Written by: Nadia Hakim
Antigua, Guatemala is a Spanish colonial town best known for it's colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, balmy weather, and tourist-friendly vibe (think juice bars, organic grocery stores, coffee shops and yoga). One of the best times of year to visit Antigua is Easter week, aka Semana Santa. It's well-known that Antigua is home to one of the biggest Semana Santa celebrations in Latin America.
I accept that no string of words can do Antigua's Semana Santa justice.
I heard and read a number of things from friends, locals, and the Internet, but I still couldn’t comprehend what I was getting myself into when I agreed to rent a house with ten other friends for that big weekend.
Semana Santa is pretty much the entire country on spring break. People flock from the city to Antigua and Lake Atitlan, there are nonstop concerts and parties, and it’s just a really crowded and good time.
Considering it is Holy Week, there are plenty of unholy things happening at all hours.
The first night we were there, we roamed the cobblestone streets to see what was happening. We visited our rental host’s Mexican restaurant, Cactus, in the middle of town. A poster over the bar read “Donald, eres un pendejo” with a photo of Donald Trump.
The band was crammed into one corner of the restaurant in a window, and they were faced towards the street. Our host took a break from running around, gave us rounds of tequila, and sang “I Will Survive.”
When we finally left, these giant wooden sandboxes were set up in the middle of the streets. I learned these were so locals could put together the “alfombras.”
Throughout the weekend, you could catch groups of people sprawled throughout the city streets with buckets full of brightly-colored wood shavings. With the help of stencils, they create these beautiful designs on the floor using these wood shavings. There are geometric patterns, Stations of the Cross, and flowers that cover the cobblestones, when they finish.
A little while later, the precessions start. The crowd retreats to the curbs, while the melancholy wind and brass instruments release their sad ten or twelve measures of song.
Then the giant platforms sway toward you. These massive wooden platforms carrying scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, and statues of other holy figures, come down the streets and miraculously clear tight corners. These structures (some as long as 18 meters) rest on the shoulders of worshippers donned in black veils and robes. Only women carried the Virgin Mary, while men carried the others.
It’s a very somber scene, and once you start noticing the tears and sweat on the faces of those under the platforms, the drums startle you back towards the bigger picture. Your heart synchronizes with their slow tempo, until they fade down the street.
They rock from side to side as they make their way through the city, mixing the colors of the alfombras with their dragging feet. Close behind, there’s a clean-up crew that sweeps everything up immediately. A wooden frame is placed on the ground and the wood shaving artists start constructing another alfombra for the next precession.
Once it’s late enough in the evening, the same streets are littered with buzzing tourists and Guatemalans who all took advantage of the tequila and rum specials for the week.
The dance clubs blare their American pop songs and European techno, and you can’t help but fist pump along.
It’s most definitely an experience. Again, it’s nothing that can be justified with words.
As someone who identifies as agnostic and spiritual, not so much religious, I still immensely appreciated the ceremonies and the dedication of the participants. It is incredibly beautiful and moving.
I would recommend adding “Spend a Semana Santa weekend in Guatemala” to your bucket list.
Photos by: Haley Westervelt