Lent and Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala: Alfombras, Christ Floats and Processions

 

We say this often, but so much of travel is about serendipity, where timing and seasonal events can play a big part in the travel experience. Since we don’t usually pay much attention to religious holidays, we recently missed seeing one of Portugal’s best Carnival celebrations in a nearby town for the second year in a row. And Lent, the weeks that come after the just-for-family daytime parades and the not-so-family night-time, raucous revelry of Carnival, is a time that usually passes by us completely ignored. Followed by many western churches, these six weeks are a solemn religious observance of penitence and self-denial (pastimes that we avoid) beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating with Easter Sunday.  And no one in the world celebrates Lent and Holy Week (Semana Santa) quite like Antigua, Guatemala, where we arrived, quite by chance, during the Lenten period in March of 2013.

 

San Jeronimo Ruins, Antigua, Guatemala

We could sing out-of-tune odes to Antigua, a beautiful little city flanked by three volcanoes of approximately 46,000 people in the mountains of southern Guatemala.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antigua was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in Guatemala from nearby Mexico. The Dominican priests who followed brought along their Lenten and Easter traditions from Seville, Spain, including the Alfombras, the “Christ Floats” and the processions.  Some 500 years from their introduction to the Guatemalan faithful, Antiqua’s Holy Week celebrations have become the largest in the world, with a unique fervor and devotion. Each Sunday during Lent found us waking up to our alarm clocks and setting out to walk Antigua’s streets well before daybreak in search of that day’s Alfombras and procession.

 

 

 

 

Antigua is famous for its Alfombras (Spanish for carpets) and it was easy to see the route the day’s procession would take as the Alfombras mapped the way, laid out on the cobblestone streets in front of the family homes or businesses.  Made from dyed sawdust in a variety of sizes and shapes, stenciled patterns and free-form designs, most were decorated with an assortment of flowers including bougainvillea, bird-of-paradise, chrysanthemums, carnations and roses.

 

Making Alfombras

Here and there we’d see fruits and vegetables in a carefully designed pattern as well as glossy, green, pine needles added as further embellishments.

 

 

Many families save all year to create their Alfombras using one-of-a-kind stencils and designs passed down from year to year, many through generations.  The creation of the Alfombras begins the day before the parade and combines hours of tedious work along with a family celebration.  Often, the carpets are completed only shortly before the procession arrives.

 

 

 

The parades are organized by different brotherhoods affiliated with neighborhood churches and each procession begins at that church. In colonial times, the “Christ Floats,” featuring figures of Jesus Christ arranged in biblical tableaus on a wooden platform called an andas, were quite small and were carried on the shoulders of twelve devotees.  Now, as the tradition has gradually evolved into lengthy pageantries of religious fervor, many of the andases are massive. The combined weight of both the elaborately carved wooden platform and religious statues can weigh several tons with the largest requiring up to 100 carriers. It’s an honor for penitents, who come from all over Latin America and pay for the privilege, to carry the andas. The carriers rotate their turns in and out often at the end of each block as the effort to carry the massive andas demands both endurance and strength as they journey through Antigua’s narrow streets for hours.

 

 

The streets are crowded with men wearing robes of Lenten purple (Cucuruchos) and black-clad women (Cargadoras) awaiting their turns to carry the load.  It’s wasn’t hard for us to imagine a beaten Jesus Christ staggering along the streets with his cross as we watched the faithful voluntarily carrying the andas.

 

 

We’d hear the mournful music from the bands playing traditional Guatemalan compositions well before the procession would appear, which gave us time to stake out a place on the sidewalk corner where we’d get a good view of the participants.

 

 

A purple-robed man would appear, amid a cloud of fragrant (and choking) incense, swinging a metal censer suspended from chains.  The carriers of the first float would step upon the alfombra to walk its length, followed by the rest of the solemn marchers in the procession. The bands with tubas, French horns, clarinets and drums, would follow and, at the end, the trampled Alfombras would emerge as mounds of sawdust and debris.

 

 

The street sweepers were the sad finale of each procession and half an hour after the procession passed, there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious Alfombras.

 

 

Holy week (Semana Santa) takes Antigua’s Lenten celebrations to a whole new level as people from all over the world crowd into the city.  (The estimate for 2016’s crowds during Semana Santa was 1.2 million people.)  Beginning on Palm Sunday, the Alfombras become even larger and more elaborate as their creators work through the night to complete them. The parades are each more spectacular than the last, with costumed Romans and Centurions astride horses. Hundreds of purple-robed men and black-clad women mingle with the crowds of spectators. A Passion Play on Friday culminates with a huge procession and the massive andas bearing Christ carrying his crucifix moves slowly about Antigua’s streets throughout the morning.  And then a lull for a few hours.

