I visited Antigua for Semana Santa at the end of a three month trip through Middle America and to Cuba. Being there for the festival of Semana Santa formed the colourful highlight of a very diverse and rewarding trip.
Antigua Guatemala means "Ancient Guatemala". The city once was the capital of the Spanish colony of Guatemala that included Chiapas (Mexico) and most of Central America. In 1773, an earthquake destroyed much of the town. The Spanish Crown moved the capital to a safer location, the Valley of the Shrine, where Guatemala City, the capital of Guatemala now stands. The old capital was ordered abandoned and most people left after the civil servants and the clergy. From that time the city is called La Antigua Guatemala. Since the City was largely abandoned there was not much reconstruction and modernization during the centuries after the destruction. That and an early recognition as a monument by the Guatemalan government, later followed by Unesco World Heritage status, makes Antigua a wonderfully preserved Spanish colonial city, with the typical street pattern of numbered blocks with a large square that contains the cathedral and the city hall. The city is also home to a number of language schools as it is a popular place to learn Spanish. And it is quite developed as a tourist place what you can see as an upside or a downside of course.
Antigua really shines during the period of Lent, ending with the Holy Week (Semana Santa) when numerous religious celebrations are held. During the Holy Week there are multiple daily processions that can last up to twelve hours. Statues of Jesus are carried around on floats that can weigh 3000 kg and are carried by up to a 100 carriers. They are relieved every other block or so. There are many shifts and each one has to be made up of men similar in height. When changing carriers the float keeps swinging slowly in the marching rhythm; you can’t stop a weight like that. The shifts whose turn it is after the current one walk in front of the float as are ‘Romans’, trumpeters, some smaller statues, banners and incense carriers. The float is followed by a marching band. In most processions a statue of the Virgin Mary carried by women follows the men’s procession. Again with relieve crews and followed by it’s own band. The total length of the procession can be several kilometres.
Processions start and end at a church. Associated with the church is a ‘Hermandad’ a brotherhood. Their members carry the floats. Membership of a brotherhood often goes from father to son. The brotherhood is not only a religious phenomenon; there is definitely a growing social component. The people of Antigua make beautiful and artistic carpets (Alfombra’s) in the streets. These carpets are made of pine needles or dyed sawdust, further decorated with flowers and even fruits and vegetables. All the people at the front of the procession pass them on the sides; the bearers of the float trample the carpets. Following the procession is a cleaning crew. So new carpets can be started for a next procession.