Semana Santa means Holy Week and is the week leading up to the Easter holiday, most commonly observed by places and peoples with strong ties to the Catholic Church. Some really strong ties exist in most (all?) of Latin America, and Guatemala is no exception. The reasons why go directly back to colonialism and some tricky history, but that’s another topic for another day by someone who is way more of an expert than I am. But seriously, just Google it.
Antigua, once a capital city itself, is located not far from the current capital Guatemala City. It’s cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, and scenery (helloooo volcanoes) make it a very popular tourist destination. Like any tourist destination, you throw in a popular local and international holiday and BAM. So. Many. People.
The overcrowding is real. But this was still my FAVORITE week during our 4 months in Guatemala. Here’s why, despite the crowds, I think visiting Antigua during Semana Santa is still worth it.
I don’t think I can really put into words how enchanted I am with this tradition. Alfombra means “carpet” in Spanish, and that’s exactly what these are. Intricate carpets on the cobblestone made from dyed sawdust, fruits, vegetables, flowers, pine needles…anything organic really. Families have patterns they’ve been using for generations, and spend hours creating them. Then, a procession comes through and poof. They become nothing more than colorful dust in the cracks. I find that intensely beautiful.
All week long you can walk around and see different alfombras being made along different procession paths, and it was my favorite thing to do. Some of the Spanish language schools also get to make some and will let their students help, so definitely look into that if you want to take part. One I know for sure that does because I was a student there for the week is Don Pedro de Alvarado Spanish School.
Essentially parades, these religious marches happen several times most days of the week. They start and end at specific churches, and each has a specific message and theme. Lots of costumed parishioners participate, and it is seen as an honor to be able to. There’s a band, folks carrying extremely large and elaborate andas (floats), and folks carrying different religious signs and symbols. The andas are the main point of the entire procession, and they are typically carrying a saint or pivotal scene in the story.
A different velacion (or vigil), can be seen most days of the week at one of the many churches. They are shrines to the specific saint or image that will be part of the main procession for the day. These churches are usually the biggest ones, and where the procession will begin. The velaciones include some of the most elaborate alfombras of the entire week. They are worth trying to see if you can harness your patience to handle the crushing crowds.
I am always about trying all the street food I can find all over the world. Semana Santa in Antigua is a PERFECT place and time to sample all that Guatemalan street food has to offer. There are always vendors near the mercados, but this week the squares near the church with the velacion for the day are PACKED. Mi amor was talking to a churro vendor, and he said that the week was very profitable for anyone who could get a permit. Unlike most other places in Guatemala, the vendors in Antigua and especially during Semana Santa have to have a permit and meet guidelines for quality and safety. If you’ve always wanted to try street food but were nervous about what it might do to your insides, this would be the perfect place and time to try it out. Think lots of what I consider “fair food.” Churros, tacos, fried meats, funnel cakes, mangoes, popcorn, candies. So much! Antigua can also be more expensive than the rest of the country, especially concerning food, but not with so much cheap street food around! It definitely helped our budget.
Tied directly to the processions, all week long you can see people in costume. Purple and black robes, Roman soldiers, black veils, brown robes. Especially cute are the little ones participating. Early in the week everyone is wearing the purple robes, but on Friday they switch to black for mourning and the mood shifts dramatically. The mood shifts dramatically again come Easter Sunday, and the processions become a big happy noisy celebration.
Antigua is usually very touristy, but Semana Santa in particular gets lots of Guatemalan tourists and visitors in addition to the international ones. Don’t be rude and stare at people like you’re in a zoo of course, but it makes for some very interesting people watching. Indigenous women and children wearing traditional cortes (skirts), fajas (belts), and huipils (square-cut blouse) in the designs of their village. Fancy-looking folk wearing Dolce & Gabbana from the city. Blue collar guys with cowboy hats. Mi amor’s mom with heels and a teacup chihuahua named Honey. There’s a large stereotype-busting sample present of what “Guatemalan” can look like.
Especially if you consider yourself religious, and even if you don’t, what this week means to a lot of people is very weighty. The week transitions from grief to jubilee as the events follow Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem Palm Sunday, his death on Good Friday, and resurrection on Easter Sunday. You can feel the feels if you open yourself up to it.
Like any popular tourist destination, it can be hard to get “good” photos of where you’re at without lots of bodies “in the way.” The tried and true method for me and anyone else “doin’ it for the ‘Gram” is simply this: be there when no one else is. AKA the A**crack of dawn. I’ve got some super stunning photos of myself and mi amor and the town in general just because we literally got up with the sunrise. Great lighting, no other people. Match made in heaven.
What do you think? Do crowds completely ruin a thing for you? Would you still like to go? Or, perhaps a more important question, is it possible international tourists may be ruining it for the locals celebrating their own holiday? In case all these great photos are fooling you, here’s some evidence that the overcrowding is a VERY real thing. This was trying to view the procession portraying the story of Jesus’s death on Friday at a popular intersection.
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