Today, August 2, is the “romeria’ or the celebration of the country’s patron saint, “La Virgen de los Angeles”, that entails a pilgrimage to Cartago. The day is a national holiday.

La Negrita all dressed up for the occasion.

Christmas (Navidad) and Easter (Semana Santa) are the biggest religious holidays in Costa Rica, but the Virgen de los Angeles day is also regarded highly. It is a holiday that brings tens of thousands of strangers in one single event.

It all started way back 384 years ago, when La Negrita, the Black Virgin, a small statue carved into dark wood and represented the Virgin Mary, was found on August 2, 1635, by a native woman.

Getting help to the La Negrita

As the story goes, when she tried to take the statuette with her,  the statue miraculously kept showing up back in that same spot. The townspeople then built a shrine around her.

The Basilica Virgen de Los Angeles in Cartago was built in 1639, but this modest structure was hit by an earthquake and partially destroyed. A restored structure was completed in 1722 and incorporates mixes of architectural styles like colonial and Byzantine. The Virgin the Virgin was officially declared the patron saint of Costa Rica in 1824.

The outside of the Basilica before the big crowds expected today

La Negrita now resides on a gold, jewel-studded platform at the main altar in the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Cartago. Each August 2, on the anniversary of the statuette’s miraculous discovery, pilgrims from every corner of the country (and beyond).

On this day, some walk the 22 kilometers from San José to the Basilica. Many others walk from places like Guanacaste, Perez Zeledon and Coto Brus. Once inside the Basilica doors, the pilgrimage is completed on their knees.

The buzz of celebration starts weeks ahead of August 2 and intensifies in the last few days to the big event today.

While we can say the majority travel to Cartago on foot, some on a horse and few by car or public transit. They are all making their way towards the Basilica in order to honor the La Negrita.

Traffic is always a menace to the ‘romeros’ despite police controls

Additionally, local legend has it that a small stream with curing powers is situated in close proximity to the Basilica. Pilgrims following traditional beliefs also drink from the stream, splash themselves with the water and collect some to take with them. In today’s modern times, piping and faucets were installed to aid pilgrims.

Almost there, a little more to go…

Though difficult to say how people actually do descend on Cartago on this day, the million mark is a number that is often talked about.