Annually on December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, approximately one million pilgrims come to the Basilica of Caacupé. That’s an awfully high number of visitors considering that the entire country has a population of less than seven million people. The country is 87% Catholic though.
Some of the pilgrims walk the 31 miles from Asunción, others take buses which run around the clock in a constant stream, some take the bus part way and then walk several hours, others take bicycles, still others walk the last ten miles on their knees and others walk the last 20 miles carrying heavy crosses. Given that December is the peak of summer here, the walk is typically done during the night.
According to legend, the Guaraní Indian – known as Indio José – was being hunted by members of a rival indigenous tribe. Fearing for his life, Indio José hid behind a tree in a forest and promised God that if his life was saved, he would carve a statue of the Virgin from the tree behind which he was hiding. Indio José did survive and did carve the statue. In fact he made two – a larger statue for the church in the town of Tobatí (where it remains to this day) and a smaller statue for himself.
In 1603, the legend continues, the smaller statue was swept away in receding flood waters. Indio José swam through the water and recovered the statue. In the centuries that followed, the statue was placed in a succession of at least nine increasingly larger chapels, churches and basilicas in Caacupé to accommodate the growing number of visitors devoted to the Virgin. The present basilica in Caacupé was built in the 1980s.
This small statue has been through a lot over the years – the flood, the multiple relocations, and even a lost finger following a lightning strike – and it continues to draw large crowds unmatched by the larger statue in Tobatí or by other statues around the country of greater artistic ability.
In addition to seeing the statue of the Virgin of Caacupé, we also climbed to the lookout point on the roof of the basilica.
We also saw a window commemorating the visit of Pope John Paul II to Paraguay in May 1988.
It was a beautiful place, well worth the visit!