No city in the world lives and breathes Holy Week and Lent like Antigua, Guatemala. For six weeks each year, Antigua’s vibrant religious traditions spill out from the colonial-era Catholic churches onto the cobblestone streets, reaching a glorious peak the week before Easter. A turn at any corner during this magical season may find you face to face with a lavish procession or several generations of families making stunning street carpets.
Every spring, more than 1 million visitors swell Antigua for Holy Week (Semana Santa), anticipating a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And with its opulent processions, breathtaking carpets, and other centuries-old traditions, this enchanting UNESCO World Heritage site always delivers.
One of the most exciting moments when you are traveling in Guatemala is the arrival of a Holy Week procession in Antigua. Thousands gather outside of the churches, on sidewalks, and even on rooftops along procession routes to watch these spectacles. First, the aroma of copal incense fills the air as hundreds of men and boys in silken purple robes, some swinging incense censers, fill the street. Soon dirges played on brass instruments and processional drums grow louder, heightening the anticipation. And then suddenly, emerging from a cloud of incense, the float appears.
Gleaming with gold and silver adornments, the immense float is nothing short of spectacular. Up to 100 cucuruchos (male float carriers), dressed in royal purple, shoulder the main float. Weighing up to three metric tonnes (7,000 lbs), the wooden float sways slowly with each step the carriers take. Larger-than-life 17th- and 18th-century sculptures arranged on top of platform portray biblical scenes or religious messages, and at the float’s centre stands a poignant sculpture of Jesus in his crown of thorns, carrying a heavy cross.
Just behind the main float, cargadoras (female carriers) shoulder a second, slightly smaller float bearing a sculpture of the grieving Virgin Mary. The faces of these sculptures vividly express the passion of the crucifixion, and it is not uncommon to spot tears in the eyes of faithful onlookers as the image of Jesus or Mary passes.
Originally considered a penance in the 1500s, carrying the float is now also considered a privilege, and each carrier pays a small fee for the honour. A single procession can last more than 18 hours, often starting or ending before daybreak. Because the carriers take turns shouldering the massive floats, more than a thousand may carry a float over the course of a long procession.
As night falls, dazzling white lights set the floats aglow. From a distance, they almost appear to float along Antigua’s dark, historic streets. It is a truly incredible sight.
Every Sunday in Lent sees one procession, and several large processions crisscross Antigua on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Cadres of gold-and-red-clad men dressed as Roman centurions, some in chariots or riding horses, lead the morning procession on Good Friday. After 3 p.m. that day (traditionally considered the hour of Christ’s death) black-robed carriers bear enormous floats with sculptures of Christ’s body encased in a glistening sepulchre of glass and gold.
The image of Jesus is absent from all processions on Holy Saturday. Instead, women carriers garbed entirely in black carry a float bearing Our Lady of Solitude, a heartrending sculpture of the grieving Virgin Mary draped in her own black cloak of mourning.
Easter morning finds Antigua surprisingly peaceful, with few processions or carpets. But in the early afternoon, a tiny, jubilant procession—announced with rounds of applause, confetti raining from a church bell tower, and praises shouted through a bullhorn—passes along the streets, and anyone can help carry the small, brightly coloured float.
Incredible Street Carpets
Exquisite street carpets that line the processional routes are Antigua’s most famous and best-loved Holy Week tradition. Walking the route before daybreak on Good Friday is like experiencing an almost endless gallery of stunning works of art. But these works must be treasured in the moment, as they are destined to be destroyed in an instant when the procession passes.
The street carpet tradition started in 8th-century Spain, although Mayan rituals have also long involved pine-needle carpets. Over the years, Antigua’s street carpets have evolved into magnificent works crafted by generations of families living along the procession route. Families often plan and design their carpets months ahead and may start constructing their carpet up to 20 hours before the procession arrives. Some even make several different carpets over the course of a few days if more than one procession passes their home.
Some of the most elaborate carpets use layers of brilliantly hued sawdust to produce a plush, carpet-like effect. Simpler but nonetheless striking carpets may instead feature beds of pine needles, flower petals, fruits, vegetables, and fragrant corozo palms. Some families add creative innovations, like marbles, egg shells, candles, toys, and bottle caps. Carpet themes may reflect religious messages, elements of nature, geometric patterns, and sometimes even statements of humour or political views.
People crowding the streets walk carefully around these ephemeral works, allowing the carrier guiding the main float—often a priest or other religious leader—to be the first to touch the carpets. With each step, the carriers send the carpet’s sweet aromas into the air, leaving only traces of its fleeting beauty between the cobblestones. The splendour of the carpets endures only in memories and photographs.
Vigils, known as “velaciones,” are a lesser-known but lovely tradition in many Antigua-area churches. Church members painstakingly create dioramas at the altar using some of the statues that will appear in the upcoming procession. Fruits and vegetables decorate a sawdust carpet at the foot of the altar, known as the “garden,” symbolising the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ prayed after the Last Supper.
Although evening vigils are sombre and formal, hundreds of visitors crowd into the churches to admire the decorations throughout the day. Just outside the church doors, a festive, street-party atmosphere prevails at some vigils, where you’ll find everything from traditional Guatemalan fare sizzling on grills to pizza, cotton candy, balloons, and toys.
Holy Week … Lite!
It’s a well-kept secret that by visiting Antigua a week or two before Holy Week, you can enjoy a “lite” version—from processions to street carpets to vigils–with fewer crowds and sometimes lower prices. Throughout the Lenten season preceding Holy Week, you’ll find vigils every Friday, children’s processions every weekend starting with the third Saturday, and at least one major procession every Sunday. Although the first few weeks’ processions tend to be small and may have few carpets, everything grows grander as Holy Week nears, with an extravagant, 18-hour procession and abundant carpets the fifth Sunday in Lent.
Of course, nothing is quite like Semana Santa in Antigua. You can count on Holy Thursday and Good Friday to overwhelm your senses with the most spectacular processions, incredible carpets, vigils, and biblical re-enactments. But a visit earlier in Lent may be the perfect choice for those who prefer a slightly less crowded and more tranquil way to savour Antigua’s old-world charm, international dining, and Mayan traditions, yet still enjoy a taste of this enchanting experience.
A few spaces still remain on Viaventure’s “Guatemala Reverent Tour,” where you will witness an impressive Antigua procession, help make a street carpet, attend a sacred Mayan ritual, shop in a vast artisan market, visit beautiful Lake Atitlán, see the pyramids of Tikal, and more. Learn about this trip and reserve your spot!
*The video used in this article is not Viaventure’s property, it has been originally published in Youtube.