My quiet beach town here in Mexico swelled in size over the recent Easter holidays. Unlike back home, it seems that most of this country has an entire week off school and work — both kids and parents. It’s a week of collective holidays, and the take that proposition seriously. The local Mexicans use this sweet little beach town as the primo destination for their holidays. An unofficial mass evacuation took effect in Guadalajara two weeks ago, and the enthusiasm city-dwellers had to get to the beach created roads swollen with traffic. The locals pointed their cars and camper-vans ever westward, driving until they heard the rough waves of the Pacific Ocean. They wove through their traffic until their children squealed with glee at the miles of sand and sunshine on San Pancho beach.
San Pancho — formally known as San Francisco, Nayarit — morphed into family-style spring break craziness. And it’s the family aspect that surprised me the most. There was a good deal of partying on the beach that week. So, so much. But the beach parties had a different vibe than the wild and crazy fervor that spring break brings to the masses in the United States. Instead, many of the groups were friend-units; friends from the city gathered their children, supplies, and a good attitude and camped together for several days during Semana Santa, the Holy Week before Easter.
In nearby Guatemala, the Semana Santa festivities include enormous processions and intricate flower carpets, which I visited three years ago. Here however, the country is equally Catholic, but none of those processions and religious festivities took place. Instead, the Mexicans erected temporary campsites on up and down the coast. They stocked their coolers with drinks and food. And they then spent the a week in pure relaxation.
Walls of tents and make-shift camps lined the top of the beach. Rainbows of umbrellas and shady palapas blanketed the shoreline.
Children roamed freely, self-sustained and moving like schools of fish down the beach. Some chased balls. Others played volleyball. Still others were content to create sand castles and make angels in the soft, warm sand.
Meanwhile, the adults made merry throughout the day with beach tacos and cervezas.
Wandering the hundreds of makeshift camps triggered overwhelming memories of the summer breaks from my childhood. My brothers and I spent our school breaks spent moving through the Florida Keys in a pack 10 kids strong. Although my family boasts just five kids total, (I have four older brothers), my mom’s best friend also had five kids (and in the same girl-boy ratio, much to my eternal sadness).
Our two families packed the camper, loaded into our cars sardine-style, seven to a car — this was pre-seatbelt era. And once we hit the turquoise waters of the Keys and pulled into Bahia Honda State Park, the adults surrendered control. They set up camp and fed us meals, but we spent one glorious week every summer in pure freedom.
I often forgot those moments now, as I pursue different joys and rarely have cause to look back on those days. But while walking the beach here in Mexico, I felt that same joyous freedom pouring from the packs of roaming children. It’s a happy feeling to see their joy and remember what it was like to be carefree and with few worries besides which game to play next.
Although the town was overrun, and it could have been overwhelming, I loved the activity and the new element that descended on the town. I spent many days trying new festival foods and marveling at how many people could wedge themselves into such a small area of beach. I let go of my inner Grinch. I cast away my curmudgeonly “get off my lawn” tendencies, and I struck up conversations with the tent-camp inhabitants. I photographed their pets. I kicked balls with their children.
I rarely stop and slow down from the work and travel pace. It seems a tad crazy to admit that my travels and work create a frenetic pace that never quite feels like vacation. But with Semana Santa festivities taking up every ounce of free space in our town, I had no choice but to embrace the art of relaxation and find a way to enjoy this mad dash for sunshine and fun.
And as I left the beach on the last day of Semana Santa craziness, I raised my gaze to the half a dozen kites tenuously tethered to the ground. I tuned into the shrieks and shouts of beach game funsies emanating from children and adults. I remembered that sometimes it really is okay to channel my inner child and let go — even if just for a few days.
Quick Tips: San Pancho, Mexico
I lived in San Pancho for five months. This post shares my cost of living for this sweet beach town. If you’re thinking of visiting during Semana Santa, you should book very far in advance as this town is a hotspot of activities for locals and tourists alike.
Where to Stay: There are three tiers, try the Hostel San Pancho if you don’t mind a shared-dorm; this is the most affordable option in town. Above the hostel is an affordable, very nice guesthouse called Refugio de Sol. Or Roberto’s Bungalows is boutique and just great — Earl and his wife run this place and they are two of my favorite people in San Pancho.
