Pilgrimage to Esquipulas

Located in the Oriente tourist region (Eastern Guatemala), Esquipulas could best be described as Catholic pilgrimage site of international fame. The center of the site is the Basilica, the only one in the whole of Central America and southern Mexico, and its most valuable content is the statue of the Black Christ, whose cult is the heart of this peculiar Holy Land.


In the east of Guatemala, almost at the border with Honduras, in a hilly area and at a height of 965 meters (2900 ft) above sea level, this beautiful and peculiar town is located in the department of Chiquimula, with some 40,000 inhabitants. Interestingly, it is exactly 222 km by road from Guatemala's large capital and has a peculiar climate where humidity is not high, where there are enough rains for rich crops and where the sun is not too strong to interfere with normal life and activity. The population is mostly engaged in tourism and agriculture. Many cultures are grown: coffee, peanuts, tomatoes, peppers, beans, cotton ... In the production of coffee, planters of this region regularly receive the world's prestigious awards for the achieved quality.

This is why we can look for another feature of this area: a high level of education. While Guatemala has literacy of 78% of its total population, literacy in Esquipulas is more than 96%, almost at the European level. Specifically, this would be the same percentage as that of Singapore and Thailand. Students from their schools regularly conquer most medals at school competitions in the country. Yet again, this has some probable roots: while Guatemala suffered decades of civil war, the Esquipulas area was very calm. It did not know about clashes with guerrillas and retaliation in the villages where mass graves were dug.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

The lively streets of Esquipulas


When you arrive in the Esquipulas valley, tired of long driving, you suddenly feel as if you were strengthened by some miraculous energy. Such is the population here: energetic, very friendly and kind, very active since the early hours of the morning.

Let’s see the demographics: as I said, the city has about 40,000 inhabitants, while the whole municipality is approaching 70,000. It is interesting to note the loose growth of the rural population, which means that the work in agriculture attracts the inhabitants not to rush into the urban environment. The population is also young: 52% of the population is from 0 to 25 years of age. The majority of the population is ethnically made up of locals, a mixture of Maja's native people and Hispanic settlers over the centuries.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

Before the Spaniards, there were two important moments here: the existence of the Ch'orti 'Mayan people and the kingdom of Payaqui. The Ch'orti people are famous mostly for today's ruins of the glorious city of Copan, located just some miles away, across the Honduran border. The people of this nation today have only about 50,000  members on both sides of the border, of which only a third of them speak their language. Most have accepted Spanish, and even those who know Ch'orti 'are bilingual.

About the kingdom of Payaqui, we know very little, just so much that after the 1000th anniversary of the new era the legendary priest Topiltzin Axcitl established that nation. When the Spanish came to this area in 1525, the kingdom had not existed long ago. Just a memory among the locals. The famine and conflict between the Spaniards and the local population of Ch'orti' lasted only a few years, and then the modern city of Esquipulas was founded. Very aggressive evangelization begun.


The further history of the area was marked by two important years during the Conquista: the first year is 1594, when the Portuguese sculptor Quirio Cataño, originally from Antigua, made a great crucifix of Christ for the church of Santiago in Esquipulas. This religious object began to attract the pilgrims, having the alleged miraculous powers. As candles burned under the crucifix, the soot from the smoke gave a very dark coating to the sculpture which later became known as the Black Christ of Esquipulas.

So, the notion of Black Christ has nothing to do with some speculation about the colour of the skin of the original, living Jesus. Someone would still think that there was a fire that this relic marvellously survived, but it remained burned and therefore black. That is not true either. So neither racial nor magical theory here is not the essence. The essence is in the multi-century and spontaneous pilgrimage cult of Jesus Christ embodied in a rather old and somewhat peculiar work of art. The details of Quirio Cataño's life are very scarce; there are even speculations whether he was Italian or Portuguese. It is known that he died in 1622 leaving behind - besides the Black Christ - just another work, the altar statue of the Virgin Mary of the Rosary, kept in the church of St. John the Bishop in Antigua.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

Basilica and Black Christ: two most important things in Esquipulas.

The second event important for this area is the construction of the Esquipulas Basilica. In the 18th century, Msgr. Pedro Pardo de Figueroa was appointed as a Bishop of Guatemala. As he realized that Esquipulas was visited more and more pilgrims and that Santiago's church, though beautiful, was no longer sufficient to receive a large number of worshipers, he decided to start building a basilica. Obviously, the legend has been added in the story that he was miraculously healed in 1735, praying before that very crucifix. Truth or not, this story gave a good incentive to fundraising for the construction.

