In Guatemala – Part one: The holiest of weeks in Antigua.

(continued from Part zero: From here to there.)

Church bells rouse the city in the middle of the night, yet no one is woken. Restless with anticipation everyone is already up and waiting for this exact moment, because this particular April evening is not an ordinary one. The repeated clang of metal on metal rings out from the bell tower’s lofty nest above the city and beckons the community to gather at its feet. There, from the aged doors of the church-front, a formal procession will soon emerge and begin its ceremonial march through the worn cobblestone streets as has been done every year for centuries.

It is Semana Santa and here in the picturesque colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, is one of the most elaborate Easter celebrations of the Catholic holiday found anywhere across the earth. Pouring in from surrounding towns, countrysides, and distant places too, the host city swells as both Spanish and Mayan come together to fill its streets and blend their cultures in a special way unlike anywhere else. Starting on Palm Sunday and ending on Easter Sunday, the event known as Semana Santa (or Holy Week) is an occasion that takes on a different flavour from its traditional origins in Europe. Imbued with interesting twists, it is a unique confluence of the varied roots of the peoples gathering to celebrate.

Though the backbone of the festivities remains Catholic from the region’s Spanish colonial roots, this common origin has diverged to include the region’s preexisting – and continually evolving – cultural and spiritual practices as well. Deviations from old traditions across the Atlantic are both in plain sight and plain to see for those who take time to look closely. Perhaps the most obvious addition are alfombras – or carpets – visually stunning and an integral part of the traditional processions that are impossible to miss.

These carpets are intricately detailed and visually arresting, but they are not woven, braided, or even meant to last; the alfombras are made from natural materials that are meant to degrade. Still, their short-termed existence has no bearing on the amount of care that is put in to their creation – preparations for the alfombras begin weeks, if not months, prior. Wood chips are collected and dyed a multitude of favourite colours: purple, green, blue, red, yellow, and black; buckets are filled with a plethora of hues and set aside to wait. As the event continues to draw nearer, a cornucopia of fresh plants is collected in heaps: pine needles, bougainvilleas, chrysanthemums, carnations, roses, pineapples, corn, oranges, carrots, tomatoes, and just about every type of melon. Alongside the wood chips, these are the raw working materials and, once gathered, they lean up against interior walls of kitchens and courtyards, anticipating the moment.

The day does come, and as soon as the streets are officially closed off to vehicle traffic, all the preparations are brought out onto the blank cobblestone canvas. This is the tabula rasa, the ground from which creation will both literally and figuratively unfold. Buzzing around like ants, the community naturally forms into teams of workers, individuals with a collective purpose. Around the churches, each brotherhood takes responsibility for their perimeter. In front of homes and businesses, residents happily rise to the task of doing the same for their own street-fronts. Excited families gather together and teach their children the traditional designs that they have been building for generations. Wide-eyed visitors from around the world are also invited to participate in the creations appearing in front of their temporary lodgings. Those gathered join together to focus single-pointedly on this moment of creating and appreciating the alfombras spread through the crowded cobblestone streets. Layers of colour are built slowly and with patience; even amidst all the bustle, there is a steadiness to their approach.

Besides the alfombras, the streets are given other adornments: fluttering in the windows and walls of the narrow avenues are long banners, all the same liturgical purple, a colour used specifically during Lent that symbolizes sorrow and suffering, as well as being the traditional colour of royalty and wealth in ancient Roman times. The banners frame the creative carpets laid out beneath them. These vibrant visuals mark the path, and an unbridled noise announces the feet that are about to walk upon it.

The distinctive sound of a trumpet rises above the murmur of the crowd and heralds the approaching procession. Everyone looks up expectantly from the project at their fingertips; it is time for what they’ve been preparing. What is done is done, and now is finished. Families and friends, both old and new, step back from their careful work and make way for the procession just as the immense float rounds the corner. Carried on the shoulders of devout men and women, heavy sculptures depicting important biblical scenes are swayed back and forth as they are carried up the narrow street like a heavy casket being borne by surviving children. The striking scene draws in all eyes and silences the crowd as the beat of a drum from the trailing marching band provides a soundtrack for each individual’s thoughts.

Step by unyielding step, the procession walks over the bright and colourful carpets laid in front of it. The intricate designs are ephemeral in their existence; finally realized, only to be immediately scattered by heavy feet into a colourful confetti. Significant imagery expressing colonial, Mayan, and Catholic roots, or simply the beauty of nature, are dissolved back into their common base pieces. There is a powerful symbology in the careful creation and destruction here: nothing is rigid or permanent.

A group of street cleaners quietly follows the departing crowd and sweeps up the unrecognizable remains. It is almost as if nothing happened; the memory a mere blip in the unfolding lives of both the street and the people who have walked upon it. Once again, the cobblestone is a fresh canvas, ready for another load of wood chips, flowers, and fruits to be brought out. Though one single procession is an event in itself, throughout the forty days of Lent one is always followed by another, only ramping up in frequency and grandeur as the final peak of Easter Sunday approaches. There is another procession on the horizon to prepare for. Holy Week in Antigua continues on.

