Category Archives: Guatemala

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 

By Boat And By Bus to Belize and Back

Boats on the waterfront at Livingston

Boats on the waterfront at Livingston

Who knew they liked Americans so much in Central America? They even set up a special travel status just for us: the CA-4. Now that’s a bit of southern hospitality.

Dock at La Casa Rosada

La Casa Rosada Hostel, Livingston

Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua participate in an agreement called the CA-4 (Central America – 4) that allows U.S. citizens to travel freely between the four countries for ninety days.  We entered Guatemala at the end of February, extended our visas in mid-May for an additional ninety days by going to Guatemala City, filling out a short application form and paying a fee, and finally, had to leave the country for seventy-two hours in August to renew our visas and continue our travels into Honduras and Nicaragua.  We decided to exit Guatemala via Livingston, a funky little town on the Caribbean coast accessible only by boat.

Great Food - A bit messy but GOOD

Great Food – A bit messy but GOOD

Livingston is a small port city, with a population of roughly 17,000 souls, inhabited by
the Garifuna (descendants of 17th century shipwrecked African slaves and indigenous Carib),  Q’cqchi’ Mayan and Guatemaltecans. Spanish is still the predominant language but Garifuna, English and Mayan are heard regularly.  The cuisine is distinctly different from the rest of Guatemala with a tasty selection of seafood and coconut based dishes.  We walked up the short main street, Calle Principal, which included a very steep hill from the little marina, wandered about a few side streets where we encountered a sow and piglet, chickens and goats and …that was it.  We’d seen the town.

Entering and exiting Punta Gorda, Belize

Entering and exiting Punta Gorda, Belize

We took our passports to the immigration office, received our exit stamps and, early Tuesday morning we boarded a launch for a ride across deep blue water sparkling in the sunlight to the port city of Punta Gorda, Belize.  After receiving our visa entry stamps, we caught a local bus for a two-hour ride to Independence, also called Mango Creek by the locals, and finally boarded a water taxi for the fifteen minute ride to Placencia.  It was a long day waiting and riding upon various forms of transport, hauling our backpacks and suitcases around and about, but it went surprisingly smooth and people were smiling, friendly and very helpful.

Main Street - Getting around in Placencia

Main Street – Getting around in Placencia

Placencia peninsula is sixteen miles long and very narrow with the Placencia lagoon on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other; as we walked about  Placencia Village we could catch glimpses of both the lagoon and the sea.   The village was founded by pirates and is a mixture of expats, creoles, Garifuna and Mayan Belizeans all speaking several variations of English, the official language of Belize, a former British colony.  The spoken English varied from a very proper British accent to a thick, melodic Caribbean patois that we had to strain hard to understand.  Added into this mix was the background talk from the tourists we met (German, Israeli, French, Canadian, etc.).

Main pedestrian walkway in Placencia

Main pedestrian walkway in Placencia

Because it was low season, we found a charming room with a kitchenette and porch complete with a hammock on the beach and a view of the Caribbean for a discounted price.  There we spent our three-day exile gazing out at the Caribbean, occasionally swimming, laying in the sun, swinging in the hammock and reading (and did I mention sweating buckets in the thick humidity?).  This was a pleasant and leisurely respite before we had to reverse our trip back to Livingston and then begin the next leg of our journey to the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Quiet  time at dawn-

Quiet time at dawn-

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

The Manatee Whisperer At Lago Izabel

Lago IzabelWe caught the 6:00 AM collectivo to El Estor from Rio Dulce and met Don Benjamin at his boat at 6:45. He liked to be on the lake early in the morning. It was just the two of us this morning so there was no disagreement when he asked us why we had come to the lake; we had come to see the fresh water sea manatee that live in Lago Izabal. We agreed that the monkeys, water birds and any other critters would be great but we were there for the manatee.

A happy man -Capitan Benjamin at Lago Izabel near El Estor

A happy man -Capitan Benjamin at Lago Izabel near El Estor

El Estor is a quiet village that sits at the northwest end of Lago Izabal, the largest lake in Guatemala. And Don Benjamin had come recommended as a sort of “Whisperer” to the manatee. He had lived on the lake all his life and was reputed to be knowledgeable about their habits. He explained where we would go in the search for the manatee and where, in his judgment, we would be most likely to see them.Still Waters

The Boca de Pilochic Bio-reserve was established at the western end of the lake where the largest river, the Rio Pilochic feeds in from the highlands. In this warm, shallow end, with marshy fingers extending into the jungles, the fresh water sea manatee make their home. In this protected area, along with a handful of other sites, this endangered species breeds and preserves the population in the wild.

