Imagine being woken up at 5:30 in the morning because a marching band is outside your window, the sound of cymbals and sousaphones clanging in your ear.
Only three and a half hours earlier, I had been outside, painstakingly helping my neighbors prepare an intricately designed alfombra, or “carpet” for the street. It was Semana Santa — the Holy Week preceding Easter — and these street decorations are a Guatemalan tradition.
Each work of art is a labor of love, a beautiful offering created for the sole purpose of being destroyed by processions that wind their way down the streets of town.
The Semana Santa traditions of Guatemala have a beautiful history, combining the Holy Week processions of Spanish Catholics from the 1500s with an ancient Mayan tradition of creating elaborate “carpets” for kings to walk upon.
Historically, the processions were a form of Catholic education to explain the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, along with a chance to repent by walking in the processions. Today, many of the alfombras are still created from feathers and flowers, such as those of the Maya, though others are made from dyed sawdust or sand.
While the processions occur throughtout Lent and in towns all over Guatemala, the biggest and most renowned are held in Antigua. Although I had witnessed a procession in Chichicastenango on my very first day in the country, I was unprepared when I went out to view the Palm Sunday processional in Antigua, one of the largest of the week.
Thursday night, the party begins.
Guatemalan tourists trek from all corners of the country to spend their holiday weekend in Antigua. Side by side with international tourists, they fill the streets. Vendors sell everything from fresh cut fruit to glowsticks to made-in-China trinkets. I stop momentarily for a street food dinner and some extensive people watching before going out with friends for the night. After all, Holy Thursday is a celebration marked by cuba libres for 3 quetzales and 2×1 Brahva beer specials at the local bars.
We leave the bars long before the standard closing time of 1am, knowing that we want to watch the morning procession, one that begins in the wee hours of the morning (“madrugada”) and is expected to pass right by our house around sunrise.
Safely arriving in our normally quiet neighborhood, I’m a bit shocked to see bright lights illuminating the cobblestone street while listening to Marc Anthony playing our our neighbor’s speakers. Although I knew the procession route passed by out house, I hadn’t put two and two together to realize our neighbors would be up all night creating a carpet.
Confident from my few weeks of Spanish class, along with knowing the family and perhaps encouraged by a little rum, I approached an adolescent boy to ask if he needed help.
Instantly, his eyes lit up. They were behind schedule and could use all the help they could get. This is the part of Guatemala I like best: there’s a strong sense of community, family, and social connections. And while it may seem nontraditional to sift colored sawdust onto the street while singing along to Gangnam Style, I could picture similar experiences occurring during colonial times.
The first step to making an alfombra is to spread sand over the cobblestone street to make a level surface. Next, dyed sawdust is gently sprinkled over the sand, often in very exact cardboard stencils. Every measurement is made carefully to ensure a proportional design and you’ll find angles, measuring tapes, and other tools scattered around to make sure everything is perfect. Other materials, including flowers, plants, vegetables, or even a live turtle are added as final touches. Lastly, the entire alfombra is lightly wet to ensure the sawdust doesn’t fly away.
Though not quite finished, I left to go to bed, leaving the alfombra in good hands and admiring this family’s dedication to put on the finishing details. I was exhausted from an earlier volcano hike and would wake up to see the final work around 5:00, just before the procession passed by and ruined all that work.
…Except 5:00 came and went, and at 5:30, I scrambled to throw on clothes and grab my camera so I could run outside.
The procession was directly in front of my house, hundreds of spectators and nearly as many marchers already in position. The city had not slept.
My view of the carpet was obscured by the procession itself, though of course that is the entire reason for its creation. Within minutes, a gigantic float passed by, carried by nearly 100 men of the church: 40 on each side and more underneath. These floats weigh up to 7,000 pounds each and I can only imagine the weight of it, both literal and spiritual, as they walk for hours in repentance and offering to God.
A band follows, the same one that woke me up as it had approached, and then came the women’s float, representing the pain and mourning of the Virgin Mary as her son was sent to be crucified. For many onlookers, these solemn processions hold deep meaning. I’m not Catholic, but knowing the personal involvement necessary to organize these events as a religious movement moved me to tears. These carpets are more than tradition; they are an offering to God in remembrance and gratitude for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
After the procession has moved through, nothing remains of the alfombras except for smeared colors in the street. Earlier in the week, I had felt this a shame, but in that moment, it seemed perfectly fitting that these hours of dedication terminated in a fleeting moment. Street crews follow closely, cleaning up the procession’s destruction and symbolizing it’s time to move on.
Of course, not all of Semana Santa is a time of reflection and religious offering. Local businesses have seized this as a marketing opportunity, pickpocketers arrive from other cities to take advantage of preoccupied onlookers, and enterprising vendors sell anything and everything they can think of. Still, there’s still a very large part of the Semana Santa traditions that is beautiful to watch and it was worth putting up with crowds, traffic, and high prices to experience it.
If you go…
You’ll likely encounter a procession in Antigua any weekend during Lent, but Palm Sunday marks one of the bigger processions and there are more every day between then and Easter Sunday. Good Friday is, in my opinion, the best day to view the processions if you only have a little time to spare: set your alarm for 3 or 4am to walk the streets and view the alfombras before they’re ruined and to find a good vantage point for the procession itself. More processions will occur at midday and again beginning at 4pm. Don’t be surprised when you’re woken up on Friday night/Saturday morning by yet more processions.
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Be prepared for minimum stays and high rates at hotels during Semana Santa, but I promise you, it’s worth it.