In Antigua, Guatemala, Easter Sunday’s (Domingo de Resurrección) modest procession celebrating the resurrection of Christ (Procesión de Resurrección) contrasts starkly with the solemnity of the Lent (Cuaresma) and Holy Week (Semana Santa) processions.
Suddenly the blanket of sadness lifts and there is a festive air. Smiling folk in colorful costumes play lively music and dance over candy-strewn alfombras that children pounce on like booty from a battered piñata. Shreds of colored paper scattered from rooftops float in the breeze like confetti and firecrackers echo throughout the city.
World famous for its Lent (Cuaresma) and Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations, Antigua and surrounding pueblos in the central highlands of Guatemala buzz with people, emotion and activities at this time of year more than any other. Families, friends, neighbors and communities spend hours together creating elaborate ceremonial carpets called alfombras along the route of religious processions.
Some make simple alfombras of pine needles strewn with flowers. Others create intricate, time-consuming works of art using stencils and sawdust (called aserrín) stained the varying hues of an artist’s palette. For these, they level a surface of sand or plain sawdust over the uneven cobblestones before sifting a fine layer of dyed sawdust to paint a colored background.
Placing their choice of cardboard or wooden stencils cut into various images and patterns on the blank canvas they carefully sift contrasting hues of sawdust to create the effect they want. Laying on platforms of sturdy planks of wood placed on blocks spanning the width of the alfombra, they avoid damaging their art.
After months of planning and hours of work and painstaking concentration, masterpieces carpet the cobbles in the path of processions only to be trampled moments later into an impressionistic mishmash between gray stones.
Here’s a photo tour of the elaborate process of alfombra-making! Click here to see all my Holy Week posts from previous years. For this year’s Semana Santa photos and all things Antigueño, check out Antigua Daily Photo.
A river of scorching lava blazed and flowed from the crater’s rim as fire shot out of its belly. Last night Volcán de Fuego or volcano of fire, one of the most active volcanoes in Guatemala and one of the three volcanoes overlooking Antigua, erupted furiously.
Privileged to witness the spectacle from my rooftop terrace I watched and photographed it until after midnight. Here are just a couple of the shots I took.
My post Holy Week Alfombra Detail: Part 1 was just a taster of the thousands of alfombras created during Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Antigua, Guatemala. As so many intricate details grabbed my attention, I had to break them down into separate posts.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) has come and gone again in Antigua, Guatemala along with thousands of ceremonial carpets known as alfombras, laid and destroyed in the path of processions.
This post is dedicated to details of these pieces of art made of dyed sawdust, pine needles, flowers, fruit and vegetables where biblical and Mayan themes, crosses and hearts predominate.
For more of my alfombra posts check out Holy Week in Antigua: Alfombras and Just Kids: The Art of Alfombras. For all my Semana Santa posts including processions and velaciones (Holy Vigils) click here. Also, Holy Week Alfombra Detail: Part 2 is now posted.
Volcanoes soar into cobalt blue skies creating a surreal backdrop to the highland colonial city of Antigua in Guatemala, nicknamed the land of eternal spring.
Blossoms cascade and fountains gush in leafy plazas while a patchwork of low candy-colored buildings cheerfully clash against the muted tones of earthquake torn ruins and tidy grid of gray cobblestone streets.
Although I never tire of wandering the crisscross of quaint avenues and alleys and am never short of photo fodder, a recent visit from a fellow blogger re-opened my eyes to its unique beauty as I led her on a whirlwind tour of my adopted hometown. Thank you Nicole of thirdeyemom!
Sweating and choking on dust as it coated our skin and clothes in thick layers we slowly climbed the narrow path up the side of the extinct Volcán de Agua (Water Volcano), that looms 3,765 m (12,352 feet) above the colonial city of Antigua, about 45 km from the capital Guatemala City.
But this was no ordinary volcano hike. We were far from alone.
On January 21 around 12,000 people took part in the campaign “Subida por la Vida” or “Climb for Life” to protest Guatemala’s domestic violence. Hoping to change cultural attitudes with a call for peace and love while raising funds for its victims, activists joined hands up the volcano’s slopes to her summit, aiming to form a record-breaking human chain.
A Guatemalan flag was then passed over heads along the chain to the top amidst patriotic cheers while about 1,500 people stood holding hands in the crater forming the shape of a giant, possibly record-breaking heart.