 

 

The bands begin to play slow and mournful dirges and the funeral processions appear carrying the body of Christ encased in glass upon a platform.  The Virgin Mary, splendidly attired but mournful, appears amid the Stations of the Cross and commemorations of all her moments of sorrow at the death of her son.  Everyone is clad in a somber black with the women wearing veils or mantillas.  The censers spew out choking clouds of sweet incense that hangs in the streets and the mood is as solemn as though the crucifixion had just occurred rather than happening over 2,000 years ago.

 

 

For us, Easter was almost a let-down with hastily assembled Alfombras, a small procession with the resurrected Christ and firecrackers that went off throughout the day. As non-believers and non-Catholics, we’d spent several weeks immersing ourselves in the Easter traditions of La Antigua and the artistry of her Alfombras, Christ Floats and centuries-old Lenten processions.  We fell in love with the city during the Lenten processions and stayed several months longer in Guatemala than we’d originally planned, exploring the country from coast to coast but Antigua’s Lenten and Semana Santa celebrations and traditions remain among our favorite memories of this country. Firmly rooted in the twenty-first century, cynical and lacking any vestiges of religious ideology ourselves, it was never-the-less tremendously moving to see faith and devotion so openly portrayed in La Antigua.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash 

66 comments

  • hopefully ill go there in one week! i am in CR san juan now. I started in Argentina 5 months ago, but i think Guatamala and Mexico will be my goal

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  • What wonderful timing you had! Your photos are fantastic. I loved my stay in Antigua last summer, and I really hope to return again and see the Alfombras in person.

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    • Thanks so much for your kind words! It’s great to be able to share memories of Antigua with someone who’s visited the city as it’s such a gem. Serendipity has played a huge part in our travels and Antigua was a perfect example of this. We had no idea that Semana Santa was such an important celebration in the city – just dumb luck!

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  • Very nice, loved the carpet and it’s beautiful colours. Lovely pictures.

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  • Truly humbling, inspiring, and spectacular! It certainly makes Mardi Gras look like kids’ play! And the reverent nature of the procession and the participants makes it all the more impressive. Thanks for sharing this touching and beautiful story about Semana Santa! We could learn something about this in our own “religious” celebrations of Christmas and Easter, which are so often much more about material acquisitions and attachments than an expression of devotion to the spiritual message of Christ and the kind of life He called people to live.

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    • Humbling is an apt description Nancy, and both Richard and I have agreed that the Lenten processions in Antigua were among our favorite experiences in Central America. You would have loved it! Watching the men and women dedicate themselves to carrying the enormously heavy adases with devotion and dignity was awe-inspiring and the alfombras were truly beautiful works of art. And you’re right – Lent and Easter were tradition and faith-centered versus commercial and material ventures. Something even us agnostics appreciated!

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  • What a beauty! The colors are just stunning. Great photos, thanks for sharing.

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  • Although the crowds could be a challenge at times, we loved the festivities of Semana Santa while we lived in Mexico. I would love to see these magnificent carpets in Guatemala, a place that continues to be on our list.

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  • This looks like such a wonderful celebration to experience. I absolutely adored the alfombras. So much work, dedication, and artistry went into making each one. They are just stunning!

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    • We’re so glad you loved the Alfombras, Sue because they really are special and each one is a one-of-a-kind work of art. Perhaps their beauty is more appreciated because it’s so fleeting but it was amazing to see the work, devotion and pride that went into each one and realize that this was a tradition that dated back centuries.

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  • I love Antigua but have not had the pleasure of experiencing it during Semana Santa. The carpets are magnificent. Great post!

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    • Thank you Caroline for your kind words and we’re so glad you liked the post. We wrote about the carpets when we first started our blog but we only devoted a few words and pictures to them and felt, four years down the road, that we needed to dust off our memories again and share them during Lent again. The Alfombras really are magnificent!

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  • The world is an amazing place! I don’t recall ever before hearing about this Alfombras festival in Antiqua. Your photos brought it alive.

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  • What a detail-filled carpet, just to be swept away too soon. It’s nice to hear your experience about a place many people avoid. Thanks!

