Tag Archives: Antigua 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 

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

Housesitting: The Right Place at the Right Time

Volcan Agua -view from house

Volcan Agua -view from house

We met Mike in March, a few days after we arrived in Antigua, at a local restaurant. After meeting him a second time a couple of days later he invited us to his house in Santa Ana, a little community contiguous to Antigua, the following Sunday to see the Lenten procession which the church in Santa Ana was sponsoring. Since we were anxious to learn about these processions and the whole Lenten experience, we gladly accepted.

La Iglesia (church) in Santa Ana

La Iglesia (church) in Santa Ana

The following Sunday we followed the Alfombra carpets laid out on the cobblestone roads and walked to his home. Sure enough we had an unobstructed view of the event. Centurians Mike’s is a beautifully renovated colonial house at the end of Calle Real, the route of the procession, so all of the marchers, the bands, the andus (the elaborate wooden platform holding the religious statues that the marchers carried) , the hawkers, everything and everybody trooped by his front door.

Mike and Dawn's Alfombra

Mike and Dawn’s Alfombra

Mike and his wife, Dawn, and friends had spent the early morning hours creating their own alfombra in front of their home, using a custom-made plywood stencil and colored sawdust. Their participation in this annual religious ritual endeared he and his wife to their neighbors and further tied them to the community.

During our visit we found out that Mike and Dawn split their time between two homes, one in Santa Ana and one in Canada. We discovered that they would soon be departing for their home in Canada and that they were looking for a “house-sitter” for the Santa Ana casa. After some discussions they extended an offer for us to care for their home after we finished our volunteer work commitment teaching English at the end of April. We decided to prolong our time in Antigua for an additional three months, accepted their offer and the deal was sealed.

La Casa CourtyardThe house-sitting has been a fantastic opportunity to further acquaint ourselves with the city of Antiqua, learn about the pulse of the small community of Santa Ana and spend more time exploring Guatemala. After living in fairly basic accommodations, we are thoroughly appreciating a pampered lifestyle. We have 1) a coffee pot ! 2) a hot water heater which provides a hot shower with full water pressure ! 3) good Wi-Fi ! 4) a washing machine ! 5) a kitchen where we can cook both comfort foods and experiment with some local cuisine 6) a home to spread out in!

2nd floor terrace

2nd floor terrace

Our contribution is to provide a visible, lived-in presence at the house, pay the monthly salary for a lovely lady who comes in and cleans daily (far less than what we would be paying for rent) and make sure that things operate in good order.

This experience has led us to enroll in an on-line international house-sitting website. So if the planets are aligned favorably, we may be able to care for another home, in another country, at another time. It sounds good in theory; don’t plan too concretely or too distant and be available to respond to opportunities when they present themselves. We shall see…Santa Ana-Antigua street

By Richard and Anita, June, 2013

Necessities, Conveniences and Luxuries

Woman going to the marketWe’ve discovered in our travels that there are few true necessities; however there are preferences. High on our list of things we desire are a clean living area, a private bath, internet access and a reasonable walking distance to stores, restaurants, transportation and the city center. Lower tier desires include a comfortable bed, a good shower and access to a refrigerator and kitchen.

suicide shower

An electric water heater aka a “suicide shower”

Showering has been both a source of frustration and a familiar comfort. In Mexico the water trickled out at a maddeningly slow rate and, finally, turned warm. While travelling through Villahermosa in the Mexican state of Tabasco, we were first introduced to the electric water heater wired directly to the shower head, [a.k.a. the “suicide shower”]. We’ve encountered these elsewhere in our travels as well. Evidently common throughout Central and South America, this device operates on water pressure: the slower the water pressure the hotter the water. Even this rudimentary gadget is not a standard feature in many homes due to the high cost of consumer electricity.Community laundry We’ve not seen a dishwasher or vacuum cleaner since we left the US but washing machines, a staple in most American homes, are a rarity even in middle class homes both because of the initial cost and the operating cost. Hand washing is a daily reality in many homes. TanquePilas, large, double-sink wash basins with a ridged bottom for scrubbing clothing, are found in many homes including several where we have stayed. Many cities and towns have common outdoor laundry wash basins called tanques which serve dual purposes: the local women do the laundry and socialize, too.  During our travels we’ve hauled our dirty clothing to nearby lavenderias [cost: about $5.50 a week] while hand washing the “fine dainties” in the sink at home.

La Botella

Purified Water for drinking & cooking

Stoves are usually powered by propane tanks and it is not uncommon to see only the countertop stoves which we had in our Mexico apartment and no oven. The oven at our homestay in Guatemala was filled with pots and pans and never used during our two month stay. South of the border purified water is available in large 5 gallon botellas which are delivered upon request for a very reasonable price, about $1.35 each here in Antiqua. However, even this may be out of reach for many of the local people who drink water from the city supply which is said to be “potable”: safe drinking water is a critical problem here in Guatemala especially in rural areas.Perfect Balance Getting around by shank’s mare introduced the concept of humans [namely us] as beasts of burden. A lot of timesVender hauling goods our purchases every day or two are decided by the amount that can be carried back to our home [canned goods, vegetables and fruits, 6 packs of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, 2 liter bottles of coke lite, etc.]. Often on heavy shopping days we’ve relented and taken a tuc-tuc back home. But for many of the local citizens, that is not a viable option.

