There are few places in the world that celebrate Easter quite like Guatemala’s colonial city of Antigua. Over the course of the holiday, this cobblestoned town of pastel-hued houses and crumbling ruins becomes a backdrop for incense-infused religious processions, elaborate holy vigils, and exquisite street carpets made of sawdust, pine needles, and flowers. There are thousands of visitors, men in costume, women in black, and events that start as early as 4:00 a.m. It’s a bit of a brouhaha, but one you won’t want to miss.
To help you make sense of the fanfare, we checked in with Viaventure’s Antigua-based guide Jane Henwood de Garcia for suggestions on when to go, what to see, and where to be. What follows is an overview of the holiday, plus some handy tips on how to have a great time.
1. Come anytime during Lent. The Easter season—known as Lent—begins on Ash Wednesday (February 13, 2013) and continues to Easter Sunday (March 31, 2013). The busiest, most event-filled part of the season is Semana Santa, or Holy Week, which starts one week before Easter on Palm Sunday. Although Semana Santa is when most visitors travel to Antigua, it’s not the only time to experience the Easter celebrations. Throughout the Lenten season, nearby towns such as Santa Catarina and Santa Inés, host holy vigils and religious processions that—while smaller—are just as intense and incense-filled as the ones during Semana Santa. “A lot of people prefer to experience Lent this way,” says Jane. “Crowds are smaller, plus hotels are cheaper and usually don’t require a minimum stay.”
2. Visit the holy vigils in the morning or at night. Holy vigils (or velaciones) take place in churches located in and around Antigua throughout the season of Lent. For a vigil, a church uses a backdrop and decorated statues to create an elaborate biblical scene in front of its main altar. At the foot of this scene, a colorful sawdust carpet is made, around which offerings like flowers, fruits, vegetables, and candles are placed. (Somewhat more “modern” vigils also employ soundtracks and light displays.) A church’s holy vigil usually lasts from morning to night. “Many people like to come at night,” says Jane. “Outside of the church, food vendors set up on the street, and it becomes a bit of a social scene. Personally, though, I like to see the vigils in the morning. There’s less jostling, and it’s easier to take photos because you can get right up front.”
3. See the religious processions in several spots. Every Sunday during Lent, as well as during the week of Semana Santa, local churches sponsor religious processions. These marches depart from a church, follow a pre-planned route through Antigua, and then return to the same church several hours later. (The municipality of Antigua distributes procession schedules and map routes in advance.) Processions comprise incense carriers, funeral bands, and costumed participants, but the andas—large wooden depictions of Jesus and Mary that are carried on the shoulders of cucuruchos (men) and cargadoras (women)—are the main attraction. Andas can weigh thousands of pounds and require myriad carriers. As such, with so many participants, processions can be very long.
“Where you choose to view a procession is very personal,” says Jane. “I like to see them as they come out of the church. Some people like to see them at day, others at night. For photo ops, I’ve had guests who love to position themselves right in front of Antigua’s cathedral. The park is a good place to be, since all of the processions pass by there at some point. Pick a spot, but remember: If you don’t see a procession where you planned, find it elsewhere. They last for hours.”
Of course, all locals have a favorite place, and Jane is no different. “I love to see the San Felipe procession—the largest march of them all—on Good Friday at dusk. I recommend heading to the northern end of 7a. Avenida Norte, toward the San Sebastián park. The procession arrives just as the sun is setting. It’s a long, narrow stretch of road, and you can hear the band and see tons of people slowly approaching from afar. When the procession arrives, the smell of incense envelops you. It’s a great.”
4. View the alfombras the night before Good Friday. One of the highlights of the Lenten season, alfombras are colorful carpets made of sawdust, pine needles, and flowers that decorate the streets during religious processions. (To learn more about alfombras, click here.) One of the best times to see them—because there are so many—is Thursday night before La Merced church’s 4:00 a.m. Good Friday procession. “The alfombra-makers start setting up around 9:00 p.m. on Thursday,” says Jane. “Around midnight, the carpets really begin to take shape. Head out then to see them—there are plenty of people out on the streets—and then go straight to La Merced to catch the start of the 4:00 a.m. procession. After that, sleep in. You won’t be missing much, since the next Friday procession doesn’t start until 3:00 p.m.”
5. Take a break from the solemn sights. Semana Santa’s certainly not short on somber events. For a bit of levity, Jane recommends heading to La Merced church on Wednesday to check out the children’s procession. “It starts at 2:00 p.m., but get there around 1:30 and grab a pew inside the church,” she says. “Watch the parents take photos and fuss over their kids as they get them into their costumes. The whole thing is a bit more light-hearted than other events, and visitors are always welcome. I love when the procession gets ready to leave the church and the brass band begins to play. It gives me goosebumps.”
On Easter Sunday, she also recommends checking out the Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro procession, sponsored by a local hospital and church in Antigua. “The group is solemn coming out of the church, but then the music changes, and it turns into a party. People throw confetti from the church’s bell tower. There’s no special dress, and you don’t need to pre-register to help carry an anda, which means that anyone can join in. It’s a lot of fun.”
6. Be prepared. Wear sunblock and bring a hat. The sun this time of year is very strong, and there’s a good chance you’ll be out on the streets for a while (on that note, wear comfortable shoes). Be ready for rain. Take only the money you need when you go out, and leave your passport, credit cards, and any other valuables in the hotel safe. Bring water. “And remember,” adds Jane, “Semana Santa is a serious religious event. Try not to cross the street in front of a procession. Avoid getting too close to the carpets. Just be considerate.”