Semana Santa in Antigua: Alfombras

I have so far completely neglected one of the coolest and unique activities of Semana Santa: alfombras. Alfombras are beautiful temporary works of Easter street art in Antigua that people spend all night creating, exist in a finished state for mere hours or minutes, and then are sacrificed beneath the feet of the processions.

Good Friday is the day with the most processions (five) and also the greatest quantity and most elaborate alfombras, popping up throughout the day as processions weave their way through the city from 4am Friday morning to 4am Saturday. They are created by residents, their friends and families, and holy men who start laying them down in the dark of night to be ready for the first procession of the day; each alfombra is intended to be at its best when the procession arrives, so is targeted for completion just before it is destroyed.

Some travel advice says you MUST get up at 4am on Good Friday to see the alfolmbras. (Don’t even get me started on FOMO–fear of missing out–and the “best time” to see things in general.) It is true that in order to see every single alfombra you would need to get up at 4am and trace the procession routes slightly ahead of the floats for the next twenty-four hours. But I believe this to be completely too extreme. You can see plenty of wonderful alfombras by waking up at a normal hour. I made it out by 8am and saw tons!

Families gather from around the country to work together on their project; for many families it is a longstanding annual tradition to make an alfombra at a particular street location and procession time every year for decades.

These “carpets” are actually made mostly of carefully placed colored woodchips or sand. Creators stand on low bridges made of wood planks to increase their reach and precision. Stenciling is very common, though many–more often made of flowers instead of woodchips–are also laid freely by hand. They are then periodically finely sprayed with water to keep all pieces in place.

Typical alfombra creation and preservation techniques.
Stenciling in a pair of parrots, like my blog backdrop!
All children were invited to create a playdoh animal and add it to this alfombra.

Beyond the colored flat designs, 3D elements are also incorporated, most often flowers and food. One of my favorite and most elaborate was a diorama of Antigua’s Parque Central made out of bread, complete with the center mermaid fountain with water coming out of their breasts.

Parque Central, approached by a tiny procession on the right.
A model of the Good Friday procession, complete with Jesus in a casket on top.
Melon and kiwi tortugas!
Flowers flowers everywhere.

These beautiful things are the essence of temporary and exist only for a few hours, if that, before they are destroyed. A cleanup team trails the processions and immediately sweeps up the debris, but leaves behind a rainbow of confetti in the cobblestones. I found it a sweet reminder throughout the city that something beautiful, now mysterious, used to exist there.

There they go, taking out another alfombra.
Doing the dirty work as a risen Jesus recedes in the background.
A lovely echo.

P.S. You may now notice that the background wallpaper of this blog is a detail of a supremely kickass parrot alfombra from an Antigua Semana Santa past!

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Semana Santa in Antigua: Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday

It is a travel lie that Semana Santa is over in Antigua after Good Friday. The number and intensity of processions may wane, but they do not end. And come on, don’t you want to know the end of the story?

On Saturday the women take center stage grieving. The Virgin of Loneliness is the only float on this day, finally full sized and only women are allowed to carry it. Her eyes and face shimmer as she weeps. That evening, I sat with a friend at a wine bar (finally, some decent wine on this trip!) under the yellow arch and clouds of incense swept in as the procession of the Virgin passed. The taste of wine with the smell of incense… ah, church.

On Easter Sunday, the public displays of penance are over and the celebration is positive and informal. One small procession celebrates the resurrected Jesus accompanied by singing and joyful music with trumpet, xylophone, and cymbals. Firecrackers set off in very close quarters to the crowd replace the clouds of incense. Semana Santa pro tip: come with prepared alternative expletives other than “Jesus!” for when you stub your toe or a firecracker goes off right next to you.

Performers in plain clothes leading the procession.
An easter lily, about to meet its trampled doom.
Firecrackers going off in the crowd.
Woot Jesus!

On Monday, I took the opportunity to see Antigua in a calmer state after most of the Semana Santa visitors had left. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and used to be the Spanish colonial capital before an earthquake devastated the city in 1773 and the capital was moved. Ruins from that time still litter the city (and are favorite necking spots for young locals). I visited the ruins of the old cathedral, just behind the current one. Tucked away in an alcove I found the white sailboat float from Good Friday and lo, the glass box tomb was empty. I love that even their storage methods are on message. The lord is risen indeed.

The ruined cathedral, reaching for the sky.
What’s that back there? Looks familiar…
Hallelujah!

Semana Santa in Antigua: Good Friday

Good Friday is when the fervor of Semana Santa peaks in Antigua. The day is packed with death, death, death. The Lenten purple robes have turned to black with the death of Jesus Christ and the mood is severe and somber. People walking along side the processions cry. At midday Jesus’ death is reenacted in the cathedral and then his corpse is carried throughout the city in multiple massive funeral processions until the dark of night.

