More than five million people traveled to Mexico City's Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe this year to pay respects to one of Latin America’s most revered holy figures, authorities said Monday.
Arriving on their knees, by bicycle or bus, more than 5.6 million pilgrims from across Mexico and beyond paid their respects on the 480th anniversary of the dark-skinned Virgin's appearance to indigenous peasant Juan Diego in 1531.
"As of 12 pm (1800 GMT) we had 5.6 million. That indicates that we'll be at between six and seven million pilgrims for when the temple closes at around 10 pm (0500 GMT)," said Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Mexican archdiocese.
Roman Catholics travel to Mexico City's Basilica at the start of December in a pilgrimage that culminates on December 12 to give thanks for help with personal problems or illnesses.
The temple lies at the foot of Tepeyac hill, where the Virgin of Guadalupe is believed to have appeared.
Crowds swarmed inside the modern Basilica -- built on the orders of former pope John Paul II after the original was damaged in Mexico City's 1985 earthquake.
Many carried shrines or portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who was named patroness of all the Americas by papal decree.
John Paul II canonized Juan Diego as the first indigenous saint of the Americas in 2002, as Protestants were making growing inroads in traditionally Catholic Latin America.
Despite intense cold, tens of thousands of people gathered late Sunday night inside and around Mexico City's temple for a ceremony to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Caravans of vehicles then joined those walking back hundreds of miles to their homes.
Similar pilgrimages and ceremonies took place in churches across Mexico.
In the southern resort city of Acapulco, dozens of boats carrying images of the Virgin of Guadalupe and flowers floated around the famous bay.
Dozens walked barefoot for four days to reach the church of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Xalapa, capital of the eastern Veracruz state.
Eva Pedraza Rodriguez, 17, said she walked with her brother to thank the Virgin for helping her sick father.
"It's only once a year. If you're a believer, you forget the pain," she said.
This year's celebration came as Pope Benedict XVI announced he would travel to Mexico and communist Cuba next year, during a mass relayed to millions across Latin America.
The visits are expected in March although no official dates were announced.