The builder from Antigua, Felipe José de Porres, was then engaged in the construction. He was young, but they trusted him because he came from the family that was well connected to architecture. The result was a very harmonious solution: the baroque church with four bell towers. The building is stunning even today, it is 30 meters wide and 60 meters long and the bell towers are 50 meters high. Particularly beautiful is the park set in front of the basilica. It was all completed in 1758 and was dedicated on January 4th, 1759, with the presence of the Bishops of Guatemala, Honduras and the Mexican province of Chiapas.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

When visiting Esquipulas in 1839, American diplomat and researcher John Lloyd Stephens wrote this: "After breakfast, we went to visit the only thing of interest in the place, a great pilgrimage church, the most beautiful place in Central America. Each year, on January 15, pilgrims visit the Basilica, coming from distant places like Peru or Mexico; the difficulties of travellers on this pilgrimages are comparable to those experienced by pilgrims in Mecca. As in the East, it is not forbidden to trade during pilgrimage; and when there are no wars that endanger travellers, eighty thousand people gather in a place to honour "Our Lord from Esquipulas."


Esquipulas is a very lively and noisy city, full of shops, restaurants and hotels. Even when staying a short time here, you notice that the local residents move freely even overnight on the city streets, meaning there is no crime and street violence here. It is as if this city is exempt from the Latin American criminal story that provokes the fear of the people, and causes the windows and the door metal covers and the walls with the barbed wire.

Esquipulas lives calmly, and another speciality can be noted: alcoholic drinks are spread everywhere, even in small farm booths, and no one makes a problem of it, nor does it hurt at all causing bad behaviour. Gourmet Esquipulas offers everything from tacos and burritos to delicious chicken breasts, baked meats of all kinds, great pizza and various fast food.

Every other house is a small hotel, and there are quite large facilities that offer more luxurious accommodation, pools, beautiful terraces or spacious apartments. The city is especially popular among Guatemalan bikers, so you can see them on the streets in groups of 5, 10 or even more than 20 motorcyclists wearing the same jackets with the insignia of their gang. They love to camp, and Esquipulas is quite open to offer a lot of camping sites, and these colourful pilgrims most often do not have to pay such accommodation. The biggest group comes first Sunday in February; this is Caravana El Zorro, the Fox caravan, consisting of more than 1,500 motorcyclists, creating an impressive picture of another, different Guatemala.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer


Sights can easily be divided into spiritual and secular ones. These are the first three: the Basilica, the old Church of Santiago, and the Piedra de los compadres (Godparents Stone).

Those rocks have an unusual history, in fact, a legend, according to which the two people once committed something sinister. Now I'm going to translate it from a very puritanical language that very shy describes what actually happened. So one man accepted to be the godfather of the child and befriended very close the child’s mother. But one day, staying in the nature of the city surroundings, they wanted to have sex. They were young and I believe good looking people. However, as this is considered a mortal sin, the higher forces turned them into stones in a very suggestive pose.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

Today, the rocks are a place of pilgrimage, mostly for Maja locals, candles are burned and syncretistic rituals are performed. So the stone (actually two stones) is not a totally pagan place of worship, but it's not definitely something from a Catholic tradition. It is a peculiar combination. In 2012, a small square was built around the stones, people come here to trade, eat and drink, and then pray to ask for forgiveness of sin or for help in private matters. Stones composition is around three meters high, and the upper part is very heavy, estimated at about 50 tons.

Other natural heritage sites around Esquipulas are mostly associated with eco-tourism, the primary site of Cueva de las Minas, where there is a small zoo garden, and there are plenty of former mines where the silver ore was allegedly harvested to finance the building of a basilica. Then there are a number of plantations. Many people from can easily visit the sunflower plantation. Another interesting place is the plantation of a somewhat weird name - Belen Vivero Cafe. Then, there is Mount Morola and a monument to peace.


With the aim of improving herd nutrition and increase the quality of milk production, Tata Rodríguez, owner, has created a beautiful sunflower field on his farm. This farm is nowadays a tourist attraction because there is always one part of its fields under blooming yellow flowers.