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    • Guatemala was an incredible country, Susan and we ended up stretching our stay for almost six months, using Antigua as a base and exploring the country from both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts as well as many of the mountain villages. We also took a week’s trip into El Salvador and our first trip to Honduras. Some of the areas were more dangerous than others we traveled to and we always made sure to travel to more remote areas with shuttles or local guides. That said, some of our rides on the chicken buses were really memorable!

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  • Wow! Quite the site. I can’t believe they only start creating the Alfombras the day before. You said it takes them hours…..I would have thought days for sure! I bet you were grateful you were able to attend the festivities. What a colourful event!

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    • Creating the Alfombras are a friend and family event and we really wished we’d seen at least one made from the very beginning. Even some of the gringo expats who live there participate and invite their friends. And yes, we would have guessed longer too Jan, especially with the ones that were so intricate. As much as we loved the processions, watching them trample those fabulous works of art was kind of sad!

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  • We missed the Alfombras in Antigua by a couple of weeks. I keep telling myself that next year we will go..next year comes around and we find ourselves somewhere else. I, too, find it puzzling that these magnificent time-consuming works of art are destroyed in practically minutes. I don’t think I could bear it.
    I chucked at your pentinence and self-denial avoidance comment. We are the same way. Sometimes, I am in awe at the devotion and faith displayed in these traditions. Another quality I lack…devotion.
    We are in Patzcuaro, Mexico for the month of April, and I know we will watch all the Semana Santa celebrations. I am not sure what to expect in Patzcuaro, but I do know it will involve lots of bombas, parades, and hopefully stalls and stalls of delicious food. 😜

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    • Debbie, you would love the Alfombras and should really try and time a visit during Lent to see one of the processions. It sounds like the event has gotten even bigger since we were there in 2013 so I’d probably recommend going a week or 2 before Palm Sunday and trying to see one of the smaller Sunday processions. Smaller Alfombras to be sure but much smaller crowds too! Hope the celebrations in Patzcuaro are fun. Sometimes we really miss all the fireworks in Latin America and the awesome food of Mexico.

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  • The photos are stunning, the carpets are just so beautiful, stunning colours and so diverse. What an amazing experience to actually be there and spend time amongst all the locals…

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    • We had originally planned on spending only a couple of months in Antigua but ended up staying almost 6 months in the country as we lucked into a housesit and made a lot of local friends at the public school where we taught English who showed us around several areas. Such great memories, incredible people and an amazing country. It was hard to say goodbye!

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  • Wow, what an amazing time to be there – I love all the flower walk displays really stunning to see I’m sure!

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  • Like you, I always love it when I come across something by accident. But it’s not often you come across something as amazing as this – those floral carpets are fabulous!

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    • Having few expectations seems to double the WOW factor when you happen upon something by accident and Antigua’s Lenten Alfombras and processions were definitely in the amazing category. Over the months while we were in the city we saw several other processions to celebrate various holidays but none as spectacular as their Easter parades!

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  • Anita, love love loved the carpets!! And I am particularly drawn to the veggie carpet ~ it is so original and well executed. Your photos of all of it are superb. Also particularly enjoy the photograph of the purple robed incense man as well as your description of it. Ben says he wants one of those outfits.

    We have been to Guatemala before when starting to build our home in Granada Nicaragua because we had heard that Granada was what Antigua was thirty years earlier so we were curious to see for ourselves. There are definitely some features such as the architecture that are very similar. We also loved the mountain vistas and cooler climate than in Granada. We benefited greatly from the aesthetics of Antigua as we used quite a few design elements we saw there, as inspiration when we designed and built our home in Granada. How wonderful that you got to spend extended time in Guatemala ~ if I close my eyes and quiet everything around I can still hear the distant pat pat sound of blue corn tortillas being made in the market.

    Peta

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    • Who would have known that cabbages, carrots and onions could be so beautiful, Peta? 🙂 For a long time after we left Antigua, we could still hear distinctive sound of the pat-pat-pat of the women who made the tortillas. We lived close to a little hole-in-the-wall store where they made them each evening and would walk down to pick up a bag of hot-off- the-grill tortillas many evenings. Delicious! One of the women tried to show me how to shape them but all I was good for was the entertainment factor. A lumpy. misshapen mess but a great memory!

