New era or not, 2013 certainly seems to be whizzing by so far and I, for one, am in need of a holiday. Well, fortunately just a few more weeks and the whole of Latin America gets a week off as they spring into Jesus fever for Semana Santa (Holy Week). That’s one of the great benefits of moving to a country which is far more religiously devout than you own – you get to take all their religious holidays off from work, even if you won’t be celebrating them quite as fervently as the locals. And you will most definitely see a lot of religious fervour during Holy Week here in Guatemala, which makes it a wonderful time to be in the country, even if you’re not one to buy into the whole Jesus thing.
There are celebrations held across all the towns and cities in the country, each with their own personalities, eccentricities and specialities. However, the Semana Santa religious processions, organised by each Catholic Church in town, are the staple ingredient of Semana Santa festivities and will be found no matter where you go. Each consists of participants of all ages proceeding through the streets surrounded in a cloud of billowing incense, and accompanied by your standard array of noisy marching bands. You will also see huge floats carrying JC and the Virgin Mary which are heaved across town on the shoulders of members of the local orders, dripping with sweat as they lug the colossal weight (often several thousand pounds) down the streets under the blazing hot sun whilst dressed in their thick robes and smurf-like hats.
If you make a pass by the churches you can also check out the elaborate alfombras, carpets or welcome mats made from dyed sawdust, pine needles and flowers.
Certainly, the most impressive place to be for Semana Santa is Antigua, where the celebrations receive an extra dose of grandeur. Here, the alfombras are renowned for being especially elaborate and the floats especially enormous – the largest floats require 80 carriers at any one time which need to be replaced every 15-20 minutes meaning that the procession requires some 2500 + carriers in total. Good Friday is particularly spectacular, as the all of the alfombras are trampled upon and destroyed by the processions leading to colourful sawdust and flowers being scattered across the whole city.
However, Antigua is also heaving with people during Semana Santa – all the hotels and hostels get booked up and you have to literally elbow your way through the crowds if you want to get anywhere. So those who are looking for a slightly less manic atmosphere would be best off staying put here in Xela, where the festivities don’t quite reach the same level of spectacle, but have their own charm nonetheless.
If you’re feeling more adventurous then you can head off to San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico or Sonsonate in El Salvador which are also well renowned for their elaborate spectacles in celebration of the event.
Whatever you do, just make sure you take some time to relax and enjoy yourself this Semana Santa, and to recharge your batteries in preparation for the next stint of the year, as we don’t get another national holiday as fun as this one until September!