Jesus’ body being borne out of the cathedral on a boat with a while sail.
Another funeral procession, this time Jesus’ body is locked away in a coffin reminiscent of Snow White and escorted by golden angels.
A sea of black moves with the dead lord.
Even the angels mourn.
Black and more black.

There are more processions on Good Friday than any other day by far–five–and they last longer–up to fourteen hours. You cannot help but find them seemingly everywhere you turn all day. The crowds are also intense, and serious pickpocketing is a known danger. Nothing happened to me, but a woman in my dorm had her backpack slashed even though she kept it close. Gawking and keeping your wits is tough work, but luckily street food is everywhere, much of it sugary sweet: little glazed dough-nut balls, sugared fried stars, ice cream, frozen bananas, and of course candy carts.

But what if I don’t want a regular banana later?

The final Good Friday procession passed right by my hostel window on its way out of the city at 4am Saturday morning. They moved with as much devotion and volume as during the day. Bleary-eyed, I was drawn out of bed to the window to watch. I loved that it didn’t matter what time it was; this procession was the most important thing happening in the whole city and trumped anyone trying to sleep.

Semana Santa in Antigua: Maundy Thursday

I am a lover of holidays, festivities, pageantry, and energetic crowds. In doing my research before this trip I learned that Antigua has a serious reputation for going all out for Semana Santa, or Holy Week leading up to Easter. Hundreds of thousands of people flock to the city for famous city-wide parades and a week long celebration. At Lake Atitlan, I met a number of people living in Antigua who specifically left to avoid the crush. “You won’t truly experience Antigua,” they said, “only Semana Santa! It isn’t the same!” But I have known for months I wanted to be there for it. Aside from my arrival and departure, Semana Santa in Antigua was the only appointment I made for myself on this entire trip and I meant to keep it.
My first stop: Iglesia de San Francisco.
Guarding the secret back entrance!

My first full day in Antigua was Maundy Thursday (the day of the Last Supper) and that morning I set out to find the action. I began by walking towards a large church, Iglesia de San Francisco, that I had found the night before. The streets to the church was clogged as the masses gravitated towards it. When I arrive, the church plaza was FILLED with people (including many in costume) and I discovered that one of the two processions–a hallmark of Antigua Semana Santa–of the day was just 30 minutes away from departing the church. Perfect! Since I hadn’t shown up early to secure a spot in the shade, I thought no harm in exploring the grounds while I wait. Poking around the side courtyards however unintentionally led me to a back entrance and I wound up behind the altar with some other crafty viewers just as things began. Minutes after I arrived, kettle drums began to pound and I didn’t know what to expect.

The men robed in purple swayed together under the weight, barely moving forward on each beat. Truly. Guided by acolytes, it took them over twenty minutes to exit the church. This pace continues as the procession winds its way around the city center for, depending on the route, up to fifteen hours. As they crept forward, the brass and percussion band played an ominous dirge. It was grand and grave. Rarely do I ever kneel and say a prayer but I did then.

Each procession has a theme within the timeline of the passion and participants wear costumes and carry different props depending on the float. This one told the story of Jesus’ final steps before his crucifixion. Roman soldiers led the way, then placards with the stations of the cross, boys lugging a large wooden cross, incense bearers, the main float of Jesus flanked by thirty men in purple on either side, then a weeping and holy Mary followed by saints, and of course the band.

The bad guys!
Waiting their turn to join in.
The procession meets the crowd amassed outside Iglesia de San Francisco.
Men penitently bear their burden.
Mobile tympani setting the tone and pace.

After the procession passed, all the watchers moved towards the bottleneck exits of the courtyard and experienced the slow pace of movement demonstrated by the procession walkers. I broke for ice cream and to pick up my laundry (a Semana Santa miracle finding an open launderia!). But I felt comfort knowing the processions were out in the city on the move.

Orchestrating large groups of people fascinates me and this whole event looked like a challenge. Carrying the giant wooden platform is a somber act of penance that thousands of men, women, and children participate in throughout the week. The priests do an excellent job of keeping everyone on track. All participants take turns rotating positions; during each multi-hour procession there are multiple shifts and each person has a badge that specifies exactly where they are supposed to be. The physical act of guiding turns and keeping the float moving straight is also a feat of coordination. At information booths throughout the city you can get a map of the procession routes a schedule of when they will reach city landmarks. They hit those marks with impeccable precision.

Waiting their turn near the group two position.
A circuitous eleven-hour route.

