CAACUPE, Paraguay — It was 7 a.m. in Caacupe, and it already was starting to get hot and steamy. Esther Baez, 19, walked on the burning asphalt in violet socks almost completely covered in black.

Baez, a student from the city of Fernando de la Mora, said her sister recently survived a car accident. That’s why she and her friend Victor had walked all night, to arrive just in time to the biggest Mass of the year.

“I came because I have to pay my promise to thank the Virgin for many things. Because my family is OK now; my sister had a car accident, but now she is OK,” Baez told Catholic News Service.

Thousands of Paraguayan pilgrims traveled Dec. 8 to the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Miracles of Caacupe, about 35 miles from Asuncion. Some walked hundreds of miles from cities and towns in the South American country to the city Pope Francis visited in 2015. Young families with many children walked along the sides of the road to reach the Mass, continuing a more than 200-year Marian tradition to the nation’s patroness. Some came by carts, old buses and cars.

Baez and her friend left home at 9:30 p.m. Dec. 7. Early Dec. 8, Baez lost her shoes trying to cross a river, but she was happy.

“It was awesome,” she said, describing how they would stop to rest along the road. She said the feast was “the most important (day) in Paraguay.”

Carlos Gonzalez and his three friends took four days to get to Caacupe. They left by bus from Ciudad del Este, the second-largest city in Paraguay, then walked about 50 miles.

“This is a very important feast for me and for all the people,” he said.

In front of the Caacupe basilica, people prayed, holding blue candles and images of Mary. In the front row, Paraguayan President Horacio Cartes and other politicians listened to Bishop Ricardo Valenzuela Rios, who denounced corruption and demanded justice.

“The scale tilts, depending on the side where the person with the most influence is located,” he said. “Those who dishonor democratic institutions should be investigated and punished, because they are an offense to the republic.”

Francis promoted the sanctuary of Caacupe during his 2015 visit.