Unbeknownst to me prior to my arrival, Antigua happens to be the site of one of the largest Easter Week celebration in the world (also known as Holy Week or, in Spanish, Semana Santa). This means that this sleepy, tourist town of less than 35,000 people is flooded with nearly 1 million visitors from all over Central America, flocking to the town like a religious pilgrimage. Which is more or less what it is.
It was a great stroke of luck that I had planned by stay in Antigua during this time and an even greater stroke of luck that there was a room available at Ixchel – my school/home stay – as visitors plan their Semana Santa trip to Antigua MONTHS in advance.
Starting Ash Wednesday and going on through until Good Friday, processions parade throughout the town and surrounding communities, some lasting all day and on into the early morning hours. The centerpiece of the processions are enormous andas (or what I would call floats) that are carried dutifully by large groups of people along the tumultuous cobblestone streets. Atop the floats are various Biblical scenes such as the Passion (Jesus carrying the cross), the crusifiction, and the resurrection of Jesus among others. While anticipated, processions are somber in nature. Some of the floats are so enormous that they require nearly 50 men to carry them – about 20 on each side and a few in the front and back.
Various groups of either men, women or children take turns carrying the floats (those for the children are smaller) as a form of penance and in remembrance of the way Jesus carried the cross. The men are dressed in purple robes and hoods, eerily similar to the outfits of KKK members. The women are usually dressed in black dresses with lacy veils over their heads. The procession sways back and forth, struggling with the float at a slow steady pace – the sway helps to ensure that the group moves fluidly together as they work their way down the tricky roads. Loud, large bands follow the processions playing somber (and a bit creepy) music – it reminded me of the bands in New Orleans that play for funerals. And after them, a float with the Virgin Mary.
Under foot are the famous alfombras – or carpets. These are beautiful, intricate designs painstakingly created by the people of Antigua. They are made of dyed saw dust, leaves, fruits, vegetables, flowers and other organic materials and depict religious scenes or have religious designs like the cross. They spend hours creating these and they’re destroyed in a matter of minutes as the procession marches over them.
Every day, everywhere you look there are more processions and more alfombras. Coming home from the gym: “Oh look, it’s a life-size version of Moses with the Ten Commandments lumbering down the street. And there is the crucified Christ casually making his way past my school/homestay.” It can be a bit hectic working your way through the crowds, but for me it was a really special and exciting time to be in Antigua, which is normally sweet and quaint, but very, very sleepy.
A few bad things: it’s busy as all get out, it’s a thief’s dream (keep your bag close and your backpack on your front – it’s not uncommon to get your bag slashed with a knife) and the GOD DAMNED FIREWORKS. I love fireworks – a lot. But these are not fireworks. They’re merely loud, screeching noise. No colors, no bursts in the sky. Just annoying, train-whistle loud bottle rockets that are set off for hours.
Semana Santa celebrations ended on Easter Sunday when a float of the resurrected Christ exited the main Cathedral. In stark contrast to the other processessions, people cheered and clapped and fireworks were set off. I think one guy even yelled “Three cheers for Jesus – He Lives!” It was pretty awesome.
I highly recommend visiting Antigua during this exciting time, even if you’re not religious, it’s an awesome cultural experience, rich in tradition.