I’m not usually much of a planner when I’m on a trip, but in the case of Mexico City, we had planned our four day escape down to a T.
Friday was Frida Kahlo’s birthday- so we spent the day with her.
Saturday we ate so many tacos I thought I would explode.
The crown jewel of our entire trip was Sunday.
We woke before sunrise and packed our day packs. The Uber arrived at our hotel in the dark and shuttered us down empty streets to La Villa. Just as the sun began to rise, we entered the cathedral for 6 am Mass.
The altar held countless priests, altar boys, musicians and of course tons of gold. I had seen the iconic image of Virgen of Guadalupe thousands of times, but seeing the framed image in the church this time took on a special significance.
We attended Mass before heading down to the basement to see the actual tilma where the Virgen of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. When we entered the sacred space I felt a sense of awe, a sense of peace, and a sense that I was home.
As I stood on the people mover under Juan Diego’s cloak, my heart rose to my throat and the tears came. I had finally made my pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and it was everything I dreamed of- and more.
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The Virgen of Guadalupe- Background Info
The Basilica of the Virgen of Guadalupe (also known as La Villa) in Southern Mexico City, Mexico, is one of the most iconic Catholic pilgrimages in the world. Because La Virgen de Guadalupe is known as the Mother of Latin America and is responsible for converting the indigenous people of Mexico to the Catholic faith through her apparition to a young Indian boy named Juan Diego, Latinos and Catholics around the world hold her in extremely high regard.
As do I. Because I am Catholic, a lover of Latin America and a former Spanish teacher, La Virgen de Guadalupe has taken on significance in different ways throughout my life. I have always felt a strong connection to Mary in my spiritual life, and when I became a Spanish teacher I had the opportunity to teach the story of her apparition to Juan Diego from a cultural standpoint to my high school students.
When my husband and I were married, we took roses to La Virgen de Guadalupe as part of our wedding ceremony, and her presence has transcended our marriage for the past 14 years.
Our Lady of Guadalupe has also become an icon in secular society. She is a visual representation of Catholicism, Mexicanism, and Chicanismo around the world.
So- since our lucky number is 13, on our 13th wedding anniversary we made the pilgrimage to the Basilica de la Virgin de Guadalupe in Mexico City. And I’m going to share our experience with you- the best time of day to visit, where to eat when you get there, what to buy when to see Mass, and how to experience the entire basilica.
The Virgin Mary- Apparition to Saint Juan Diego
A bit of background on the Virgen of Guadalupe story. The story, which you can read in full detail here, goes that the Virgen of Guadalupe appeared on Tepeyac Hill to Juan Diego. She told him to go to the local priest and tell him to build a shrine on the spot where she appeared. This happened on December 9, 1531.
Well when little Juan Diego with brown skin told the white priest what had happened, the priest demanded a sign. So Juan Diego went back to the place of the apparition and asked for a sign. La Virgen de Guadalupe told Juan to collect roses in his tilma, or cloak, and take them to the priest.
Juan Diego did as she asked, and when he unrolled the cloak in front of the priest, the image of the Virgin de Guadalupe was on the cloak, causing the priest to believe Juan Diego and construct the first basilica of our Lady of Guadalupe, just outside of Mexico City.
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Visiting The Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City – What To Know
Millions and millions of people visit the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico City every single year- and thousands of people visit every single day.
The first thing you need to know about the area is that it is considered holy ground by billions of people around the world. There is always Mass being said at one of the many altars and chapels in the complex, and many people make pilgrimages from far away to show their devotion to the Virgen of Guadalupe.
This means you don’t have to be Catholic to visit, but you do need to be respectful of the area as a holy place.
The next thing you need to know about the Basicila is that everything related to the basilica is free. You do not need to pay to enter to see the tilma, to pray, to view the museum and shrines. But- running a huge church that celebrates a world icon is not cheap- so do expect to pay for candles and holy water containers.
Also, know that there are a ton of enterprising locals ready to sell you everything and anything related to the Virgin of Guadalupe. There are street vendors, official Catholic church shops, markets near the basilica, and regular shops that just rent space. Bring cash, and be ready to buy the things you love.
This is a great place for families to visit- young children and multigenerational. There are tons of kids and the elderly here, and everyone is super nice and helpful.
Best Time To Visit The Basilica of the Virgen of Guadalupe
I used the official website for the church to plan my visit- it’s located here. There are links to Mass times and all other special events. (The website is in Spanish).
Transportation info and more in English from this website is good too- The grounds are open from 5:50 am to 9 pm daily.
We wanted to attend Mass, and also have time to explore the grounds with fewer people. We weren’t interested in a guided tour, but we did want to arrive before the rush.
We grabbed an Uber and headed down to the basilica in time for the 7 am Mass, and there were mostly locals there at the time. I was able to receive communion and view the tilma on the people mover several times without waiting in line. Then we headed over to the local food market to eat breakfast before wandering the rest of the grouds.
Most large guided tour groups arrived on site a 9 am, so I loved going early enough to avoid the crowds. Obviously, there tend to be more locals attending Mass here on Sundays, so keep that in mind too.
December 12- Feast Day
December 12th is the official feast day of the Virgen of Guadalupe, and it is similar in size to a pilgrimage to Mecca. Millions of people arrive from all over the world to show their devotion to the Virgen. The grounds are open year-round, but December is the big day. The entire month of December is very busy, so just keep that in mind.
We coupled a morning at the basilica with an afternoon at the pyramids of Teotihuacan and it was the perfect day.
What To Do At The Basilica
When you arrive, you will most likely see the modern church where the tilma is housed, and where Mass is going constantly. The modern basilica was built from 1975-1976.
The tilma is in the basement and the altar is upstairs. You will definitely want to see the shroud and walk through the shrines to the Virgen.
Next door to the modern church is an older church, built in 1709 and officially known as Templo Expiatorio a Cristo Rey. The foundation of this church is sinking, so the floor is uneven. You can visit this church and see all kinds of interesting facts about the apparition, as well as quiet places to pray. the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament takes place here too, I believe.
Then you can walk up Tepeyac Hill to the shrine where the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to Juan Diego. There are tons of gorgeous roses in the gardens, and when you get tho the top, the view of the entire complex, as well as of sprawling Mexico City, are divine.
And of course- shopping. You can purchase all kinds of medals, holy water containers, candles, special masses, and every trinket under the sun. Outside of the modern church, there are priests blessing everything all day, every day.
Finally, we went next door to the grounds to eat traditional Mexican street food for a great price at the nearby market. Our food was prepared while we watched, and it was cheap and delicious. I highly recommend.
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Other Details About Your Visit
Make sure to bring cash if you want to purchase things from street vendors or the markets. It can be hot in the summer, and there is no shade in the plaza or outside of the churches. Make sure to wear sunscreen.
Also, you will have to pay to use the bathroom, so be prepared. I took a water bottle as well since we were there for a long time, but there are snacks and drinks for sale right on the grounds.
The area is breezy in the early morning and late evening, so make sure to bring a light jacket int he summer months, or dress warmer in the winter months.
Expect to spend anywhere between 1-4 hours in the area- just depending on how many things you want to do and how in-depth you want to go.
Finally- enjoy it! When you go, you are doing something many people wait their entire lifetimes to do, so approach the visit with a spirit of learning, of reverence and of appreciation.