Nothing can prepare you for the elaborate vibrancy of the Guatemalan Easter celebrations! I had read that Guatemala, Nicaragua and Columbia put on the most impressive processions in Latin America. With this in mind I had decided to stay at Lake Atitlan where I had been camping for the last 2 months. No need to be driving on congested roads during the holidays and run the chance of not finding a campsite when I was already in the best location possible. There were 3 villages and towns around the lake near me that had celebrations worth attending. And so on the advice of ex-pats and veteran visitors, four of us woke up early on Good Friday to catch the 9:00 am procession at the small village of T’sununa. When we arrived we were greeted with the main street covered with patterned designs in brightly colored saw dust, making a carpet to pave the way for the procession. This is called “alfombra”. We were wowed by the intricate designs and the sheer work it took to make it.
As the procession slowly made its way towards us we could make out one float preceded by young boys in religious gowns swinging incense holders. Villagers were walking alongside. At regular intervals, the procession would stop, they would lower the float and the crowd would kneel in prayers. It was beautiful to see an entire village commune together. We were so pleasantly surprised by the celebration’s richness of this isolated village in the hills of Sololà that we all decided to quickly go back to camp, pick up a few items and take the boat to San Pedro across the lake to see their noon procession. We knew it would be bigger and a bit more ostentatious than T’sununa, and were eager to see the difference. As we entered camp, everyone was a buzz and decided to join us.
Watch my YouTube video of the T’sununa procession here: https://www.youtube.com/edit?o=U&video_id=p8nlxggma5g
San Pedro is a small town, alive with hostels, restaurants, touristic shops and excursion agencies. It is of a different size and feel than T’sununa. Already we had noticed a new crowd of visitors from Guatemala City coming to spend Easter at the lake, as opposed to the usual crowd of international backpackers and overlanders.
As we climbed to the top of the hill we were greeted with the procession already under way. It was quite impressive by the sheer number of attendants lining the procession, the size of the floats and the number of people needed to carry them. They too would stop at interval for prayers but very few in the crowd would kneel and pray, even though it was a great majority of Guatemalans and Mayans, colorfully dressed in traditional wear or in their Sunday best.
We didn’t get to see the alfombras in their glory before they were destroyed by the procession, but it was quite fun to see the children running behind and collecting flowers and colored saw dust. We followed the festivities all the way to the church and watched each float slowly making its way up the steps and inside the church. There was a festive ambiance with street vendors selling ice-cream, sodas and such. Everyone was smiling and happy. It was beautiful in a completely different way than T’sununa.
Watch my YouTube video of the San Pedro procession here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiY8QtWHLUM
Our next stop was the highly recommended village of San Juan La Laguna where we could watch the villagers create the alfombras for their night’s procession. Even with all the descriptions in the world, nothing could have prepared us for the magic and the emotional intensity one feels in the presence of such a sight! The entire village was in the streets, working on decorating the walkway for the procession. Already many arches had been raised with a variety of fruit hanging from them. When we arrived the preliminary carpet measurements and rough sketches with chalks were underway in some areas.
We noticed a variety of ways to make alfombras. Artists would reproduce a picture of their own original work, freehand – with dyed saw dust. Stencils were passed around and friends and families would gather to decorate one street section together. There were also sections carpeted with fresh pine needles and decorated with a variety of fresh blossoms, halved fruits and vegetables. Some even used more modern supplies such as noodles, cotton, wrappers and plastic decorations. Regardless of the raw material used, the end product was absolutely stunning. We would walk around at regular intervals and watch works of art in various stages of completion. Even when we thought, by our standards, one piece was complete, more was added, such as bouquets of flowers, candles etc…
The young and the old worked together, Mayans and tourists kneeling side by side, laughing and celebrating together. One got a wonderful sense of accomplishment and of belonging upon seeing a completed work, knowing that you helped in its making.
Watch my YouTube video of the alfombras in progress here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3D-U0l7PVo&t=1s
It was moving, awe inspiring and I couldn’t help think that if every town and village in the world were to do this, but once a year, there wouldn’t be any more wars!
As the night fell and the art was mostly completed by now, throngs of people came to walk the streets and admire the work. It was festive and respectful all at once, with none of the drinking, swearing or rough housing that can sometimes be seen on such occasions.
Watch my YouTube video of the finished alfombras here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HTRL56zXKPk
The San Juan La Laguna procession, by tradition, is a nocturnal event and starts at 10:00 pm. We gathered at the Church plaza where the floats were getting ready to start. It was wonderful to be able to walk up close and see the details of each float and feel the anticipation in the air heavy with incense. And then they lifted the floats up, one after the other and seeing this was quite impressive. The chanting started and the swaying march allowing the carriers to move forward in an orderly and safe fashion begun. Seeing the start of the procession allowed me to really understand the sheer work that goes into the walking part. Because of the length and size of the floats, guys would be at the front either pushing back to slow them down, or sideways to help make a turn. For the women’s floats someone would be in charge of timing the lifting periods and men would relieve the women at regular intervals. In San Pedro in particular I noticed than when the floats were waiting their turn to enter the church, men would carry the women’s floats and watching their bent backs and facial expressions, I knew that they were each shouldering a great load.
Watch my video of the San Juan La Laguna procession here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6krcGB4kX2Y
After the procession left the church plaza, Dub, Sheila and I were ready for our tuk-tuk ride back home, but fate would have it that on its way out of town we were unable to cross the road because the procession was just coming around the corner. So it was a great pleasure for me to see it again, this time in the streets with the entire congregation, the lights and night’s atmosphere. This procession was very sweet with the women singing the most beautiful songs, one of which has been in my head ever since.
This was a most enchanting and magical full day, and looking back the enfoldment of it couldn’t have been more perfect. Had we seen San Juan first, T’sununa’s celebration would have paled in comparison and we might not have appreciated it to its full measure. Each procession was unique and special and I am so glad I got to see all three as they each represented a different demographic, a different tradition may be and occurred at a different time of day. I have to say though that the highlight of the day was definitively the making of the alfombras in San Juan La Laguna.
Until next time my new road amigos!
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Au plaisir de la route!