The history of the Esquipulas pilgrimage probably dates back to pre-conquest times, when the valley was controlled by Chief Esquipulas. Even then the area was the site of an important religious shrine, perhaps connected with the nearby Maya site of Copán.
When the Spanish arrived, the chief was keen to avoid the usual bloodshed and chose to surrender without a fight; the grateful Spaniards named the city they founded at the site in his honour. The famed colonial sculptor Quirio Cataño was then commissioned to carve an image of Christ for the church constructed in the town, and in order to make it more likely to appeal to the local people he chose to carve it from balsam, a dark wood. (Another version has it that Cataño was hired by the Maya after one of their number had seen a vision of a dark Christ on this spot.) In any event, the image was installed in the church in 1595 and soon was credited with miraculous powers. After the bishop of Guatemala, Pardo de Figueroa, was cured of a chronic ailment on a trip to Esquipulas in 1737 things really took off. The bishop ordered the construction of a new church, which was completed in 1758, and had his body buried beneath the altar.
Although this might seem straightforward, it doesn’t explain why this figure has become the most revered in a country full of miracle-working saints. One explanation is that for the Maya, who until recently dominated the pilgrimage, it blends pre-Columbian and Catholic worship. The Maya pantheon included several black deities such as Ek Ahau, the black lord, who was served by seven retainers, and Ek’Chuach, the tall black god, who protected travellers.
The principal day of pilgrimage is January 15. Even the country’s smallest villages will send a representative, their send-off and return marked by religious services. These, plus the thousands who come in their own right, ensure that the town fills to bursting. Buses choke the streets, while the most devoted pilgrims arrive on foot (some dropping to their knees for the last few kilometres). There’s a smaller pilgrimage on March 9, and the faithful visit year-round.