I haven’t been paying attention to the calendar and almost missed writing a timely story about one of my favorite places. Everyone in Mexico, indeed many around the world, know about Mexico’s number one shrine, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Less known is its second most visited shrine, the Sanctuary of Chalma and the revered Señor de Chalma, a life-sized Christ figure.
16th century visiting Augustinian priests to the valley west of Cuernavaca were appalled to see Indigenous people worshiping the stone image of Ostoc Theotl (lord of the caves) in a cave smelling of decaying flesh and blood. The priests decided to return with Christian symbols intending to convert the population to the “True Faith.” Returning, a few weeks later with a Christian cross, they found Ostoc Theotl broken into a thousand pieces; miraculously replaced by Christ on the cross -- the cave emanated a floral aroma!
The image is now in the beautifully, but starkly, decorated Augustinian church a hundred meters from the cave. The Augustinians' early visits are described in huge painted canvases hanging in the sacristy. St. Augustine's life is told on smaller canvases in the adjacent monastery. If you know enough of the life of St. Augustine you can 'read' his story in the paintings.
Chalma is a festive pilgrimage destination. A few kilometers uphill from Chalma, a spring emerges from the roots of a massive Ahuehuete tree where pilgrims purchase wreaths of flowers -- yes, you are a pilgrim. Across the highway, violinists play so pilgrims can dance in front of the chapel on their way to Chalma. The color of the flowers traditionally indicated the number of pilgrimages in which the wearer had participated -- that custom is now lost.
Those that visit with a petition for the Lord of Chalma know that it is only granted if they get there under their own power -- walking or bicycling. And the time to go is on, or just before, Ash Wednesday. Mexicans also know that if something is truly impossible, it can't be achieved even if they dance at Chalma -- ni yendo a bailar a Chalma.
Cuernavaca is the beginning of the 'narrow part of the funnel' for pilgrims from Puebla, Oaxaca, and beyond. Chalmeros, walking single file, carry bundles with blankets and food. Several in each group carry glass lanterns. Many residents along the route put out tables with free offerings for the pilgrims; water, lemonade, perhaps hot chocolate and tamales.
The walk over the mountains is a grueling 12-hour hike-- steep and sometimes hot. Many prefer to tackle the ridge at night, hence the need for the glass lanterns and candles. Pilgrims know to not complain -- rocks on the sides of the paths are previous pilgrims who complained. They can be helped, by rolling them towards Chalma. If they reach the church they'll turn back into people.
The narrow road out of Cuernavaca is appropriately named Subida a Chalma. The street becomes a paved road over the ridge to Chalma. Pilgrims sometimes walk the road, sometimes shortcuts on well-beaten trails. Once the city is left behind there are no more houses with tables and free food, but there is no shortage of small entrepreneurs who set up puestos selling hot chocolate, coffee, tamales, tlacoyos, and gorditas. Once the sun sets, the temperature drops; popular puestos have a bonfire to keep their owners and patrons warm.
As they walk, pilgrims sing songs with dozens of verses -- verses sung by those that are going and verses, that are answers, sung by pilgrims on their way home. The flickering lights, going both directions, can probably be seen tonight on the trail over the mountains -- Ash Wednesday is a week from tomorrow.
I suggest you leave your car in one of the parking lots as you enter Chalma, on the edge of town. Look for one on the right, near the cemetery. A paved path runs between the parking lot and the cemetery; follow it downhill and turn right, through an unmarked narrow gate set in a long, high, wall -- the enormous white church will be visible below you. That narrow walkway to the church -- bypassing most of the vendors -- leads through a tranquil, beautiful, very steep garden. When the walkway forks, go right, to the cave, then rejoin the steep walkway and enter the atrio by way of the pilgrims' guest rooms. Have your picture taken -- you'll leave your wreath behind, as you enter the church. The Lord of Chalma will be straight ahead of you above the altar. In the sacristy, to the left of the altar you'll find the huge canvases with a written description of the arrival of the first Augustinians and the apparition of the image of the Lord of Chalma. Everyone, Catholic or not, is welcome to receive a blessing from a contemporary Augustinian priest. Let him know where you've come from -- the farther the better -- if you're lucky he may assign a seminarian to accompany you into the choir loft; if not, keep going and wander through the ground floor of the adjacent monastery; following the life of St. Augustine in the paintings.
If you enjoy crowds, go this week. Otherwise go midweek any other week and take in the tranquility and beauty of a place that will transport you back in time.
Upon leaving the church grounds and exiting the atrio through the gate facing the main entrance to the church, you'll be on a pedestrian street teeming with shops, vendors, and pilgrims. Take the first left and it will lead you up to the highway; from there, uphill to your car.
Chalma can easily be combined with a visit to Malinalco, just 9 kilometers away -- with its 16th century church and monastery, wonderful museum, and archeological site perched on the cliff overlooking the town and valley.