Easter week is a massive holiday across Latin America, and in particular in Guatemala and Lake Atitlan, where it is known in Spanish as Semana Santa. It is dominated by religious ceremonies, endless gatherings for Mass, holy processions and, of course, people frolicking to and fro on vacation like headless chickens. Headless chickens in their most presentable clothing, and often least presentable drunken behaviour.
Semana Santa in Guatemala
On Lake Atitlán, in particular, Semana Santa means the kids are out of school, everyone has had some festive responsibility bestowed on them by their church, “Chapinos” (residents of Guatemala City) are out in full force showing off their fancy “city clothes” and roaring jet skis, and cheap, temporary food stands pop up everywhere (cold day-old pizza or rapidly drying out watermelon slices anyone?). Of course, fireworks and firecrackers are everywhere, just as often set off by mischievously cackling old men as by the excitable young troublemakers you’d expect, although to be fair there is never really a time of year (or day, or night) in Guatemala when there aren’t at least some recreational explosives being thoroughly enjoyed by the easily amused. A combination of factors leads to the stray dogs being even more ubiquitous and jittery than usual, with alarming explosions occurring around every corner and waves of children enjoying their newfound free time to practice their rock-throwing prowess adding to the nervous energy imparted by the suddenly excessive availability of dropped and discarded sugary snacks.
For a comprehensive look: A Guide to Lake Atitlan
Semana Santa is the biggest celebration in Guatemala, with events starting as early as 40 days prior to Good Friday (yes, for some Lent is more than something you particularly regret having done with your pillowcase). Famous colonial Antigua is known for having some of the most elaborate and/or excessive Holy Week festivities, depending on whether you ask the ranking Catholic priest or Juan, the guy responsible for keeping the streets free of Easter-themed debris such as discarded flower arrangements, spent firecrackers, dropped and abandoned ice cream cones and empty litre-bottles of Gallo. On the lake, however, things remain at least somewhat more moderate, with church services simply ramping up early, as well as work on procession floats and matching polo shirt arrangements, but with the bulk of the proceedings taking place within 3 or 4 days of Good Friday.
Semana Santa in Lake Atitlan’s Villages
Having previously experienced Semana Santa on Lake Atitlan and (to a minor extent) in Antigua, our constantly active and occasionally excitable group of fellow Pasaj-Cap residents worked out a detailed Good Friday (El Viernes Santo) itinerary that would theoretically treat us to the best of all nearby festivities.
Semana Santa in Tzununá
We started by walking over to tiny, nearby Lake Atitlan’s village of Tzununá mid-morning where we were just in time to witness the start of the local Semana Santa procession. We had only a few minutes to admire the intricate and colourful alfombras (carpets) designed with coloured sand, sawdust and, presumably, love, covering the streets before large groups of men carrying the body of Jesus in a large coffin surprisingly unblemished by the passage of two millennia, and corresponding groups of women dressed in their most colourful finery following behind carrying the holy man’s giant cross as though they were hauling it to court to be presented as evidence of cruel and unusual punishment (remember, sun screen wouldn’t be invented for nearly 2,000 more years) came plodding deliberately along scattering and destroying the many hours of complex work they had put in all night long. As the only gringos in the vicinity, we did our best to avoid becoming a spectacle ourselves, a feat made somewhat less successful by our frantic photographic exploits and imposing athletic shoes. After that, we waited for an unusually long time for the next public boat to arrive, unsurprisingly packed to bursting with enthusiastic holiday-goers, a fact which did nothing to deter our ever-generous (and capitalistic) capitán from somehow finding enough additional nooks and crannies to squeeze in all 15 of us.
Semana Santa in San Pedro
A necessarily slow and typically uncomfortable boat ride eventually got us to the much larger, louder and more crowded backpacker town of San Pedro. Once again our timing was bang on, as we crested the top of the long, hot hill leading up from the dock in a long, straggling line of sweaty flushed faces just in time to see an even larger, more extravagant procession making its way toward us from the direction of the local market. Here, thanks to slightly wider streets and a much larger population, the alfombras were even bigger and more ostentatious, although some sections seemed to be made up of less sand and sawdust and more of a surprisingly large amount of vegetable arrangements – an interesting contrast, but also possibly the late-night work of a once-per-year artist who simply wanted to catch a bit of shut-eye before having to be up bright and early to iron his special matching church polo top. The procession slowly squeezed between the large crowds of spectators, small groups of tourists and sporadic bra and fruit salesmen, ritually destroying the lovingly designed carpets at a stately pace, only occasionally cracking a reluctant smile for friends, family members and tourists with cameras the size of loaves of bread. A couple times reinforcements were called in to add their muscle to the facilitation of difficult and tricky manoeuvres involving lowering the giant crosses and majestic deities low enough to cross under low-hanging power lines and illegal cable hook-ups. Another fascinating display, and in stark distinction from Tzununá’s far more modest and intimate affair.
Semana Santa in San Juan
Then after a tasty – but long and bewildering – lunch where the 15 of us thoroughly confused and exasperated the lone waitress who had likely been looking forward to a quiet, relaxing Good Friday with everyone who didn’t hail from countries thousands of kilometres distant spent time with church and family, we were on the move yet again, this time to the relatively tidy, organized village of San Juan. The schedule here was to only begin making their alfombras that afternoon, with the procession taking place throughout the evening and possibly into the night. This meant we were able to witness a completely different point in the process – seeing how the intricate and colourful carpets began as a series of stakes and strings outlining the art to come, these precise outlines then becoming blank mats of sawdust in a single colour before the next group came along with stencils, filling in the patterns with a multitude of new colours. Slowly the alfombras began to take shape and resemble the impressive expression of art that would be briefly admired, then haphazardly demolished by the shuffling feet of piousness.
Seeing Semana Santa in Lake Atitlan’s villages lets you experience these traditions without the glut of tourists (and the accompanying pickpockets) that are in Antigua. In San Juan, tourists are even often invited to help make the alfombras.
All told, the entire holiday period here simply exudes tradition and ritual, families performing their duties unfailingly in exactly the same manner as all the generations before them, with the possible exception of the frequent cell phone interruptions and the dodging of tuk tuks. Nonetheless, the overall spectacle is fascinating and, in some strange way, comforting. To see confirmation that this type of communal spirit of cooperation still exists beyond the shared love of loud noises and daytime drunkenness provides both hope for the future and some great photo ops.
Of course, the celebrations generally don’t end with the processions and subsequent cleanup, as evidenced by the local San Juan barber who was clearly still quite inebriated the following morning at 10 am, yet loudly and unsteadily claiming that his inability to provide a haircut at that particular moment was due not, in fact, to the debilitating levels of alcohol in his system, but rather to the unsightly purple sand still marring his normally clean floor. In a display of yet further damning evidence he led me enthusiastically to his trash bin where, undeniably, even more purple sand was piled in messy lumps, a sight which he followed up with a triumphant look as if to say, “you see, as much as I would love to mutilate your hair with my shaky, pissed hands, that purple stuff in my garbage simply makes it impossible to imagine”. So, while our reasons may have differed, we were certainly in full agreement that he should get nowhere near my skull with a pair of scissors. Semana Santa, a time for learning.
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