So what’s an English speaking Australian doing in Antigua, Guatemala? That is a great question! I know no Spanish, I know nothing about Guatemala, except one thing, the biggest Easter celebration in the world is set in the colonial streets of a small town named in Antigua. According to the 2007 census, the city has a population of 34,000. During Easter? It’s estimated over 200,000! This year they believe was the first year to surpass even Spain’s celebrations.
The Holy Week is observed as Semana Santa and supposedly runs from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday. We arrived in Antigua a few weeks before and I can tell you it goes on for much longer then that.
When we first arrived 2 weeks before the Holy Week processions were already underway and both weekends before we witnessed the beautiful sawdust carpets.
What is a sawdust carpet?
The Spanish word for carpet is Alfombra, which is the technical name for these delightful beauties. It’s a temporary piece of street art that replicates a rug/carpet. Most are made from coloured sawdust, but we saw ones with flowers or other materials. For example outside the bakery there was one made with bread, outside the chocolate museo theirs had chocolate and cacao beans. Others with vegetables, fruit, playdoh, you name it.
Some were laboured over with platforms and stencils, others are free form and one was even available for the kids to get involved. Mia was very meticulous in placing her sawdust down, whereas my 2-year-old son just managed to trample it. Twice. Oops!
Once these beautiful pieces of art are made there is only one end for them. The parade or procession walks all over them. The processions are giant displays of Easter stories. We saw Palm Sunday re-enacted, we saw Roman soldiers searching streets for Jesus and we saw Jesus found, tried and crucified. Some happen in the day and some in the evening.
These processions can last a few hours, but some go over 15 hours with teams of people swapping duties and carrying the Anda’s for miles and miles. We could see one at 7am near our house and hear it returning at midnight.
The Anda is a large hand-crafted wooden float, in which the re-enactment statues rest as the volunteers carry it through the streets. Some of them weigh over 3500kgs and can be carried by up to 100 people.
During our walking tour our guide told us that the statues come from each Church. The Central Park church was home to a 500 year old Jesus who was going to be released from his glass coffin for the procession. We were also informed that the men carrying these floats were in pain. He showed us where their shoulders go in these little curved padded areas, but he said the padding does nothing and some men have broken shoulders. They do not mind, however, because they consider it a penance. I wonder what their sin was?
Anyway, the biggest procession on Friday morning we saw started at 4am and continued on way after sundown. We saw it in the light and in the night. When we stumbled upon it in the night I was hesitant to explain it to the children, as the scenes can get quite graphic and gory.
Picture the Disney parade without the fun and characters and that’s what you have. A horde of people watching a parade with floats of Jesus bleeding and dying.
Being a mixture of Catholic and Mayan traditions, Good Friday is the biggest day of the Easter weekend.
My husband and kids fell sick on Saturday and so I only managed to get out for a few hours Saturday and Sunday, but it seemed fine. The finale was Good Friday and Saturday and Sunday was a very toned down version. With Monday being quite and tourist-less. It was nice.
My Tips for Semana Santa
- Head to the information booths for your brochures which cover when the processions are starting and where. Even then the brochures can be confusing so have a local help you out. We had several people we met who live in Antigua who were indispensible to us seeing the right things, even thought they had no interest in being in Antigua. In fact many locals disappear for the event as the crowds crush the colonial town.
- If you have time to wonder forget the maps and just stroll. We decided to leave the bike at home the days before Good Friday and found many carpets on our stroll to town. This is how we stumbled on the one that let the kids help out.
- Antigua, in the weeks before, seemed very safe to us. We had been out to lunch and dinner. But Thursday night before Good Friday we were pickpocketed. We had been warned and now you have too. It happens, it’s true, leave everything at home and stash cash in your bra from Wednesday right through Easter until Sunday. Read our story here.
- Leave the car and bike at home. The streets are blocked off or parking lots. Wednesday to Friday was impossible. Saturday and Sunday we did not have so many problems. Our suburb is relatively large so we drove the bike to the gate, left it in the secure driveway and walked to town. Thursday night we tried to get a tuk tuk home, we could have walked faster. Both kids fell asleep so we toughed it out, but it was a long slow process. Be prepared to walk.
My reason for Easter
As a Christian, Easter is special to me. Seeing the floats and re-enactments, the Roman soldiers dressed up on horses calling out, people going through pain for their religion I felt amazed, blessed and inspired. My faith differs from the Catholic faith, but I was still amazed at the devotion represented.
My faith places a great emphasis on Easter Sunday. That’s when we celebrate with chocolate, see family and feel great joy. Feeling the sadness and heaviness Antigua placed on Good Friday was new to me and certainly confronting.
I feel the whole Easter gave me a much bigger sense on the true meaning, but unlike the processions focus, I felt greater relief and enjoyment over the day Jesus rose.
Easter for my kids was new too. We had just seen Rise of the Guardians, in which my 4-year-old daughter learned about the Easter bunny. That was a first. Also a first was the lack of Easter Eggs. In Australia they hit the stores maybe February and we are guilty of buying too many and over-indulging.
This year we had the foresight to purchase two small bunnies during our visit to Guatemala City Walmart two weeks prior. Other then that we saw no eggs, no bunnies, nothing. And we didn’t even think about it until Saturday night I said to my husband, “we have no chocolate for ourselves tomorrow.” Another first. And one I strangely did not mind. Especially after our overdose at the chocolate workshop.
Should you go?
Would I recommend Semana Santa for a visit? Completely. It is an experience one should see, even to witness the arts or the passion of the believers. I’m glad I went.
Would I go again? No. It was busy, like crazy school-holiday at Hong Kong Disneyland busy. It was not as pleasant as I imagined. Perhaps a backpacker, single or couple would fare better, but with two kids to watch it and navigate the town was hard work... or as us Aussies call it, hard yakka.
I wanted to put so many more photos in here, but am mindful of our slow-internet-user-friends. So if you do want to see all the carpets and processions in more details, head to our photo journal.