The following is a guest post by James McLeod.
It is often said of Colombia that it is a country undergoing tremendous change, a country that has turned the page on the danger and violence that defined it for so long in the eyes of the rest of the world.
The images of conflict and of a people struggling to free itself from bloody internal divisions have been replaced with ones that now portray the natural and human wealth of this country.
It is for this reason that I chose to come and find out more about a Colombia that remains unknown to huge numbers of people, long before said people finally realize what they are missing here.
Although I consider myself to be quite well-travelled, I had never been to South America, so having the opportunity to explore it in great depth is something that I am very excited about.
After just three weeks in this beautiful country, I can confirm with great pleasure that the present is very different to the past and that there can be no doubt that Colombia is a veritable hidden gem.
As an intern working in the mayor’s office of Sabaneta, I have the perfect opportunity to integrate myself into this tiny but equally wonderful municipality and really take advantage of what this “Young Corner of the Aburrá Valley” has to offer.
From my very first few days in Sabaneta, I was told about how one of the area’s most notable tourist magnet is the religious significance it has for huge numbers of worshippers in Medellín and the surrounding municipalities.
Ever since Father Ramón Arcila Ramírez encouraged devotion towards Maria Auxiliadora in 1968, the church has become one of the most important pilgrimage sites in all of Colombia, consecrated in 1990 as the Marian Sanctuary of the Archdiocese of Medellín.
Every Tuesday, thousands of devotees make the journey from all over Medellín to pray at one of the fifteen masses that place over the course of the day, transforming the park and its surrounding restaurants into a spiritual hive of activity.
I wanted to properly understand this municipality and to this end I attended mass with my colleague Ana.
As we approached the park, what became immediately obvious was the festive atmosphere in the air and how a usually tranquil space had become a bustling destination.
Unsurprisingly, not only had the park’s population swollen but so had that of all the cafes that line its edges; in fact all local businesses profit in some way from this weekly religious phenomenon.
Wherever I looked, there were people catching up over a tinto coffee, making the most of the festive buzz that arrives every Tuesday.
Although often working only a stone’s throw from the park, I had never seen it like this and it was a joy to find myself at the religious heart of Sabaneta after having heard so much about it.
As for the mass, the fact that I was raised a Catholic in England means that I recognized much of the service, but what did come as a surprise was the fervent devotion that the worshippers showed before Maria Auxiliadora.
Knelt at the front, I saw a man crying as he prayed, something that made me appreciate in an instant the significance that this day has for the travelling devoted.
Unfortunately, I come from a country in which religion appears to be becoming decreasingly important, but at that moment in the Parish Church of Santa Ana, it was hugely uplifting to be in the presence of such intense and universal devotion.
Following the mass, I ate lunch at one of the restaurants located opposite the church, aptly named El Peregrino, “The Pilgrim,” where I tried one of their famous chorizos.
As I ate, I watched many families stroll past, made up of all generations, from babies to great-grandmothers and all in-between.
All these family outings showed me how Tuesdays in Sabaneta not only attract worshippers from far and wide but also how they unite many families who come to pray together in the presence of God.
For this reason, the Church of Santa Ana is undeniably one of Sabaneta’s most crucial attractions, standing this tiny municipality out as one of the most important religious destinations in all of Medellín.