The Easter Pilgrims Of Popoyuapa
So much of travel is about serendipity; the unanticipated, the unknown and the totally unexpected. And so, imagine our smiling astonishment as we rounded a curve on the Pan American Highway south of Granada, Nicaragua, last week and found motorized traffic halted and waiting for a long line of at least one hundred and fifty carts being pulled by oxen and horses. Families with young children and the elderly passed by, either walking alongside the carts or riding inside. Many of the carts were in the process of pulling off the road to rest and water their animals. And, of course not able to resist an opportunity for a closer look, we hopped out of car and started walking down the road to find out what we could.
The two-wheeled carts were built with a wooden base, many with aged and gray boards but others were gaily painted. They had arched frameworks that were mostly covered in sugarcane stalks and leaves to shade the occupants within from the hot sun shining overhead. Hanging from the roofs and along the carts’ sides were buckets filled with food, straw baskets, coolers, hammocks and cheap, plastic chairs and bunches of bananas or plantains.
Perched upon the top of several of the carts we spied hens and roosters clinging to roof coverings for (perhaps?) their last ride. Many carts displayed yellow flags which signify the Catholic Church and the blue and white national flag of Nicaragua. Some were draped with a large purple cloth representing the upcoming Holy Week and stamped across with the name of the city from which they ventured.
Nicaragua is a Catholic country and the culture is rich in religious beliefs and folkloric traditions that may vary from region to region; many are prominently on display during Lent and Semana Santa or Holy Week, the week preceding Easter Sunday. We found out later that the caravan that we had seen formed the return trip of devout pilgrims visiting Popoyuapa, a small village of 4,000 near San Jorge, Rivas and Lake Nicaragua where a four-day festival occurs each year before Santa Semana. The Sanctuary of Popoyuapa is the home for the Shrine of Jesus the Redeemer, a life-size Christ figure wearing a traditional crown of thorns. The image is also known as Jesus the Rescued, possibly named so after the floating statue was retrieved from Lake Nicaragua or, according to another story, after being pieced back together following an earthquake in 1844.
In addition to those making the symbolic pilgrimage by oxcart, thousands more of the faithful visit the shrine during Semana Santa to show their devotion and express their thankfulness for what they’ve received, for favors divinely granted or to ask for miraculous intervention in their needs.
The pilgrimage by oxcart to Popoyuapa is a tradition passed down through the generations and has occurred for at least a century with the faithful traveling from as far away as Masaya and Granada in a journey that may take as long as four days and cover up to 150 miles round trip. Except for a chance encounter on the Pan-American Highway we might never have seen this astounding caravan of oxcarts plodding down the road nor learned of this religious pilgrimage of the deeply faithful.
By Anita and Richard, April, 2014