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.
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.