I finally visited Antigua, Guatemala in 2017 during one of the best weeks of the entire year – Holy Week ( Semana Santa in Spanish). This UNESCO World Heritage site has been observing Easter with massive religious floats, hours-long processions and unique, hand-made carpets (alfombras) along each of the procession routes
While processions and vigils take place during all of Lent, the processions grow larger and more frequent during Holy Week. We arrived on a Thursday, had a quick lunch, got a map of the processions and made our way to the center of Antigua, the Parque Central. The processions begin at one of the main churches in the city, follow a pre-determined route, and then return to the church. The participants carry floats that reflect the day of the week, or what happened to Christ during the final week leading up to Easter.
Even without the spectacle of hundreds of participants in the processions and the elaborate alfombras, Antigua is a stunning city. Founded in 1524, the 5,000′ valley is surrounded by three volcanos and the historic center is home to terrific restaurants serving local specialties and international options. Of course, famous Guatemalan coffee is available on nearly every block!
Our group followed processions on Thursday and we were especially successful, since the crowds (as we discovered on Friday) were not as large. It felt very easy to get in front of the processions to photograph them as they passed over the intricate carpets (made of colored sawdust, flowers and even vegetables), and then catch up to them to photograph different parts: the incense burners, the float carriers (cucuruchos), the marching band, maybe the women’s group. Of course, the colonial city really shines at dusk as the street lights come on and reflect off of the centuries-old cobblestones.
We started early on our Good Friday tour at 6:00am, but it was obvious that the city had been awake for hours and many of the alfombras were nearing completion. After a brief introduction from our guide, Elizabeth Bell, we walked along a couple of the procession routes to view some of the in-progress alfombras. The precision, care and creativity that is involved in their creation is simply amazing.
While the Good Friday processions were the longest and most significant of the lenten season, there are a few processions on Holy Saturday that are equally important and solemn. These resemble funeral marches with all the participants wearing black. The evening procession that passes through the closed streets under the Arch of Santa Carolina takes on a mystical feel with the black-clad faithful passing through the thick clouds of smoke coming from the swinging incense burners.
We left Antigua early on Easter morning, taking a private van to the mountain town of Chichicastenango, (known as Chichi) a few hours from Antigua. We arrived in time to observe the mass in Iglesia de Santo Tomas, which is on the edge of one of the largest markets in Central America. Even the steps of the church are used for selling flowers and candles. After a bit of shopping and breakfast, we passed through the vegetable market and marveled at the beautiful produce from the surrounding countryside.
It was just about 10:00 that the Easter mass was finished and the members of the indigenous Catholic congregation exiting the church with small floats, firing off extremely loud fireworks from the church steps (three weeks later my ears were still ringing!) and proceeding through the crowded Sunday market streets.
The procession was so different from Antigua’s elaborate, large and stately floats, and the intricately-designed alfombras. It lacked the costuming and organization of Antigua’s processions. However, in many ways, it felt special and we were moved by the solemnity of the faithful.
After the procession we walked a few blocks through the hilly streets of the town to the colorful cemetery with it’s small crypts and mausoleums crowded among a hillside. While we observed a few Mayan cleansing ceremonies being held for families, we kept a respectful distance and didn’t photograph the private and somber moments on this holy day.