Half a kilometre east of Insurgentes on the Eje 5 Norte, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is in fact a whole series of churches, chapels and shrines set around an enormous stone-flagged plaza and climbing up the rocky hillock where the miracles that led to its foundation occurred. It is Mexico’s most important religious site, and is visited by millions of pilgrims every year. Indeed, its religious significance predates the arrival of Christianity, as it was previously a shrine to the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin. The first church here was built in 1533, but the large Baroque basilica you see straight ahead of you as you come through the main entrance to the plaza was completely reconstructed in the eighteenth century and again remodelled in the nineteenth and twentieth.

Around the site, there swirls a stream of humanity – pilgrims, sightseers, priests and salesmen offering candles, souvenirs, pictures of the Virgin, snacks and any number of mementos. On December 12, the anniversary of the second apparition, their numbers swell to hundreds of thousands (newspaper reports claim millions). You’ll see the pilgrims on the approach roads to the capital for several days beforehand, many covering the last kilometres on their knees in an act of penance or devotion. For others, though, the day is more of a vast fiesta, with dancing, singing and drinking.

The main church

To the left of the great plaza as you come in from Calzada de Guadalupe is the modern home of Juan Diego’s cloak with the image of the Virgin on it. This huge, round modern church was built in 1976, with space inside for ten thousand worshippers and for around four times that when the great doors all round are thrown open to the crowds, as they are pretty much every Sunday. You’ll find it crowded whenever you visit, and there seems to be a service permanently in progress. The famous cloak, framed in gold and silver, hangs above the main altar. To prevent anyone lingering too long at the spot right underneath, you must board a travelling walkway and admire the image as you glide respectfully by.

The church museum

Around the back of the Baroque basilica, the Museo de la Basílica de Guadalupe contains a large collection of ex-voto offerings, and some of the church’s religious art treasures, including a series of slightly insipid early eighteenth-century canvases by José de Ibarra and more powerful oils by Miguel Cabrera and Cristóbal de Villalpando.

Capillas on the hill

From the plaza you can walk round to the right and up the hill past a series of little chapels associated with the Virgin’s appearance. Loveliest is the Capilla del Pocito, in which there is a well said to have sprung forth during one of the apparitions. Built in the eighteenth century, it consists of two linked elliptical chapels, one smaller and one larger, both with colourful tiled domes and magnificently decorated interiors. On the very top of the hill, the Capilla de las Rosas marks the spot where the miraculous roses grew.

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