Every year, millions of people make the 22 km walk, known as the romería, from the capital of San José to the basilica in Cartago. They do this in honour of La Negrita. This tiny black stone statue of the Virgin of the Angels, depicts Costa Rica’s patron saint. For many who make the pilgrimage, it’s a story of coming home. Instead of walking the 22 km, I did the approach to the altar on my knees, following in the wake of others before me.
According to Catholic Church documents and popular lore, the icon of La Negrita, a 20-centimeter dark colored stone statue of mother and child representing the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, appeared to a woman of African descent – a parda/a or free black person – in 1635. The woman decided to go to the local Catholic priest, and the icon was placed in the church, but it kept reappearing to the woman in its original place. After the icon appeared to the woman three times in this way, the priest commissioned a church to be built for the icon on the spot where she was found. The Catholic Bishop later, in about 1637, established La Confradia, a lay organization of free Blacks charged with maintaining and venerating the icon.
For over 200 years, the Catholic Church felt that the devotion to this icon was something “only blacks were interested in.” There were highly ritualized African-based celebrations around the veneration of La Negrita. During their fight for Independence from Spain, the Church and colonial politicians took La Negrita out of the hands of the Blacks who had maintained and worshipped her and re-named her La Virgin de Los Angeles; the symbol of the hard-working Costa Ricans or Ticos in the face of colonial Spain. Independence was won in 1821 and slavery ended in 1824.
In 1950, the shrine was looted and the security guard killed. This made the news in the New York Times. Since then, things have been calm. The new church, opened in 1924, replaces the old one, which was destroyed three times in earthquakes.
According to a popular legend, there were two brothers who lived in colonial Cartago city. One of them was a single, nice and loved person, and the other a priest. A rivalry arose between them as both fell in love with the same woman, who chose and married the lazy brother. The priest was infuriated, and did everything he could to destroy his brother. Then, in 1577 during the New Year’s mass, he saw his brother in the church and killed him with a knife. In penance for his mortal sin he built a church for the city, but one year afterwards an earthquake destroyed it. Each time it was rebuilt, another new earthquake destroyed it, until 1910 when it was canceled and thought to be a cursed site. It is also said that in foggy nights, it is possible to see the priest, headless, inside the ruins, wandering for eternity as his penance for desecrating a holy site.
Buses come from San José every 3-5 minutes, so the town is well-served. Public transport around the city works well. The traffic is a bit of a nightmare, but the buses are there. Cartago is a stop off point for the Irazú volcano (expect to pay about $40 for a taxi to take you up and back plus $15 admission fee). We took the chance but when we got to the edge of the park, the attendant told us it was socked in. We’d see nothing. Our second attempt to see a volcano up close and personal has failed.
But we did get a tour of the countryside and lots of information from our driver, Davíd. The mountains were suspended in mist as the farmers worked the fields with horses and ploughs, barely able to see a foot in front. The soil is rich and dark and the crops are plenty. The people seem happy, something borne out by their ranking in the Happy Planet Index. In 2016, it was voted happiest country in the world. And Cartago seemed more laid back than San José – the watchfulness was missing – that sense of people waiting for something bad to happen had gone.
Perhaps to compensate us for our disappointment in not seeing the volcano, Davíd took us to see the old hospital, a mecca of faded colours and former glory. El Sanatorio Durán is said to be one of the most haunted places in Costa Rica.
Built in 1915 by Dr. Carlos Duran, the Sanatorium’s location was deemed to be ideal for those suffering from consumption. It operated as a hospital for tuberculosis patients for many years, as well as an asylum for the mentally ill. After 1963, the Sanatorium ceased to be operational, since tuberculosis was no longer an issue and the mentally ill could be treated in bigger, more humane hospitals. For awhile, the place operated as an orphanage, and then later it was turned into both a maximum and a minimum-security prison. The Duran Sanatorium shut down permanently in 1973 when it retained serious structural damage from an eruption of the nearby Irazú volcano.
It’s said to have three ghosts: a nun, an old woman, and a child. As we took refuge from the teeming rain and thunder, wandering through the old rooms, we heard a child laughing but never found her. The ghost thing did pop briefly to mind but it wasn’t until we were telling Steve, our friendly receptionist at Hotel Don Carlos, we’d been to see it that he told us it was haunted. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I was there. Am way to susceptible to flights of fancy.