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.
At a typical convite police divert traffic while costumed participants – mainly men and some heavily made up and dressed as women – dance in a tight cluster in the street to the sound of merengue and Mexican banda music booming from the back of a truck and encircled by a mass of onlookers.
After about three songs (from ten to fifteen minutes) the music stops, the truck moves on a bit further, everyone follows on foot then waits while a guy shins up a ladder to hook up the speakers to an electricity pylon along the roadside. Once connected, the music blares out and the dancing resumes. This continues all afternoon until early evening.
In the province of Sacatepequez in Guatemala, the season for convites starts with an impressive show on the 7th of December in Ciudad Vieja, the day before the Día de la Virgen de La Concepción. It then continues through until the end of January or beginning of February, each Saturday in a different town.
Participants pay a small fee to enter and at the end judges award the best costumes with cash prizes for first, second and third places. It is a colorful and noisy family outing where the whole town turns up to watch or take part in the spectacle.
I took the following photos on the 8th of January in the small town of Pastores a few kilometers outside Antigua.
Miguel, a willing model, borrowed a belly dancing outfit for the day and a friend applied his makeup for him. His partner was Rafa his nephew.
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.
At midnight on the 24th of December Guatemalans typically munch on tamales washed down with steaming homemade fruit punch or ponche.
The tamal colorado is one of the most common tamales in Guatemala and although usually sold only on Saturdays it is also the traditional dish for Christmas Eve.
Made from a cooked maize dough or masa with a tomato-based sauce and a piece of pork, chicken or turkey inside, it is served wrapped up in banana leaves.
Throughout the year they are eaten with pan francés (French bread rolls) and a cup of coffee or hot chocolate. However on this day it is more common to accompany them with festive ponche.
The first few times I tried tamales colorados they didn´t grab my attention. It wasn’t until I sampled a number of them that I found some I liked, so it is worth trying a few from different places as the quality can vary greatly.
A variation of the tamal is the pache which is made with a potato dough instead of maize. This year on Christmas Eve I ate tamales colorados in two homes and a pache in a third.
Ponche is a traditional hot fruit punch drunk at home and sold at food stalls and in restaurants all through the Christmas season and at New Year in Guatemala.
Fresh and dried fruits, usually with a variant of pineapple, oranges, apples, plums, papaya, plantain, raisins and prunes, are placed in boiling water with sugar and cinnamon then simmered.
On Christmas Eve, friends offered me ponche in the four different homes I visited and each one was delicious but very different in flavor. One had coconut added and another had chamomile fruit (manzanillas).
During the festive season in Antigua, Guatemala, tucked away behind the Mercado de Artesanías is a daily Christmas market, brimming with traditional decorations both natural and man-made.
On entering, a flood of color assaults the eyes from garishly stained sawdust, glistening tinsel, sparkling baubles and flashing decorative lights. Hawkers call out and seasonal music tickles the ears as the scent of flowers, chamomile and pine needles saturate the air.
It’s definitely worth an idle browse for an insight into some of Guatemala’s Christmas traditions and to feel the season’s spirit far away from home.
Pine needles and palm fronds
Locals strew pine needles, palm fronds, mosses and other foliage on the floor, string it up as decorations or use it to adorn the customary nativity scenes or nacimientos exhibited in churches and many homes, restaurants and hotels at this time of year.
Wicker baskets and plastic sheets overflow in the market with freshly cut green, yellowish-green and grey growth that stall-holders sell by the bag or in bundles already strung for hanging.
Chamomile or manzanillas are small, round, yellow (ripening to red) fruits that hawkers sell strung on long threads to create naturally scented Christmas adornments for the house. They are also tasty and are one of the ingredients in the hot seasonal fruit punch or ponche.
Tinsel, lights and baubles
Lambs, reindeer and nativity figures
Stalls display a riot of different sized human, animal and celestial figures made from an array of materials, including twigs (the reindeer), dried corn husks (the lambs) and plastic, for the popular nativity scenes or nacimientos and for general decoration.
Seasonal flowers abound in varying shades of red adding a festive hue to markets at Christmas time.
Stained sawdust and pebbles
Gaudy color splashes the market from brightly stained sawdust (aserrín) and little white pebbles sold by the bag to decorate nativity scenes. Guatemalans take the creation of nacimientos very seriously and are very imaginative in their personal depiction of them.
Selling desserts outside the market
Leaving the market
Colorful camionetas or chicken buses noisily roar past carrying passengers to and from the market.
Every 12th of December in Guatemala on the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe children throughout the country dress up in colorful, traditional indigenous costumes and carry an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in local processions. Usually marimba and hordes of traditional food stalls go with the festivities.
Originating in Mexico after the Spanish conquest, when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to an indigenous peasant, the custom continues throughout the Americas.
