Change Yourself…Change The World.

The Pilgrimage to Caacupé: An 18.5 Mile Walk to Honor the Virgin
December 8, 2012, 8:03 pm
Filed under: Paraguay

Today I fulfilled one of my goals on my Paraguay bucket list (now updated!) by making a pilgrimage to ‘Virgen de Caacupé’ (Virgin of Caacupé). December 8th is a huge religious national holiday in Paraguay, where hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans (update: news today said there were 3.5 million people in Caacupé, which is over half the population of Paraguay) walk to the city of Caacupé to attend mass at the Basilica church. Paraguayans make this pilgrimage to honor a promise the Virgin of Caacupé fulfilled for them (for example, fulfilling someone’s request of a healthy pregnancy, finding love, a good year fiscally, etc.) Typically, Paraguayans travel on foot from the city of Ypacaraí to Caacupé (about 12.5 miles), but many walk from even further destinations. Because of the intense summer heat (Paraguay was over 100 degrees yesterday), most of the pilgrims travel during the night and arrive at Caacupé in the early hours of the morning to sleep, shower, and then attend a 7 AM mass.

I decided that while I was in Paraguay, I had to experience this wholly unique and important event, so I decided to walk with 5 other Peace Corps Volunteers and some Paraguayan friends from the city of Yaguaron to Caacupé, a distance of 30 kilometers (about 18.5 miles). We left at 7 PM as the sun was setting to start out on our grand adventure, spirits high and backpacks full of water, snacks, an extra change of clothes, and a towel.

Showing off our excited faces to walk to Caacupé! Except for Devin, who struck a model pose.

From there, the next 14 hours of my life can best be described as a living hell. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a pilgrimage before, but walking 18.5 miles in 8 hours when it’s over 90 degrees outside is definitely a hell of a challenge. We initially kept our spirits high by playing question games, discussing the field of development, and chugging ‘holy wine’ (as we dubbed it) with Pineapple soda- but as the night drew on and we became increasingly fatigued, we eventually all stopped talking and stumbled numbly through the forest and under fences, up and down hills, on concrete and through mud alike. As buses continued to pass us on the roads full of people to Caacupé, my imagination ran wilder with each passing hour as I imagined myself flagging one down and screaming ‘SEE YA!’ to my friends as I sped away to the city, mercifully sitting down. But we trudged on and sweated it out until we FINALLY made it to Caacupé at 3 AM.

Crossing one of many fences during our walk.

We celebrated our arrival by collapsing on the ground and sleeping on the grimy sidewalk. I finally took off my tennis shoes to discover that I had worn a hole through my brand new socks. As the night cooled down and my sweat-soaked shirt stuck to my body like a vice, I tried to make-do with my thin sarong I brought as a blanket. Luckily I had brought my iPod, so I was able to tune out all of the street noise and get in a few hours of exhausted-induced sleep.

Sleeping on the sidewalk

We woke up at 6 AM to find that hordes of Paraguayans had arrived to the city, and that we had better get a move-on if we wanted to attend mass. At this point my legs were so stiff that I could barely do more than hobble in my flip flops. On our walk to the church, there were all kinds of vendors selling Paraguayan food and delicacies, clothing, candy, and ‘Virgen de Caacupé’ memorabilia.

Walking to the church at sunrise

Paraguayan pilgrims sleeping on a patch of grass

A vendor selling typical Paraguayan hot dogs and meat

A Paraguayan vendor selling chipa, a typical delicacy

As we got closer and closer to the church, the crowd of Paraguayans got stronger and thicker until we were at the point where it was literally impossible to move one step further. Our group then got swept up in a ginormous crowd of pushing and shoving people from one end of the church to another. I’d say I was able to glimpse about five seconds of the Basilica and grasp 3 words of the Mass before we all decided to call it quits. We were exhausted and majorly sleep-deprived, and all I could think about at this point was getting into a bed.

Molly’s smiling face- right before we get swept up in a crowd of people!

This is an idea of how many people were in the plaza. This photo does not do justice to the thousands of people that were here!

I thought that the worst was over when we finished our 18.5 mile pilgrimage to Caacupé, but I was wrong. Our group then spent about an hour and a half stumbling up and down packed streets trying to find a bus to take us out of the city. The sun glowered down on us like a fireball, and every single bus that passed us were full to the absolute brim of passengers- people were even hanging outside of the bus. We finally found a bus to take us out of the city, but since we were some of the last commuters on, we had to stand. I couldn’t take it anymore; my legs completely gave out on me and I had to sit down in the middle of the aisle. Shame or no shame, I really didn’t care what people thought of me: I just closed my eyes and dreamt of being on a beach in Indonesia.

An hour and a half later we finally arrived back to Paraguarí where one of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers live. I staggered up to her apartment and collapsed on a mattress, where I didn’t move for the next 7 hours. I’ve finally started to recuperate with a good long shower, drinking a lot of water, and putting some food in my stomach, but I think it will take a few days to be able to feel my legs again.

So I did it: I completed my goal of a pilgrimage to Caacupé on December 8th. It was definitely one of the most intense experiences of my life, and something I never plan on doing again. But I think the point of a pilgrimage is supposed to be really challenging: it is to honor a promise, after all. I’m really glad that I finished it, and that I was able to experience Paraguay’s most important religious holiday. Plus, I’m hoping that the Virgen will hold up her end of the bargain of the pilgrimage and grant me my request I made her. You’re not supposed to reveal your request to anyone (kind of like making a wish before blowing out your birthday candles)- but I’ll share it with you someday when it is hopefully fulfilled.

In the meantime, stay hydrated and ever-grateful!

2 Comments so far
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Hi Brit:
We are all enjoying your adventure and admiring your spunk and independence. We especially enjoy your ability to articulate your observations, feelings and reflections.

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