Sensuous Guatemala: Semana Santa

Semana Santa (photo: Leonel Mijangos/

Semana Santa (photo: Leonel Mijangos/

Colorful carpets, thumping bands, pungent odors, rich tastes, thick crowds—through the Lenten season, into Palm Sunday and Semana Santa, Holy Week, all five senses are overwhelmed in every Guatemalan city and village, but nowhere more than in La Antigua Guatemala with its colonial traditions and frequent processions.

Intricate floral designs, forming colorful alfombras, carpets, are most elaborate on Good Friday but delight the eye before every procession throughout this season. Purple robes, and sometimes white, red, black vestments, line the streets and drape penitents carrying saints through the streets, with banners of color on the homes of the faithful. In the markets, great bundles of multihued flowers, of green pine, yellow palm, brown bark, sawdust dyed in many shades, are stacked for sale for the carpets. All these are treats for the sense of sight.

Soft shuffling of hundreds of feet along procession routes. Loud and mournful bands following the statues of the saints. Even louder and incongruous rock from speakers entertaining the carpet-makers through the night, and loud mortars and strings of firecrackers. Horse hooves on the cobblestones as the actors playing Roman soldiers ride to announce the Crucifixion with shouts. Sobs and laughter, moans and cheers, murmurs of prayers from penitents in the processions and cries of laughter from children in the parks. And, of course, the joyful music of marimba, in restaurants and homes. All these are treats to be heard.

Pom, incense of burning pitch, forms thick clouds of smoke to cleanse the procession routes. A sweeter odor comes from the machines spinning cotton candy in the park, the sugary smell blended with charcoal grills with sizzling steaks and sausages. More subtle are smells of the blossoms, of the dust, of the crowds standing or shuffling in the sunshine, of the pine needles trampled underfoot. These and more are treats to be smelled.

The special tastes of traditional foods of the season, salads of beets, of smoked tuna, green olives, pickled eggs, candied fruits. The taste in the mouth of the incense smoke as the processions pass, or of the sweets sold by vendors following those processions. Strong coffee for carpet-builders, and draft beer for the spectators. Tamales and tacos and grilled carnes and fried bananas. There are so many holiday treats to be tasted.

Then there’s touch. Sore shoulders and feet for those carrying the heavy anda platforms with the carved saints. Sore backs for fathers carrying little ones on their shoulders to see it all. Sometimes unpleasant touch of people pressing so close together along the procession routes. Sometimes loving touch as couples and families hold hands as they walk among the marvelous carpets before those exquisite creations are destroyed by the marchers in the processions. Each special touch, each sensuous sight, sound, smell, taste, form unforgettable memories of the season, of Semana Santa in Guatemala.


  • F. P.

    Very nice article, full of nice adjectives to describe our Semana Santa. Never heard of smoked tuna, though.

  • Larry

    would like to be in La Antigua for Semana Santa 2010. Can anybody direct me to a list of the processionals and their times/routes? Thanx

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