We slowly motored along the perimeter of the bays, among water lilies and aquatic plants that are the manatee’s food. We were the only craft on the lake as far I as could see.On the south shore of a bay we drifted into an inlet and tied off for coffee and a light snack. “Paciencia” was not a problem for us we told Don Benjamin – we would be patient. We had anticipated this trip for some time.



While looking for the manatee we saw and heard the deep growl of the howler monkeys; several families were in the trees adjacent to the lake. Some were feeding, some at rest. There were the water birds as well: egrets, herons, cormorants, perhaps kingfisher, all feeding in the shallows of the lake.

Manatees in a line at Lago Izabel

Manatees in a line at Lago Izabel

As the morning wore on and the sun rose in the sky Don Benjamin was smiling, saying the manatee liked the sun. Shortly after that we began to encounter the manatee in groups of a dozen or more. We would follow them as they swam in a line, just below the surface. It was not the cresting of the whales, but it was amazing to be within a few feet of this massive, timid and endangered species. As one group dove to deeper water we would swing around and pick up another group in short order.

Manatee below the lake surface

Manatee below the lake surface

The morning had been very tranquil, followed by a flourish of joy and activity with sightings of the manatee. It was close to noon when we returned to the dock and time to catch the bus back to Rio Dulce for the next leg of our trip to the Caribbean coast.Water front at Lago Izabel

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Up A Creek…

The Rio Dulce  (Sweet River)

The Rio Dulce (Sweet River)

Antigua was somewhere behind us. At 4:00 AM on a Friday morning we’d hoisted the suitcases to the roof of the crowded shuttle van and headed for Guatemala City and the waiting bus which labored on our behalf during the uneventful six hour drive to Rio Dulce, the river route to the Caribbean coast of Guatemala.

Water lilies in a quiet spot on the river

Water lilies in a quiet spot on the river

Rio Dulce is a haphazard town that has grown up on the banks of the river for which it is named. It possesses a muggy humidity much different than the rarified air of the Guatemalan highlands. It continues to grow thanks to the influx of wealthy Guatemaltecans who build trendy vacation homes with large boat houses.

Castillo de San Felipe

Castillo de San Felipe

The only concession to historic importance is the old military fort, Castillo San Filipe de Golfo built in 1657 to keep the safe sanctuary of the lake, Lago Izabal, out of the hands of foreign pirates. In Rio Dulce we engaged a pushcart driver for our bags and backpacks and headed for the river. The launch from the Kangaroo Hotel, which had come highly recommended by a friend in Antigua, arrived shortly. As the name implies, it is an Aussie operation. Gary opened shop about five years previous and is one of a handful of foreigners on the river.The Kangaroo Hotel The Kangaroo, more a hostel than a hotel, is a rambling, comfortable and welcoming place to visit and our stay there was an enjoyable experience. Nestled in a dead-end branch of the river it was quiet, isolated and inhabited by polyglot travelers from around the world. With our sight-seeing itinerary and Gary’s knowledge of available resources we found ourselves up a creek, so to speak. The following morning we boarded the Kangaroo launch and headed for the collectivos (shuttle vans) in Rio Dulce. Forty minutes later we were dropped at the trail head for the Cascada Agua Caliente, the only reported hot water falls in the world. Approaching the waterfallA national park, it retains all its natural beauty, the trail being the only concession to progress. Here you can swim in a natural pool, stand or sit in the hot waters of the falls or climb a short distance and take a mud bath. Afterwards, depending on both bravery and adrenalin, you can either jump from the ledge or climb back down to the pool. With the canopy overhead the creek is nearly protected from the direct glare of the sun.Cascade of hot water When we felt sufficiently sated with the agua caliente we headed back to the highway and flagged down the next bus headed for Valle Boquerón. Boquerón is a deep canyon cut through lime stone hills creating a sun dappled creek bottom with towering cliffs, fissures and shallow caves.Valle Boqueron We set off up the creek in a long canoe, manned by our guide, and tied off on a gravel beach above a small set of rapids at the terminus of the trip. Here in a quiet pool of water, sparkling in the sunlight, reflecting the deep greens of the trees and limestone cliffs in the steeply cut canyon we spent our time exploring, swimming and relaxing. For the second time that day we found ourselves up a creek, fortunately with a paddle.Valle Boqueron By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Adios La Antigua

La MercedWe’ll be leaving Antigua this week and heading to Rio Dulce and Livingston, Guatemala on the Caribbean coast and then into Belize again to renew visas. We’ve been here for over five months, much longer than the two month stay we had originally planned when we arrived to volunteer. Our lifestyle of slow travel came to a temporary stop when a chance meeting, our own flexible itinerary and a bit of serendipity landed us our first official housesitting gig for an additional three months.