British ambassador Julie Chappell hiked with the hordes, her embassy having helped fund and organize the campaign while national and international media helicopters buzzed overhead filming the event creating whirlwinds of dust as they landed.
Security was high with a heavy presence of armed national police and soldiers as Guatemala’s new President, Otto Perez Molina was among those taking part.
Here are the photos I took that day although as I only climbed about half way up I didn’t get shots of the crater and views from the summit. For those, check out these photos.
Packs of runners of all ages, seasoned athletes or not, blast on whistles as they pound Guatemala’s streets, independence torches ablaze. Runners, spectators and parades crowd main squares and central parks, a festive buzz charging the air.
Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica proclaimed independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. This year they celebrated 190 years of autonomy.
Each year, for weeks beforehand, neighborhoods vibrate daily as student bands practice, the patriotic decorate windows and doorways with independence bunting and street vendors sell Guatemalan flags.
Runners charge excitedly through the streets all over the country on September 14, heading to city central plazas to fetch the independence flame from burning beacons for their community’s independence torch.
On September 15, colorful celebratory parades of brass bands and dancers boom and boogie their way for hours through streets teeming with expectant onlookers.
At 6 p.m., towns and cities nationwide hold civic ceremonies in their central squares. Speeches commemorate the signing of the Independence Act and pledge allegiance to the flag. The Guatemalan flag is then lowered while crowds solemnly sing the Himno Nacional, their national anthem.
These are some of my favorite images of the runners shot on September 14, 2009 and 2011 in Antigua, a favorite place for fetching the independence flame. Last year, due to severe weather causing treacherous landslides countrywide, authorities suspended the tradition for safety reasons.
A carnival buzz charged the breeze. Colorful confetti fluttered like a plague of butterflies, landing in people’s hair and staining the cobbles. Exploding firecracker sparks ricocheted between painted house fronts a few feet from the crowd, deafening echoes blasting the eardrums and smoke clogging the air.
Two days before the Guatemalan General Elections, so much sound pollution invaded my apartment that I decided to grab my camera and head outside to see what all the noise was about.
Just outside, next to the little park, an election campaign was in full swing, a small stage blocking the street entrance. A candidate for the mayor of Antigua, flanked by his family and followers waving red flags, was promoting himself enthusiastically, loudly spewing his political spiel into a microphone.
A small crowd of supporters wearing identical red t-shirts emblazoned with the political party slogan and youths half-dressed in clumsy character costumes clustered around the stage avidly following each word. They sang and chanted. They cheered, clapped and waved.
An assortment of giant gaudy character heads littered the ground behind them, removed and momentarily abandoned once their role in the outlandish dancing display was over. I’d heard the loud music from inside my apartment, blasting out of oversized speakers but I’d missed that part of the spectacle.
As the campaign came to a close, the hopeful future mayor of Antigua recited a prayer while everyone bowed his or her head. Guatemalan law required all vote soliciting to end at midday on September 9 in preparation for elections on September 11.
Youths retrieved their character heads posing for photographs while helpers dismantled the stage, packing it up into the back of a pickup truck and driving off. Everyone else trickled away on foot through the park and normal daily life resumed.
For months, in the run up to the Guatemalan General Elections, political propaganda plastered walls and electricity poles, billboards lined the streets and banners waved in the breeze overhead in every town and village. Even rural areas didn’t escape the onslaught as election publicity littered the landscape.
Political parties blasted out their campaigns nationwide, noise pollution escalating with microphone speeches and overly zealous music pumping out from giant speakers, all the while cheered on by their supporters dressed in matching t-shirts and waving colored flags.
The people lined up at voting centers across the country on September 11. There were ballots for municipal mayors, departmental congress members, Central American parliament, president and vice-president.
As there was no clear winner in the presidential election (candidates need to win 50 percent of votes to win) there will be a presidential run-off on November 6.
Take a tour through some of Guatemala’s 2011 political propaganda.
Guatemalan kids love to express their creative side helping their parents in the art of making elaborate, vivid alfombras (carpets) of gaudily dyed aserrín (sawdust), pine needles, flowers and fruit during Semana Santa (Holy Week).