In Antigua the celebrations take place in front of the beautiful baroque church of La Merced. Rustic mini-scenes backed by painted images of the Virgin are set up in front of the church and parents pose their children for photographers. Tiny replicas of adults, the boys have mustaches painted on their faces and the girls little baskets tied to their heads. Each scene has a variety of typical Guatemalan everyday items for the children to use as props including miniature marimba, tortillas on a comal, model horses and a strange collection of live chickens and toy tigers.
Colorful images of the Virgin.
Children dressed up in traditional indigenous costumes.
Smoke and deafening explosions filled the air for maybe an hour as men ran through a minefield of granadas (translated to grenades) lighting the fireworks and firecrackers tied to them and bombas blasted noisily into the air from inside a heavy, metal tube placed vertically on the ground. Spectators clamped their hands to their ears, flinched, cowered and emitted screams and cheers as rogue fireworks shot off in random directions.
Every 7th of December a parade or convite slowly makes its way through the streets of the former capital Ciudad Vieja just outside Antigua in Guatemala. The following day they celebrate the town’s virgin patron’s day, Día de la Virgen de La Concepción, and after mass in the cathedral everyone crowds into the plaza outside for the noisy display of granadas.
Nowadays, Guatemalans celebrate all Catholic festivals with fireworks, firecrackers and bombas and due to a myriad of religious festivals throughout the year, it’s a rare day when there’s silence in the streets.
On this day, when the sounds subside and the smoke clears but with ringing ears and the sharp scent of gunpowder still in the nostrils, colorful folkloric dances begin. These mainly originated in the Iberian Peninsula and were probably brought over to Guatemala during colonial times picking up their own flavor in local towns and are a mix of theatrical dances and presentations.
The Dance of the 24 Devils, the Dance of the Seven Vices and Seven Virtues and the Dance of the Moors and Christians are three of the most popular.
Every year on the 7th of December a parade of floats makes its way through the streets of the former capital of Guatemala, Ciudad Vieja just outside Antigua. It’s customary to hold a convite the day before a procession and this one ushers in el Día de la Virgen de La Concepción.
There was a strange and colorful mix of religious and cultural themes including angels, indians, Spaniards, cowboys, devils, men dressed up as women and cartoon characters. It was a truly Guatemalan experience.
No festival in Guatemala is complete without the sound of marimba.
Another band member.
A float waiting for the parade to begin.
A hungry dwarf.
Little angels sitting on the float.
And another angel.
The pirates are coming.
And here they are.
A cowboy handing out flyers for the next days folk dance schedule.
A Spaniard’s horse.
A Spaniard and his horse.
A cowboy on horseback.
An indian wearing a feathered headdress.
A friendly indian going the right way.
A bunch of cowboys.
The bull in action.
Mary and some angels.
A peasant with his bottle of Guatemalan rum.
Who is this?
Reindeer and a Christmas theme.
Not sure who this is.
All together handing out flyers.
And another beauty with her drunken beau and his bottle of Gallo beer.
What a happy face.
Really going for it.
The first of the Abuelitas Parranderas or Partying Grandmothers.
Two more beauties.
Waiting in line.
They go in two by two.
The partying begins.
Really going for it. These women were awesome dancers.
Showing the footwork.
That was hard work. So elegant.
And who are these?
Perched on his bicycle with rum bottle for fuel, the devil glared down on those leaving Antigua for Guatemala City, several weeks before being set ablaze.
La Quema del Diablo, or the Burning of the Devil, is an annual tradition on the 7th of December in many Guatemalan towns, its origins dating back to colonial times.
A “will”, full of wit and innuendo at local politicians, is read out to hundreds of spectators followed by the torching of the devil at 6 p.m. He goes up in flames and smoke along with all the negativity of the year, lighting the way for the Christmas celebrations and a positive start to the New Year.
A crescendo of firecrackers deafen and threaten the crowds before the bomberos put out the glowing embers around the bicycle skeleton and everyone wanders away in festive spirit.
Devil with empty rum bottle.
Preparing for the torching.
Going up in Flames
Bags of labor, love and elbow grease went into the creation of the giant barriletes in Santiago Sacatepequez, Guatemala during the months leading up to and on All Saints Day or El Dia de Todos Los Santos on the first of November. Here are a few photos of the workers on the day.
Santiago Sacatepequez Cemetery
Carrying a folded barrilete to the cemetery.
Waiting for flight.
Boys with a barrilete line.
Man and machete.
Holding the lines and waiting.
Raising a giant barrilete.
Checking out the work.
Holding the lines. Close-up.
On a tomb top preparing to fly a barrilete.
More elbow grease.
Working together to raise a giant barrilete.
Today, November the 18th, was the ninth Carrera de Charolas or the Race of Trays here in Antigua, Guatemala.
