Celebrating Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

April 2015

We’d been cruising outside US waters for nearly four months but had spent almost no time exploring inland. In mid-February we’d decided not to cross the Pacific this season, in large part because we knew we’d later regret shortchanging our time this part of the world. It was our adventure, and we could change it as we pleased, right? We still hadn’t figured what we’d do instead (i.e., return to work in the US, work in Central America, or try to get jobs on mega yachts), but we knew that before we had to decide,  we had the Central American isthmus at our fingertips for a while longer. We were determined to venture into the hearts of the CA-4 (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua).#Passage_Coast of El SalvadorSemana Santa (Holy Week) had commenced on March 29th with Palm Sunday services, while we were on Isla El Tigre. We arrived in Barillas with several days remaining in the festivities and were determined to travel the 250 miles from Central El Salvador to Antigua, Guatemala, known for some of the most extravagant Semana Santa festivities in the world, perhaps second only to Seville, Spain.

We were the only cruisers at Puerto Barillas, and Emerita generously offered to reschedule the weekly shuttle to Usulutan, some 45 minutes away by truck, to the day of our preference. She also helped us sort out which buses we needed to catch to get across the small nation to a shuttle that would take us across the Guatemalan border and into Antigua.Map_Barillas to AntiguaThe road to Guatemala
The day was long and marked with repeated demonstrations of kindness, a hallmark of the El Salvadoran people. Each time we found ourselves looking around in bewilderment about where to go, a kind face tolerant of our bumbling Spanish appeared eager to help us. We took three chicken buses (i.e., American school buses from the 1970s that are jazzed up with Jesus stickers, gaudy decals, and raging sound systems) between Usulutan, Zacatecoluca, La Libertad, and El Tunco.

Renowned for its surf, El Tunco welcomes more international visitors than any other destination in El Salvador. We stayed but an hour, but the gringo influence was palpable, as we watched backpackers in shorts and oversized sunglasses strut the potholed roads. We boarded our shuttle (operated by Marvelus Travels) and watched through tinted windows as the level plane of central El Salvador morphed into the verdant mountains of Guatemala. Our border crossing was flawless and involved a single stop on the shuttle, where I waited in line while my beloved bought candy. For anyone who doesn’t already know, Neil has a hearty sweet tooth.

It had taken us nearly 10 hours to travel from Barillas to Antigua. It was after 9 o’clock in the evening. The skies were black but the streets were washed with light, alive with the excitement of Semana Santa festivities.

#Antigua_Alfombra_A penitent strollsDuring Semana Santa, worshippers relive the final days of Jesus Christ’s life, from his arrival into Jerusalem to his agonizing death and, ultimately, to his resurrection. Thousands of believers take to the streets robed in purple, a symbol of their penitence, their reverence remaining steadfast amid the crowds of Guatemalans and international tourists congesting the streets.#Antigua_Penitent_Reverence #Antigua_Alfombra_Vista from an alfombraA grand Good Friday
As is customary, on the morning of Good Friday, men dressed as Roman soldiers marched in a procession afoot and on horseback, reenacting Christ being sentenced to die. Chariots rode through the streets, horns were played, and drums were beat.#Antigua_Semana Santa_Roman soldier2#Antigua_Semana Santa_Roman soldier1#Antigua_Semana Santa_Romans4In the days leading up to Good Friday, devotees invest hours or even days constructing ornate carpets, called alfombras, in the cobblestone streets. The alfombras represent a stunning fusion of indigenous tradition and Christian worship. Offerings are designed using colorful sand, fruit, nuts and seeds, flowers, and dyed wood shavings. Many of the designs stem from Mayan traditions and the natural materials are not so different from those that might be used in indigenous ceremonies.#Antigua_Alfombra_Building in faith #Antigua_Semana Santa Alfombra2#Antigua_Semana Santa Alfombra1 #Antigua_Semana Santa Alfombra3_collage As the morning progressed, Christ’s tragic path to crucifixion was epitomized in grand statues and portraits that were displayed on pedestals and colossal floats and hoisted on the shoulders of penitents. Some floats reportedly weighed as much as 7,000 pounds and were so enormous that over one hundred men were required to move them. We counted. Lengthy poles gingerly lifted telephone wires that were erected centuries after this tradition became a steadfast feature of life in Antigua, allowing the floats to pass beneath them. #Antigua_Semana Santa_Mass of penitents#Antigua_Penitent_Honored eyes2#Antigua_Semana Santa_Christ's burden Men, referred to as cucuruchos, carried the statues of Jesus Christ, while women, or dolorosas, lifted up those of the Virgin Mary and the angels. The works of art that rested upon the worshippers’ shoulders had been molded by hands and crossed with brush strokes dating to the seventeenth century, a fact I found almost unfathomable.#Antigua_Dolorosas_The Virgin Mother#Antigua_Dolorosas_At the processionThe alfombras served as sacrificial offerings to Christ and were decimated beneath the feet of cucuruchos and dolorosas who carried centuries’ old statues of Christ and his disciples. After each procession passed, the remnants were quickly swept away or collected by the faithful who added the blessed materials to their personal alters. Almost immediately thereafter, another family could be seen on their knees, diligently at work creating yet another exquisite alfombra, which would be sacrificed by subsequent processions later in the day.#Antigua_Alfombra_SidekickA spectacular drama
Late in the afternoon of Good Friday, penitents changed from purple clothing to black, signifying their grief regarding Christ’s crucifixion. As dark began to fall over Antigua, the perfume of incense thickened, billowing forth silvery clouds of smoke that burned my eyes.#Antigua_Semana Santa_Baptized by the embers#Antigua_Semana Santa_Embers and incenseThe atmosphere descended from somber reverence to grave sadness, as penitents began to mourn symbolically Christ’s death. Neil wrapped his arms around my thighs and lifted me above the crowds to see a gargantuan golden casket containing a sculpture of Christ’s deceased body swaying through the streets before thousands of tearful onlookers.  #Antigua_Semana Santa_The MaestroThe entire scene unfolded in a sort of organized mayhem. Thousands of people filled the narrow colonial streets to the brim but somehow the alfombras were only treaded upon by the formal processions. The crowd was an amalgamation of worshippers in costume, tourists with cameras around their necks, and people wearing traditional Guatemalan dress, some of whom who were said to have traveled from far in the highlands for the festivities. The demonstrations were at once awe-inspiring and mystifying.#Antigua_Semana Santa_Jessie & Neil#Antigua_Penitent_A father's devotionOvercome
Words cannot fully illustrate the magnificence of Semana Santa celebrations. Whether you are a believer in God or not, the experience commands reverence and invites admiration. It reminded me that humans’ desire to believe in a higher power is ubiquitous. Faith, courage, and devotion are qualities we almost unanimously admire. In one way or another, we all revere symbols as a means of telling stories and of demonstrating our steadfastness to our values.

I hope our photos offer a taste of the splendor that is Semana Santa in the Central Highlands of Guatemala. Even the most thrilling events in our memories pale in comparison to Antigua’s impassioned display of faith. We rank our Holy Week experience among the most spectacular of our lives.

8 thoughts on “Celebrating Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala

  1. Unbelievable – quite inspiring. I love the word ‘verdant’ and will find a way to use it in a conversation. beautifully written, and this is now on my travel list. thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the compliment, Lee Anne! You most definitely should go. If you do, I hope you’ll venture further into the highlands, something we would love to see!


      PS. Have you used the word “verdant” yet….? Please, do tell 😉


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  3. Glad i found this post. What an amazing experience that must have been! I would love to visit there during that celebration. Your photos are stunning.

    Liked by 1 person

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