I met up with the processions again just after sunset in the Park Central, one passed at 6pm and the other at 7:30pm. Dozens of harbinger incense bearers choked the air with smoke. This time, preteen boys carried Jesus on their shoulders, clearly hurting but pushing through. Women followed behind with an illuminated Mary. More participants escorted the procession of the appropriate gender for each float and held a walking vigil in parallel. It is incredible and moving how many people come together to experience and feel the story of the passion together.

Women bearing a mournful Mary.
Another Mary later, headed the opposite direction.
Can you smell the incense?

Beetles, butterflies, mosquitoes, and scorpions

The bugs around Lake Atitlan are funky. Giant beetles the size of small black mice droopingly “flit” from flower to flower on wings that barely keep them aloft. Monarch butterflies have appeared and are a pretty addition to the lovely view at breakfast.

Flutter-by!

I was awoken my first night in Santa Cruz at 3am by a shriek of profanity. One of my dormmates, up late drinking and saunaing, had been stung on the toe by a scorpion in the bathroom. As he described the extreme pain and his friends laughed, I wondered what is the proper treatment for a scorpion sting anyway? What types of scorpions are here? (I should really find this out…) Apparently the remedy is to sleep it off and endure a numb limb for a few days. In the morning I congratulated him on not being dead, even if he couldn’t feel his right leg anymore. He seemed pleased, though lopsided.

This was the second scorpion sting that happened while I was there. Sleeping in the open air dorm, I then naturally became paranoid about scorpions. I checked my shoes before putting them on and shook out my sheets before climbing under the covers at night. While I was preoccupied with scorpions, I barely realized how little attention I was getting at night from any bugs until I heard about mosquitoes in the enclosed dorms. Ha! Could it be luck, a quirk of building location, or perhaps my orange-thyme nighttime facial mist has natural pest repellent properties? I have heard it is vanilla to keep away scorpions, lavender for mosquitoes. Natural face care for the win! ;-P

Around Lake Atitlan and getting lost at La Iguana Perdida

At the water at Atitlan. View from La Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz La Laguna.

Lake Atitlan is reputed to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It is a large volcanic crater lake, a mile high and nearly 1,000 feet deep, ringed by volcanoes and small townships. Aldous Huxley famously said: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” It is indeed beautiful; an easy-going place where people come to visit and many end up staying put.

Though twisty paved roads do exist high above the waterline, much transport around the lake it done via water taxi or footpath. The water taxis are operated by a cabal and have a, shall we say, “flexible” pricing scheme depending on time of day, whether you are a tourist or a local, and which crew member you ask.

A peak from inside the water taxi.

It is a big lake with options on where to stay. I heard the most travel chatter about two towns: San Pedro La Laguna and San Marcos La Laguna. San Pedro, one of the largest towns with a population upwards of 9,000, was touted as backpacker central with the best nightlife. San Marcos was described as the most beautiful place to stay on the lake, more serene and devoted to yoga, natural living, spirituality, and the hippie lifestyle. Which to choose?

I decided San Pedro would be a safe bet to start. But it was not to be; we got off on the wrong foot and stayed at odds. Walking off the dock into San Pedro was the first time I felt accosted on this trip. Tuktuk drivers and locals on foot ruthlessly came at me asking “where you going?”, “hostel hostel”, “Mullet’s or Yo Mama?” (two party hostels in town). A commission system for delivering guests fuels this aggression. My “hostel” was only a restaurant with a few rooms upstairs and no community, the wifi was awful, it rained, and nowhere did I feel like I was actually on a lake. I found the gringo party scene gimmicky. Here I witnessed my very first Central American drug deal: two white wannabe Rastafarians at 1pm in the middle of the main tourist drag. Classy. And to cap things off, the cafe with movies closes at 3pm (to facilitate the owners’ nights out apparently); who starts watching movies before 1pm though, honestly?

Approaching the San Pedro-Pana dock.

As I met other travelers and heard about what goes on in the gringo community, I discovered that (to me) it is not a “backpacker” spot per se but instead a town of cheap fun where longterm Spanish students party hard and have LOADS of drama. Oi, the stories some of these gals tell! Add in the day trip to Chichi market I wrote about earlier and you have the making for two unsatisfying days. It was time for me to move on.

A friend from Xela traveling a few days ahead of me raved about her experience in Santa Cruz La Laguna, a place I would not have otherwise considered. I thankfully took her advice and Santa Cruz became my home for six days where I fully embraced what one does around the lake–relax. Santa Cruz is one of the smaller towns on the lake, barely a blip on the map. It is simply four hotels along the water, a few private homes nestled in the hillside, and a small town center ten minutes up the hill. The hotels, connected by a beautiful walking path occupy a gorgeous spot with the best views of the opposite volcanoes. Each has a restaurant, and three out of four have a nightly three course prix fixe menu.

Walking over to Isla Verde for lunch–best food in Santa Cruz–on their beautiful deck.