Cerro de la Cruz overlooking Antigua, Guatemala

Cerro de la Cruz overlooks Antigua, Guatemala, as the sun rises above the valley’s surrounding volcanos.

Cobblestone streets of Antigua, Guatemala

Cobblestone streets are empty…for now. With Semana Santa just around the corner, anticipation is thick in the air.

A young boy watches an elder closely from the window of his home.

A young boy watches an elder closely from the window of his home. Under the symbolic purple banner that adorns his window, his eyes are wide and perceptive of the festivities beginning to unfold in front of him.

Guatemalan families gather in Antigua's Central Park

Families from all around Guatemala gather in Antigua’s Central Park.

Alfombras in the streets of Antigua, Guatemala

When the streets are closed to vehicles, bright and colourful alfombras – or carpets – quickly fill the blank cobblestone canvases.

Collected flowers form a palette of colours

Collected flowers form a palette of earthy colours.

A family creates an alfombra in Antigua, Guatemala for Semana Santa

Parents teach their daughter about the traditions. Semana Santa is a very family-oriented event.

A homemade stencil of the virgin Mary for a sawdust alfombra

Vibrant sawdust slips through the holes of a homemade stencil, creating a detailed depiction of the Virgin Mary.

Fingers take on bright colours in the creative work at hand

Fingers are stained with dye through the creative work at hand.

An ice cream vendor on the streets of Antigua during Semana Santa

An ice cream vendor waits for customers to come his way on the hot cobblestone streets.

Colourful Antigua street scene during Semana Santa

Passersby skirt completed alfombras that wait for the feet of an imminent procession.

A father teaches his son the alfombra tradition of Semana Santa

Playful in the margins.

Creating a alfombra with grass and flowers

Creations made with the basics…

Men create an intricate sawdust alfombra for Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

…contrast with the more complex – but both result in beautifully intricate carpets.

Signs bearing imagery Jesus' suffering - Palm Sunday Semana Santa Procession

Signs bearing vivid imagery of Jesus’ suffering herald the beginning of a Palm Sunday procession.

View from rooftop of approaching Holy Week procession on Palm Sunday

Purple cloaks fill the street and silence the crowd as the formal procession approaches.

Lit lanterns swing and spread the smoke of frankincense

Lit lanterns swing and spread the heavy scent of frankincense in the air, cleansing the area with smoke akin to the burning of sage, palo santo, and different sacred plants of other cultures.

Women carry a float in the Palm Sunday Holy Week procession

Through the smoke, a float is marched step by step down the center of the avenue. Onlookers watch the scene respectfully and emotionally.

Women shoulder a heavy Holy Week float in the Palm Sunday procession

Devout women shoulder a heavy float; one of whom also carries her daughter on the other shoulder.

Scattered alfombra sawdust after a procession

And then, just like that, the procession march passes and it is over. A truck and cleaning crew immediately follows, sweeping away what was.

Albombra sawdust is swept up immediately after a Holy Week procession

Beautiful carpets just realized are scattered into a colourful confetti, and subsequently wiped from their brief existence.

Antigua street life

Antigua street life is just as colourful between processions.

Semana Santa - Tired family at the end of a day of Holy Week activities

Resting. Long days of Holy Week celebrations are exhausting.

A simple alfombra waits on a quiet side street

Side streets; quiet, waiting.

Creating a natural carpet with grass and flowers

Crafting, watching, waiting, and finally marching – life of all sorts dances around the natural alfombras on the colonial streets of Antigua during Holy Week.

Textures of the street in Antigua during Holy Week

Textures of the street.

Men put the finishing touches on an epic alfombra

The high degree of patient and meticulous care that goes into creating these ephemeral alfombras is beautiful. At this particular piece, I watched a group of six work together, consult one another, and celebrate the fruits of their labour over several hours. Here, they carefully put the finishing touches on their impressive carpet.

Doll on alfombra at dusk

Candles are lit as daytime shifts into night.

Semana Santa - alfombra at night

Festivities continue as the sky grows darker.

Children eagerly watch a midnight Holy Week procession approach.

Children eagerly watch a midnight procession approach.

Night marching band

The requisite marching band follows, lifting the sound of their instruments over the drone of the generator that powers the lights accompanying them.

Watching Holy Week activities from store fronts in Antigua


Candles bring light to the darkness

Candles bring light to the darkness.

Candlelit activity on the streets.

A candlelit bustle on the streets.

Candle lit on a terrace overlooking Antigua at night

Away from the action, a candle bearing the image of Guadalupe is lit on a rooftop terrace, overlooking the distant lights and din that is Antigua during Holy Week.

(continued as Part two: The coffee farmer on the volcano.)