I was raised Catholic. Midwest, small town Catholic. Serious-old school-steeped-in- tradition-Latin Mass-Catholic. I’m a fallen Catholic for many reasons, but among them was that I’m not solemn or reverent enough. And so it was that I found myself in one of the world’s most Catholic countries during that part of the Catholic world’s most important December religious festivals – the Festival of the Virgin of Guadalupe (also known as the Virgin Mary and the Patroness of Mexico).
My first clue should have been the flight from Los Angeles to Mexico City the week prior. It was filled with pilgrims traveling to the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City – the most visited Catholic shrine in the world, drawing over 6 million visitors during the weekend of the festival.
I trudged from the bus station to my budget San Cristobal hotel (found online in the bus station at three times the normal price) while fireworks blasted all around me. On the ground. In the air. Accompanied by the peal of churchbells. It was all part of the festival. As were the decorated vehicles with Virgin images and carnaval of music and rides.
This was no staid holy day of obligation and quiet contemplation Catholicism. In parts of Mexico where indigenous cultural beliefs (in this case Mayan) have melded with traditional religion, the celebrations are a rich mix of both practices. Yes, there were churches and masses and incense, but there was also noisy, messy, joyous celebration.
The following day I joined the carnival throngs of Mayan families from the villages surrounding San Cristobal. Women wore colorful ribbons, beautifully brocaded capes and black fur skirts to distinguish their village origin.
Three days of fireworks and carnaval were enough and another do-over was done. It was time to embark on the remainder of the trip. There would be no more nostalgic jaunts down memory lane from this point onward because it was all new territory. A twelve hour van trip to Antigua, Guatemala that included two van transfers and a border crossing: a do-first.