Engrossed in their handiwork, mostly oblivious to onlookers, they play with color and form. Laying flowers and petals on carpets of soft, scented pine needles or sifting, spooning and massaging with fingertips psychedelic sawdust into carved out shapes in wooden stencils: this is the ultimate art class for kids!
Here are just a few images captured in Antigua at this time.
Mothers dress up their young daughters in formal black and white, often covering their heads in lace shawls, and either carry or lead them while they take part in processions.
Like the boys, the girls too have their own procesiones infantiles, mini child processions where they carry their own andas (floats) helped by adults and chaperoned by their parents.
Here are a few photos of some girls in Antigua.
Guatemalan catholic families initiate their kids into Semana Santa (Holy Week) at an early age.
Parents dress up their male children, some still babies, in the purple robes of the cucurucho, (the color purple symbolizing Christ’s suffering) and fathers carry them in their arms or lead them by the hand in the processions.
Some days young boys carry their own andas (floats), the main load taken by men, in mini child processions called procesiones infantiles while parents walk along beside them.
Following are some shots I took of the boy cucuruchos in Antigua.
Incense fragranced smog chokes the air while dozens of robed, head-dressed men known as cucuruchos, shoulder an anda (float) bearing a figure of Christ.
Processions ceremoniously leave churches and tortuously navigate their way step by step along the topsy-turvy cobble stoned streets between crumbling ruins and colonial houses, trampling in their path intricate carpets (alfombras) of garishly stained sawdust and flowers.
After each block, new recruits subtly weave their way into the procession relieving the tiring cucuruchos from their burden. Organized by a brotherhood or hermandad, locals pay the church to participate, considering it a great honor and a way of displaying devotion to their faith.
At the tail end musicians blow solemnly on brass horns accompanied by the pounding of giant drums as they shuffle over the mishmash of impressionistic color splashed cobbles.
Streets jostle with locals, expats and international visitors waiting patiently for a view of the passing procession then mingling with the trailing hawkers crying out their wares.
Finally, locals salvage broken stems of flowers before the advancing tren de limpieza (cleaning train) of bulldozers, trucks and an army of men wielding brooms and shovels who clear up the aftermath of trampled sawdust and trash.
Processions vary but each one includes an anda bearing Christ carried by purple-robed men although the hermandad wear white robes and everyone changes to somber black after the crucifixion. A smaller float with women dressed in black and white, bearing a statue of the Virgin Mary follows.
The revered Franciscan monk Saint Hermano Pedro, also known as the Saint Francis of the Americas, imported the Semana Santa (Holy Week) tradition to Antigua when he arrived from Spain about 1650. He reputedly made the earliest alfombra in Guatemala and led the first procession.
These are just a few of the images I took of the processions during this period. More will follow in my next post.
Velaciones or holy vigils adorn churches around Antigua, Guatemala and surrounding villages at least every Friday throughout Cuaresma (Lent) and about two days before processions during Semana Santa (Holy Week).
A brotherhood, known as a hermandad, organizes their church’s velación, displaying their religious processional image near the altar against a giant biblical backdrop. At its feet lies a vibrant handmade alfombra (carpet) of sawdust, hemmed by a huerto (garden), an eye-catching display of flowers, fruit, vegetables, candles and specially shaped loaves of bread, brought to the church as offerings the day before.
Sacred music plays while the faithful or the inquisitive flood into the church to pray and admire these temporary works of religious art. A festival atmosphere fills the evening air outside as hordes of visitors hang around in groups gossiping and jostling for the best bites around smoky grills and seasonal food and drink stands.
A religious fervor of Holy Vigils (velaciones), masses (misas) and processions (procesiones) sweeps over the Catholic community throughout Lent or Cuaresma from Ash Wednesday (miércoles de Ceniza), forty days before Palm Sunday.
Holy Week, or Semana Santa in Spanish, is the last week of Lent starting on Palm Sunday and ending the day before Easter Sunday. During this time, in Antigua, Guatemala, the passion and solemnity intensifies among the faithful with almost daily processions that bring the normal daily life of the city to a standstill.
Here, part of the tradition involves the laborious laying of ceremonial carpets or alfombras in the path of processions. The devout dedicate hours to create intricate alfombras, patiently sifting dyed sawdust through wooden and cardboard templates, slowly covering the grey cobblestones with multi-colored, elaborate patterns.