Edgard Manfred Rodríguez Morales is more famous in his own right as Tata Rodríguez. Just four miles outside the town there is a farm that was called Barranco Blanco, which today is known as the Sunflower Farm. By our arrival we saw how it works: 30 cars and 3-4 buses have already brought about 200 people who came to admire the big yellow flowers and record their selfies with them.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

In addition, the farm has a small rustical restaurant and several kiosks with a varied offer. There is also an outdated tractor. Though it was just supposed to supplement his farm's income, I personally think that Tata Rodriguez's income from tourists is by no means negligible. And by the way, dozens of small buses offer this trip to pilgrims on main streets of Esquipulas. All the day they offer this addition to their spiritual adventures.

All in all nice, so that Tata said, "When the first sunflowers were grown we were so beautiful that we decided to open the door to the visitors." Okay. The entry is just a little bit over a dollar. But Tata knows that you build a housing dollar by dollar.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer


Without any details, the recommendations led us to BVC. In short: Belen-vivero-cafe, meaning Belen-nursery garden – coffee. You just take the unpaved road, a former important road between Esquipulas and Qetzaltepeque. There are not many villages here. Mostly you can see cattle farms because the terrain is hilly and partly grassy, suitable for local ranchers.

We park under the tree from which, to our big surprise, the water drops like rain. Come on, I said, wash the dust from our car a little. Immediately where this small shady parking ends, the surreal bamboo forest begins. As we walk through, we notice the wind. Bamboo trees start rhythmic punching at every stronger breeze, a sound that you can definitely not hear in normal forests. It was just missing some pandas chewing the leaves. We enjoyed this opportunity and stayed at this strange place for quite a long time.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

And then, well, let's go and see nursery part of the farm. We were stunned by the diversity of plants and discovered that among a variety of cleverly constructed gazebos and flowerbeds there is also a little monument to the national flower of Guatemala - the White Nun. This beautiful orchid is not often seen. The owner has posted a plaque with an explanation of what the flower really is, and then one lovely exemplar of this adorable flower. I like that approach: the flower is the best monument to itself!

The skinny and vital gentleman approaches us. He was interested in where we were from and wants to show us around. "I am Marco Moreno, the owner of BVC, welcome to my dream," he tells us modestly. Then he leads us to show us the cabins that can be rented. We pass through the restaurant, one shady terrace for a cheerful group of guests. After the cabins sightseeing, in which I would like to barricade myself for at least two weeks and refuse to surrender, then we visited a two-story restaurant with a bar, which you can rent for a very intimate company and stay there to drink deep into the night discussing life. It was all made of bamboo.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

Yes, every chair, every table, bar, shelves, all is made of bamboo. Then, the walls are in fact bamboo. The fences are bamboo. Bamboo is everything! Marco laughs and says, that bamboo plays a big role in his dream, it's a solid type of material, it's beautiful. That B from the abbreviation BVC does not necessarily have to be Belen (which is the name of this area), but by all means - bamboo.

"Now that you've seen everything, let me tell you what you actually saw" - continues Marco. He discloses us that 400 meters higher than the farm level, there is his own pond. Here we are at 1200m above the sea, so the little lagoon is at 1600 metres. He laid the pipes that bring the water to all parts of the farm. He only pulls one strand and gets a piece of artificial rain in the desired area. That is what we saw when we were parking! Marco is the master of the rain. "Probably it seems crazy to you, but with this system, I want to change the climate on my farm and make a rainforest that will give my coffee and my plants a special quality" - reveals his intent.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer

Indeed, this is a place different from its surroundings. The air is different, the plants are different, the soil as well. Marco intends to create a paradise here during his life. Yes, there are plenty of those dreamers in Guatemala, each has his own concept, but Marco Moreno came here very close to realization. BVC is definitely a place worth anyone’s visit. I can just add that the coffee that he gifted us was of the finest quality I had ever tasted.


The town has delighted us with a nice and positive atmosphere, people kindness and peace, restaurant menus, and pleasant hotel mattresses. There is a nice life going on here and there are no annoying beggars, arrogant criminals, even ever boring sellers. Everything is close at hand, you can move around without any problem.

Esquipulas has a future, the future that is also being sought around the world lately: ecology, sustainable development, clean water, some kind of harmony between man and nature, and even peace among people. Yes, they are religious and from religion, they live. But they also pay attention to education, to the progress of the community, to a series of things that we would attribute to healthy socialism. I mean, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand and those stories. I would say that they have correctly understood Jesus. If you have hope for this planet and humankind, come and look at the planet Esquipulas.

Esquipulas | Guatexplorer



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