Chalma Pilgrimage

Chalma Pilgrimage

Type of Holiday: Religious
Date of Observation: Varies
Where Celebrated: Chalma, Mexico
Symbols and Customs: Blessing of Holy Images, Crosses, Dancing, Flowers, Miracles, Offerings, Sacred Spring


Chalma is located in central Mexico and has been a sacred site for thousands of years. In the Pre-Columbian period, native people worshipped Ozteotl (alternately, Oxtoteotl), a deity believed to reside in a cave in the mountains near Chalma. Ozteotl sometimes took the form of a jaguar and was regarded as the god of human destiny, of the night, and of war, depending on various native traditions. Pilgrims commonly traveled long distances on foot through the mountains to reach the cave of Ozteotl, which contained a very large black cylindrical stone that represented the god and was thought to have healing powers. The ancient pilgrims would bathe in a spring just outside the cave and drink some of the water before making offerings to Ozteotl.

In the early sixteenth century, Spanish missionaries arrived in the area and discovered the cave of Ozteotl. Believing that the native people were offering human sacrifice to the god, the missionaries demanded the destruction of the black stone and an end to the worship of Ozteotl. A large crucifix took the place of the stone in Ozteotl's cave, and it is said that the native people transferred their worship to the new image. This is believed to have been the beginning of central Mexico's conversion to Christianity.

Pilgrims continued to visit the site after the replacement of Ozteotl's stone with the crucifix, believing that the Christ of Chalma could heal illness, grant fertility to women, and protect newborn babies. Over time the entrance to the cave was enlarged and a shrine to St. Michael was erected. In the late seventeenth century the crucifix was moved from the cave to the specially constructed Sanctuary of Chalma, a church officially known as the Royal Monastery and Sanctuary of Our Lord Jesus Christ and Saint Michael of the Caves of Chalma. In the eighteenth century, the original crucifix was destroyed by fire and a replacement was created using its remains.

Thousands of pilgrims known as Chalmeros continue to visit Chalma each year to bathe in the SACRED SPRING and make OFFERINGS at the sanctuary. It is customary to walk the last part of the journey at night by torch or candlelight. People make the pilgrimage throughout the year, but the most popular time for the journey is just before the beginning of Lent. The largest number of pilgrims arrives in Chalma for Ash Wednesday services. Chalma has become the second most visited pilgrimage site in Mexico, after the shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.


Blessing of Holy Images

Some pilgrims bring an image of their patron saint to Chalma in order to have it blessed. These images are usually covered with a blanket or cloth during the journey and only uncovered once inside the sanctuary, where the blessing is performed.


The town of Chalma is surrounded by mountains and hills that have been covered over the years in crosses. Each cross is placed and maintained by one of the various groups of pilgrims who make annual visits to Chalma. During their yearly visit, the pilgrims repaint their cross and decorate it with flowers. A night is then spent dancing and singing around the cross.


Many pilgrims who visit Chalma pray with dancing and music. This tradition can be traced back to the earliest Pre-Columbian people who visited the sacred site at Chalma and danced in honor of Ozteotl.


People who make an annual pilgrimage to Chalma typically decorate their vehicles with flowers and often wear crowns of flowers in their hair. Flowers are also commonly left as offerings at the sanctuary and beside the sacred spring. This custom is an echo of the original offerings of flowers that were left by the early worshippers of Ozteotl.


Chalma is a popular pilgrimage site because many people believe that miracles are granted to the faithful who visit the sanctuary. Healings, successful births, and the fulfillment of personal requests have all been credited to the completion of a pilgrimage and to offerings made at Chalma's sanctuary.


Behind the Chalma monastery is an ancient tree known as the Ahuehuete, which grows over the mouth of the sacred spring. Pilgrims make offerings by hanging items on the tree branches and placing items along the wall beside the tree. Typical offerings include such items as paintings, photos, locks of hair, notes, and personal belongings. These are left in thanks for miracles that have been granted.

Sacred Spring

A spring flows from beneath the Ahuehuete tree and feeds a stream that runs behind the monastery. The water is regarded as holy and is believed to have healing powers of its own. Continuing the practice of the ancient worshippers of Ozteotl, pilgrims bathe in the stream, anoint themselves, or drink the water in order to be blessed or healed.


Davidson, Linda Kay. Pilgrimage: From the Ganges to Graceland. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2002. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005.