Central Valley Feature

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Faith and Folklore in Costa Rica

The Central Valley wears its tradition, both religious and secular, on its collective sleeve. Costa Rica's biggest annual religious festival takes place in Cartago each August 2 and commemorates what tradition holds was a 1635 apparition of the Virgin Mary. It never captured the worldwide attention of Mexico's Guadalupe, France's Lourdes, or Portugal's Fatima, but no matter. The 1 million pilgrims who visit the site on that day alone are testament to its popularity here.

Nearby, at Ujarrás in the Orosi Valley, sit the ruins of the country's first church. Prayers to the Virgin Mary said here are reputed to have staved off pirate attacks—we have no other explanation—and numerous earthquakes. That second one is tougher to explain: This part of the valley has suffered its share of earth tremors throughout history.

Costa Ricans flee to the beach for Semana Santa, or Holy Week, in March or April, but the small community of San Joaquín, halfway between Alajuela and Heredia, makes a nice antidote to the beach crowds. The town holds some of the country's most impressive processions reenacting Jesus' trial and crucifixion.

Turning more pagan, Escazú holds the title of Costa Rica's spirit capital. Witches, mostly benevolent, but a few malevolent ones, too, are reputed to populate the community. You'd never know it from all the fast-food restaurants, car dealerships, and shopping malls you see as you pull into town. But old-timers high in the hills have hair-raising stories to tell about those proverbial things that go bump in the night.

Those hills above Escazú also host the annual Día del Boyero, or Oxcart Drivers' Day, the second Sunday in March. Oxen and carts parade to the church to be blessed by the priest. Those blessings must stick; oxcarts continue to be a favored mode of work transport throughout the Central Valley.

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