What to Read: Read The People’s Guide to Mexico, this is hands-down the best guidebook you should use to understand the various regions, the cultural quirks, and all the reasons Mexico is a fantastic place to travel and live.
The sweat cooled from my skin at 7:30am Christmas morning as I pondered this holiday travel experiment with Ana; on the opposite side of the globe my nephews back home slept in eager anticipation of heaps of presents, but instead of a big traditional Christmas here in Thailand, I gave Ana an entrance ticket into a 10K run in the Chiang Mai Christmas Marathon…roughly 6.2 miles of running at 6:00am on Christmas morning…
Not exactly the same.
Okay fine, not even remotely the same.
But I faced a challenge traveling on the road with my niece. How do I illustrate my views on traveling lightly, ditching rampant materialism, and valuing experiences with people over things…all without crushing the spirit of a pretty lively and typical 11-year-old girl who really at the end of the day loves her iPod and hair accessories?
I’m not so much with the preachy-preachy about how to go about Christmas, it’s all good whatever works for each of us. And let’s be honest here, I gleefully remember tearing into Christmas presents as a child, with red Santa Claus wrapping-paper wildly flinging around the room as my brothers tackled their new cars/figurines/swords/video-games/etc.
But from a practical standpoint, it just wasn’t possible for me to buy her heaps of presents because we flat-out don’t have the room in our backpacks. And from the goal standpoint, when I mentioned the six things I hope Ana learns on this trip, gratitude and the seeing the possibilities in the world were in the list. And they’re pretty high on the list, right up there with addressing materialism and the mass consumption model in the US through real-world examples.
So with all this in mind, I worked on crafting a day of experiences and fun events as the focus of our day, and filled red Christmas hat with a few cute (small) gifts as an addition, but not the focus.
To start the holiday festivities, Ana and I joined a group of traveling friends for Christmas Eve bowling, and what a hoot that was! Lanna Bowling in Chiang Mai is the cleanest bowling alley I’ve ever seen and we spent several hours swapping stories and chatter while I bowled two games in a row that came in well under 80 (yes, how awesome are my mad skills!).
The next day, after a Christmas Day nap to recover from our run, we hefted some of our makeshift cookie supplies over to a friend’s apartment to make some wackily improvised Christmas cookies. There are no ovens in the apartments here in Thailand, so we made do with packaged cookies and wide crackers for the gingerbread houses. Shawna and Chais (of the Full Course Travel blog) provided the mulled wine and Christmas carols while we frosted in contentment, decorating with such delicacies as: coco puffs, chocolate chex, mini-M&Ms, nerds, Nutella, pirouettes, and other fun sweets.
Which brings us back to the other main event of our holiday, the Chiang Mai Christmas Marathon. Yes indeed my friends, I gave my niece a long and tiring run for her holiday present. Ana and I ousted ourselves from bed at 4:15am and met up with Paddy, a friend and fellow expat, for our 6am 10K run.
When Paddy cracked a joke of this being possibly the “worst Christmas present ever” it gave me pause, because even though she was pretty much joking, there’s a truth to it…I would have boycotted this gift if I was given it inside the cozy house I grew up in throughout childhood.
But traveling is different and being only temporarily in one place means the “norms” change– I had to find something neat/interesting/different that wasn’t trying to poorly simulate Christmas back home. And, beyond just the run, the act of training for the Christmas run over the past weeks actually gave us a purpose, and gave us both an outlet for some “joint” alone time as we pounded the pavement with our iPods securely tucked into our ears.
Then there’s the accomplishment aspect of a run.
Ana didn’t think she could do it.
In fact, she really didn’t think she could make it the entire 10K and she made me promise we could stop at 6K (which was the most we ran during our training). But she did finish; we both jogged across the finish line just one hour and 23 minutes after that burst of adrenaline first took us off into the dark, pre-dawn hours of Christmas.
And though exhaustion masked some of the sheer exuberance bubbling underneath, I could tell she was proud of herself at the end.
And heck, I’ll be honest, I type away at least six hours each day, so I hadn’t been sure we could do it either.
But we did finish. And we did it together! It wasn’t typical, and she openly proclaims she never wants to do one on Christmas again to be honest…so, maybe it will take years before she fondly remembers this odd Christmas that involved running, Christmas eve bowling with other expats, and wonky cookie decorations, but I am pleased with how we shaped and changed the more traditional holiday spirit to work into something that embraced the holiday spirit and our current traveling lifestyle!
How did you spend your Christmas? Any fun/unique/out of the ordinary Christmas traditions? Anyone else do a run, I hear Christmas marathons are actually a pretty popular tradition?!
Cheerful, poppy Thai music suffusing the expansive temple yard, the music at odds with the swelling solemn energy in the crowd as thousands of amber lanterns were held in firm grips. Groups of friends shared a last moment amidst the frenzy making urgent, unspoken wishes for their new year.
I watched in wonder as our plain white rice paper lantern, a khom loi in Thai, filled with hot air. I looked around me and my breath caught. We collectively waited for the signal to release our lanterns into the night; a sea of open-faced hope surrounded me.
Expressions indelibly etched on each person’s face showed hope and the lure of infinite possibilities, the promise of a clean slate. It was no doubt written clearly on my face too. I took those last moments to tune out the cheery music and quickly take stock of the previous year, and to look forward with my hopes for the coming year. I filled my mind my wishes, hopes, dreams and fears and propelled each one into our group lantern. As I yearned to fill the lantern with that hope, the go-signal gently swept across the huge crowd.
On a pulse of energy, the lanterns slipped from our fingertips. Ours took one unsteady lurch before jolting upward, the cool nighttime breeze collected our orange orb and swept it away from us, into the dark sky. As more joined ours, each illumination shifted the night sky from an impossibly dense black to a deep blue. The sheer number of hopes and wishes seemingly overpowered the night’s ability to stay dark.
The release lit a spark of sweet hope for this coming trip with Ana. The collective energy swelled around us, filling me with enough giddy anticipation to do a little dance to the cheery Loy Krathong song still pumping from the speakers.
The lantern release takes place a bit outside of Chiang Mai, at a temple complex near Mae Jo University and the evening event jump-started an entire week of Yee Peng festivities. Yee Peng and Loy Krathong coincide on the Lanna Thai calendar and the joint celebrations make for one massive maze of lantern parades and krathong ceremonies throughout the week.
In the months leading up to Yee Peng and Loy Krathong, the most predominate imagery on the internet associates this week with the lantern release — and while the group lantern release lit wonder in hope in me as I watched them all float away, the festival traditions are more fully rooted in the krathong release, with the paper lanterns a more modern accent to the handmade and carefully crafted banana-leaf krathongs.
Loy Krathong occurs at the end of Thailand’s rainy season, a period of time when water nourishes the rice for a productive harvest season and the rivers flow, full and swift, toward the Gulf of Thailand. The ceremonial releasing of these small lotus-shaped rafts takes on a dual role, it serves as an offering of gratitude–a symbol of appreciation for the rains, as well as a releasing of the bad habits, grudges, anger and negativity in ones own life.
Earlier in the day, Ana and I joined two friends for a late morning craft party as the crisp sunshine filled the room with clean light. The sounds of the motorbikes weaving through Chiang Mai’s streets created a distant hum nine floors below as my friend Naomi proffered the supplies she purchased at the nearby market: banana stem bases, deep green banana leaves, and an array of fresh flowers, candles, incense and sparklers. Next week I’ll share more about the process of making a krathong, suffice to say we worked diligently for several hours until we fully decorated each base and prepared them for release that evening.
As the sun sunk low over Doi Suthep, a nearby mountain peak, we bagged our krathongs, wove through the light crowds. Our group started with drinks at Brasserie, a restaurant on the Ping River, where we chatted until full darkness settled over the city — well, as full darkness as expected on a full moon night.
We allowed several hours to pass with easy conversation. The river began to fill with candlelit rafts. The sky lightened once again as thousands of lanterns from all over the city danced like fireflies in the night.
Several hours later, the crowds swelled across the river. Our small group of four gathered our handmade krathongs and stepped down to the quiet river’s edge on the restaurant’s peaceful private dock. We re-positioned misplaced flowers and jostled incense sticks before lighting the candles, making one last wish and hope. Then we released them one-by-one into the water.
