We were supposed to go to Guatemala for Christmas, but I was denied boarding when it was discovered that my passport had expired. It turned out to be a fortuitous error because we rebooked our travel for Easter and landed in Guatemala in the midst of their spectacular Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations.
Antigua, about 45 minutes from Guatemala City, is ground zero for the festivities. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage site and its cobblestone streets, pastel-colored colonial buildings and looming volcanoes are a joyous site any time of the year. But it really comes alive during Holy Week. The entire city participates in the event, and thousands of visitors flock to Antigua to witness the happenings Almost every day between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, dramatic processions march along the streets of Antigua. Each of the processions starts at a particular church and then snakes it way across the city before returning to its starting point. The processions can last for hours and at their core consist of large religious floats carried by hand by dozens of people.
The processions generally begin with incense carriers. Their enthusiastic handiwork generates an aroma that permeates the city and creates a haze or fog along the procession route.. Following the incense carriers are small floats and marchers bearing the sponsoring church’s banner. Just ahead of the big float are a group of men toting long poles which are used to push away power lines to avoid any entanglement with the float. The floats themselves can weigh as much as 7,000 pounds and typically are topped with a statue of Jesus or Mary. The 50 to 100 carriers required to carry the float do so for a block or so and then a new group of carriers take their turn. Behind the float are other marchers and hanger-ons, a band, the cleanup crew and various vendors selling cotton candy, snacks and trinkets of all sorts.
For me, the real beauty of the processions are the dramatic alfombras or carpets that line the streets ahead of the processions. The carpets are made with brightly-colored sawdust, flowers and pine needles. Using elaborate stencils, the sawdust is laid down in intricate designs and then trimmed with flowers. The carpets are generally made by the familes and businesses that live along the procession route, and the construction is timed so that the carpets are finished just before the procession arrives. The first contingent of the procession carefully make their way around the carpets. It’s the carriers of the main float that are the first to walk on the carpet. After the float and the band have passed, the cleanup crew steps in. They sweep the trampled-on sawdust and flowers into an awaiting dump truck, and just like that the carpet is gone.