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  • Wow! We came across alfombras and a procession in Puno, Peru in celebration of the Señor de Los Milagros (Lord of Miracles) day, but nothing as stunning and grand as this. At the time I wondered what they used to create the designs. Now I know, thanks, coloured sawdust:) -Ginette

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    • The alfombras were, by far and away, our favorite part of the Lenten traditions and it was really fun to set out before dawn and watch them being made. While we were in Antigua, we taught English at an all-girls school for a couple of months and had several students describe the process of making an alfombra and showing us how the dyes were hand-mixed in with the sawdust. It’s always interesting what you see and learn as you travel!

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  • Beautiful pictures, thank you for sharing! I left you a late comment on your Seville post. I wonder if you can help?

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  • Wow, what a great report! Serendipity is a key word in our life these days of being a part-time ex pat, and mainly because we stumble upon some of the most wonderful experiences by accident. We used to celebrate Semana Santa when we were living our ‘Mexico life’ and while they had somber processionals, it also was one big party week – we started avoiding the week opting for more sedate times to visit. Now we are caught up in the pageantry of Greek Orthodox Easter and do love the way it brings young people back to the villages to celebrate long held religious and family traditions. We’ve slowly come to know that the ‘Megali Evdomada’ the big week before Easter you will find offices closed, some businesses, and certainly no repairmen available. In a way, it is so curiously refreshing that we don’t mind the delays it causes (although it well may impact our residency permit application process) just as did Clean Monday when the Greek Consulate in SF was closed. Oh well, that’s why we chose this lifestyle, isn’t it?

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    • So glad you liked this post Jackie and yes, yes, yes, serendipity really does seem to play a big part in our lives as well. Maybe a lot of the wow experiences are just taking the time to slow down and reach out when the opportunity arises rather than being either too busy to notice or putting things off for *later*. I am trying to picture the Greek Orthodox traditions for Easter (are lemons involved by any chance? 😁) and will look forward to hearing about them soon. As for the delays that all the celebrations cause, it’s also amazing to us that we don’t mind either. Portugal has an unbelievable number of bank holidays and, when it won the European Soccer Championship last summer, that Monday was also declared a national holiday. Love it!

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  • Love this post! We saw the andas in Antigua in their (open air) storage location – and were lucky enough to be there when we could get in and look around. I’d heard about the carpets, and seen pictures of them. I’d love to see the real thing. There’s a smaller village in Guat that also does carpets. Maybe one day we’ll go back. I thought Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende was a big deal, but it’s pales compared to Antigua. Wonderful photos – I especially love the one of the man with the incense burner.
    Alison

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    • Thanks Allison! I was thinking that your timing to visit Antigua was just a little bit off as you would have loved the weeks of Alfombras and processions, the incense and music, and I can only imagine the wonderful photos you’d take. The photo of the purple-robed man swinging the censer is one of our favorites. Funny story about that Lenten purple – I had a summer blouse almost that same color that I never could wear after that. I discarded it before we even left Antigua. 😁

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  • Personally, I have no religious convictions, despite the attempts of parental influence throughout my childhood. I do at times think of myself as a spiritual person though. I try to look for the kindness of spirit in others. I find religious celebrations super interesting and I rarely miss a chance to step inside a chapel, church, cathedral or basilica because I find them fascinatingly full of contradictions; lessons in sociology and history. But, I digress.

    The photos of the street murals are stunning and all I can think of is the incredible patience (something of which I lack) on the part of those who so lovingly create such masterpieces. That part of the world is not on my radar so I really appreciate seeing these through your camera lens and memories.

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    • Digress all you want to Patti! 🙂 We too, lack the religious convictions that our parents tried to instill in us (mine with a lot more diligence than Richard’s) but, like you, never miss an opportunity to step inside a church or cathedral to soak up the beauty and tranquility that so many have. I know our political views mesh, and at some point have no doubt that we’ll be exchanging viewpoints about religion which is sure to be interesting. And, cynics that we are, we too love watching religious rituals and found Antigua’s traditions to be unbelievably beautiful and moving.

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  • Those flower-decorated carpets are amazing. Holy Week in Antigua,would be wonderful to experience. As I read through the elaborate Holy Week activities, I wondered what Easter itself would be like. I was sorry to read it was a bit of a let-down.

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    • I know that Carnival in Las Tablas, Panama, near where you stayed last year Donna, is a huge deal but haven’t heard about its Semana Santa tradition. We too were expecting an over-the-top Easter celebration which is the big focus in the US (for us it was ham dinners and Easter egg hunts) but really, it would be hard to compete with the month long rituals of the alfombras and processions. And maybe, for us, the letdown was knowing that this magical tradition was at an end for another year and that we’d probably never see it again. Good thing we have photos! 🙂

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  • Really beautiful images. Love all the colors. I have to say that this is the first time l’ve ever seen women shouldering the burden so to speak. Pretty cool as those things are massive :-). I always think of getting a calendar to help keep track of all these events, if only so we can food shop ahead of a holiday. The Sevilla one is insane, definitely bigger than the Malta one, but this one in Guatemala beats them for colors. Love it.