A backpack, bananas and a ladder

A backpack, bananas and a ladder

By Anita and Richard, June, 2013

Volunteering in La Antigua

school assemblyThere are many opportunities to volunteer in Guatemala and we spent some time researching the multitudes of volunteer agencies, deciding which effort we wanted to support and what exactly we wanted to contribute. We chose IVHQ, an international New Zealand based agency which was recommended on several websites and had volunteer opportunities all over the world.Antonio Castro y Escobar Best friendsIVHQ in turn put us in touch with their affiliate in Antigua, Maximo Nivel, who arranged a homestay, Spanish lessons and a volunteer experience teaching English at a public school. Volunteer opportunities at Maximo Nivel in Antigua and nearby communities range from working in various orphanages, daycare centers, residences for the physically and mentally disabled to medical clinics, construction projects, after school tutoring programs and teaching at public and private schools.public school for girls The sign on the front of the all-girls public school building Earth Day assembly(well over one-hundred years old) reads “La Esquela National Para Ninas No.2, Antonio Castro y Escobar”. We volunteered for two months, March and April, teaching English to four classes Monday through Thursday (grades 3-6) from 7:45 – 12:30 and on Friday 7:45-10:30 for grades 1 & 2. In Guatemala, school is free through the sixth grade after which tuition is often required and it was sad to know that, for some of these girls, their educational opportunities would end and they’d be following the traditional life of early marriage with large families.class The task of teaching English for the first time to large classes was demanding but the girls made our meager efforts hugely rewarding. It was a pleasure to walk into the school, and each classroom, and be greeted by girls who were genuinely pleased that we were there to teach.Recess in the courtyard pretty little girlPassing by students in the hallway we’d be greeted with waves, occasional hugs and, “Good morning, teacher” or “Nice to meechoo”. In retrospect, volunteering was about a cross cultural exchange in which we may have learned much more than we taught. At the end of our volunteer assignment, the school Director invited us to go on a field trip with the girls to an amusement park, IRTRA, in the capital, Guatemala City. We gladly accepted and spent a memorable last day with “our “students.Amusement park at Guatemala City By Richard and Anita, June 2013

Antigua: Lent, Alfombras and Semana Santa

We arrived in La Antigua, Guatemala, a UNESCO world heritage site, after a nine hour overnight ride on a double decker bus.

The ruins of Templo San Francisco

The ruins of Templo San Francisco

The city is absolutely, stunningly quaint and picturesque filled with well-preserved Spanish Baroque architecture and the ruins of Spanish colonial churches (destroyed by both time and recurrent earthquakes), many dating back to the sixteenth century.

Ruins of Santa Clara

Ruins of Santa Clara

On the horizon, surrounding the city, loom three large volcanoes: Volcan de Agua, Acatenango (last erupted in 1972) and Volcan de Fuego, which is constantly active at a low level with steam visibly venting many days.

Volcan Agua

Volcan Agua

We were incredibly lucky to have timed our stay here during Lent as Antigua has the biggest Lenten and Semana Santa celebration in the world and the weeks leading up to Easter were filled with music, religious processions and alfombras.

Procession on Good Friday

Procession on Good Friday

Alfombras are sawdust “carpets” which are laid out on the cobbled streets in front of the family home or shop and have a variety of stenciled patterns, geometric and free form designs, made with colorfully dyed sawdust, flowers, fruits, vegetables and pine needles.Alfombra - San BertoloAlfombra They were absolutely amazing and involved hours of tedious work to make.After th These acts of devotion cost participants dearly in terms of time, money and effort: many people work all night to create their unique alfombra.Alfombra Each area of the city, and some of the surrounding villages, had its own procession over the weeks leading up to Easter with the faithful celebrants carrying enormous and incredibly heavy wooden platforms with the parish statues.Lenten ProcessionWomen's procession We spent the month of March waking up before dawn on the weekends, walking the streets, admiring alfombras and waiting with the early morning crowds in anticipation of the marchers.Incense and Procession The procession would be preceded by music as the streets filled with the fragrant incense smoke from men swinging burners. The men, wearing robes of Lenten purple, and the women wearing dresses of black or white, would slowly pass by carrying the religious statues.

After the Crucifixion

Good Friday – After the Crucifixion

They would make their way over the  cobblestone streets carpeted with the alfombras, trampling them to mounds of sawdust and debris. The bands with drums and horns would follow, signaling the end of the event and then the street sweepers would descend immediately to clean up the debris. Half an hour after the procession passed there’d be nothing remaining of the glorious alfombras. Street Sweepers after the Procession By Anita and Richard, May, 2013