Outside of Spain, Antigua is said to have the largest Semana Santa celebration in the world, and certainly in the Americas. Being in Sevilla a few years back for Holy Week, I was a bit nervous that restaurants would be impossible to get into, the roads would be blocked by processional traffic, and the hordes of peoples celebrating the holiday would make it impossible to walk around and explore. The ominous warnings from our traveling comrades in Pana who said things like “You’re going to Antigua after this? It’s going to be so crowded…millions of people, but I guess everyone should see it at least once” did not ease my trepidation. When we finally arrived in Antigua late Wednesday night, after a long crowded shuttle where the driver treated us to blaring Guatemalan music the entire second half of the ride, I was more than pleasantly surprised…well, at least after we finally got the hotel fiasco fixed.
While researching for the trip, many people warned that you needed to book a room at least in a year in advance for Semana Santa, and that some hotels (including the one I had arranged) would give your rooms away. After 2 email and one phone confirmation, when we finally arrived, which by the way consisted of our shuttle driver pulling into Antigua, seeing a procession in front of us, putting the shuttle bus in park and yelling “Antigua, everybody out”…So, anyways, after we found Hotel Y Arte, they had actually given the room I booked away and gave us some tiny corner room filled with mosquitos. When we asked about the bugs, the lady handed us a can of raid. Mind you, there were no windows in this bare, dumpy white walled room. After a brief debate over whether or not we should stay or go, and a warning from her that if we cancelled any of our 3 nights she would charge us the full price, we went out in search of another place, found Posada Don Diego right across from the most famous church in Antigua who happened to have a last minute cancellation, called booking.com who took care of the threatened charges, and finally got settled in for the night.
After a brief dinner at one of the many enticing restaurants along 5th calle, we headed to bed knowing we had to get up a few hours later to hike Pacaya.
Early Thursday morning, we were picked up at Cafe Condessa with about 10 other people and took a two hour ride to the entrance of Pacaya National Park, which lies in the town of San Francisco de Sales. One of the many active volcanoes that visitors can climb when visiting Antigua, the 2552 meter high Pacaya is the most visited volcano in Guatemala. The last major eruption was in 2012, so unfortunately, we did not see lava spouting up into the air, but after a reasonably difficult hike (for me anyways) we did get a panoramic view of the surrounding area, including the neighboring volcanoes.
After the hike and before we descended down, our guide brought us to a little location where the volcano was smoking and we roasted marshmallows on the heated rocks.
After a long morning of hiking and driving, we arrived back in Antigua with enough time for me to rest and then Skype into my class back at home. Afterwards, we had planned for Courtney, a good friend of mine from my Fulbright to China a few years ago, and who also randomly was visiting Guatemala at the same time as us, to come meet us at the hotel around 6. Around 5:30 however, we could start to hear the drums of a procession coming down our road. Being our hotel was located right across from Iglesia de le Merced, the church where most of the major processions begin and end, we had many opportunitites to walk outside the cafe’s door and witness the incredible religious devotion of millions of Guatemalans who both live in Antigua and who made a pilgrimage from all over the country to be there on Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
The smell of incense and the ringing bells indicated the beginning of the procession, often followed by a giant float or andas depicting a lifesize Jesus, a very loud marching band, then women dressed in black, followed by a large andas of a lifesize Mary, then another marching band, and if the procession was really big, like the one on Good Friday, it was followed by children’s balloon vendors. So there you have the order, Jesus, Mary, Sponge Bob and Peppa Pig.
After catching up over dinner, we headed out to walk the streets of Antigua in search of street beers, which had become our favorite thing in Pana. While the pedestrian walkway on 5th had a festive feel to it, we didn’t seem to notice anyone else drinking, yet when we came across a little keg in a cafe by the street, we each got a beer to go and continued to explore the happenings of Holy Thursday night.
