Antigua Feature

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Holy Week in Antigua

Much of Latin America flees to the beach or the mountains for seven days of vacation during Holy Week (Semana Santa), the week preceding Easter, and the most sacred week in the Christian calendar. But if you want to observe this part of the world at its most devout, the Western Hemisphere has no place during Holy Week like Antigua.

The entire week in Antigua, but especially Good Friday, seems one long procession with enormous floats andas), some weighing three tons, depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, and various saints, emerging from palls of incense. Cadres of robe-clad men known as cucuruchos bear the constructions on their shoulders, swaying side to side in time to the brass-band funeral dirges. Floats depicting female saints weigh less and are always borne by women.

Integral to the Good Friday processions are the elaborate alfombras, street carpets made of flowers, colored sawdust, and, sometimes, fruit, arranged in intricate designs that take hours to create. "Ephemeral" doesn't begin to describe these works, but the designs will be trampled by the bearers of the Christ figure. Don't bother asking residents why they would spend so much time creating a work of art only to have it obliterated in a matter of seconds. Many will tell you that they create and assemble the carpets in gratitude for some grace bestowed upon them.

Your window for experiencing Antigua's annual pageantry isn't as small as you might think. The city does the entire Lenten season (Cuaresma) up big, with elaborate processions each Wednesday, Friday and Sunday during the six weeks preceding Easter. They become bigger and grander as Holy Week approaches. Nor is your window limited geographically: If you don't feel like braving the Semana Santa crowds in Antigua, most towns and cities hold some variation on religious processions, but on a smaller scale. Fine observances take place in the highlands in Quetzaltenango and Santiago Atitlán.

In thoughtfulness to residents and visitors alike, for all the processions, Lenten or Holy Week, you can pick up a leaflet (Spanish only) at various booths around Antigua listing their schedules and arrival points. Processions are measured in hours—the Good Friday doings get underway at 3 am—and you'll appreciate knowing where to position yourself for the best view.

Longtime resident Elizabeth Bell of Antigua Tours presents a Wednesday-evening slideshow on the topic each week during the Lenten season.

A couple of words of warning: The sanctity of the observances doesn't prevent the city from worshiping the almighty tourist dollar, as lodgings raise rates by 50 to 100 percent during Holy Week. (Reserve months in advance if you plan to be in town for the week. Remember also that many lodgings impose minimum stays during the week. You can't necessarily breeze in Thursday night, watch Friday's processions, and head back out that afternoon.) And pickpockets are out in force working the crowds. Attend the processions with a photocopy of your passport—keep the original locked away if you can—and minimal cash.

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