I found my refuge at La Iguana Perdida, a relaxed and homey hostel right on the lake with everything you need to kick back: beautiful grounds, many great spots to read, a dive shop and school, movies (I arrived desperately in need of a movie after the failure in San Pedro and found West Side Story in the dvd collection!), a day spa (guess who got a facial :-)), morning yoga, a pool table, an outdoor stone sauna, hammocks, trivia night, bar and happy hour, sequestered wired internet to keep everyone offline and social, family style dinner every night, beautiful views, and a friendly atmosphere. Did I mention my bunk (the most excellent top loft spot, fit for a princess in her tower) in the open air dorm was just $3.50USD per night? I adored it.

La Iguana Perdida, one step up from the dock.
The dinner menu and Balto, sans his other half: a skinnier pooch with a snarly grin that his owner affectionately called the Steve Buscemi of dogs.
My lair, high above the riff raff. 😉
Home sweet home.

Later in the week I traveled to San Marcos for a day trip during their Festival of Consciousness. At first the town didn’t seem like much–walking paths up from the docks that weave between small restaurants and hotels. It is quiet, with much of the activity going on behind closed doors, including the festival. After wandering about looking for the festivities, I finally found a schedule of events posted that had a very neighborhood feel with members of the community teaching and hosting workshops, for instance “Meditation and the Power of Crystals, 2:00pm, Tony’s house”. I ate lunch in a cafe with a wicked pesto sandwich and made friends with one of the young owners. As we chatted about ex-pat life in Guatemala and small town politics, he constantly and warmly greeted passersby as they walked between festival sessions. It most definitely is a tight-knit community with much to discover beneath the surface.

But Santa Cruz and the Iguana in particular continued to be my favorite. People slow down here and often stay for a while, which means a great sense of community between guests. My intended three days grew to six very shortly after arriving. I made a bunch of new friends and spent day after day reading, eating, chatting, enjoying the view, and watching movies. Time slips away between naps and happy hours. Ah, lake life finally living up to the hype. It lulled me into laziness and affection. A little last morning love and panorama:

Bombardment at Chichi market

I love me a good market. A place with interesting and unique quality wares, variety, color, and beautiful flavors. So I had high hopes for the famed market of Chichicastenango (“Chichi”), which Lonely Planet raves about (“magical”, “still fabulous”). Could it be another Chiang Mai Sunday market circa 2008? If only. Instead it was a haranguing day I do not wish to repeat.

It did not help that I was coming from a night in San Pedro la Laguna, where I did not feel right and will share more about later. The day began with an extended bus ride. I booked passage on a shuttle that departed at 7:30am. If it is a great market, I thought, in the long run I won’t remember a painful morning bus ride! Our driver kept making confusing and possibly personal stops along the way — a diversion from the highway to pick up a mysterious black plastic bag (his lunch? drugs? either is inappropriate!) from a woman at her house, a half hour in a town along the lake waiting for una persona mas who never came, etc — lengthening out supposed two hour trip to three and a half. We only got really underway when about an hour and we hadn’t even left the lake, one of the passengers let loose in Spanish on the driver about the delay (“QUE PASO?!?!….).

We finally arrived at the market. First off, the wares didn’t seem too unusual or particularly unique; many stands were selling the same things and it felt far more homogeneous than I expected. I did purchase a few items — a rainbow blanket (featured in the background of my shadowbox post) and a quetzal embroidered belt — but I felt like I probably got ripped off and I had to work hard and endure just to get to that point. Beyond the physical goods, I had a number of uncomfortable experiences with locals in the market.

Merchants were assertive. The common greeting of “hola amiga! que te gusta?” over and over began to grate on me. How many times can you say no gracias graciously before the only remaining defense is silently ignoring advances, even if it feels cruel? A group of grade-school-age shoe shine boys roamed the streets looking for clients, but I noticed all of their shoes were in horrific condition; the soles were split something awful and I could see through them in multiple places. I was crazy overcharged for a pithy and bland plate of beans and rice, then kicked out of my chair by an anxious teenage girl who stressfully informed me that I was in her restaurant’s table where I was not supposed to be. I am happy to move, no need to get worked up. A woman with an infant literally at her breast cast her child aside when I glanced at her table of chotchkies. He began to cry loudly as she started her sales pitch and I, embarrassed, made my excuses to move on.

Beggars joined in the throng; one in particular effected me with a gruesome visual. She (or he?) was being pushed in a wheelchair, wearing a surgical mask, and had a filled catheter bag on her lap. For some reason, in-use medical equipment was more difficult for me to take than the woman crawling around with a club foot or the man with an amputated leg.

All in all, a suffocating, uncomfortable, and exhausting experience. Lonely Planet is on crack.

Shoe shine boys at work.