For the bucket list: Guatemala’s Peeps-free Easter fest you can’t miss

Three youth participate in a Semana Santa procession, wearing the iconic purple robes and "capirotes" hoods. (Photo by Devin McDonald)

A day after Holy Week, Semana Santa, here in Antigua, Guatemala and there’s not a Easter egg shell or Peeps wrapper in sight. 

The holiday in the U.S., defined by fluffy cartoon bunnies and candy-coated animals, is a far cry from the deep-purple robes, massive floats and vibrant sand carpets lining the streets in Antigua.

I find myself in the middle of a moving festival, making my way through densely-crowded, cobblestone streets.

Be careful where you walk and don’t sneeze because “alfombras” carpets, elaborately created from dyed sand and sawdust, line the streets for dramatic precessions that accompany the week-long celebrations.

A float is carried by about 80 people during a Holy Week parade. The floats, depicting the crucifixion story, can weigh up to six tons. (Photo by Devin McDonald)

This public spectacle is filled with six elaborate parades that started on March 24 and concluded yesterday on Easter.

Each precession begins at a different church in Antigua and crosses the finish line, on average, nine hours later. Each depict a different stage in the story of the crucifixion of Jesus through a medium of floats that can weigh an upwards of six tons.

It takes about 80 people to carry just one of the floats on their shoulders, switching turns every 15 minutes to makes sure the float makes a safe return.

“It is an honor and a duty to carry the float. I have been doing it since I was 16,” 34-year-old Juan-Carlos said after being relieved of his position.

A full band follows playing solemn hymns, which combined with the rich smells of incense and fresh sawdust, evokes a stirring emotional response from even the most nonreligious of spectators.

A team prepares a alfombra, or sand carpet, which take up to 10 hours to prepare the day of the parade. (Photo by Devin McDonald)

A team prepares a alfombra, or sand carpet, which take up to 10 hours to prepare the day of the parade. (Photo by Devin McDonald)

Along the 9-mile route, about 50 sand carpets mark the path. These vibrant offerings and tributes of commitment can take up to 10 hours to create and are finished just before the precession arrives and walked on by the float bearers.

Most of the alfombras contain traditional religious themes, while a few are more artistic expressions for the group who creates them.

The annual extravaganza is hosted in the shadow of three volcanoes that frame Antigua’s horizon. Along with the untouched colonial infrastructure of Antigua, the scene is truly one of a kind, drawing thousands of tourists from all over the world.

A man releases a potent cloud from his “incensario” filled with myrrh resin and used to "cleanse" the parade route. (Photo by Devin McDonald)

A man releases a potent cloud from his “incensario” filled with myrrh resin and used to “cleanse” the parade route. (Photo by Devin McDonald)

For some it is a religious pilgrimage, but most of the people interviewed were here to witness the main vein of a cultural tradition that has been in place for generations.

After returning to the ground from his vantage point half way up a light post, Andre Sol from Leeds, England said, “I’m not religious or anything, but I needed to see a new part of the world, a new culture. Why not Semana Santa in Antigua?”

A good point indeed. Far from the candy-fueled Easter in other places of the world, Semana Santa in Antigua is an unparalleled holiday experience that’s only growing with the years.

10 COMMENTS

  1. Beautifully written and inclusively breath taking photographs; makes me want to bring the tradition to the states. Great job Devin!

  2. Beautifully written Devin. Love the photographs…you are leaving your wonderful mark on the world. I have been showing your videos to some of my students…you are an inspiration to us all. I get dibs on you when you return to the states…my students are hyped up to meet you! Lots of love, Susan

  3. I could practically smell the incense and hear the crowd by your descriptions. The photographs really gave me the sense of the cultural tradition and community involvement. Thanks for bringing this alive for me!
    Much love, Your Madre

  4. This is awesome Devin! You’re a fantastic writer and it sounds like you’re having a great time with GV in Guatemala. Keep it up!

  5. Love the photos and comparisons to the commercial Easter in the US. It’s so exciting to know you are there experiencing so much, and writing too.
    Thanks.

  6. Oh Buddy! That is so so so cool. The Spring cohort left today, so you’ll be seeing them shortly. I can’t believe I wouldn’t have seen this if Cynthia hadn’t been in the office today. Great job! We miss you!

  7. Ah mate, this article takes me back to my first trip there! I miss those times a lot, and really loved reading about it in your words. Well done my friend, I’m glad to hear you’re back in Guatemala and living it up. Hit me with an update on your life sometime and I’ll share some Australia stories with you in return. Stay up dude,

    Max

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