La Catedral Ruins

La Catedral Ruins

What is it about Antigua that so captivates us?  Surrounded by three volcanos in the central highlands of Guatemala, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Guatemala.Santa Rosa ruins Founded in 1543 by Spanish Conquistadors the city was “the capital of the Spanish Empire in America” from the 16th to 18th centuries until, after a devastating series of earthquakes earlier in the 18th century, a major earthquake in 1773 destroyed most of the city and the Spanish moved their capital to Guatemala City.There are impressive and melancholy ruins of ancient churches everywhere one walks throughout the city as well as a multitude of beautiful Spanish colonial and baroque edifices still in use.

Fountain in Parque Central

Fountain in Parque Central

Antigua is a very compact city and it’s wonderful to be able to walk anywhere we want within thirty to forty minutes. However, the sidewalks can be uneven with little steps going up or down and very narrow in places forcing us to walk single file or even on the street. Traffic right of way and trying to cross a street can be a guessing game called “Pedestrian Beware!” since you can’t assume that the cars will actually stop for you. There are few street signs on the corners so, for those of us who are directionally dyslexic, finding and orienting yourself can be a bit of a challenge too. The streets are paved with cobblestones and, while picturesque, can be treacherous if you’re not paying attention.

Marimbas - Guatemalan traditional music

Marimbas – Guatemalan traditional music

And it’s hard sometimes to watch your feet when there are so many things to see. Most weeks have a celebration or procession and there’s always the live traditional band with trombones, tubas and huge drums playing in the late afternoon on Fridays at the Parque Central. Just sitting in a café or a bench in the park watching the people (tourists and locals) can provide colorful sights of interest and entertainment.

A couple in the park

A couple in the park

The Antiguans are quite indulgent so long as you are respectful. They realize that tourists are the life-blood of the city and work to accommodate their desires. In return, we maintain the attitude of guests in their country, educate ourselves as to their customs and remain appreciative of their patience. This is rather simple when they routinely, and with great tact, help us with our struggling Spanish.

We have been fortunate to have been in other colonial cities; but it may be a time before we encounter another with the charming mix that brings La Antigua prominence.beautiful smile

By Richard and Anita, August, 2013

Lago de Atitlan-Beyond Beautiful

Lago de AtitlanThe first view of Lake Atitlan is from just under the ridge where the winding road begins its descent into the valley. We are at 6000 feet in the highlands of western Guatemala, and the contrast of the various shades of green on the mountainsides and the deep, sapphire blue of the lake is quite startling. The lake fills a caldera, a volcanic depression, of enormous proportions which was formed 84,000 years ago.

Volcanos Toliman (left) and San Pedro (right)

Volcanos Toliman (left) and San Pedro (right)

On the southern rim of the lake, three volcanos, Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro tower over the landscape. It shreds the boundary of picturesque. Aldous Huxley tersely noted, “It really is too much of a good thing.” In this, he was correct.Volcan San Pedro Panajachel, the town where we are staying, is similar to the other seven or eight villages spread around the lake; a few thousand people engaged in traditional crafts and tourism with the remainder in ancillary businesses or farming and fishing. However, Panajachel is unique. It is built on the ancient flood plain of the Rio Panajachel, which still feeds Lake Atitlan, and as a consequence it is built on the level. Santiago AtitlanThe remaining villages are built on the sides of the caldera and they are a vertical maze of streets, homes and shops. While people have lived around the lake since the pre-Classic era, the lake has flooded five times in recorded history. The latest iterations of Panajachel, San Marcos La Laguna, Santiago Atitlan and most of the towns date from the 1930’s.

