Maria Villamizar feared the worst when she learned 16 people had vanished in Venezuela's mountain town of La Grita, a famous meeting point for Catholic pilgrims near the Colombia border.
"It was shocking because we had never heard of something like this here," Villamizar, a government employee in the farming town of 90,000, told AFP on Friday.
More than 160 police officers aided by dogs and drones were deployed to find the group after they went missing on August 22, when they set off for a religious retreat, leaving their cell phones behind to avoid being disturbed.
Local media labeled the group "religious fanatics" and a cult of "extraterrestrials" who were waiting for "the end of the world."
Officers searched for days in the mountains before announcing on Thursday that the group, which included a 20-day-old baby, had been located and were safe and sound on a farm called El Rodeo.
Agents showed the group videos on their phones of locals expressing concern about them, said Yesnardo Canal, a local police officer.
"The children, innocently, said they had become famous, but the adults were ashamed," and many apologized, Canal said.
"They were surprised. The last thing they thought was that all this commotion was happening."
All 16 were transferred back to La Grita early Friday and have undergone medical and psychological examinations, police said.
The news triggered relief across La Grita.
"Thank God they are fine," Villamizar said in a local church, standing near towering stained glass windows and a figure of Jesus Christ that local Catholics credit for multiple miracles.
"There was anxiety" and "very crazy theories," said Deivis Marquez, 30, deacon of the church.
"For us it was a great joy" that the lost people, who live in and around La Grita, turned up, he said.
"Everywhere you went" in the town, people were talking about the missing group, said Maria Isabel Rolon, 53, at her street stall in front of the basilica where she sells paintings and holy cards.
- 'It was not a game' -
Some parents have expressed outrage that their children were taken on the retreat.
A father of six minors in the group asked police for help when he was unable to reach them, police told AFP.
Another parent said their 13-year-old had gone on the retreat without their permission.
"It was not a show," said Yeilen Gutierrez, the 13-year-old’s aunt.
"It was not a game, it was a child who was missing."
After days of anxiety, calm has now returned to La Grita.
The town is an important agricultural hub in Venezuela, and has a certain mystique for the Catholic parishioners.
Every year on August 6 the city receives hundreds of pilgrims who go to give "thanks" to the Christ of La Grita for his "favors".
Locals are "deeply religious people," said Juan Escalante, mayor of the Jauregui municipality, to which La Grita belongs.
"It is important that we receive these families with open arms."