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.


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 AtitlĂĄn 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.

Now that is what I call an Easter egg

Source: Google Images

I have seen the first glimpses of Semana Santa, or Holy Week leading up to Easter next Sunday! Semana Santa is a huge deal in Latin America, with parades and celebrations all week long, building up to Good Friday as the pinnacle where passions are performed in the city streets.

Sitting at the dock on Lake Atilan, waiting for our water taxi to fill up with people and depart, I started hearing a non-stop “cheep cheep cheep cheep…” After a while, I wondered if someone had strapped a crate of chickens to our roof, but didn’t think too much about it as there are often odd sounds around in foreign countries. But as more passengers boarded, they began speaking with a local woman who was seated just in front of me, with her back to me. Their conversations and pointing at her lap piqued my curiosity. I bent around for a glimpse and gasped as I saw she had a gaggle of brightly colored chicks on her lap! They were fluffy and dyed the brightest pink, purple, yellow, blue, and green that you would ever see.
I then turned and saw that the man next to me also had two little plastic bags filled with a half dozen colored chicks each at his feet! They were the absolute cutest and kept climbing all over each other in the bag, causing them to repeatedly roll down to the trough of the boat bottom. Not a very effective escape, but pretty adorable. I asked him what they did with the chicks after Easter. He said they keep them around until they grow up and then eat them.

Another man next to me said explained that they color the chicks by injecting fertilized eggs with dye partway through the gestation period. A nearby woman piped up and said she disagreed, believing that they were dunked in dye after they were born. I don’t know which method was used here, but the internet says both ways are possible. Who knew! I can’t wait to see more cheerful chicks and the other festivities as they continue to build over the coming week.

Chicks on the loose!

Hiking Santa Maria and different definitions of "easy"

I just finished reading The Fellowship of the Ring and find that a usual episode for the company reads like this: they travel far and grow weary but then arrive in a friendly land where something nice happens (meeting new friends, eating a good meal, receiving gifts) that lifts their spirits and emboldens their hearts and they carry on with renewed vigor. This was the way of my day hiking the volcano Santa Maria just outside of Xela. It is a tale of struggle and triumph of which I am extremely proud.

Xela and surrounds from a distance. Santa Maria is the tallest pointy one.
Source: Google Images

There are many volcanoes in western Guatemala, but Santa Maria is the one that looms over the city of Xela. Fun fact: its 1902 eruption is one of the 5 largest worldwide in the past 200 years. The city of Xela is high up at an approximate altitude of 7,875 feet. (Conveniently, I already acclimated last week in San Cristobal at 7,200 feet.) The summit of Santa Maria is at 12,375 feet. So yeah, this is an intense hike with 4,500 feet elevation change (almost one vertical mile!) over 3 miles one-way, with most of the elevation change happening in the final third. Essentially, while it may not be long, this is very steep and very challenging hike. And it was my first big mountain climbed! Whew, just remembering makes me tired.

When booking the tour the day prior, I was totally gung-ho. Yes, it’s the hardest hike around and I knew it was going to be tough, but it’s iconic in Xela. We have to do it! We were told by the tour company the difficulty was a 4 out of 7. I do hike back home in California, though rarely at altitude and never an actual mountain, so am fit and not a novice; no problem, I can do a 4. In hindsight I now find this rating somewhat hilarious, especially as the tour company’s own website rates the hike as “difficult”.

Monte Verde p { margin-bottom: 0.08in;tours (who were great btw, as was our guide) picked our trio up from the hostel at 5:30am and we were at the trail head by 6am. The “easy” part took us from the road through fields up and foothills. It didn’t feel so easy for me at the time, but compared to what was coming up easy was a good description!

Our company setting out at the trail head at 6am, Santa Maria in the background.
The initial approach. Yeah, we’re going to the top of that.