WeavingWe set out one morning to visit some of the lake towns by boat, the easiest means of transport. San Juan La Laguna, a very small village on the eastern shore of Atitlan, is an artisan’s town with over 40 cooperatives, primarily women’ s “asociaciones”, devoted to the production and marketing of traditional native crafts. While the focus is primarily on weaving, other co-ops engage in wood working, pottery and painting.

Textiles and handicraftsThe quality and beauty of some of the woven pieces produced was truly phenomenal. The gradation of colors in the thread was enormous and all the dyes were produced by hand from organic materials: plants, minerals and insects.( At times the tyranny of a single suitcase seems unjust. That day was one of those times as we both were so tempted to make a purchase).

Maximon - sans arms and legs

Maximon – sans arms and legs

The highlight of Santiago Atitlan was the shrine of Maximón, a folk saint venerated in various forms by the Mayan people of several towns in the highlands. One of the legends holds that one day, while the men were away working, Maximón came to the village and slept with all the wives. When the men returned they were sorely aggrieved and cut off his arms and legs. And that is why the effigies you see of Maximón at the shrines are of short men often without arms. The worship of Maximón treats him not so much as a benevolent deity but rather as a bully whom one does not want to anger. His expensive tastes in alcohol and cigarettes indicate that he is a sinful human character, very different from the ascetic ideals of Christian sainthood. Devotees believe that prayers for revenge, or success at the expense of others, are likely to be granted. The veneration of Maximón is not approved by the Roman Catholic Church – geez, go figure…Hauling firewood By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

Where Can I Buy Chicken Feet?

El MercadoWe lived in the land that invented the supermarket and the one-stop shopping concept and we’re slowly beginning to realize what we’ve missed: the one-to-one human interaction of asking if a certain item is available and for how much, occasional bargaining and the adventure of the quest. Here, in Latin America, the options for shopping vary. The larger cities usually have some version of the western style supermarket.  TiendaEvery neighborhood, town and city has its tiendas: little shops similar to small and crowded convenience stores. There are also the family businesses; bakeries and tortilla shops, stationery stores, pharmacies , fruit and vegetable stands, etc. Many of these shops are actually “storefronts” with the business in the front and the family home in the rear behind a privacy barrier.El Mercado

And then there are the mercados, huge farmers type markets that are usually in a permanent location, sometimes covered and several square blocks in size. We enter into the narrow lanes of the mercado and are instantly assaulted by the calls from the vendors seeking our attention, entreating us to buy their goods, declaring absolutely the best quality and price.

??????????This competes with the blaring music and noisy discussions all around from the crowds of people in a riotous cacophony. Stalls are jammed side by side into every available space and goods hang from the tent type walls, corrugated tin ceilings and shelves packed with colorful goods.

MannequinsMannequins decked out in skinny jeans and t-shirts strut their stuff next to pirated cd’s and dvd’s and hardware tools. Piles of underwear and padded bras are sold next to stacks of eggs and handcrafted items such as traditional weavings, leather goods, jewelry, and pottery.El Mercado

Plastic ware and household goods share space with fruits, vegetables and flowers all in a tower of abundance. There are of course the usual mangos, bananas, tomatoes, avocados and more strange and exotic things that we’ve never seen and have to ask in our Spanglish “what is this?” and “how do I eat it?”.

An artful display of chicken feet and other parts

An artful display of chicken feet and other parts

The meat, poultry and fish stalls are areas that we prefer to visit earlier in the morning (especially before the fish smell begins to permeate the area). Hanging from the ceiling are strange-looking cuts of meat, paper covered counters with stacks of fish and large bowls of chicken feet and other parts all arrayed with careful attention like a flower arrangement. We’ve seen live chickens near the stalls a few times but are unsure if they’re sold live or butchered later. One early morning, before the Mercado opened, we saw a merchant with several piglets leashed together on ropes. Better not to guess…Piglets

And this is before we get to the biggest used clothing thrift store we’ve ever seen.Aisles and aisles of clothing, sold by different venders, arrayed on hangers, piled onto tables, spilling to the floor. Huge wobbling stacks of shirts, trousers and skirts, dresses , underwear and shoes .

La Paca, an enormous bargain extravaganza!

La Paca, an enormous bargain extravaganza!

We’ve dug through the piles of clothing a couple of times out of curiosity but it requires patience, perseverance , stamina and maybe even some desperation. Easy, convenient and one stop shopping it ain’t!

By Richard and Anita, July, 2013

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