The final town on this eastern highway is ESQUIPULAS, which has a single point of interest: it is the most important Catholic shrine in Central America, its dark-hued statue of Christ the focus of a famous annual pilgrimage. The settlement, and valley, is dominated by the four perfectly white domes of the church, brilliantly floodlit at night. Below, the town is a messy sprawl of cheap hotels, souvenir stalls and overpriced restaurants. The pilgrimage, which continues all year, has created a booming religious resort where people come to worship, eat, drink and relax, in a bizarre combination of holy devotion and indulgence. The town also played an important role in modern politics: the first peace accord initiatives to end the civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala were signed here in 1987.
Inside the church there’s a constant scurry of hushed devotion amid clouds of smoke and incense. In the nave pilgrims approach the image on their knees, while others light candles, mouth supplications or simply stand in silent crowds. The image itself is most closely approached by a separate side entrance, where you can join the queue to shuffle past beneath it and pause briefly in front before being shoved on by the crowds behind. Back outside you’ll find yourself among swarms of souvenir- and relic-hawkers.