Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala is one of the most beautiful, intense, outlandish, inspiring, and overwhelming events you will ever experience.
Semana Santa is the Spanish translation for Holy Week, the week leading up to Easter Sunday. In a tradition introduced by the Spanish imperialists, Latin American churches host elaborate processions and celebrations during every day of Semana Santa. Nowhere in Central America are the celebrations more notable than Antigua, Guatemala. Hundreds of thousands of people flock to this small colonial city to watch the over-the-top processions, spot the most elaborate alfombras, and participate in the city-wide fiesta.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Latin Semana Santa celebrations are the alfombras. Alfombras are carpets crafted out of colored sawdust, flowers, candles, and more. Residents in houses along the path of a procession decorate the streets with these carpets, lining the path of the procession with color. The artists build their carpets in the hours before the ceremony begins. Then, slowly, the procession plods along the path, trampling over the masterpieces in the process.
In Antigua, the alfombras have become something of a sport. Businesses and artists compete to produce the most intensely elaborate and beautiful temporary designs. They have transcended beyond the traditional sawdust and you can now find carpets made of flowers, baked goods, coffee beans, or even vegetables!
The processions are long parades consisting of marching bands, costumed actors, and hundreds of people from the church congregation carrying incense, flags, candles, or other props. Each one can take anywhere from two to twelve hours and span a few blocks or the entire length of the town. Between the smell of the incense, the buzz of the crowd, the blat of the trumpets, and the brilliantly colorful floats and carpets, they are complete sensory overload.
The bulk of the Semana Santa celebrations occur between Holy Thursday and Easter Sunday. It is impossible to witness every procession that occurs in Antigua in that four day period. There are dozens scheduled in that time, often with overlapping schedules and conflicting routes. They occur chronologically, each depicting a stage or scene from the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The centerpiece of each procession is an enormous, hand carved wooden float that weighs thousands of pounds. Atop the wood is a statue of Jesus in a stance befitting the procession’s scene. These statues and floats are proud belongings of the church, and generally they can be seen displayed inside year round.
During the statue’s annual foray into the outside world, a dozen plus men in matching robes carry the enormous weight of the wood float on their shoulders. It is no easy feat, but carrying the float is considered an honor. Members of the congregation sign up to participate months beforehand. Over the course of the lengthy march, hundreds of people have the honor of bearing the weight of their savior through the streets of Antigua.
There is a heart-stopping moment as the men approach a particularly beautiful alfombra. In that moment, the elaborate carpet is lined by boys and men in matching robes. An exhausted but committed group of men carting an enormous wooden float stare down the artwork. Thousands of people watch as the man in front solemnly directs them forward, sending colored sawdust and flowers into the air. Stunning.
Once they pass, a similar process takes place for the women of the congregation. Young girls wearing white veils line a path for a float bearing a statue of Mary. These somewhat smaller floats are borne by women. I loved watching the determination in their faces as they passed.
We saw our first procession on Holy Thursday as it left its church. The streets around the cathedral were packed shoulder to shoulder. The procession started with young boys dressed in red hoods or armor, representing the punitive Romans. Then came floods of congregates wearing the traditional bright purple of Easter, and finally the women in black and white.
We caught our next procession as it passed by Antigua’s central square. Somehow it was even more crowded. I managed to catch a video of this one from the front of an alfombra:
This procession was my favorite for photography. The bright purple and the dramatic backdrops were so stunning!
Good Friday: The Peak of Semana Santa Antigua
Good Friday is complete and utter madness in Antigua. It is the peak of the celebrations; unlike in U.S. Christian culture, it is considered more important than Easter itself. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flood the city. Many of them arrive late on Thursday and don’t have anywhere to stay the night. The awnings and park benches of the city are crowded with pilgrims catching a few winks before waking early for the first processions.
The most anticipated procession of Semana Santa begins at La Merced cathedral at 4 AM on Good Friday. It traverses the city for a mind-bending 11 hours before returning to the cathedral at 3 PM. Thousands of households lie on the path of this most honored procession. They participate in the most intense alfombra process of them all.
Some businesses and families begin working on their alfombras as early as 6 PM the night before – almost 12 hours before the procession will pass their doors. We were advised that watching the alfombras being built late into the night was the single best experience of Semana Santa Antigua.
We set out to walk the beginning of the route around 10 pm and wandered in awe until we crashed at 2 am. The complexity and beauty of the pieces we watched emerge were truly incredible. There was an intense dedication and energy in the late night streets, emanating from both the observers and the artists.
We woke again at 4:30 to watch the somber Good Friday procession pass. It was incredibly stirring and eerie—thousands of people standing in complete silence at 4:30 in the morning, watching as hundreds of young men and women marched past. The music was somber and the statues were dramatic and somewhat gruesome. They were lit from underneath and stood out starkly in the darkness.
As soon as it passed us, we shook off the eeriness and hopped back into action. We wanted to see the finished alfombras before they were trampled by the oncoming procession! We raced ahead a few blocks, gazing upon the creations in the early morning light. As the sun rose, more and more people flooded the streets to see the masterpieces. I have never seen so many humans awake at that hour.
I love this shot as a summation that morning. It was taken at the head of an alfombra that we watched being built the night before. The hand, stained pink from nearly twelve hours of handling dyed sawdust, belongs to the lead artist of the alfombra. He stands gazing over his creation in the early morning glow, surrounded by admirers.
Unfortunately, I cannot speak to the Saturday processions. After 47 days of travelling in Central America, I finally fell victim to badly chosen street food and spent all day Saturday between my bed and the bathroom. I’ll save you the details, but let’s just be clear: it wasn’t pretty.
Thankfully, I recovered enough by Easter Sunday to witness the final Semana Santa procession. Although less elaborate, the Easter procession was lighthearted and fun. The congregation had abandoned their robes and taken to the streets in their Sunday best. Both men and women carried the floats. Cars sporting sound systems followed them playing dance music. Observers joined the joyous parade one by one as it passed. Eventually the streets were packed with smiling Guatemalans and tourists alike. The righteous tension that had gripped Antigua for the last few days had broken, and everybody was celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.
Reflecting on the Madness of Semana Santa Antigua
It’s truly impossible to explain the immensity of Semana Santa in Antigua. It was difficult to grasp even as I stood in the midst of it. The city is full to the brim with celebrations, music, and people. Everywhere you turn there are colorful events, marching bands playing late into the night, and street vendors hawking souvenirs and food. The whole city turns into an overwhelming, intensely beautiful Disneyland.
And all this chaos is backed by Antigua, a pastel-walled, cobblestoned, colonial gem resting in a valley between three towering volcanoes. Crowds of thousands crammed between antique walls; dramatic processions beneath erupting volcanoes; verdant hills overlooking the most elaborate, temporary street art you will ever see. This is Semana Santa in Antigua, and there is simply nothing else like it in the world.
Can’t get enough of these colorful, bombastic pictures? Check out the rest of them on my Semana Santa Antigua Picture Gallery.