Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala
Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala is a spectacular religious display, based on Catholic ceremonies imported by the Spanish in the 1500’s. The ceremonies begin on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, but from Palm Sunday to Easter, there are huge processions through the streets, with floats carried on the shoulders of the faithful, each with different symbolism, commemorating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The streets are decorated with elaborate floral and sawdust alfombras (carpets), which people spend hours creating, but which are obliterated by the processions as they walk over them, only to be remade for the next procession. Thousands of local and foreign tourists converge on the city of Antigua to observe the procession, taking Antigua from a laid-back colonial town to a bustling and crowded little city.
The parades begin on Palm Sunday, with huge hand-carved wooden floats, carried by groups of men, women, or children, depending on the float and on the day. The floats depict various scenes from the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, while the women’s floats carry images of the Virgin Mary. These floats are carried on the shoulders of the bearers, and weigh thousands of pounds; the bearers are switched out every few minutes. The men and boys are dressed in purple ceremonial robes with white sashes up until Good Friday, after which they wear black. The women also wear black during the processions, and the girls are dressed in white. Processions are preceded by boys swinging incense-holders, and followed by musicians, who play mournful music on timpani drums and horns.
The streets are filled with people awaiting processions, as well as the float bearers who are awaiting their turn to carry the floats; the latter are dressed in the purple robes, and many carry three-headed spears. The incense smoke fills up the streets, and the processional music is so loud that you feel it, physically. On Good Friday, dozens of actors dressed as Roman soldiers also appear, many on horseback, and read out charges against Jesus; the biblical Roman costumes with their helmets and billowing capes add a whole other level to the sense of everything being surreal. The processions start early – 6am – and go late into the night. After dark, the floats are lit by generators pushed along behind them, adding to the noise and chaos.
Trevor and I honeymooned in Guatemala, and went specifically to Antigua over Easter. We planned the trip well in advance (eight or nine months), but still almost didn’t get a room; hostels and hotels apparently start filling up a year or more in advance. We spent hours walking up and down the cobblestone streets, admiring the various alfombras – elaborate carpets made of colored sawdust or of pine needles and flowers. The sawdust alfombras were particularly elaborate, with both Catholic and Mayan symbols incorporated; however, the pine-needle and flower alfombras were also very pretty. The amount of work that went into them was staggering, considering they were destroyed nightly.
The processions were amazing to watch. Here is an excerpt from my journal one of the nights we were there:
“I´ve just come in from one of the famous Antigua processions, and it really is a sight to behold. This one was led by men in Roman uniforms, complete with red capes and horsetailed helmets. Then come hundreds, maybe thousands of men in purple robes and headcloths, some swinging censors billowing sweet-acrid smoke. Twelve little kids holding up large framed drawings of the disciples, followed by three children carrying a huge cross, then came the floats. They are huge, highly ornamented wooden affairs, with statues of Jesus and Mary. They do not have wheels, but rather are carried on the shoulders of men – thirty to a side – over the treacherous cobblestones in the dark. Accompanying the floats are marching bands, 30 pieces or more, playing funeral-dirge music, heavy on the timpani and mournful horns, and loud enough to make your chest constrict. The only concessions to technology are the long forked poles that are used to hold the power lines out of the way of the floats – they are very tall – and generators on wheels to light the floats. The whole thing is even more impressive when you consider that the processions leave the churches at six AM, and it is after eight PM now… “
There are Semana Santa processions all over Guatemala, though the ones in Antigua are by far the most elaborate. We ventured out to the town of Chichicastenango during Easter week, and saw processions there, as well, though they were much smaller affairs than those of Antigua!
If you want to check out Semana Santa in Antigua, you definitely want to book accommodations well in advance – a year is best. Prices go up substantially during Easter week, so be prepared for a bit of sticker shock, though this is relative, as Guatemala is not an expensive country to travel in. The Lonely Planet guide warns of a lot of pickpocket activity during Semana Santa, but we took normal, common-sense precautions (not carrying valuables or large amounts of cash, and keeping wallets in front trouser pockets), and did not encounter any trouble.
Semana Santa in Antigua was one of the highlights of our trip, and if you have any interest at all in religious traditions or Catholicism, this is a can’t-miss stop on your Guatemala itinerary.