After about an hour we took a short rest at the base, then headed up the daunting peak. There was constant trash on the trail left mostly by locals on their way up. Volcanic ash made for fine and slippery footing, not to mention the dust clouds we each kicked up. The hike was strenuous. I began to worry about my knee; usually my left knee bothers me on descent but this time it was the right knee on the way up. My doubts were growing. Without the guide- and peer-pressure I might have turned back.

Me, about to head up and apprehensive.

On the mountain, my joy-to-pain ratio was not good. I was worried, tired, and getting grumpy. Why was I doing this? I find so much beauty in the world already without killing myself going up a mountain. I’ve never felt the need to summit. It is a conquering impulse I know a lot of hikers have, but I always wonder if those few moments at the top are really worth all the pain getting there. Whenever we would stop to take a picture partway up, our guide cheerfully assured us that the view would be better at the top. That doesn’t mean it isn’t beautiful down here! I grew more frustrated.

Looking down on Xela below.
All kinds of pretty views! Haven’t we climbed high enough?

Our guide kept jokingly saying “5 minutos mas!”, which I found increasingly irritating. Just tell me the truth! I want to make decisions about my body based on accurate information! After much prodding, he acquiesced and disclosed how much left there was. At that point, we were resting on a bridge, I was already dead tired, and I thought we weren’t too far from the top. Turns out we had more than an hour of the most difficult stretch to go.

Horsing around on the bridge. (Partially obscured by grass near the camera lens.)
A typical extreme incline during hour four. Onward and upward.

We summited just before 10am. A preacher was sermonizing to locals as we caught our breath and took in the panorama. Much like cenotes in the Yucatan, volcanoes were often considered sacred to Guatemalans and rituals are still performed on their peaks today. We sat atop a huge boulder at the very top and looked out over the land around us. Our guide pointed out a dozen other volcanoes in all directions. It was beautiful, but I was dead tired and dreading the hike down.

Exhausted at the top.

After a few minutes we descended slightly (all I could think at that point was “God, we’re going to have to climb back up this to get to the trail…”) to have lunch overlooking the active volcano Santiaguito right next door. We spent a half hour enjoying the view and munching on our pesto sandwiches. Amy kindly passed around cookies to share. Then Santiaguito–the next door volcano just below us–blew for the first time. For me, this was that special transformative moment. It was so cool! The ash erupted into the sky like a mushroom cloud. We watched in awe. From that moment on, I felt renewed excitement. I was still beat, but it didn’t matter as much anymore. Look at what was around us! How freakin’ awesome is it to watch a volcano actually blow?! It erupted a second time even bigger just as we were about to leave our viewpoint. An inspiring and invigorating send off.

Amy with the best seat in the house.
So freakin’ awesome.
180 degrees from Santiaguito view, twin volcanoes erupt in the far distance.

On the way down Laura, our hike instigator, was tickled pink that we had fulfilled a dream of hers–we climbed a volcano! Her excitement was infectious. The descent wasn’t short but it was orders of magnitude easier than the way up. Our clip down was quick and good god did it feel awesome to be on the home stretch. We chatted and bubbled about what we had just done. When we finally left the mountain behind us, I felt huge relief, accomplishment, and happiness. Laura and I cheered!

There and back again. We did it!
Our hiking party at the pick up point. Even brighter-eyed now than at the onset. Yeah, we kicked that bad-boy-in-the-background’s ass!

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Would I do it again? Yes if I hadn’t already, but probably not a second time. Tough, but amazing and worth it. I’m very glad to have had this experience, but think this may be my one extreme hike of the trip. I was really hurting on the way up. Now, my legs are sore but I am SUPER killer proud of us. Especially when looking up at the mountain from down in the city. It is enormous and we are so bad ass!! The farther away I get from the pain of ascent, the more and more happy I am to have accomplished this hike.

I ate like a hobbit that day: first breakfast, snacks, lunch/elevensies, a 3pm dinner-ish meal of breakfast food (so I’m completely confused about what to call it), and later second dinner of fettuccine bolognese and lots of red wine. I did finally get that hot shower, plus a fresh coat of paint on my toenails.
Ew, the dust seeped through my shoes and socks! Pre-shower and pedicure.

