EL SAUCE, Nicaragua – Under the blazing January sun, a priest gives his blessing to the pilgrims in dozens of ox-drawn wagons setting out on a journey to the Sanctuary of the Black Christ of Esquipulas in the northwestern Nicaraguan municipality of El Sauce, part of a tradition more than 100 years old.
After a tumultuous political year in Nicaragua, families from the picturesque village of Villanueva, 45 kilometers (28 miles) from El Sauce, go on a pilgrimage to celebrate the Black Christ (also known as the Miraculous Lord of Esquipulas) who is visited by thousands of the faithful from around the country this weekend.
“My grandma and my dad always took us in a wagon. It’s a tradition handed down from their ancestors and they passed it on to us,” a worshipper of the Black Christ of Esquipulas, Edith Escobar Ramos, told EFE, adding that she has traveled the 45 kilometers in an ox-drawn wagon for more than 50 years.
To give thanks for some miracle received, or as an act of devotion, the people start packing their bags for the journey days before their departure.
The covered wagons, made of wood with a roof of palm fronds or plastic to shade the pilgrims from the blistering sun, are provisioned with food, drinking water, fodder for the animals, clothing, everything needed for families going to El Sauce, 150 kilometers northwest of Managua.
“My dad has already died, so I am left fulfilling his vow,” Marvin Gonzalez, who was traveling with his wife and three grandchildren between ages 1 and 5, told EFE.
However, it’s not just the pilgrims of Villanueva who preserve this tradition. Starting the day before, groups of wagons have set out from other, more distant municipalities to join the pilgrimage somewhere along the way.
They spend the day walking and when night falls, babies can be heard crying as the procession crosses the almost dry riverbed.
A total of at least 70 covered wagons pull into El Sauce and are received with song, food, water and religious blessings.
The Catholic faithful of Nicaragua celebrate the image of Christ Crucified, venerated by Central Americans for more than 400 years.
The Black Christ was worshipped for the first time in 1594 in Esquipulas, Guatemala, from where its veneration spread across Mesoamerica.
Some 58.5 percent of Nicaragua’s inhabitants are Catholics, according to official data.