Others design simpler carpets of pine needles, seasonal flowers and fruits, the aroma mingling with incense and saturating the air. Hours to make yet in minutes solemn processions slowly trample these works of art to obliteration.
My third Semana Santa in Antigua didn’t disappoint. Every day, my camera in hand, I pounded the uneven streets capturing moments of the passion. This post shows a tiny reflection of the most elaborate alfombras over those three years.
My next few posts will cover more of Semana Santa.
Also check out my article on International Living’s website Living in Antigua, Guatemala: An Expat’s View.
In a highland valley some 1500 meters above sea level, the charming colonial city of Antigua lies, surrounded by three volcanoes. It’s tickled by the skirts of the extinct Volcán de Agua to the south and is within the gaze of two (one dormant and one active) volcanoes to the southwest, the double-ridged peak of Volcán Acatenango and the smoking Volcán Fuego.
Once the seat of the Spanish colonial authority in Guatemala, Antigua oversaw a vast area stretching from southern Mexico to the impenetrable Darién Gap. The city is officially named La Muy Leal y Muy Noble Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, (“The Very loyal and Very Noble Knight’s City of Santiago of Guatemala”) but shortened to La Antigua Guatemala, or simply Antigua.
Nowadays, Antigua’s population stands at about 47,000 and its status as a world heritage site has preserved and restored its colonial architecture and old-world appeal. The local government only approves certain shades to paint the exterior walls of buildings and prohibits the display of signs or notices that are out of character with the rest of the city. Cobblestone streets are splashed with colorful house and shop fronts and old churches and crumbling ruins are dotted throughout.
Due to its location, beauty, history, variety of cultural activities and outdoor excursions both inside Antigua and close by, it has become a thriving landing-place for globetrotters. The mixture of locals, travelers and expats gives it a certain worldly air.
Get a birds-eye view of the city and surrounding volcanoes and villages from the cross on the hill, Cerro de la Cruz, to the north. For security reasons it’s always advisable to go with a Tourist Police escort.
If your time is limited, take a city walking tour of the main sights, ruins and museums. Wander through the handicrafts market to pick up souvenirs and take a look at how jade is transformed into jewelry and masks in one of the store factories. Get out-of-town to visit a coffee plantation and trek up to the edge of a flowing river of red-hot lava on Volcán Pacaya.
Many travelers hang out here a while to recoup energy and recharge on the good eats. There is no shortage of restaurants in Antigua. Grab tasty bites from street venders, comedores (eateries) or restaurants serving cuisine from most corners of the world. There are also plenty of bars to wash it down after.
Scores are lured by the well-earned reputation of the city as one of the choice spots to study Spanish and there are hordes of language schools of all calibers vying for the bucks.
Volunteering opportunities are endless both in Antigua and in outlying areas with NGO organizations and projects all focusing on different social, educational, health and environmental issues. Many students invest their afternoons donating whatever skills they can offer.
Forever a popular place to learn salsa, there are qualified instructors running classes for all levels in dance studios around town.
There are infinite options for laying your head at night. The streets of Antigua are brimming with hostels, guesthouses and hotels of every description and for every pocket from penny-pinching to luxury.
Tourism is the lifeblood of the local economy and language schools are one of the major employers along with hotels and restaurants. The production of typical handicrafts and fabrics and the cultivation of coffee, macadamia nuts and veggies are other big income earners.
High season is June through August and November through April. On July 25 the streets come alive with colorful parades for the Day of Santiago, the city’s patron saint.
Antigua is at its most crowded during Semana Santa (Holy Week) when thousands of people engulf the city to participate in and observe the ceremonies. Solemn religious processions slowly trudge the streets trampling in their path the beautifully elaborate and artistic alfombras (carpets) of dyed sawdust and flowers. Not to be missed for visitors in Guatemala at this time. Accommodation during Holy Week is filled to bursting and needs to be booked months in advance.
Golden winged angels and masked bulls and demons performing traditional folkloric dances, their colonial roots touched by a Guatemalan twist, is one of the various festivities that ignite the main tourist drag in the city of Antigua, Guatemala, on 31st of December.
A pruned version of the dances held in Ciudad Vieja the day after the Día de la Virgen de La Concepción, but enough to shed some light on a tiny part of local culture.