Bienvenidos a Guatemala

It was finally time to leave Mexico. I booked a “tour” for 300 pesos ($25USD) to deliver me easily through the border and into Guatemala. Departing San Cristobal at 6am, we picked up a motley crew of 12 travelers (including a GT look-alike and a group of American pre-med students studying and volunteering in Guatemala) and headed south.

After about four hours we hit the Mexican border exit station. I’m still unclear about how we exited the country; we may have unintentionally bribed the bus driver. There’s a $25USD exit fee for most nationalities but the border agent waved the two non-student Americans in the group away from the official desk (where the Europeans paid) and then out on the street we were told to pay the fee to our driver directly. Hmmm… but we had our exit visa and did what we were told. We easily passed through the Guatemala border, paid a $2USD entry fee, switched buses, untied and lifted the border gate, and went on our way. Guatemalan driving is crazy dangerous!

Crossing the border.

The Guatemalan landscape was surprisingly different from Mexico. It is a country of volcanoes and the fertile sharp cliffs are covered in greenery. It was a beautiful view from the van. We arrived three hours later in Quetzaltenango or “Xela” (pronounced ‘Shay-la’), the second largest city in Guatemala.

Initial day one impressions: Guatemala feels both similar and very different from Mexico. How to explain… for one, the architecture in central Xela is decadently neoclassic and gray instead of unadorned but brightly colored. Another visual difference are the textiles; women wear beautifully colored woven tops and skirts. The lottery is a apparently big deal; convenience stores that sell tickets have barred grates at the cash register and sometimes armed guards outside like the banks. Ice cream is super popular and cheap; I think I may have a new favorite snack. 🙂 The people have so far been lovely and helpful. And I don’t know how but Guatemalan children are abnormally super especially adorable.

Xela’s neoclassic central park, volcanos in the distance.

Xela is a magnet city for foreigners who want to study Spanish. Many “visitors” are actually longish term students. The night I arrived there was a social group of language students (including one animated Aussie enamored with the word “entonces” and gave a humorous and passionate defense of cricket) in my hostel bar having a drink. In the group were two Seattleites, one of whom grew up in the Tri Cities! We determined that her family most certainly must have crossed paths with mine back in the 70s… such a small world.

Brrr and rawr

In case all of my positive stories are giving people travel envy, let me switch gears and say how SICK AND TIRED I AM OF COLD SHOWERS!! I have had the worst shower luck recently and it sucks. Not every shower has been cold, but enough have been and always the ones that are most important. Up in the mountains after a hard day’s trek, all a girl–currently covered in volcano ash–wants is a freakin’ hot shower. But no. Instead the water is freezing AGAIN and I’m out here in the hallway, still dirty, praying that in a few minutes enough hot water will be generated to let me wash my hair.

Itinerary "details"

This trip going to be as flexible, seat-of-your-pants as I can make it. I do have a round trip plane ticket, a rough itinerary for the first six weeks, and two hostel reservations (Merida and Antigua). Don’t know what about this plan will stick; surely it will change on a whim and depend on who I’m traveling with. But it’s a place to start.

On February 22, I fly into Merida, Mexico to get acclimated, chill, and explore Uxmal. From Merida I will move east to visit the Mayan ruins across the Yucatan, hit the Caribbean coast then snorkel my way south down Belize’s barrier reef, do some eco-tourism in the jungle, cross the border west to Tikal, spelunk in central Guatemala, spend Holy Week in Antigua with maybe a spanish class, and hike some volcanos. From there I will meander south (route TBD) until I reach Panama City and fly out on May 30.

Just in there first six weeks there’s a lot to explore (All pics from Google Images):

Chichen Itza
Panuchos in Merida
Great Barrier Reef, Belize
Lunch in Belize
Zip-lining in the jungle
Lake Atitl
Semana Santa in Antigua
Street food: dobladas de papa
Roasting a marshmallow over lava