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Guatemala (#02): Esquipulas

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Published on Aug 25, 2011

The town of Esquipulas in the Chiquimula Department is one of the most significant in Central America. Second only in importance to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe outside Mexico City is the Basílica of Esquipulas with its Icon of the Black Christ that dates back to 1595. Pilgrims from all over Central America gather here. Esquipulas is also the seat of the Central American Parliament and, given its location just a short distance from the borders with Honduras and El Salvador, it has also been the place where several important peace agreements have been signed. The villages, forests and mountains of Mataquescuintla are home to the Pocomam Indians who produce some outstanding textiles and ceramics.

Church of the Black Christ, Esquipulas, Guatemala ... In 1595, a statue of Christ on the Cross, carved from dark balsam wood, was installed in the church. It is not known specifically why the statue is dark. (Some people assume it is due to the centuries of candle smoke inside the church, but this is not the case. The smoke does not stain the clothing of the statue, and underneath the protective clothing the wooden skin is no less dark.) Most probably the dark color - it is not really black but rather a coffee brown - points to the strong pagan elements that infused and influenced early Colonial Christianity throughout Meso- and Central America. Christian pilgrimages to the church began shortly after 1737 when the Archbishop of Guatemala visited and went away cured of a chronic ailment. Local church authorities, knowing the enormous income statistics of vital European pilgrimage shrines, constructed a new church in 1758.

Situated about a mile from the old church of Santiago, the great white basilica was soon attracting pilgrims from all over Central America. While pilgrims journey to the shrine throughout the year, there are two periods when their numbers multiply greatly. One is for a week up to and culminating on January 15, the other is the week of Easter. During these times, upwards of a hundred thousand pilgrims descend upon the normally quiet mountain valley to adore the Black Christ. Great markets spring up, the hotels are over-filled, and people sleep in the church courtyard and along the city streets. These festivals are said to be the finest displays of native dress in all of Central America.

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