Catholic tradition has it the dark-skinned Virgin appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego on December 12, 1531, heralding the Church's arrival in the New World.

Now, nearly five centuries later, millions of pilgrims from around Mexico and the world descend each year on the enormous basilica built on the spot, covering the surrounding plaza in colorful tents and lining up to get a few minutes inside to worship her.

Pilgrims with their image of the Virgin of Guadalupe at the cathedral in Mexico City Pilgrims with their image of the Virgin of Guadalupe at the cathedral in Mexico City Photo: AFP / CLAUDIO CRUZ

"A lot of people don't get the chance to come before her. They might be bedridden or sick. We're just grateful for the opportunity to come, and we are doing it with a lot of faith, with a lot of love for her," said Elie Rocio de Veana, 34, who made the trip with her husband and eight-year-old son.

Some carry posters of the Virgin, though the most devout haul around statues.

Faithful, with a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe on their shoulders head to her basilica Faithful, with a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe on their shoulders head to her basilica Photo: AFP / CLAUDIO CRUZ

A sign outside the shrine offers free foot massages to pilgrims.

"We honor your trek," it says.

"We didn't know where we would arrive each day, or where we would sleep, but we made it and now we're staying here," said pilgrim Alfonso Sanchez, 24.

The plaza is a blend of Catholic, indigenous and national traditions: the sea of pilgrims is dotted by mariachi bands and indigenous dancers, the smell of incense mixing with that of enormous quantities of garbage.

Devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe extends well beyond the Church in Mexico, visible on the tattooed arms of hardened criminals or in the worldview of those who identify as "Guadalupe atheists" or "Guadalupe Marxists."

Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum wrote on Twitter that a total of 10.6 million people made the pilgrimage this year, the 488th annual celebration.