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Mexico prepares for Pope visit and millions of visitors

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February 29, 2012: Maria de la Luz Yepes shows one of the sombrero's that will be given to Pope Benedict XVI, at her sombrero shop in the town of San Francisco del Rincon, near Leon, Mexico. (AP)

One hundred fifty-thousand communion wafers? Check.

Campsites for 350,000? Check.

Three hand-embroidered papal souvenir sombreros? Check.

Official song? Check.

It takes a lot to prepare for the coming of the pope and the 3 million people the host Archdiocese of Leon says he is expected to draw. Facades must be spiffed; campgrounds must be sprayed for dengue-bearing mosquitoes.

The visit of Pope Benedict XVI, his first to Spanish-speaking Latin America, begins in just a week in Mexico's central state of Guanajuato, where he will spend three days and give an outdoor Mass for some 300,000 people before heading to Cuba on March 26.

In the Bicentennial Park in nearby Silao, hammers and heavy equipment pound out the contours of a massive stage large enough for a Madonna concert. The religious order of the Capuchin Poor Clares in San Isidro is making 150,000 Frisbee-sized hosts for the Mass, though it won't require vats of wine. While the masses eat bread, only the officiates will sip a mere 2.5 gallons (10 liters) of consecrated wine on stage.

Maria de la Luz Yepez of nearby San Francisco del Rincon is overseeing the stitching and stretching of faux suede and velvet on three artisanal sombreros that will be given to Benedict. Each took three weeks to decorate by hand. One has an embroidered face of Benedict inside the cap and features a map of Mexico on the brim. Another shows the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.

She said the whole community, a suburb home to tennis shoe factories and makers of the black, spangled sombreros sold in airports and tourist stalls, wants to chip in.

"Even to make the boxes to pack the sombreros," said Yepez, whose 55-year-old family business, Sombreros Salazar Yepez, made the signature Mexican hats for popes Paul VI and John Paul II as well. "They want the sombrero to carry a little bit of everyone here in San Francisco."

The Popemobile landed weeks ago, courtesy of an Alitalia flight, so it will be ready for the pontiff. The church's preparations include giving the 85-year-old pope a slow morning after arrival "to get over jet lag," said the Rev. Federico Lomardi, Vatican spokesman.

When he ventures out, he'll find cities that have put on a shine.

The 60-foot (20-meter) Christ the King monument overlooking the city of Guanajuato was smothered in scaffolding as part of a two-month restoration. The church is taking advantage of the fact that the federal government is helping out with the bill, polishing the bronze and replacing some of the statue's weathered plates.

Benedict is rumored to be doing a helicopter flyover of the statue at 7,800 feet (2,600 meters) above sea level before the Mass and turn on special lighting of the monument from Leon that Sunday night.

The city of Guanajuato is repairing and repainting some 200 buildings the pope will pass on his way to meet President Felipe Calderon in the historic city center, where he will give a blessing in the colonial Plaza de la Paz. A team of 20 workers, funded by private donations and city money, is scrubbing graffiti as well.

Mexico's presidential guard service is amassing thousands of officers, though Calderon's office won't give a total for security reasons. More than 3,000 will patrol Leon, according to city officials.

The agency did announce it will cut off cell phone service for about 10 minutes in the area around the pope's convoy as it passes, said Leon city press spokesman Jesus Montano.

"They always do this for heads of state," Montano said.

The 600 businesses within two blocks of the route will be barred from selling alcohol starting eight hours before the convoy passes, according to Leon Mayor Ricardo Sheffield Padilla.

The federal consumer protection agency is warning them against any unchristian price-gouging of the faithful pouring in for the visit.

Meanwhile, civil protection units in Guanajuato are already policing the balconies overlooking the route and warning owners renting space to spectators to mind their capacity. They will face criminal charges for any injuries or falls from overcrowding.

Hotels in the area are booked, and cities are setting up campgrounds to hold more than 350,000 people, one in Leon, one along the highway to Silao and one near the site of the Mass.

It's bring your own sleeping bag and tent. Only one of the sites will have food for sale. But if nothing else, they will have water and free wireless.

The papal song had to be written and recorded, a power-pop Christian rock number called "Messenger of Peace," recorded by various Mexican artists, including Sheyla and kid phenoms Magaby, Miguel Angel and Hiroshi from the show "Small Giants."

Then there were gifts to prepare: from the woodworker who carved the Pope's kneeler and to the artisan who made him a pair of shoes and the flower growers in Texcoco outside of Mexico City who cultivated poinsettias named after John Paul II, even though they normally appear only in December.

"It's surprising the affection, the gestures of love and welcome the people have shown," Villegas said. "I've seen people very simple, very humble, wanting to make something from their own hands for the pope."