Although Christian Holy Week, known as Semana Santa or Easter to some, is celebrated all over the world, the Guatemalan city of Antigua’s celebrations are some of the most extravagant in all of Latin America. The atmosphere is rich with religious fervour and emotion, and being swept up in the enormity of this week-long event is something to behold, regardless of religious leanings. The celebrations begin on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, before they reach their peak on Good Friday. For one week, the city of Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is swept up in their acknowledgment of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Colour plays a huge part in the festivities. Purple dress and decoration marks the initial period of grief, with those taking part in the processions wearing robes complete with peaked hooded hats and two eye holes. It’s a strange sight, but an iconic one at that. At 3pm on Good Friday, the hour appointed by the Church as when Jesus died, the penitents change into black robes, marking the period of mourning around his death. From here, there is a change into white, the colour of resurrection.
Visitors are welcomed into Antigua during this time, regardless of their religious status, so long as they are respectful and unobtrusive. The city’s tight hold on its colonial history, combined with Mayan tradition and local beliefs, ensure this particular Semana Santa celebration is carried out on a grand scale that is a sight to behold for locals and visitors alike.
Holy Carpets & The Processional Route
Unique to Antigua’s celebration of Semana Santa are the alfombras, otherwise known as carpet-making. Streets are covered in meticulously drawn patterns of multi-coloured sawdust, fruit and flower petals, paving the way for the processional route that penitents trudge on. It’s a dynamic tradition, blending pagan ritual with the Mayan contributions of colour and artistry. The mammoth task of decorating the streets is a community endeavour. Each household is responsible for the square of space outside their home, and a team of city artists hand out segmented stencilled designs to neighbourhoods in order to produce a seamless result.
Church Vigils & Devotion
Among the more solemn of events during Semana Santa are the church vigils, where anyone can come to pay silent respects throughout the day at several of the city churches. The alfombras feature here too, alongside offerings of fruit, flowers and candles. A morning visit will most likely be a more peaceful experience, away from the crowds that the processions bring.
Seville in Spain and The Dominican Republic are both renowned for their unique celebrations of Holy Week.
WORDS OF WISDOM
- Lock in accommodation. It’s as if the whole of Guatemala descends on Antigua during Holy Week, but don’t let this act as a deterrent. Plan ahead and confirm hotel rooms well in advance. Otherwise, there’s the option to stay in surrounding towns or Guatemala City itself, and commute in for the festivities.
- Plan around the processions. The easiest way to do this is by visiting the Antigua Tourist Office. Ask for maps that outline the procession routes.
- Explore the city. After all, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Amble along ancient cobblestone streets, admire the Spanish Baroque architecture, visit local Mayan artisans, and hike one of the surrounding volcanoes.