Antigua in the spotlight: hundreds of thousands descend for Semana Santa
In much of the Catholic world, especially Spanish-speaking countries, huge religious parades – procesiónes – are staged to mark the days leading up to Easter. Religious collectives, often grouped around brotherhoods or guilds, parade shrines of Christ or the Virgin Mary through the streets, often with burning incense, spine-chilling chants and a little light flagellation.
The city of Antigua, in southern , is no exception – in fact, it leads the pack, with spectacular procesiones that are among the world’s most iconic. Antigua’s parades are a voluptuous, baroque, often dramatic affair – and not a brief one. “A paradecan easily come out at 3pm and finish at 2am,” says Mary Bolaños, a local photographer. She says the marches are an experience “one should live at least once”.
Antigua is currently buzzing as more than half a million pilgrims descend on this city of 46,000 for the spectacular Semana Santa parades, which start around Lent and culminate on Easter weekend. The occasion occupies the whole town. Residents decorate their streets and balconies, and fill the streets with spectacular carpets made out of sawdust that disappear the moment the “pilgrims” walk on them.
It is little wonder that Antigua is the most visited town in Guatemala. The juxtaposition of city’s colonial architecture with its volcano-strewn surroundings, the cobbled small-town feel amid the rolling hills, and a big effort to attract international tourism all do the trick. Its economy relies heavily on tourism: Guatemala City is only a half-hour drive away and only a wealthy few can afford properties in the city.
The city in numbers …
12:1 –estimated ratio of visitors to residents during Holy Week
1,530 – metres above sea level
1773 – year in which an earthquake nearly destroyed the city and led to its partial abandonment until 1821
3 – volcanoes that surround the city
3 varieties of Ilegal Mezcal, created by Antigua’s Cafe No Sé, produced in Oaxaca, Mexico and exported to the US
… and pictures
Antigua in sound and vision
(The Silence of Neto) is probably the best example of Antigua on the big screenl. Filmed between Antigua and Guatemala City, it is set during the last days of the government of – the democratically elected Guatemalan president ousted by a coup staged by the US after intensive lobbying by the United Fruit Company in 1954. The film gives a great insight into that period of history – and a view of Antigua in all its beauty.
One of the city’s monuments, the also features in the initial scenes of , a 1982 film starring Jack Nicholson, as a stand-in for a Mexican village destroyed by an earthquake.
History in 100 words
Founded by the Spanish in 1542, Antigua was initially chosen as Guatemala’s capital but successive earthquakes nearly destroyed it. After the Santa Marta earthquake in 1773 it was abandoned by the authorities and the church, dubbed “ruined Guatemala” and “the old city”. It didn’t officially become a city again until the country gained independence from Spain in 1821. The years of neglect were partly what allowed the unique preservation of Antigua’s buildings and of a grid pattern dating back to 1543, inspired by the Italian Renaissance. In the mid-1800s it became active again in its agricultural production of coffee and grain. In the 21st century, the town has cemented its place as the country’s top tourist destination.
What’s everyone talking about?
Guatemala has been grappling with the trauma of the, and Antigua has been no exception. In early March, fire broke out after residents of an overcrowded government home for abused teenagers set mattresses ablaze in a riot. Antigua’s residents were horrified by the tragedy, which happened just 50km away. Citizens demanded justice for the victims by at the Fuente de las Sirenas (Sirens’ Fountain) in the centre of town.
At the same time, the country is in the midst of a . Gang violence, which is the driving force behind this, , is as much a concern in Antigua as anywhere else in Guatemala.
What’s next for the city?
Antigua’s identity relies on preserving traditions and giving visitors a feel for the past. With its , tourism is its No1 business, followed by agriculture. But, like any city whose number of tourists hugely exceeds its population, it has to think of its future. The city continues to be vulnerable to natural disasters – from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions and hurricanes – and some citizens lament that the growth of tourism has been prioritised over proper planning and heritage conservation.
While the city brands itself as the cultural capital of the country, continues apace, with wealthy foreigners buying houses, tourist apartments proliferating and traffic jams in its tiny urban centre (775m from north to south and 635m from east to west) exasperating residents.
In January 2016, Susana Asencio became Antigua’s first female mayor (and the country’s ninth), with hygiene, the environment and traffic among her main priorities. One of her plans is a project for “urban freeing, modernisation and mobility”, including the pedestrianisation of many congested spaces and a new bus system.
is the main newspaper in town, as long as you read Spanish. is the city’s English-language news source, and is a good events guide – although the best site for listings and happenings is . On Instagram, is a well-known local snapping life in the city, and is a good photography account, with a big following, for Antigua (and Guatemala) wanderlust.
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