The city of Antigua, at least many of its many expats, cringes a little as the Holy Week grows nigh. The streets begin to clog a bit more readily than we’d like. The cacophony of dying trumpet, bongo beats, and ice cream bells interrupts our otherwise honk-free days. For a short while, there is no slowing down the processions, not that they are moving particularly fast.
During the six weeks of lent, Sunday crowds seemed to expand each week that passed. I’d go for weekend jogs around the outskirts of the city and run into a whole new assortment of food stalls and makeshift markets. Streams of people would all be moving with purpose in similar directions. The clear sky, the molten sun of dry season—they were normal, but the pulse of Antigua was quickening.
The streets finally completely spilled over with procession a couple of weeks before Easter. Emma and I, out for our customary Sunday morning pupusa, got caught up in a crowd that blocked every path we needed, people lining the streets to witness yet another grotesque depiction of Christ swaying under his cross. Not unlike my well-versed reaction to Mardi Gras parades, a shrugging recognition of repetition, I wondered what was so great about this Jesus float.
We weren’t even to Holy Week, and that evening cars stood for hours in gridlock on 7th Calle. Not to mention the climb in tourist numbers, an obvious increase in the average age of the artificial Antigueños. Suddenly walks to work became infested with map-totting pensioners and church groups, navigating the ruins and breakfast buffets. I was looking forward to get out of town for a while, getting a breather down in the stifling jungles of Rio Dulce.
It’s a strange and privileged position to live in a place everyone is coming to visit, to leave that place at the exact time everyone wants to be there. Emma and I had confused our departure with visa requirements and vacation time, but for sure, a large part of leaving was avoidance: not another procession, not another blocked street, another group of sightseers following a hand-held flag.
Of course, we’d predicted feeling this way weeks in advance, booked our tickets early, and left the morning of the Saturday that jumped off Semana Santa. Not to be total humbugs, we’d made arrangements to be back on Wednesday, in time to see the main events, so to speak: Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, when Antigua is nonstopalfombras andprocessiones.
Getting back after dark on Wednesday night, we headed out for dinner, unaware of any great thing happening. Outside the restaurant-bar, the familiar, off-putting wail of the trumpet blasted through the street once more. We hadn’t even been back for an hour. Emma plugged her ears as the float glided passed the window. But, when we realized it was the Wednesday before Easter, (what I now know as “Spy Wednesday” or the day Judas spilled the beans) a new sort of reverence resonated with the event. This one actually meant…more?
I went home that night feeling ready to take it in, prepared for the intensity of the next two days. I wanted to mingle with the crowd, feel the unique vibe, and see the beautiful carpets of flowers and fruits. I even resolved to subject myself to at least one of the horribly somber processions, largely lacking the debauchery and pectoral displays of my native Mardi Gras parades. I was glad to be home. I was glad to be a tourist if only for a couple of days.
Using Que Pasa, a free circulation magazine out of Antigua, we plotted the next two days of the full-on experience: The Thursday evening church crawl, the midnight street stroll in the wee hours of Good Friday, and the culminating tour de alfombras on a sleep-deprived Friday morning. It was the least we could do: Participate in one of the great famous festivals of the world, you know just outside our front gate.
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my mission was to explore the depths of one Central America's great tourist attractions and take from it what I could. These are thoughts on Antigua Guatemala.