I watched my handmade krathong join Ana’s meticulously decorated raft near the shore-line; we stared at the river, captivated by the flickering candlelight and stream of fragrant incense creating patterns in the dark night. We gently splashed the water until our krathongs caught the swift current on the Ping River and became indistinguishable from the herd of floating krathongs, each one an offering hope, a chance for atonement, gratitude and thanks.
The group lantern release was an inspiring event — in fact, it tops the charts as one of the most beautiful festivals I’ve attended. Thailand is my adopted home, and I’ve also traveled around Thailand a good deal too. And beyond the beautiful, there’s something magical about learning about the culture through these festivals. For that reason, releasing our handmade krathongs alongside the Thai, was magical. Our rafts of hopes and wishes joined thousands of others, meeting on a river and moving beyond the realm of language, culture, or religion. We used that raft and the river’s water to cleanse the mind and spirit and start this new year fresh and open to the possibilities.
Last month’s Chinese New Year celebrations embraced Chiang Mai’s small Chinatown section with wholehearted enthusiasm. The signature red Chinese lanterns adorned every doorway.
Every shop entrance strung crimson bulbs from end to end. And the effect, as evening settled over Little China, was faintly magical. The tinted light tinkling out of the lanterns warred with the harsh street lights for ambient command of the Chinese New Year festivities.
Crowds thronged the main-stage hours before the performances and the long row of stop-light red food stalls offered up mounds of fresh, steaming food for the hungry masses gathering nearby. The mysterious preparations on stage included huge dragon heads, odd without their accompanying long dragon bodies, being unceremoniously hefted into place.
And that’s in that moment I wished I could spend the next hour through the eyes of a child…
…the little boy dutifully minds his helicopter parents as food is pushed between his parted lips. Mechanical chewing as the child eats his food but refuses to move his glance from the on-stage preparations; he’s fearful of missing a single moment of the performance, which in his mind will jump-start into life the very moment he loses focus.
A jumble of balloons briefly obscures the stage and the child is distracted; the shininess arrests his attention from the stage just as the next mouthful of food is shoved into his gaping mouth. He manages to utter a muffled grunt and point, an obvious and instantaneous request for the newest object of his fascination.
The parents confer while the child already begins to plot out which balloon is the best decoration for his petite wrist; he knows that today is a celebration. And that means balloons.
And cotton candy.
The vendors pick their targets well and even a few adults (including a tall, farang red-head) are captivated by the thought of sticky-sweet, colorful cotton candy.
The vendors pass, the chink and jingle of a few extra Thai baht audibly weighs down their pockets as they scan the crowds for more easy targets.
Then the murmur and sudden silence of the crowd confirms the child’s suspicions. The moment he was thoroughly engrossed in his cotton candy and balloons he missed the opening beats of the performance.
A dragon leaps onto the stage. The legs underneath the dragon look awfully human-like but the child’s eyes are invariably drawn, instead, to the enormous dragon head bobbing across the stage. The dragon’s blue eyes light up with a flash and the child knows: this performance is for him alone.
In fact, he’s so engrossed in the jumping, jiggling, gyrating dragon he scarcely notices as his mom gently pries the cotton candy out of his fingertips and his dad lifts him overhead and settles him firmly into place. Dad’s shoulders feel so natural so he rests his hands on his dad’s forehead and settles in for the rest of the show.
The dragons give way to the giggle-inducing ladyboys who dance and prance around the stage with umbrellas and balls. Their antics are meant in jest and the crowd can’t help but chuckle right alongside the child.
Dancers, no older than the child, delicately walk onto the stage. The heavy makeup, applied with absolute precision, cannot hide the fact that they’re just children. The boy, still hunkered down on his dad’s shoulders, imagines that one day his little sister might dance on a stage like this too.
The music changes and just as his attention starts to drift, the dragon is back. Except, this dragon is different. The dragon’s rainbow of colors trigger a different part of the child’s imagination and instead of asking to get off of dad’s shoulders, he imagines himself a dragon slayer. He is up on stage and everyone is cheering him on, chanting his name, and relying on him to save the day.
