Holy Week Processions in Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua, Guatemala, is a stunningly beautiful colonial town with cobbled streets, glorious cathedrals and colorful markets filled with exquisite Mayan textiles. In 2008, I was lucky enough to spend a number of days in Antigua during Lent.

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It must be quite an honor to take the center position at the head of the float. That man or woman carries the float with their arms spread wide in a position reminiscent of a crucifixion. ©Laurel Kallenbach

On Sundays throughout Lent, there are 10-hour processions up and down the streets of Antigua. They usually start at 1:00 in the afternoon and last until 11:00 at night.

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This small float is probably Mary Magdalene. The sousaphone behind her is another band of musicians. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Hundreds of participants dress in regal robes and carry gigantic floats (andas) as onlookers watch. The floats are filled with sculptures of Jesus dragging the cross, the Virgin Mary looking beatific, and scores of angels playing herald trumpets.

Antigua has one of the most elaborate Holy Week (Semana Santa) celebrations in the Americas, and the city’s hotels are filled to bursting throughout the week.

For Semana Santa, carpets of sawdust paintings fill the streets as the processions walk through; that doesn’t happen on Lenten Sundays, but would be quite a sight. (A small sample of a sawdust carpet was preserved in the cathedral, and it was amazingly intricate and colorful.)

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mary, the Queen of Heaven looks mournfully down upon the spectators while women shoulder the burden of her holiness. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Some of the floats weight as much as 3 tons, so it takes quite a few people to bear them on their shoulders. The float-bearers take shifts to spell each other, but they all keep shuffling slowly through the streets to the dirges played by marching musicians.

I watched the procession four times along various streets. Because the parade moves so slowly, it was easy to watch it pass, then walk six or eight blocks around the route, and catch the whole pageant somewhere else.

The final time I saw the procession pass by was from the window of a restaurant at about 8 p.m. In the dark, the floats were lit and had a different aura than they did by day. Night or day, the procession is quite a spectacle.

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Many of the celebrants were boys in their early teens, all wearing robes?either purple (the color of the Passion) or white like shepherds. Some wore pointed hoods that remind Americans of the Ku Klux Klan. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The parade begins with blocks of processing boys and men in robes, hoods and cassocks. That’s followed by altar boys swinging the incense burners. The streets of Antigua fill with the smoky aroma, turning the entire city into a cathedral-like setting.

Then comes the massive float with Jesus carrying the cross over his shoulder. This is followed by musicians.

Next, the Virgin Mary float arrives, borne by women in somber gray and black dresses with lace on their heads. Although the Virgin Mary float is smaller, it’s impressive to see women in heels and skirts carrying what is still a massive burden.

All the locals take these processions very seriously—even mournfully. Bystanders in their jeans and flip-flops (or Mayan clothes if they’re visiting from a small village) gaze meaningfully at the floats. The participants are all very proud and solemn about their jobs.

However, there’s also an air of festivity: hawkers sell cotton candy, toys and sodas. As you’re in the large crowds, you’re shoulder-to-shoulder with other bystanders on the sidewalks trying to glimpse the floats and take photos.

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Cotton candy and balloons added to the celebration of the Holy Week procession. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Pickpockets make a healthy living on procession days. Although I felt nothing, for some reason I looked down at my fannypack and noticed the zipper was open—not the way I left it. I checked, and the only thing missed was the granola bar that I had tucked in at the last moment on top.

A friend of mine was not so fortunate. Her wallet disappeared from her purse, but fortunately her passport was safely back in the hotel safe.

Watching the processions made me truly feel like I had sampled a bit of the local culture of Guatemala, a fervently Catholic—and Mayan—country.

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua's bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Women wearing heels carry the Virgin Mary float through Antigua’s bumpy, cobblestone streets. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Guatemala:

Originally published in April 2009

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Banner carriers in the Holy Week procession, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

3 Reasons I Love Yoga on a Tropical Island

On any given day, yoga makes me feel alive in body, mind and spirit. I’ve found, however, that doing yoga in a tropical setting adds color to my practice. I’ve had the pleasure of taking a yoga class in several exotic places, and there’s nothing like hearing the instructor say, “Turn your head toward the waves,” instead of “Turn toward the mirror.”

Here are some of my other discoveries about doing yoga outdoors:

1. Turks & Caicos: Contemplate Infinity by the Ocean

While practicing Warrior pose and gazing over the ocean, I can’t help but gain some perspective. How tiny I feel compared to the endless sea and sky!

Regina Radisic teaches a sunrise yoga class overlooking Turks and Caicos’ Grace Bay at The Palms resort. Photo copyright Laurel Kallenbach

The spa at The Palms Turks & Caicos resort holds sunrise yoga classes at the beach. The morning I was there, a shower passed through right at the 6:00 a.m. starting time. We waited under an umbrella by the pool, then did yoga on the boardwalk overlooking the beach rather than putting our mats in the wet sand. We were rewarded partway through the class by a rainbow on the horizon.

2. Jamaica: Revel in Your Senses

Everything seems more alive when you do yoga outdoors: the color of the water and tropical flowers, the scent of flowers and salt in the air, the twitter of exotic birds, the feel of the breeze on my face.

Jacqueline Sheehan leads a class in the garden pavilion at Bromley Estate in Jamaica. Photo copyright Laurel Kallenbach

On Jamaica, at a guest house and retreat center called Bromley, yoga classes were held in a garden pavilion, surrounded by bougainvillea and other flowering trees and shrubs. During Savasana, I couldn’t help but open my eyes when a doctor bird—a hummingbird with long tail feathers—buzzed nearby. The same thing happened when the Bromley dogs, who were fascinated by our Fish Poses, stopped by to lick our faces.

 

3. Antigua: Move in Different Ways

Sunset yoga is held on the dock at Carlisle Bay resort in Antigua. Photo copyright Laurel Kallenbach

When the yoga environment changes, you adapt—which takes you out of your usual box. At Carlisle Bay resort on the Caribbean island of Antigua, I joined the sunset yoga class on the dock right over the water. Boat Pose took on a whole new meaning as I imagined myself buoyed by ocean water. (I think I even held this asana longer because I felt that water was holding me “afloat.”)

Because of the movement of the gently lapping waves around me, balancing poses such as Tree Pose or Dancer’s Pose were more challenging than usual. Even when I closed my eyes, the sound of waves created the sensation of motion.

As the sun dipped closer and closer to the horizon, our small class did gentle Sun Salutes to end the day. The sky turned a hundred shades of pink.

Now that’s the way to do yoga!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and traveling yogi 

Portals of the World: Antigua, Guatemala

Over the years, I’ve noticed that I love taking photos of doorways, windows, and arches. Besides being interesting architecturally, they symbolize a journey from one place to another. They delineate inside from outside; they mark an end and a beginning—a movement through time and space, from one stage of life to another. This year, I want to share some travel photos of these portals into other worlds.

Arch of Santa Catalina, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

Arch of Santa Catalina, Antigua, Guatemala ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Arch of Santa Catalina is an icon of the old Spanish colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala, which I visited in 2008. I loved the town, with it’s colorfully painted stucco houses and its cobblestone streets. I loved the Mayan women selling their intricate, handwoven textiles. And I especially loved this arch, which welcomes people into the heart of the city with views of the mountains and (from some angles) the Pacaya Volcano.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and photographer

Read more about my travels in Guatemala: