From the very first time I visited, I wanted to experience the alfombras (sawdust carpets) and processions associated with Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Guatemala. I knew that Easter weekend was the “Grand Poobah” of the experience, but when I found out that our current trip would provide the opportunity to experience these things during the 4th Sunday of Lent, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, I seized the opportunity.
For each of the six weeks leading up to Easter, a different community hosted a procession. This week, Santa Ana (an adjacent city to Antigua on the southeast side) had that honor. With that in mind, I researched hotels and Airbnb rentals in the area. I lucked out and found a fantastic rental home directly on the main town square, the church in plain view from the portal entrance. I highly recommend the Villas de Santa Ana for anyone that wants to experience the Santa Ana procession at a fraction of the cost and traffic that you’d have to sacrifice to witness the Easter weekend celebrations in Antigua!
It was at about 7pm on Saturday evening (the night before the procession would take place) that the people of the community began setting up the sawdust carpets. Thankfully, we got to witness the process from start to finish! They began by drawing chalk outlines of the rectangle which would house the carpet. Then, they hammered nails into the cobblestone street to act as a means of keeping wood and metal strips (of varying sizes but 2×2 at the largest) aligned as a sturdy frame.
For those made primarily of sawdust, bags of sawdust would be dumped inside the framed rectangle and then smoothed with either a broom, rake, or another piece of wood or metal that passed over it — for a perfectly smooth top.
Before it got much later in the evening, people erected temporary lighting so they could see to continue creating their designs into the night!
Then, the design process could start! Again, if sawdust was being used totes and buckets and bags of colored sawdust would be placed onto the plain sawdust surface. Some designs were placed by hand, while others used templates and stencils to create the more elaborate designs. For the center of the rectangle, workers would lay a six foot plank across the width of the carpet area, elevated slightly so that someone could sit or lay on the plank and fill the areas of the design that could not be reached from the edge.
They continued placing colored sawdust until the entire area was filled. The carpets were of variable lengths, but based on my best estimation, the largest was approximately 6 feet wide by 40 feet long! That’s a lot of design time!
Not all were created from sawdust. Some used pine needles, flowers or flower petals, seeds, bread, vegetables, fruits, and more! They were a joy to see.
It is usually an extended family unit or a neighborhood group that work together on each carpet. They depicted religious sentiments, in many cases, but also showed elements of nature such as birds and flowers. Some contained lettering and provided a message. I would imagine that each family got to choose their design, and might alternate from one year to the next.
This work continued all throughout the night, and some were still working on them when the procession was about to begin at 10am on the following morning! Here is a sampling of some of my favorites:
We knew the festivities were about to begin when the crowds started making their way towards the church. Men and boys in purple robes were on the move, and men wearing costumes like Roman soldiers lined up carrying shields or banners. We were lucky to get a spot in the crowd that was only about four people deep, and, fortunately, I towered over most of the men and women here. (I’m not overly tall, only 5’7″, but most Guatemalans, both men and women, are shorter than that.) I ended up getting some good photos as if I was in the front row!
The band began playing funeral dirges and lamentations and shortly after, the float emerged from the church. It was wheeled out onto the plaza in front of the church and then hoisted for placement on the shoulders of the men that had assembled to perform the honorable duty of carrying it through the streets of the village and over all of the carpets that were lovingly and diligently created throughout the night before.
This video shows how the float is lifted onto the shoulders of the dozens of men in charge of carrying it for hours through the streets:
Once on their shoulders, the procession began swaying back and forth in solemn steps, moving to the music of the band behind. Following the main float and the band was another float, carrying “La Virgen de Dolores” by women, and then another band for playing the corresponding tunes.
Watch this video to get an idea of the beauty of the swaying and the soulfulness of the band:
It was a slow, solemn, procession, so wonderful to experience. Even if you don’t consider yourself religious, it is still an experience full of pageantry and expression. I recommend it!
When the procession had left the church plaza, we followed it around two corners hoping to get photos of the group stepping through the alfombras. It was difficult to get in a good viewpoint, but I did manage to get a couple.
Past that point, we returned to our rental home and relaxed, trying to decide what to do for the rest of the day. It was our last full day in the Antigua area, and some of us were a little tired and beaten from the sun.
We ended up returning to the Antigua city limits to have dinner. Walking there from Santa Ana took about 20 minutes or so, and after dinner opted for a taxi ride back. After weight-balancing our luggage in preparation for our return trip tomorrow, we were all asleep relatively early.
Much to our surprise, we were awakened at about 11:45 pm to the sounds of the band returning to the church. I don’t know for sure, but I think the float was being returned to its “home”, accompanied by the band. Again, so beautiful. I tried recording a video from my bed. The window was open so I could hear it clearly even though some trees blocked my view. It was kind of like a lullaby, but also like a wrap-up to a wonderful experience that day.
When we woke up the following morning, all that was left from the day before were piles of sawdust!