There are famous celebrations around religious holidays throughout the Latin world. Many immediately think of Carnivale in Rio di Janeiro, Brazil. Yet there’s another one in Central America – Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala.
It’s not as showy as Carnivale, but it still packs a punch. The week before Easter Sunday is called Semana Santa, or Holy Week. This year (2018), Semana Santa was March 25-31 with Easter falling on Sunday, April 1.
This is an event that draws tourists from all over the world. It’s crowded, but I wouldn’t say it’s overcrowded. There’s room to navigate your way down the sidewalks (roads are closed to vehicle traffic) and although you’ll hit a jam occasionally, it’s fairly smooth sailing. I would say it’s the size of crowd that someone who hates crowds wouldn’t mind too much if they were able to see something special in return (and you will!).
This is an event with international appeal, so I recommend booking your airplane ticket and hotel in advance. If you show up in Antigua during Holy Week without hotel reservations, the only choices available may be polar opposites — high-end luxury or somewhere rather uncomfortable. I booked a month in advance through AirBnb and stayed with a very nice family.
When Should You Arrive and Depart?
I arrived on Thursday, three days before Easter Sunday, and departed on Monday, the day after Easter. I would recommend the same to you. This gives you time to see many of the processions, view the carpets, and take in some additional tourist attractions in and around Antigua. Departing on Monday also allows you to avoid the mad rush to exit Antigua that occurs on Sunday afternoon.
What to Expect
The main draw and reason people come from far way to visit are the processions. They are built around various religious events leading up to the crucification. There are processions that last only a few hours and there are some that begin one day and end the next.
The processions are almost 24-hours per day for the entire week. Participants trade spots when they need a break as their procession may last many hours.
There is a helpful tourist information desk in the central park area. Maps with schedules and descriptions of each procession are available as well. Ask your hotel for a copy and I’m sure they’ll be happy to oblige.
Local residents participating in the procession pose for a selfie.
In addition to the processions, Antigua is well-known for alfombras, or carpets of flowers, plants, sawdust, and decorative objects (pictured below). These are constructed by families and neighbors right outside their homes. Although the origin of these rugs is debatable, local families have embraced this tradition and are very competitive with one another.
The procession walks over these carpets, wrecking them in the process, and the family will create another the following year. Some alfombra patterns are passed down year to to year and other families create new designs every year and their creativity and dedication to the event is a matter of familial and community pride.
The famous carpets, or alfombras.
Advice and Information
It can get a little loud if you’re in the main central area where a bulk of the hotels are located. You may find earplugs are sufficient, but you may also want to book a place right outside the main area. It’s only a few extra minutes on foot, but you will sleep better.
A tourist enjoys a break from the crowds and overlooks the procession from the comforts of a restaurant.
Second, be prepared for bombas, or fireworks, to be going off 24 hours per day for the entire week. They sound like a gunshot or car backfiring. Definitely bring earplugs to lessen the worst of it. However, it’s something you can’t really avoid so I would avoid bringing infant children.
An exhausted young boy falls asleep in his father’s arms, oblivious to the crowds and noise around him.
As it’s a holiday week, hours of operation of some services and businesses may be impacted. I wouldn’t worry too much about this as businesses catering to tourists remain open, but I would book your shuttle, bus, or flight in advance to avoid sell-outs or reduced schedules.
There was little doubt in my mind this Roman soldier had a bit too much drink to help him get in the spirit of things.
This is a special time in Guatemala and all over Central and South America. Embrace what makes it special and different. Yes, it’s a little crowded. Yes, the fireworks are a little annoying. What can you do about these things? Nothing! Go with the flow and enjoy yourself!
Don’t forget to bring your camera as there are some truly must-see moments like this shot below of the smoking incense.
Priests and devout followers walk before the procession carrying lanterns with burning incense.
A local resident snaps a photo of the procession.
This was an amazing few days and something I could see again and again. I hope to bring Ashley, and maybe our little niños, here someday.
Questions or Comments?
Leave them below and I’m happy to help.