What better way to end my worldwide adventure than with an old friend for the best Semana Santa (aka Holy Week) festivities in the world in Antigua, Guatemala.
George and I worked together way back in the advertising days and like me he fled New York and corporate America for his own adventure in Guatemala, starting a travel agency in Antigua.
I had originally intended to start my journey in Antigua, but my giant weather spreadsheet lead me in a different direction. I’m glad it did since spending time with George helped ease the pain of my trip coming to an end.
Although a little late, I arrived to Antigua in time to wish George a happy 50th birthday (I know, he looks half that age ;-) and see the first of many Semana Santa processions. How nice that they threw George a procession for his birthday! A good introduction to a lovely town.
Antigua is in the central highlands, about an hours’ windy drive from Guatemala City, and you guessed it, ANOTHER UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE. It’s a colonial town, founded in 1543 by Spanish conquistadors after the neighboring town was destroyed by the nearby Volcan de Agua. Known for its Spanish Mudujar-influenced Baroque architecture and ruins of colonial churches, Antigua is the tourist (and expat) heart of Guatemala.
In addition to the previously mentioned Volcan de Aqua, to the west of Antigua is Volcan de Acatenango (which erupted in 1972) and Volcan de Fuego, the most active. George kept saying the volcanoes make the city even more striking, but I didn’t get a glimpse until 6am on day 4 when the clouds finally lifted and they showed themselves, complete with puffs of smoke!
Unfortu- nately volcanoes aren’t the only problem, in 1717 a 7.4 magnitude earthquake hit Antigua destroying over 3,000 buildings, followed by another in 1773 leaving the city destroyed and all but abandoned--- hence all those church ruins.
Good thing everyone didn’t leave or we wouldn’t have modern day Antigua and its famous Semana Santa (or Santa Semana as I prefer since it sounds jollier).
During Holy Week Antigua is abuzz with procession after procession of a crucified Jesus. So Christ doesn’t have to walk on the bare street, people spend hours creating beautiful, elaborate and colorful ‘carpets’, or alfombras, along the procession route.
I am not talking about a block or two; these processions sometimes start in the middle of the night and go for 12 hours, with 100 men at a time carrying the float. That means a LOT of carpets!
It also means a lot of time walking around the cutesy city looking at alfombras, as families traditionally design new carpets each year made of dyed sawdust, pine needles and flowers. All that Catholic school finally came in handy as I was able to interpret some of the themes--- yeah, loaves and fishes (I always liked that one- it seemed like magic)!
In fact, I took a 6AM walking tour of the carpets on Good Friday to see the best and biggest (there was still an ice cream vendor out at 5:45AM). Unfortunately they were not as impressive as normal given the overnight rain (Easter was late this year and bumped up against Guatemala’s rainy season), but they were still pretty incredible!
Very un-American--- there is no competition. No winner! What?
That is okay; I had my own personal awards:
And the best….. watermelon Jesus!!!!!!!!
We also had the perfect viewing spot for the largest procession from La Merced. Picture Roman soldiers, some on horseback, hundreds of men in purple carrying the crucified Jesus on a humongous float, weighing more than 3 tons. Smell the incense. Hear the slow melancholy band. What a site! It is pretty moving and I don’t even consider myself religious!
The men are then followed by women in white carrying the Mary statue, dressed in black today since she is in mourning.
We also had primo position for a bit of wine and the procession from the Cathedral being at the only window next door to the Cathedral thanks the George’s friend. Super cool and SO much better than being with the masses in Parque Central! I have dibs on it for next year!
These processions go day and night and are really very solemn and reverential-- people here are really pretty holy.
The one thing I didn’t really get was the Children’s procession where the kids max out at 10 years of age. Seriously, what has a 7-year-old done that needs atoning for by carrying a really heavy wooden thing around for hours? We would never do that to our kids—certainly this is cruel and unusual punishment.
Although processions and carpets dominated, I did get a look at some of Antigua’s more interesting sites per George’s recommendation.
The Cathedral of San Jose was once one of the largest cathedrals in Central America, but has only been partially rebuilt after the 1773 earthquake. It is lovely from the outside, bordering Parque Central, but the interior is nothing special.
La Merced Church is a lovely yellow and white baroque building opened in 1767 and home of the largest Semana Santa procession.
Pilgrimage site Inglesia de San Francisco is home to Saint Joseph Betancur, who was canonized in 2002, complete with his hall of miracles. Nice! The garden within the ruins is also a lovely spot. The best part was George’s delightful fishing friend Wilver buying me churros in the courtyard--- awh, so sweet and yummy!!!
Santa Clara, constructed in 1734 didn't last long before being destroyed in the 1773 earth- quake. Too bad- it must have been impressive since the gardens and ruins are still beautiful.
Across the street from Santa Clara are public clothes-washing sinks, where George tells me village women still come to do their laundry.
Santo Domingo is a ruined monastery dating from 1538 that now houses interesting museums and a very nice hotel.
I also loved zipping around on George’s scooter with people staring at the gringos, going to the Cross in the Hill to take in the whole city near sunset. I disagree, George doesn't drive like Chucky! ;-)
The mime giving (verbal) directions to a tourist was also a highlight--- hello, you are a mime!!!!!!!!!
George’s Travel Club also brought some lovely and fun clients to town who provided some amusement. And of course being with a former New Yorker, we ate well! One restaurant even made an alfombra for us to walk on which was fun (even if the pine needles stuck to my shoes).
Maybe it's wrong, but what a happy Holy Week I had!
Thanks to George for being the cherry on top of a magnificent year abroad :-)
After 15 years in New York, I am giving it all up (including the wardrobe) for a jaunt around the world in search of sun, adventure and hopefully an idea of what I want to be when I grow up. Any ideas, let me know @ firstname.lastname@example.org