Troupes of giant dolls or gigantes dancing in the streets to the sound of marimba during pueblo pageants, are a rare sight for the foreigner and a popular Guatemalan tradition.
Inside these towering jumbo manikins, tucked away under the folds of cloth with tiny feet poking from below, a mortal stomps and sways and twirls its skirts to the rhythm of the music.
Every so often the melody stops and the figures stand motionless allowing puppeteers to catch their breath and cool down in the harsh sunlight, and onlookers to get close and snap photos.
On the 31st of December in the 5a Avenida Norte, the street with the landmark arch in Antigua, against the colonial backdrop of crumbling ruins and color splashed walls of soft hued reds, blues and yellows, gigantes welcome in the New Year festivities.
The origin of the marimba, Guatemala’s national instrument, is unknown. Some maintain it came from Indonesia, others from the Amazon, yet it’s more widely believed that slaves brought it over from Africa in the 16th century; after all, a Zulu myth tells of a goddess named Marimba creating a musical instrument of wooden palings and hanging gourds.
The background sound track of many a festival, both in rural areas and in the city, the marimba is an integral, beloved and authentic part of Guatemalan culture with no ethnic boundaries. A fiesta without marimba would be considered no fiesta at all, and the sound of its lively melodies echoing through the streets is a sure sign that something is being celebrated.
A poem about the marimba is recited during the commemoration of independence and gigantes, the giant figures that are such an important part of pueblo pageants, are accompanied only by the sound of its music. There are also a number of traditional dances that go along with various marimba rhythms.
Similar to a wooden xylophone, this beautiful percussion instrument is played by differing numbers of musicians depending on its size. The keys, usually made of rosewood, are arranged like a piano and are tapped with mallets, creating its distinctive musical tones. There is a Guatemalan saying about large families having una marimba de hijos, likening the horde of children to the abundance of keys on the instrument.
It’s said that the marimba evolved from simple wooden bars placed over a hole in the ground, which the indigenous people of Guatemala copied and refined to create their own style. The first documented account of the existence of marimba is from a performance in front of the cathedral in Antigua in 1680, and it can still be heard every year on July 25th, Antigua’s patron saint day. Modern marimba bands dress formally and consist of a smaller marimba for three players, a larger one for four, a drum kit or other percussion, and a string bass.
JADES, S.A. recently made the first marimbas with jade keys. They were inspired by the Chinese who have used the semi-precious stone for thousands of years to make musical instruments, due to its special acoustic properties. Now three various sized marimbas of jade, each producing a different sound, are on display in their museum in Antigua.
To get a taste of this diverse culture, head for the 5a. Avenida Norte on a Sunday. A father and his family including young children, all dressed in typical indigenous attire, perform together in the street. It’s also played in La Fonda de la Calle Real and sometimes in Parque Central at weekends and festivals.
To feel the heartbeat of Guatemala keep your ears pricked for the pulse of marimba wherever you go. No visit here is complete without hearing the harmonies of the instrument that identifies completely with Guatemala.
All day on 31st of December the main tourist drag in the city of Antigua, Guatemala, the street with the landmark arch, buzzes with festivities to welcome in the New Year.
Amongst them, an indigenous family band of father and children, called Grupo Maya Kaqchikel, jams on marimba, drums and a combo of instruments made from seashells, vegetable gourds and turtle shells while the youngest son dances. They are also part of the regular Sunday scene in the same street.
A tradition brought over to Guatemala by the Spanish Hermano Pedro is the nacimiento or nativity scene. El Día de la Virgen de La Concepción, on the 8th of December, is officially the beginning of the Christmas season and nacimientos start appearing in churches, homes, offices, restaurants, hotels and even in the streets.
Guatemalans take great pride in their nacimientos and many of them are brilliant works of art using vividly tinted sawdust (aserrín), pine needles, chamomile fruits (manzanillas) and incense to create color and aroma.
The following photos of nacimientos were all taken in the town of Antigua.
La Merced church
It is customary for the manger to remain empty until the figure of baby Jesus appears at midnight on the 24th accompanied by prayers and carols.
Nativity scenes are a worldwide custom but here it is not uncommon to see a touch of local flavor in the form of traditionally dressed Mayan figures and typical Guatemalan volcanic landscapes.