As we were walking along, beers in hand, a women kindly invited us into a church, so we followed suit, (Michelle held the beers outside) and we went in and prayed. When we existed, she met us on the street and explained that it was a tradition to visit 7 churches on the night of Holy Thursday and say a Hail Mary in each. This tradition of Visita Iglesia is practiced all throughout Antigua, which helped to explain the hordes of people waiting in long lines outside the churches. We decided to drop the beers (how pious of us) and partake in the tradition. When all was said and done, we visited 4 churches (standing outside counts) and called it Gringa Semana Santa.
Knowing we had to be up early the next morning, we called it a night.
The big procession leaves Iglesia de la Merced at 3am Good Friday morning after a mock trial is performed throughout the streets condemning Jesus to death. Though we slept through some of this, we were up by 4am, woken by the sounds of processional drums and barritones blairing outside our hotel’s front doors. We quickly dressed and headed out into the dark to witness the devout Guatemalans creating elaborate “rugs” made of dyed saw dust, flowers, and even sometimes produce! These alfombras are among the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and as we walked by snapping pictures of them, their creators sat proudly next to them in chairs beaming with pride.
The alfohmbras are made each year by famillies or businesses who occupy the houses or shops on the streets where the processions come through. It is considered a great honor and many people start planning their designs as early as a year in advance. Still, the actual making of carpets takes place in the few hours before the big processions come through, and on Good Friday there is a major procession leaving from Iglesia de la Merced. The idea behind the carpets is that Jesus should not touch the street. Consequently, the beginning of the procession walks on the sides of the carpets, waiting for the float of Jesus to “walk” over them, and in the process, destroy them. The ephemeral nature of these elaborate carpets is a testament to the devout Catholicism practiced by many Guatemalans throughout the country.
By the time the sun came up, the streets became more crowded with people checking out the carpets and preparing for the big procession to go by.
By 8am, after we had seen many of the most elaborate and beautiful carpets in Antigua, we caught the main procession. Mind you, this was the same procession that strarted at 3am and would go on until 12pm; the time when Jesus was put on the cross.
Each float needs over 80 people to carry it, and because it is considered a great honor, people actually pay to carry the float for a period of time, before they rotate.
Like the processions that were held on Holy Thursday, after the lifesize float of Jesus carrying the cross passed over the carpets, the women dressed in white and black vails began to arrive. Followed by them is the float of a grieving Mother Mary.
After the major procession went by, we took stopped at breakfast at the Cafe Don Diego. While we discussed the incredible and elaborate tradtions we had witnessed that morning, over cups of coffee and desayuno, we heard the processional drums closing in on the church across the street and were able to witness the procession of Jesus “walking” towards his crucifixion one last time.
Followed again by the women.
At 12pm the first procession ended, but the streets of Antigua were still incredibly crowded with a festive feel to them. At 3pm, the time of Jesus’ death, a new procession depicting Jesus on the cross would emerge from the churches and proceed well into the evening. Those who were wearing purple earlier were now wearing black to mourn Jesus’ imminent death, and the music was of a funeral procession. This particular procession was scheduled to go until 2am but Courtney said she heard it going by at 4!
After 48 hours of processions and rug makings, the streets of Antigua were rather quiet on Saturday morning, as the faithful wait for the resurection to take place on Sunday. This being our last day in Guatemala we explored the city in the morning, making our way up to Cerro de la Cruz; a giant hill and cross that overlooks the city.
We explored some of the city’s ruins dating back to the 16th century, then found our way to a little courtyard restuarant where we enjoyed our last few Gallos, delicious nachos, and I tried Ron Zacapa Centenario for the first time. Feeling no pain, we said our farewell to Courtney who was staying a few more days, caught a tuk-tuk to our 3pm shuttle back to Guatemal City, and headed to the airport.
Although many people still don’t think of Guatemala as a top tourist destintion, the country, its people, and its traditions are incredibly beautiful. As a semi-practicing Catholic, I was moved to tears when the Good Friday procession marched by us the first time, and I felt an incredible admiration for the Guatemalan people; a people who have sufferred many wars and violence, and yet, still demonstrate a faith that has to be exprienced to be understood.