The dragon show is abruptly over; the boy lost track of time and didn’t even notice the minutes tick by as the dragon show progressed. His baby sister is getting tired and mom and dad insist it’s time to leave. More dancers are up on stage but his dad has already started to weave through the crowd. The child throws one last thirsty glance back at the stage.
The Chinese New Year festivities will continue throughout the night, but every cotton candy sugar coma has to wear off at some point. The child lets out a plaintive whine, he doesn’t want to miss a second of the shows, but already his parents have turned the corner.
I had this realization the other day that my perception of time/years/events are all a wee bit different than many people.
More specifically, different than about 11/12ths of the population (ie. the 11 months of birthdays that do not fall around Christmas/New Years by the way) because I measure time not always by the year – but instead by my age. I am a single age for the overwhelming majority of the year so significant events, new resolutions and goals – all of these are remembered by my age at the time.
Do other people do this? I’ve asked around and it seems a lot of people say:
“Oh, that happened back in ’92, I must have been, what, 19?”
But instead, I graduated high school the year I was 18, bought my first car, packed up, drove to college, and viscerally experienced the sweet and bitter taste of complete freedom for the first.
My dog died the year I was 21, I passported myself and then left the country on an Italian study-abroad, and I quit my job waiting tables completely and forever (memorable because I vowed never to do it again and haven’t had to yet!).
I moved to LA the year I was 22 (also the year of my college graduation) and the year I started believing in ghosts (my LA apartment was haunted…you had to be there to understand).
I was 24 the year of my quarter-life crisis, when I bought a plane ticket, sold everything, and flew to Australia. And then truly knew what absolute freedom felt like (and the twinges of loneliness occasionally accompanying it).
And today marks the end of my 26th year, and very nearly the end of 2010 as well!
Growing up I was always bitter about my birthday; it falls just three days after Christmas and three days before New Years Eve and that’s an awful lot of holiday action around a day celebrating me. ;-)
And while “getting shafted” might be a little harsh, it certainly felt like that as a child when all of my friends were stuck attending to their great Aunt Mary twice removed who “only comes into town once a year”.
Now though, the holidays serve to highlight my birthday (and make it hard to forget, honestly).
In fact, it’s as though the whole season is singing to me. All of the songs we hear this time of year, about the New Year to come, new beginnings, changes, resolutions?
“Another year over, and a new one just begun…”
I am tickled by the fact that the songs and sentiments really apply to me more-so than others – it makes this season feel, well, more personal in a way…
And so it is that I officially enter my late 20s today. Huzzah! I like the promise that 27 holds for me; a whole new 2011 and the possibilities are endless. I’m still plotting out my 2011 goals, I do still have three days after all. 27 is going to be epic.
I’m looking forward to my new year…if you’re into astrological readings (and I am a bit) this is a transition year for me in preparation for the good stuff that should role in the year I’m 28!
Anything significant/epic/fun happen the year you were 27? :-)
Happy Holidays! In honor of the joy and happiness suffusing the holiday season I invite you to join me on a photo stroll through the markets and streets of Ubud, Bali, where the whole city smiled at me.
From the cheeky grin of mischievous children to an open, toothy smile from market vendors, an openness and joy is inherent.
Follow me on a tour of Bali’s Smiles
You step out of your room and into the family compound area of the guesthouse. You’ve had your tea and breakfast, brought right to your front patio and the cool fresh fruit was a perfect way to start your day.
As you weave through the compound you pass by a few members of the family weaving and readying their offerings. The oldest son speaks great English and you welcome the cheery and inquiries about your plans for the day. The little girl on his lap is less convinced of your harmlessness and shyly smiles from behind a mobile phone, on which she has been playing games.
You plan to explore one of Ubud’s larger markets and he gives you a pleasant smile of dismissal; you have no doubt he’ll follow up with you when you return for a full account.
Before one foot is even out of the elaborately carved wooden door guarding your compound two children dart by you giggling. With her perky pigtails perched on the top of her head you ready the camera and call out to them.
A cheesy grin breaks across the face of the youngest one – a grin so similar to the squishy grin your own young niece prefers that a pang of nostalgia for home breaks over you and then flows off just as quickly as the children scamper away down the side-street.
