Raincoast conservation foundation
Travel Itch logo
© D.B. Goman

Holy Guatemala!

Jean-Francois Martel

I remember our first time in Guatemala. My girlfriend Marjori and I were in Antigua. We stayed in a nice guesthouse called Posada Juma Ocag (http://posadajumaocag.com). We were in town after an intense three-week visit to the small country, tired but very happy about what we had seen and experienced.

“This guesthouse is so nice. When we come back in Guate, we should stay here,” I said.

“I don't think we will ever come back,” she responded.

“Why not?”

“Because there are so many other places to see!”

At that moment we truly though that we wouldn't come back. But here we are, a year later, in the same guesthouse.

As travellers we had always thought that returning to a country we'd already visited was kind of a waste. We both have limited holidays from work so we must plan each trip very wisely. However, when the travel fever hits us, we need to calm it down, and there are not many ways to do that. The only true remedy is to leave. So we begin looking for destinations that will not require a full two-weeks leave from work. Central America is perfect for that purpose. It's cheap, flights to get there are short with no jetlag involved, and it's exotic enough to have a great time. We developed a habit of going there when we need to quench the travel thirst.

“Look, ten days for an all inclusive in Varadero costs $1200,” I said.

“Yes but a round trip ticket for Guatemala is $800.”

“OK, then!”

We thought the Easter holiday would be a good time for a visit, so we booked our tickets for a ten-day trip. We had no idea what was awaiting us. Guatemala is a very Catholic country, and the people would not miss the opportunity to celebrate the Resurrection. We were about to witness this firsthand.

© Jean-Francois Martel
© Jean-Francois Martel
© Jean-Francois Martel

We had very vivid memories of Antigua from our first trip, but when we returned it was significantly different. We first remarked that the locals were creating some kind of artwork on the street pavement, using materials such as grass, corn kernels, colored sawdust, fruits and flowers. The compositions were of different size and complexity.

We passed the first couple of hours in Antigua walking in the streets, stopping at times to observe the devoted people creating their artwork. They used wood stencils with colored sawdust to create holy symbols while standing on wood trusts placed across the work surface. Depending on the size of the piece, as many as five people work together at the same time.

We were astonished by the size and beauty of some pieces and wondered why people were creating them, realizing that some probably spent a serious amount of money on the basic products used. Some of the art was as large as the width of the street, and we regularly had to make a small detour to avoid walking on them. The vivid colors caught our eyes while our nose were intrigued by the scents of the ingredients used to create the artworks.

© Jean-Francois Martel

One of artists had installed a ladder so people could observe his creation from above. The piece was created using only white corn and black beans. From the ground, we couldn't figure out what it was supposed to look like; it was more like a large bean spill than a piece of art. But once we climbed the ladder and looked at it from above, we could see the face of Jesus appear with a stunning amount of detail, with lighter tones of black to create shades. Impressive!

After a while we began to hear music, like a fanfare, coming from another street. Curious, we followed the sound and realized that a lot of people were equally as curious. Since it was not our first time in Antigua, we had remarked that the town was particularly busy, unlike during our previous visit. It was very animated with a lot of pedestrians and vendors in the streets; in fact, we saw more locals than tourists, which was quite unusual for Antigua. So we followed those who, like us, were walking toward of the music. Once we found the fanfare, we realized that people were lining up on both sides of the street.

“It's a parade!” we exclaimed.

© Jean-Francois Martel

We joined the many people already on the walkway. At our feet on the street was laid a beautiful piece of flower-petals and-sawdust artwork. We could see something approaching – a very modest marching band. On the sides of the street were at least a hundred people, young and old, all dressed in purple robes and wearing pristine white hoods on their heads. In their hands they held crosses mounted on long sticks. As they walked beside the musicians, an acrid odour of incense filled our nostrils.

© Jean-Francois Martel

The procession was on its way; a massive float was transported by at least fifty male devotees. The float was a huge wooden structure complete with human-size figures recreating a holy scene from the Bible. From our point of view, the effort exerted by the people under the float was considerable; the thing looked heavy!

It was very slowly making its way: two steps forward, a pause, the heavy structure swinging from side to side – as to make sure the people under it felt its weight – and then a step backward. When the procession passed in front of us, we could feel the pain in the faces of the people holding the heavy float, but we could also feel their pride. Many of them were accompanied by friends or family, walking at their side with the same pride on their faces. We also understood what the street art was meant for: it was for the procession to walk on, like a holy carpet. Behind the parade, a dumpster truck and a team of cleaners followed, disposing of all the ephemeral artwork with shovels and brooms. Minutes later, people were back on the street creating new ones.

“Look, they are beginning a new carpet!” exclaimed Marjori.

“Why? The parade is finished.”

“Well, I don't know...”

We didn't know, indeed. What we had just witnessed was the tip of the iceberg. We were at the paroxysm of the Semana Santa – the Holy Week –one of the largest Easter celebrations in the world.

© Jean-Francois Martel

As the day passed, we continued walking around Antigua, enjoying the street animation as we came across different groups of people, some dressed like roman soldiers, some with pointy hats. Occasionally we heard a new procession passing on nearby streets.

© Jean-Francois Martel

Tired from the travel and our emotions, we went to bed early. During the night we were awakened by loud big-band music.

“What's that?” I asked Marjori.

“It's a marching band. I think a procession is passing in front of the guesthouse.”

“What time is it?”

“3:30 a.m.”

“What? Are they crazy?”

In the morning, we asked the guesthouse tenants what was happening into town, and they gave us a program of the processions. Yes there are programs! We were stunned to learn that the longest procession comes all the way into Antigua from a village a couple of kilometers away; it can take up to ten hours for it to arrive at its destination.

© Jean-Francois Martel

We were only beginning to understand what we were witnessing. Through the day, we saw many floats, sometimes carried by women. Some were so huge they needed 100 people to carry them. People's costumes were varied: at night they wore black robes with pointed hoods; in the day women wore white dresses with black veils covering their heads and faces. Everywhere we went we saw floats, we heard music, and we smelled incense.

© Jean-Francois Martel

We spent four days enjoying the Semana Santa in Antigua. We could sense a very special mood had enveloped the town; people were happy, kids ate cotton candy, and we saw some intriguing things that we never had thought existed. We were delighted at our experience and understood fully that there is no point avoiding travel to a country we had already visited. Each trip to a familiar place is a new adventure, even though we may think we've seen it all!

Jean-François is an French Canadian from Montreal.  He works as an electrical engineer, but travel is his real passion.  He's been around the world for the fun of it and simply likes to write about his adventures.