Yesterday, August 2nd, was the day that’s set aside to celebrate the patron saint of Costa Rica, la Virgen de los Angeles. When I first heard about this holiday a few weeks ago, my first thought was that it would be like the Catholic holidays in Spain. Parades, special masses, and people gathering at the respective church to honor whichever virgin they are celebrating. The end of this blog post from my blog in Spain talks about the day of la Virgen de las Angustias, one of the patron saints of Granada, if you want to see what I was expecting in a little more detail.
It turns out that every year there is a romería, or pilgrimage, to Cartago, where the Basilica Nuestra Señora de los Angeles is. People come to Cartago from all corners of Costa Rica walking, running, biking, on horseback, you name it. On Thursday night I went up to the main road in San Pedro to watch the romeros (people doing the pilgrimage), and we saw a couple of guys on unicycles! Although the official holiday was yesterday, people have been walking since sometime last week. Remember how I said that it took about five hours to get to the Arenal volcano the first weekend I was here? Well people walked to Cartago from Arenal this week!
On Thursday night, so many people were making their way to Cartago that they close the main road that goes through San Pedro from San José to Cartago around five in the evening. Like I said, Isabel, Jorge, Matías, and I walked up to the main road to watch people walk by. I was amazed by the sheer number of people, as well as the range of people I saw making the pilgrimage. There were teenagers, families, parents pushing babies in strollers, middle-aged people, older people; people from all walks of life were making the journey to Cartago. I had been thinking about doing the romería on Friday morning, and the experience of watching thousands of people walk by made me realize that if I didn’t go I would be missing a once in a lifetime chance to participate in something so inherent to Costa Rican culture.
So yesterday at six in the morning, I set off on the 22 km (about 14 miles) journey to Cartago with some food, water, my journal, and my camera. And I was wearing a SWAG shirt of course. How could I have an adventure on my own like that without one?
Although there weren’t quite as many people walking as there had been the night before, there will still tons of romeros. It was really fun to look around as I was walking and see the huge diversity of people up close in the daylight. Some people were all decked out in sports gear with water bottles strapped around their waist, while others wore jeans. Every few minutes a runner or two would pass. Every once in awhile, especially as we got closer to Cartago, there would be people sitting to take a break on the side of the road. I got to listen to so many little pieces of conversations, from a couple of twenty-somethings talking about Jager bombs to a family reciting prayers as they walked.
There lots of booths set up along the road as well. People were selling fruit, juice, snacks, and water. One group of people had a booth that was giving away little cups of coffee and breakfast pastries away for free. A handful of people selling rosaries. All along the way there were signs for bathrooms, some you had to pay to use. Policemen were stationed everywhere, and every few miles there would be a police outpost next to a collection of Red Cross tents.
Not only did I get to people watch, but the weather and scenery were beautiful, too! Because I left so early, it was a cool and breezy walk. Even after the sun was all the way up, it was never too hot while I was walking. The sky was beautiful, blue, and full of white clouds. There wasn’t even a hint of rain.
As I was walking, I realized that the road was leading me closer to one of the mountains I can see from my window when it’s not cloudy. I loved getting closer to it and getting a changing perspective on it as I walked past it and up the hills on the road I was walking on. The green mountain set against the blue sky, along with the refreshing morning breeze made for an incredible way to spend three and a half hours walking.
At some point along the way I realized that even though I had decided to go alone, I hadn’t felt bored or lonely the whole time I was walking. I was so engaged by observing the people around me and enjoying the scenery that it didn’t even matter that I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I’m actually really glad that I went on my own. I got to walk at my own pace, stop to take pictures without bothering anyone, and really take in what was going on around me. It was a great reminder that being alone and being lonely are two entirely different things.
After about two hours my feet and legs were beginning to ache. Right around then road started going uphill a little more steeply than it had been. I never stopped though, because I never actually felt exhausted or miserable. My shoulders probably bothered me the most from carrying my backpack, but I was glad I brought some fruit and granola bars to snack on. Isabel had left me some bread with cheese to take with me for breakfast as well, so that was nice. Carrying my own snacks was much better than having to wait for a place to stop and buy something along the way. I was definitely working hard and walking at a fairly quick pace, but I felt pretty great the whole time.
Excuse me while I make another comparison to Spain for just a moment here: There is no way I could have done this while I was in Spain. I wouldn’t have wanted to because I would have known I would be miserable. I definitely wouldn’t have gone on my own. Needless to say I spent a lot of time being thankful as I was walking.
Right after the three hour mark, I ran into Jorge. It turns out that he had left only about half an hour before I had! I walked the last twenty or so minutes to the basilica with him, which was nice. He asked how my morning had been and we talked about the variety of people we had seen as we walked.
Then all of a sudden we were at the basilica! It’s really a beautiful building, inside and out. And it was surrounded by people. The whole plaza in front of it was full of people because they were having a huge mass outside. There were lines to enter different parts of the basilica. People everywhere. It was really cool to share that part of the experience with Jorge because he would tell me little things about the church or the Virgen de los Angeles as as we walked around.
After we had gone into the basilica and walked around the outside of it a little bit, Jorge headed to find the buses to head back home while I stuck around to journal a little bit, listen to part of the mass, and just take in everything that was going on.
The whole experience was seriously beautiful. It was so cool to stand in the middle of thousands of people as they recited prayers and sang together. I couldn’t stop being thankful that I had made the decision to come early so I could witness the mass.
I finally made my way to where the buses where leaving from (after asking a series of helpful policemen), hopped on a bus, and was on my way back home. For awhile the bus passed the road that I had walked on all morning, and it was really cool to see tons of romeros making there way to Cartago.
When I got home, Isabel was waiting excitedly for me. She was so happy and proud that I participated in the romería on my own that it made me that much happier that I had decided to go.
After I took a shower, I only had about two hours until we were off to visit Isabel’s niece who lives in Guacima, a town in the country outside of San José. Although I was tired, I had agreed to go with them and wasn’t going to be doing anything besides sit around the rest of the day anyway, so I hopped in the car with Isabel, Jorge, and Matías.
I’m really glad I went. It was so much fun to go with them and just spend the evening with them like I was part of their family. Isabel’s niece Jessica and her husband Mario were incredibly nice and fun, and their house was beautiful. It was really contemporary and they had decorated it beautifully. We were sitting on their back patio when the sun was setting and it was a wonderful place to watch the sun go down. We sat and talked (well, I mostly listened, but I did talk with them!), ate, and played with Jessica and Mario’s chocolate lab puppy, Sami. It was around nine by the time we left and I was starting to really feel exhausted, but I would have been happy to stay longer and enjoy their company.
I really had a beautiful day yesterday. It would have been amazing even if it had been over after noon, but getting to spend time with my host family and their family was such a cool experience. I definitely feel welcome in their lives, and that’s a really nice feeling.
At one point when we were at Jessica’s, Jorge and I were talking about how he would love to build a little house and move out to where Jessica and Mario live, but that he loves having students too much and he would be sad to not host them anymore. This family is so sweet and dedicated to making sure they take care of the students who live with them, and I feel so lucky to be here.
I absolutely loved my experiences yesterday. Even though today my back is killing me and my feet still hurt a little bit, I wouldn’t give up my experience participating in the romería. I still can’t believe I participated in it. It was definitely a wonderful adventure.