Waiters, waitresses and bartenders raced about two kilometers along the uneven, cobble-stoned streets, each carrying a tray laden with bottled and canned drinks, the winner reaching the finish line without toppling or losing the tray’s contents.
This is a popular annual event here and locals and tourists line the streets clapping and cheering as they pass.
There are two races, one for men and one for women. However there are a greater number of men and as they run faster it’s more entertaining to watch.
The winners receive Q1,300 (about $166) each and runners-up also pick up smaller cash prizes, diplomas, medals and t-shirts.
The restaurant La Fonda de la Calle Real organizes the contest which is open to contenders from all over Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. Proceeds go to the Fundación Cultural Duane Carter to help fund its lending library for students.
In Guatemala, All Saints Day or El Dia de Todos Los Santos on the first of November, is a festive day to visit, celebrate and honor the dead. People arrive early at cemeteries to clean family tombs then repaint and decorate them with flowers. They picnic by the graves, fly their handmade barriletes and in Santiago Sacatepequez, watch and cheer or join in the raising of the giants.
Also, check out my posts Giant Kite Festival – Soaring with the Spirits and Giant Kite Festival – Labor, Love and Elbow Grease.
Santiago Sacatepequez Cemetery
People climb to the top of family tombs for a view of the cemetery and to fly their barriletes. This is the one day of the year when clambering over, sitting and standing on the graves and tombstones doesn’t offend.
Perched on a grave flying a barrilete.
A huge ball of string to fly a barrilete.
Families sitting on tombs eating ice cream with rows of newly dug graves behind them.
Flying barriletes from the tomb tops.
Trash amidst the trampled graves.
Ice cream seller.
Raising a giant barrilete among the graves.
Heavily armed police patrol the cemetery.
The first of November in Guatemala is El Dia de Todos Los Santos or All Saints Day and is the official festival of kites. They believe that the barriletes soar up to the spirits of deceased relatives and deliver messages from the living and that the sound of the wind blowing against the airborne kites keeps the evil spirits away allowing the deceased to rest in peace.
Also, check out my posts Giant Kite Festival – Labor, Love and Elbow Grease and Giant Kite Festival – Life Amidst the Graves.
Santiago Sacatepequez is one of the places where it’s celebrated on a truly grand scale and thousands flood into the cemetery on this day to watch the exhibition unfold.
Giant barrilete bearing the name Santiago Sacatepequez.
Here, the barriletes are a super race of kites, like something from a fantasy land. They are brightly colored, oversized, circular giants of elaborate tissue paper mosaics on a bamboo framework, bound together with rope and wire and up to 20 meters across.
Rear view of the barriletes showing bamboo framework.
Groups compete to produce the most incredible works of art and judges assess them on size, color, creativity and originality. These jumbo kites usually depict religious, cultural, social, political or ecological themes.
Another with ecological theme.
Close-up of a barrilete with a folkloric theme based on Guatemalan legends. El Cadejo is a mythical dog that is said to protect drunkards and wanderers at night.
Barriletes are expensive to produce and the workmanship is painstaking and time-consuming, taking months to dream up and create.
A smaller barrilete.
Trying to resurrect a fallen giant using ropes and bamboo poles.
This one didn’t make it.
Raising another giant.
Close-up of bamboo framework.
Team working together to raise a jumbo barrilete using ropes.
Everyone running to avoid the falling barrilete. One crashed down on stone graves trapping people under it but everyone rushed to frantically raise it and help those beneath. Miraculously no-one was hurt.
Crashed and destroyed, dashing the hopes of the team.
Another being raised.
The top of a barrilete before it’s raised.
A team takes a break on the bamboo framework. Thousands of people swamp the cemetery, perching on family tombs to fly kites or get a good view of the spectacle. This is the one day of the year when people climb, sit or stand on graves without causing offense.
Working together. Most of the teams are made up of young men.
The triumphant and the fallen.
Trying to fly a smaller barrilete from the roof of a family tomb.
Looking through the wreckage at a family sitting on a grave.
Completely broken. Barrilete and team.
Only once a year, on El Día de Todos Los Santos or All Saints Day on first of November, Guatemalans prepare a traditional dish called fiambre. Originally, families took the favorite dishes of deceased relatives to the cemetery and ate them together with other families. Eventually they mixed all the ingredients of the various dishes together into one to create fiambre. Served chilled this psychedelic salad consists of a huge number of ingredients that vary greatly from family to family.
The recipe passes down through the generations and consists of a strange mix of different cold cuts and sausages, varied cheeses, hard-boiled egg, smoked fish, and an array of vegetables.
The contrasts of flavors and textures don’t agree with everyone’s taste buds but the beauty of it is that you can add or leave out any ingredient.