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    • Thanks KemKem and like you, we loved the colors! Although the majority of the andases were carried by men, each procession had at least one float that was carried entirely by women and, in fact, we saw a few women carrying a baby or toddler in the other arm as though their load wasn’t quite heavy enough. As we were were writing about the Guatemalan celebrations we kept saying, “We need to go to Spain next year and see how they celebrate!” The second largest Semana Santa is in Seville which you’ve already see but maybe we should meet up in Leon? You’ll have to let us know how Valencia celebrates in a couple of weeks!

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  • Your photos are absolutely BREATHTAKING Anita! You captured the essence of it all so completely. “Semana Santa” is of course likewise honored here in Ecuador – with daily processions and traditions like visiting 7 churches on Holy Thursday, and of course the traditional “fanesca” soup (made only during Easter, with 12 different beans/grains signifying the 12 apostles).

    But nothing like those glorious alfombras of Antigua – I’ve long had it on my bucket list to witness the festivities myself. Perhaps like this year’s (finally!) pilgrimage to see those Monarch butterflies in the mountains of Mexico – I’ll put Semana Santa in Antigua on my travel dance-card in 2018. Thanks for the inspiration!

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    • I’m thinking your 2018 travel dance-card may be getting full Dyanne but you definitely won’t regret making room and time for the Lenten processions. If we had a list of favorite travel memories there’s no doubt that our experience in Antigua would be in the Top 5. I’d love to see Ecuador’s spin on the whole tradition and the fanesca soup sounds delicious. After walking down memory lane and remembering how fascinating the Lenten and Semana Santa rituals were in Guatemala we’ll have to seriously think about visiting Seville or Leon, Spain in 2018 and seeing how they celebrate!

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  • Carnival is a huge celebration in Brazil, it goes on for a whole week, culminating on Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. I love all these traditions and celebrations even though I no longer follow any particular religion. The Alfombras look incredible, so colourful and beautiful it is such a shame that they end up totally destroyed. Great post😄

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    • Of course, Rio de Janeiro carnivals are famous and I’m not sure that we’d be up to for a party that crazy but I’d love to see some of Brazil’s smaller celebrations. You would love the Alfombras, Gilda and it’s not hard to say that they were our favorite part of the whole Lenten and Easter traditions. But, like you, we felt it was a shame to see such beautiful works destroyed. Still though, that makes their beauty all the more precious. 🙂 We’re just glad we took so many photos as they were a vivid reminder of our time there.

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  • Penitence & self-denial are two things I avoid as well, but this looks like a spectacle, any well seasoned traveler ought to see. Growing up a catholic kid, (note lower case) I, too, was immersed in the religious fervor and self flagellation that culminated in holy week activities at our parish, but it was never like this. As an old cynic about religious claptrap now, I still miss the ritual and foo-farah, the smells and the bells that marked catholicism. And the guilt! Good lord, we were convinced that we were terrible, awful people.
    Anyway, thanks for taking me back to a part of my boyhood, and the great photos. Keep ’em coming! (BTW, very soon MEBEinPanama will vanish, and Byallmeanstravel.com will be launch.)

    BE

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    • I can understand Byron how, despite the pervading sense of guilt, you would miss the ritual that accompanies the masses as well as the religious ceremonies. (But not the self-flagellation. ) We were both raised as Protestants so the Lenten and Easter traditions in the deeply Catholic country of Guatemala were an eye-opener as was the focus on the crucifixion versus the resurrection. Many carry the platforms as a form of penitence, a way to express their gratitude or a plea for an intervention but watching the devotion of the people carrying the incredibly huge and heavy andases was deeply moving. Looking forward to reading about your new adventures in Colombia!

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  • Very nice photos and descriptions of the Alfombras. The colours and pageantry are beautiful and the amount of effort that goes into the preparations is quite remarkable, we can see why it would remain with you after all your years of travel. Having seen the massive floats in many cathedrals we were amazed that they could even be lifted, let alone carried through the narrow cobblestone streets. Timely story.

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  • Lovely photos on the Lent celebration. We have something similar here on Good Friday morning.

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