It didn't look promising. Eighty costumed men were trying to maneuver a 5,000-pound carved wooden float adorned with an elaborate scene from the final days of Jesus through the doors of the San Felipe Church in Antigua, Guatemala. The bearers' skill, precise choreography and perhaps a touch of divine intervention finally liberated the massive, lumbering float, called an anda, with mere inches to spare. Outside, the sun-splashed cobblestone streets had been decorated with intricate carpets, called alfombras, made out of flowers, dyed sawdust and glitter. Thousands of locals and visitors had gathered to watch the anda pass, leaving a trampled alfombra in its somber, yet somehow festive, wake.
Even among famously colorful Central American religious celebrations, Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Antigua, Guatemala, is in a class by itself. It attracts more than 200,000 people to this UNESCO World Heritage Site city between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday.
The festivities, with all their age-old ritual, play well in Antigua. The city of some 35,000 was originally established by the Spanish in 1543 as a capital of the entire region, encompassing nearly all of Central America.
Three hulking volcanoes that ring Antigua, along with eruptions and earthquakes, eventually convinced the Spanish to choose a different capital city. But the majesty remains. After the city was razed, rebuilding efforts respected, preserved and re-created the city's original architecture. Even the streets remain cobbled and Antigua's many picturesque ruined churches give it a whiff of ancient Rome.
At an elevation of just over 5,000 feet, Antigua is also said to have one of the best climates in the world.
For all its glory, Semana Santa can be baffling. There are dozens of processions at all hours of the day and night. Costumes and customs are full of ancient symbolism. And what's with all the flower petals? I figured that out when I spent an afternoon last year helping create an alfombra with the owner of my hotel, and I gleaned a few other details along the way.
Street processions, a tradition believed to have started in Guatemala in 1524, tell the story of Jesus' persecution, crucifixion and resurrection depicted through intricate scenes displayed on top of handcrafted, carved wooden andas. They leave from and return to a home church and can last for 15 hours and cover many miles.
Most Semana Santa processions include two main andas. The first bears a scene from the life of Jesus and is carried by men. Women convey the second, with a tableau depicting the Virgin Mary. Some andas weigh up to 8,000 pounds and are carried by up to 100 men at a time.
Semana Santa processions reach their peak on Good Friday, commemorating the day Jesus was crucified. The action starts at midnight on Thursday with the Peregon de Romanos (parade of Romans). Some processions begin as early as 4 a.m. on Friday; some don't finish until 6 a.m. Saturday.
Saturday's post-crucifixion processions are appropriately somber affairs with just one anda bearing a mourning Virgin Mary. Be prepared for extra-thick clouds of incense during Saturday's processions. Because the Virgin Mary andas are carried exclusively by women, men looking for a role to play pick up incense burners and march along.
Easter Sunday processions have a distinctly party-like atmosphere. Children wave yellow and white flags, people cheer and smile, confetti falls and the resurrected Jesus once again shows up on andas marking the end of Semana Santa.
Men who carry an anda are called cucuruchos and female bearers are called cargadoras. Each pays about $4 for the privilege. Children, who shoulder smaller andas in their own processions, pay less. Originally done as penance with the faces of the bearers covered, carrying an anda is now part honor and part duty. Bearers usually carry their anda for one block, then an artful switch is made. Many come back to carry again later in the procession.
For most of Semana Santa, the cucuruchos are dressed in a silky purple tunic. Why purple? Because it's the liturgical color of Lent and some believe it symbolizes Jesus' pain and suffering and emulates the color of a robe that covered his body. In the afternoon of Good Friday, everyone changes into black robes and dresses to mourn the passing of Jesus.
Today, tourists are welcome to join the ranks of the cucuruchos and cargadoras. Just pick up the required costume from any of the tailors in town who make them, choose a church and pay the fee.
Music plays an important role in Semana Santa processions with funeral marches setting the plodding pace of the processions and cueing the intricate maneuvers needed to get the massive andas around tight corners. Procession bands, including drums, brass and wind instruments, play a repertoire of more than 100 marches, mostly written by Guatemalan composers -- though some bands throw in a Chopin tune now and then.
The most iconic trapping of Semana Santa are the alfombras -- elaborate, organic pieces of art that create "carpets" on streets where a procession is about to pass. The devout spend as much as they can afford on alfombra ingredients, which include flowers, vibrantly dyed wood shavings and sawdust, fruits and vegetables, tiny Noah's arcs, glitter and more.
Alfombras are typically created by an entire extended family on the cobblestone street in front of their home, but local businesses get into the act, too. When Evelyn Herrera, whose family owns the Hotel San Jorge, invited me to help make the hotel's alfombra, I jumped at the chance.
Evelyn had gone to the market at dawn, where she invested about $100 in the flowers and other greenery she wanted to include in her design. She also picked up a 4-foot-long, hard, canoe-shaped pod that grows on a particular kind of palm tree. With considerable effort, we split the pod open to get at a large stem and what looked like white rice. The creamy white pieces would be sprinkled into the motif. The hard pod was cut up and used to fashion woven baskets on both ends of the alfombra. Hundreds of stems of flowers were de-petaled, the various colors scattered precisely according to Evelyn's design, which was sketched out on a piece of paper tacked to the hotel's garden gate.
Over the next few hours, we primped and perfected until Evelyn finally proclaimed the alfombra complete. With a mix of satisfaction and dread we stepped back, stretched our sore backs and admired our work.
But not for long. The procession was on its way and in a matter of minutes the feet of the anda bearers had churned our handiwork into a pile of fragrant trash, which a garbage crew expertly swept into an ugly pile and shoveled into a waiting truck as soon as the procession had passed.
Karen Catchpole and her husband, photographer Eric Mohl, have been traveling in the Americas for several years. They last reported on the town of Gracias, Honduras. Follow their journey at www.trans-americas.com.