers, but others time their walk to be at the basilica shortly before the vigil.
Stationed strategically along central routes into Cartago, 380 Red Cross workers and a thousand police officers will watch over marchers for signs of fatigue and dehydration, and also guard against theft, which has been a problem in the past.
National Police Director Eric Lacayo said, “The best security measures are the ones taken by the devotees themselves. For that reason, we are calling on them to become informed and to follow the preventive advice we will issue through the media next few days.”
Rojas urged walkers to remain on the side of the road and to walk in groups. “The intention of the police force is to maintain public order and security before, during and after the Romería, by providing police on foot, motorcycle and in patrol cars …” Mario Torres of Guadalupe, who has done the walk six or seven times, says it’s a beautiful experience.
“People are relaxed and really take the day as a time of reflection,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to show our faith and to move closer to God.”
While Torres said the walk is primarily undertaken by Catholics, there are hundreds of people who walk for fun, out of curiosity or to grow stronger in their own faith. “We go to show our love to the negrita,” Torres said. “And to seek God’s help in these tough times.”
For those who can’t join Torres and the thousands of other marchers, there’s always the online option.
Sonia Cordero contributed to this article.
If you are going on the Romería
• Drink plenty of water
• Be prepared for rain, sun and cool weather
• Wear durable and well-worn shoes
• Have a plan for getting back (though there are buses leaving Cartago consistently on Sunday, traffic is usually bad, so plan on some extra time)
• Leave valuables at home and watch out for thieves
• Don’t forget to send The Tico Times your best photo!