You leisurely follow in their wake in search of the nearby market and it’s mere minutes before you stumble into the densely packed maze of stalls.
The first woman you encounter gives an instantly open smile and offers up some fruit – you’re on the hunt for mangosteen and you eye her heaping pile. She’s not very pushy and instead asks the usual patter of conversation “where are you from? Are you married? Holy cow why not?”
You’re now toting a bag of mangosteen and dive deeper into the maze.
The colorful kites catch your eye. You stop to admire and the craftsman is more than happy to show off their features. If you had more space in your backpack you might be tempted, but a kite is not packable so you continue on.
You pass by tables full of knick knacks, wooden jewelry, and, oddly, a table full of moderately creepy wooden cats.
Your friend is on the hunt for a new purse and so the two of you look through the stalls until this woman’s frank friendliness and adorable children catch your eye.
You chat for ages with the vendor as your friend continues looking through the purses. Her son is quite the ham and his mother so clearly delights in her youngest.
The sun is high in the sky and the bright light penetrates the dense stalls and your hunger is now more insistent and you set your sites on the Dewa Warung as you leave the market.
You’re content and happy; it’s as if, through the process of proximity and osmosis, the simple inner joy of the locals is now your own.
Joy is universal no matter your religious denomination, so cheer and happiness to you, I hope you have joy this holiday season! :)
Happy Fourth of July from the Washington Monument in DC! An old friend of mine from middle school lives in DC while she undergoes training with the government, so I made a pitstop into the city to see her after staying in New York for a week. Being my first Fourth in the city, she gathered up a group of friends and we camped out all day enjoying the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the lawn. As evening approached we hunkered down with thousands of others to watch the 20 minutes of huge fireworks blossoming around the Washington monument.
It was beautiful to see the patriotism of red, white, and blue blankets, shirts, towels and chairs spread all across the lawns around the reflection pond and monument. Although I love traveling outside of the US, there’s just something to be said about singing the National Anthem on the lawns of our capital with other Americans. :-)
I hope you had a fantastic Fourth of July, or a lovely weekend for non-Americans!
Semana Santa is among the best times to travel Guatemala, and many Catholic countries for that matter. Just as Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions have colorful celebrations of devotion, sacrifice, and religious fervor (just look to the Holi Festival of Colors in India if in doubt), Semana Santa is a visible display of faith for a vast majority of Catholic Guatemalans. And by it’s nature, Semana Santa is an inclusive event for even the nonreligious—you simply need curiosity, cultural appreciation, and a fondness for festivals.
A tradition imported from Spain to Guatemala with the arrival of Spaniards in 1524, Semana Santa, or rather Holy Week, takes place during the entire week leading up to Easter Sunday. During Easter week, the Holy Week traditions of Spain are most internationally publicized, but Guatemala is fiercely religious and nearly 500 years after the Spaniards brought the tradition to the people of Guatemala, locals celebrate with as much fervent passion as those in Spain.
In Antigua, which is among my favorite towns in Central America, you can witness not only the religious processions unique to Guatemala, but also a fascinating—truly fascinating—collaborative process of making elaborate alfombras, carpets, that can span an entire city block and are the very definition of fleeting. Many rites and rituals accompany Holy Week celebrations, and having spent the entire week in Antigua so I could witness it from start to finish, here’s a glimpse behind the curtains—a deep look at the traditions and history of Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.
Conception of a Semana Santa Carpet
The very first part of celebrating Holy Week actually begins in the weeks and months leading up to Easter. Semana Santa carpets are entirely unique in the world and something you can see only during Semana Santa festivities in Guatemala, Ecuador the Canary Islands, several cities in Spain, and a few other places influenced by Spain during its colonial era. And though called carpets, or rather alfombras in Spanish, they are only that in the larger sense of the world, because they are made form colored sawdust, flowers, and more temporary elements. While still deep in the throes of winter, neighbors and families partner up and decide on a design or theme for their offering that year.
