The grandest holiday in Guatemala is Easter and the week preceeding Easter, Semana Santa. Hundreds of thousands of visitors descend on the colonial town of Antigua to be a part of the festivities. A primary feature of the festivities are the Processions in the streets. The parades actually take place every weekend for the five weeks leading up to Holy Week, or Semana Santa. The climax of the celebration would be Good Friday, two days before Easter Sunday. During Semana Santa the whole of Antigua is packed but especially on Thursday and Friday.
Hours before the parade people prepare alfombras, or carpets, in the middle of the streets. These “carpets” line the path of the Procession. They are made of pine needles, dyed sawdust and other organic materials such as flowers, fruits and vegetables. The alfombras are usually made by an extended family or local businesses. Some take several people and hours of work to complete. The existence of an alfombra is a short one as hours after their completion they are trampled over by the Procession. As the parade draws near people line the sides of the streets staking out their spot.
The wooden floats, or andas, can weigh several thousand pounds and are carried by up to 100 people. The main anda features an image from the life of Jesus Christ. Only men carry the anda with Jesus. The purple robe-clad cucuruchos that carry the anda were traditionally paying penance for their past sins, but today carry the andas for their church as an honor. The bearers of the andas usually carry it for about one block. Many return later in the day to carry for more time. The Processions last for several hours.
The second anda features the Virgin Mary and is carried only by women. The anda is also wooden and can weigh up to 3,000 pounds.
An important part of the Procession is the accompanying marching band. The band plays a variety of somber funeral marches to set the proper tone to reenact the Crucifixion of Christ.
If you plan on visiting Antigua during Semana Santa be sure to have confirmed, concrete reservations well in advance. Another way to see the activities is to stay nearby and bus in for the day. Be sure to allow a lot of time for the commute though as traffic is ridiculous. Several streets are closed during the day in Antigua for the creation of the alfombras and for the parades.
There are information booths in the main plaza of Antigua that have maps of the parade routes. Be sure to arrive early if you want to see or photograph the alfombras.
Another thing to consider is the increased risk of petty crime. Pickpockets congregate in the city during Semana Santa and tourists are a prime target. Carry as little cash, cards, and valuables on you as possible and try to be aware of your surroundings.
I feel fortunate to have been in Antigua during this sacred time. The pageantry and vibrancy of the Processions and accompanying alfombras will be etched in my mind for my entire life. The coming together of this community to create a spectacular event like this is memorable and I highly recommend the experience!