Religious celebrations are wonderful opportunities to learn about the people and the place you are visiting. Spiritual celebrations in Costa Rica frequently reflect the national culture through a curious mixing of traditional practices with contemporary living. I invite you to find the beauty.
As we travel, most of us are quick to admire natural landscapes, savor new foods and enjoy local crafts, music, and song. It’s important to zoom in on cultural traditions, too. I’m always fascinated by how these traditions influence how people think, what they believe. From farming practices to weather events, home remedies to spiritual beliefs; there is tremendous diversity between countries, often even within countries and communities. It’s as true in poor countries as it is in rich ones.
Sometimes it’s difficult to value traditional practices, especially if you don’t share the beliefs behind those rituals. Your appreciation will come easily if you try not to compare your own culture-based beliefs or knowledge to local beliefs and practices.
With more travelers exploring more places and at younger ages, a new kind of “open traveler” is emerging. At the same time, local communities are exposed to an increasing number and diversity of tourists. It creates a growing tolerance and curiosity towards foreigners. “Open travelers” observe with genuine appreciation. They aim to explore different belief systems by asking questions and listening to the answers without judging. Wherever I travel and especially living in Costa Rica, I try to be among the latter. Confession! More than once I’ve learned something new! I hope you will too.
The Costa Rican Constitution, on display at the Costa Rican National Museum in San José, guarantees democracy and religious freedom for all faiths. Costa Ricans are proud of this and broad religious tolerance exists across the country, even in remote communities. Nonetheless, Costa Rica is still fundamentally a Catholic country. Many holidays like Easter and Christmas are celebrated by mixing Costa Rican Catholic rituals and traditional foods (like Easter parades, or delicious empanadas de chiverre and Christmas tamales) with modern activities (like Easter baskets, St. Nicholas stories or Christmas cookies).
Costa Rican believers, like many faithful people around the world, express their dedication by making shrines, holding elaborate spiritual celebrations, and completing pilgrimages to places they consider sacred. Whether you share the religious faith or not, it’s awesome to observe these age old traditions of faith as they continue to be expressed in the national culture across time.
If you happen to be in Costa Rica the last week of July to the 2nd of August, you can observe the impressive annual pilgrimage to the Basilica in Cartago City. It is an astounding nationwide event and national holiday to honor Costa Rica’s patron saint, La Virgen de Los Ángeles. In 2019, an estimated 2 million plus dedicated believers, known as “Romeros” in Costa Rica, made the pilgrimage. They came from every corner of the country and across Central America.
Just as pilgrims around the world, Costa Rican romeros are all ages and they come by bus, car, bicycle, and by foot. Walkers often walk at night to avoid the traffic and the heat of the day. Some come long distances on their knees. From San José to the Basilica La Virgen de Los Ángeles, it’s about 22 kilometers, and roughly 38 kms from the Juan Santamaria International Airport; but many come from much farther. Often people kneel when they reach the Basilica steps, entering the sanctuary on their knees to complete the journey.
In Costa Rica undertaking the pilgrimage (called “La Romería”) is an act of devote faith to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. Most frequently, people give reasons related to making a sacrifice in exchange for a miracle or favor requested; or because they are fulfilling a promise for an answered prayer or miracle they have already received. Throughout Catholic history, there have been numerous supernatural events attributed to the Virgin Mary's role in helping redeem mankind.
It is worth your time to visit the Basilica not only to appreciate the elaborate beauty of the church itself with its preserved art, glowing stained glass windows and delicate architecture; but also to stroll through the Basilica’s museum. On display is the original stone where the legendary farm girl found the small statue of a mother holding a child (known as “La Negrita”). In addition, there is an amazing collection of items that past Romeros (Pilgrims) have left near the shrine, presumably representing answered prayers for healthy babies and children, successful surgeries, good harvests, safe trips, blessed marriages, etc.
You are encouraged to observe how Costa Rican culture is captured through a mix of Catholic tradition included in contemporary lives as young and old alike participate --sometimes wearing bluetooth devices and with cell ‘phones playing music or YouTube videos.
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