These carpets are masterpieces of artwork—the craftsmanship is truly stunning and families and neighborhoods take weeks and months just to plan out their carpets. The intricate designs are new every year, although some family pass down traditional patterns through the generations. It’s a big deal not to just make the offering during the pre-Easter celebrations, but to do the best job possible with planning and prep work to secure the designs and materials ahead of time. All involved share not just the effort, but the costs as well—the pigmented sawdust really adds up and the “sparkles” dusted overtop are incredibly expensive considering the scope of use on some of the carpets. By the time the first major parade kicks off on Holy Thursday, the carpets are completely planned and just awaiting the evening hours before Easter Sunday to become a reality.
Elaborate Holy Week Processions
The long processions of floats comprise a major component of Semana Santa celebrations. Although you might think days of neverending parades sounds like fun, the processions mark a somber occasion since they specifically reenact the last days of Christ. I saw a few small parades in the early part of Holy Week, but the countdown to Easter really begins on Holy Thursday.
A massive float carried through the streets by purple-clad cucuruchos, float-bearers, forms the heart of each procession. The cucuruchos dress in purple throughout Lent, and on Holy Thursday, too. Being the color of lent, it makes sense and even the children dress in purple this week to mark the occasion.
Each processional float represents the stages before Christ was crucified, and carrying a float is an incredible honor. Guatemalans sign up a year in advance to carry one, and each person carries the weight for one city block—some floats are so massive that 80 grown men must shoulder it through the streets during procession. Holy Thursday marks the start of the countdown, and its this night that families and neighbors act on their months of planning and begin constructing their planned alfombras—and offering, of sorts, to the processions on Good Friday.
The Artistry, Beauty, & Lifecycle of Semana Santa Carpets
Constructing a carpet lasts anywhere between a couple of hours for the simpler ones, up to 18 hours for elaborate, intricately detailed carpets. Timing is everything for the designers. Given that processions take place daily, every neighborhood uses detailed copies of the parade route to plan the location of their carpet so that it will face the key procession that takes place in the wee morning hours of Good Friday—this is the most significant one and it’s for this that the carpets are breathed into existence for mere hours and minutes. Once begun, the clock starts ticking, because there is no escaping the inevitable end for one of these carpets: destruction via feet. The procession will come, and in the final hours it’s all hands on deck to complete each and every one.
The Materials Used in Carpet Construction The size and complexity of Holy Week carpets differs as widely as the materials used to create these beautiful masterpieces. Many of my favorite carpets used richly pigmented sawdust (which stains the fingers for days afterwards!) to create fascinating and intricate patterns—the fine sawdust allowed for nuances and flourishes other materials simply did not. In addition to sawdust, which is surely the most common material, many think outside the box and use whole and cut fruits, fragrant green pine needles, and a range of in-season flowers are just a couple of alternative carpet materials.
In some cases, families design an alfombra that showcases the skills of their trade—in one beautiful example, the rich scent of chocolate wafted for half a block. The chocolatier’s carpet was not only a Holy Week offering, but a unique expression of his trade. He may not know flowers, and he doesn’t dabble in sawdust, but this man knows chocolate! His creative display stood out among the many because of the unique creativity that ensured I returned the several times during my wanders for a sniff, and I stopped there at the dark hour of three in the mourning as he added the finishing touches on his carpet.
Where Did the Tradition Begin? One can easily consider Semana Santa carpets art—just a short-lived form of artistic expression. While they range in creativity and complexity, across each one lies a river of passion and devotion. These are not made on a lark, but rather as a show of faith. Despite gawking tourists like me, that’s just a by-product of these families manifesting their devotion and sacrifices, there is no glory in it other than through their religious beliefs—no one pays to witness or participate, it’s a group activity among Guatemalan locals.
Just like offerings of incense, fruits, and flowers at the alters of other religions, Semana Santa carpets are a Catholic offering and an integral part of Antigua’s Holy Week celebrations. The origin of these carpets is up for debate, but some reckon that the elaborate carpets developed overtime as the religious threw the pine needles to soften the streets for those carrying the load of the major processional floats.
True or not, the elaborate scope of the carpets is a competition of sorts, and like grew that way throughout history, too. For all that these are religious endeavors, a spirit of friendly competition erupts as the streets fill with ever-the-more elaborate, detailed carpets. Although there are no prizes, locals find joy in seeing the creations of their friends and family come to life throughout the long day and night.
