One of the most interesting events I have seen during my travels is the annual Easter Week religious processions in Antigua Guatemala. There are others, notably in Mexico and Spain, but it can be argued that Antigua’s have the best overall displays. Antigua’s beautiful colonial building make for a colorful background, which definitely contributes to the perception.
The main processions (and matching ones in Guatemala City) occur during through Lenten season and Easter Week. One of the most important, the Good Friday procession, begins Thursday night, shortly before midnight, with a reenactment of Jesus’ arrest.
There are other processions occurring during the weeks preceding Easter Week, though most are really small compared to the main ones. Usually, children from nearby schools carry them out. Below is one such charming procession that we encountered, by chance, while hanging out at Antigua’s Parque Central (Central Park).
Small, school-sponsored procession
The platform that the children below are carrying is called an “anda”. The ones used for the main processions weigh about 8,000 pounds and must be carried by shifts of close to 100 people dressed in purple robes. The purple-robed guys are called “cucuruchos” and their likeness is sold at the market in form of dolls for children.
Being a “cucurucho” or anda carrier entails signing up for duty (varies depending on how important the procession) and buying the outfit, which can run upwards of $50, is made of nicer material than the simpler ones.
On Thursday before Good Friday, we took a stroll through Antigua’s main streets to witness the “alfombras” or carpets being designed and laid out. Alfombras are as varied in design as they are in construction materials. The most popular alfombras are made out of dyed sawdust.
Making a sawdust alfombra
Boards are laid out as to not disturb the sawdust and cardboard patterns are placed and filled in according to the design.
Laying sawdust pattern
The job of “Water Sprayer” is very important. Someone needs to constantly spray the sawdust with a fine mist to keep it in place.
Keeping sawdust moist
Being a computer geek, I loved the pairing of traditional carpet with the built-in QR code. A publicity agency created it, which I thought was a stroke of genius. Go ahead, try it. It works!
We took a break to cool down by the water fountain at Parque Central.
After checking out the alfombras, we headed back home for dinner. Since processions started after midnight, we decided it was best to catch some sleep and come back later. Proved to be a smart decision.
When we returned, alfombra building was still going on in earnest, with the aid of huge floodlights.
Making alfombras before midnight
We headed to Parque Central area. Lots of people milling about. The procession started at 3 am, so we had some time to kill.
Fire jugglers at the park
As we were milling about in front of the Cathedral above, we heard a commotion and noise from up the street. It was definitely headed our way.
And lo and behold, a totally unexpected (for us and everyone else there, it seemed) cavalry of Roman soldiers showed up and lined up on each side of the street. Later on, it dawned on me that the whole act and ensuing processions were timed and acted out in concert with Jesus’ biblical account of His death. Basically, the city became the whole stage. Pretty neat, I thought.
Unbeknownst to us, at midnight, in front of La Merced Church (the yellow church in the pics), there was a promulgation made regarding Jesus and an arrest order was issued by the religious leaders of the time. It was more jealousy than anything, according to the biblical account, and was facilitated by Judas’ betrayal.
The Roman soldiers wound their way around the city, which symbolized the part of the story where the soldiers went to Gethsemane Garden to apprehend Jesus. Of note is that no live actor ever played the role of Jesus. His only appearance was in the form of statues on top of the andas.
The costumes were better than your average Halloween version. I thought they did the job nicely. The swords spears and swords were definitely made out of metal and the torches were very hot and real.
The soldiers stopped for a few minutes in front of San Jose Cathedral, to simulate Jesus’ arrest. Once Jesus’ was “arrested”, the soldiers made their way back to La Merced Church to be “tried” in front of the religious leaders.
A funny moment happened on the way back to the church. The soldiers marched in two columns along the street, and no one was able to get in between the two formations. There was a soldier (pictured below) with a very real-looking sword at the back of the line making sure no one wandered into the middle of the formations.
Sure enough, an absent-minded blonde (yes, she was blonde – I’m just describing what I saw… no offense meant ;) got carried away snapping pics and wandered into the middle of the formation. Almost immediately a chorus broke out, in English: “Get out! Get out! Get out!” as the soldier moved menacingly towards her with the sword.
“Someone will be dying alongside Jesus today”, I thought.
Thankfully, the suddenly-aware girl realized her predicament and quickly sneaked away to the side, thus sparing her own life.
The soldiers continued their march almost uneventfully after that.
Prop swords and shields
Marching towards La Merced Church
I said “almost uneventfully” above because the soldier below dropped a torch right near some tourists. Thankfully, no one was burned and he picked up the torch again without incident.
Torch on the floor
Candy stalls at La Merced
Once the soldiers returned to the church, we had some more time to kill as we waited until 3 am, when the main procession was set to start from La Merced Church. We went back to look at more alfombras and hang out at Parque Central.
Thursday night alfombras are very elaborate
Even though my daughter had slept a few hours before we returned to watch the processions and alfombras, drowsiness was starting to set in.
Once it was close to 3 am, we returned to La Merced Church.
Good Friday Procession
Waiting for the pre-dawn procession
Below are Herod and the two thieves that were to be crucified alongside Jesus.
A hush fell as the anda made its way out of the church.
First anda, depicting Jesus wearing a crown of thorns.
Second anda, depicting a Jesus after He was savagely beaten by the Roman soldiers.
This anda was HUGE – one of the largest in Guatemala – and depicted Jesus carrying the cross on the way to the crucifixion site.
zAndas are not carried at a steady pace. The move slowly, starting and stopping, and sometimes just slowly rocking back and forth, while New Orleans-type funeral music plays.
Of note is that the figure in the andas often looks to the right. It’s been said that this is for the benefit of the crowds standing to the side.
The andas are so tall, that pole bearers must walk in front of the anda, lifting power cables out of the way.
Once the anda left to make its rounds, we decided to head back home and catch some sleep. The next procession would start at 12 pm, which left us time to sleep a bit.
On the way back, I took some more pictures of alfombras.
Some of the alfombras are made by families that have been residing in Antigua for generations. They lay down the alfombras in front of their house and this is a yearly family project that usually goes back generations.
Some of the alfombras are interesting, such as the one made with mangoes. Alfombras are made to be walked on by anda bearers, so some of these alfombras present a challenge in an obstacle-course sort of way.
It was an amazing experience to witness this tradition going back centuries. I highly recommend it. Be aware that hotels and hostels get filled up around this time, so if you’re planning on attending a procession, it is best to get a confirmed reservation as soon as possible.
More Holy Week (Semana Santa) pics: https://www.okantigua.com/category/holy-week/
What’s your favorite alfombra pattern?