Semana Santa, or Holy Week, in Antigua is a truly memorable experience. For its centuries-old traditions, for its beauty and complexity, Guatemala’s Antigua shines among all the towns and villages that celebrate Holy Week.
The history of processions in Antigua dates back to the early 1500s and began with the arrival of Don Pedro de Alvarado from Spain. After a series of calamities, which included the death of Pedro de Alvarado and the virtual destruction of the town by flooding, city officials took it upon themselves to move the town to its present day location. The first procession in Guatemala took place on that day as the town’s survivors made the trek into the valley. They carried their personal possessions and the Holy Sacrament from the town that had been reduced to rubble.
Today, Antigua has become a mecca of sorts for Guatemala’s faithful during Easter celebration. Activities begin on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, and reach their climax on Good Friday when the quiet town’s streets are thronged with solemn spectators. It is well known to the locals that if you want to get around on Easter Sunday and witness the breathtaking imagery of a procession, you’d better get out there early.
Carefully designed, hand-made carpets cover the cobblestone streets. Made from dyed sawdust and sand, flowers and fruits, the carpets, or “alfombras”, are veritable works of art that are brief in their beauty. Templates are made from wood or thick cardboard and the painstaking process of carefully designing the carpets begins hours before the procession, parishioners who take the task to heart and unleash their creative talents take on the elaboration of the carpets. Residents and parishioners alike share coffee and conversation, as the temporary artists lay on low-slung boards that allow them access to their grand cobblestone canvas.
The atmosphere is truly unique. Not only is the air charged with anticipation, but it is also redolent with the fragrance of flowers and Copal Incense, The crowd’s murmur reaches a crescendo as the procession rounds the corner. The spectacular carpet with bands of yellow, magenta and purple disappears under the shuffling feet of the bearers. Signs of the cross and genuflections flow through the spectators like waves on a pond.
Massive wooden platforms bear the statues of Jesus of Nazareth and the Virgin Mary. The bearers walk In ponderous synchronization as they proudly take the figure on its route. The floats are decorated with colorful flowers and richly textured fabrics; the regal statues are Immaculately dressed and adorned.
The bearers of the floats are called “cucuruchos” and the same ones often carry a particular float year after year. But the bearing shifts are open to everyone weeks In advance In preparation for a procession. Many times the bearers are doing penance and seek atonement by carrying the heavy platform for blocks. All bearers pay a small fee to the church for the privilege and the money Is used to decorate the saint and the float. Each church organizes its procession and it departs with much pomp and circumstance on Its own route. Often the processions trundle for hours through the streets with bearers trading places at the end of every block.
Locals and travelers alike can enjoy the festivities of Holy Week in Antigua. On every Sunday during Lent, several churches organize small processions. On Good Friday, onlookers bear witness to a Roman soldier as he read the sentence of crucifixion of Jesus.
Most of the country´s residents have a holiday from work from the Wednesday before Easter Sunday until the following Monday. During this time, residents take advantage of the days off to follow processions from their church around the city streets.
These processions are celebrated throughout the country in even the smallest town or village. Although ail the celebrations are beautiful, Antigua rises above them not only for the elaborate processions, but also for the spectacular surroundings, The ruins of ancient churches, monasteries and convents provide a most stunning backdrop to these passionate pageants.
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