One End Breathes Life into a New Beginning
In addition to elaborately decorative floats, reenactors accompany each procession. To witness the true scope of Semana Santa in Guatemala, plan to respectfully walk the streets as Good Friday dawns over the city—it’s this day when you’ll witness the most elaborate and achingly beautiful of the reenactments. These processions are quiet, and a subdued hum floats through Antigua throughout the early mourning hours of Friday as locals finalize the most elaborate of the Semana Santa carpets.
The Main Procession During Pre-Dawn on Good Friday Crowds of spectators patiently wait out the hours until church doors open at four in the morning at four separate churches across Antigua. At the stroke of 4am, Roman reenactors on horseback clomp into the streets, rapidly awakening any Semana Santa celebrants who may have been catching naps in the nearby park. Then the Romans list Jesus Christ’s crimes in a booming voice that lingers over the crowd. At the close of the speech 10 minutes later, they sentence Jesus to death.
The Good Friday procession is the most somber, large, and elaborately reenacted. Each procession slowly exits the church once the Romans have read Christ’s sentence. The key float gradually comes into view through the church doors: it’s Christ, bent forward under the weight his cross. Black-clad cucuruchos now carry the heavy float and the Virgin Mary in Mourning follows every Christ through the streets.
Each Semana Carpet Meets its End Meanwhile, this is the moment when those making the Semana Santa carpets have just minutes or hours left to finalize each detail, depending on their spot on the parade route. Mourning sounds emanate from the slow procession and echo into the surrounding blocks. The Good Friday processions cover nearly every single street of the city and last more than 12 hours in many cases.
Those at the beginning of the parade route have less time than those at the end, but those last moments before the procession descends are the same for all. Everyone adds any final flourishes before heading to a high place—families take to their balconies to watch their carpets from above. Meanwhile, onlookers like me, who have wanted the slow progress on each carpet painstaking unfold across many hours, hold their breath processional footsteps near the alfombras.
Only float-bearers walk over the carpets. Each float bears carvings and statues of Christ in his final days, and the carpets honoring the reenactments. Each carpet expresses gratitude, devotion, and service for the Catholics who invested their time, money, and creativity to deliver a worthy gift of honor.
It’s all so fleeting, however. It takes mere minutes for the procession to move through a city block and in the blink of an eye, it has moved on, further down the street, consuming more carpets with incense, smoke, and measured footsteps.
A team of street cleaners follow behind the procession and before the procession has even turned the corner onto the next block, locals have shoveled, swept, cleaned away the carpet materials. They leave behind in the cobblestone cracks only faint glimmers of shimmering color.
The Semana Santa carpet has lived it’s lifespan through to completion, sometimes remaining “finished” for mere minutes before facing devotional destruction.
Four processions divide the city, and by the end of the 12 hours, nearly every single local will have have participated in some way—either bearing a float, constructing a carpet, or carrying the incense that wafts a fog of sage into every side-street and alley.
Amazingly, musicians following the procession never trade out with replacements. They’re in it for the long haul and play the slow, sad funeral dirges for the entire time, only taking small breaks as procession attendees pass them water and food, which they consume while still en route. During the Good Friday processions, the entire mood in Antigua sinks, and even the sky took on a darker tint as the potent smell of sage and tinkling music spread the message that Christ was condemned to death.
Easter Sunday Cheer and Rejoicing
For all of the sadness of Holy Week, the Easter Sunday parade is significantly cheerier, although it’s surprisingly not well attended.
It’s a much smaller procession than those that come earlier thin the week, but the dancing and singing is contagious. Like the locals, I was compelled to add a wiggle to my step as Guatemalans performed impromptu pirouettes in the streets and enthusiastically waved yellow and white flags in honor of Christ’s resurrection.
There is a huge dose of Catholicism in the Semana Santa celebrations—it is Easter after all—but you needed be even a lick religious to marvel in the contrastingly colorful and somber displays of devotion throughout Easter’s Holy Week. And I daresay that Antigua, Guatemala just may be the best place to truly experience Semana Santa in it’s fullest scope. It’s certainly one of the festivals that I will most remember from my travels.
Guatemala Travel Guide
A download on everything I learned from backpacking across Guatemala. It’s one of top three favorite countries in the world—here’s where to go, my favorite places and everything you should know before you go to Guatemala!