By Thecla Vis
Sr. Vacation Travel Specialist at Atlas Travel Vacations & Cruises
Many people travel during the holidays to see friends and family, but holidays also offer the opportunity to indulge in festive aspects of unfamiliar cultures. Each nation and community has unique fêtes and festivals built around traditions that are being celebrated in various forms all over the world.
I recently had an unexpected chance to experience Easter in Guatemala City, simply because I was passing through. My trip required a layover in Guatemala City on a weekend that happened to include Easter Sunday. I took a cab from the airport to the hotel, but what should have been a 20-minute taxi ride turned into a three-hour ordeal. Every lane and byway was either barricaded to traffic or teeming with throngs of pedestrians. Being a first timer in this city, I could not fathom what all the fuss was about. Is the city always like this?
The answer soon became clear. In my rusty Spanish, I enquired of Pablo, my taxi driver, what the reason was for all this congestion. He explained that it was Semana Santa (Holy Week), specifically Good Friday. I replied, perhaps a little too rapidly, “Oh, Dios mio!” and he replied, “Exactamente.”
In Guatemala, this major Christian holiday is marked by processions so elaborate they draw spectators from around the world. The centerpieces of these processions are the andas, enormous hand-crafted wooden floats borne on the shoulders of worshipers and depicting various scenes from the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. These floats weigh up to 8000 pounds; some are carried exclusively by men, while others are carried only by women.
Pablo said there was no chance of getting to the hotel anytime soon. I agreed to his recommendation that we park the car; we then made our way through the crowds and found a place to stand along the parade route. I craned my neck, but initially could see nothing.
Gradually, an intense drumming sound increased in volume as it approached, but all I could see was clouds of pale gray smoke in the distance. Slowly, the smoke drew nearer and the sound grew louder; the smoke’s aroma brought to mind church services of my youth. Suddenly, through the smoke, I saw a legion of black-clad women dolefully struggling under an enormous burden; it was a one-hundred-foot-long tableau weighing 3000 pounds, so I was told. Faces contorted with painful grimaces, their bodies moved to the pulsating drum beats of a haunting funeral march while swinging burners emitted copal incense fumes. I was overcome by a somber heaviness. All eyes were fixed on the parade and everyone around me seemed caught up in the moment. It was uniquely moving. I will never forget it.
As the procession passed into the distance, Pablo explained to me that the Cucuruchos and Cargadoras (the men and women bearing the floats), actually pay about 30 quetzales (roughly $4.00) to their church for the “privilege” of suffering for hours under the tremendous weight! This expression of penance shows their unwavering devotion to the church.
There is more to the procession than the procession itself. Preparation begins up to ten hours before the parade with the construction of brightly colored alfombras (carpets) made from materials ranging from a very simple bed of pine needles with scatterings of flower petals to elaborately designed works of art in dyed sawdust. Other alfombras are made of thousands of flowers, vegetables and fruit. These various alfombras cover the parade route for blocks, lovingly prepared, only to be trodden upon by the procession. This is seen as a joyful sacrifice.
This is but one example of the amazing holiday traditions practiced throughout the world. I happened across it just by chance, but it turned out to be the highlight of my trip. Planning your own vacation around a holiday celebration can be a rewarding way to expand your knowledge of other peoples and cultures and, at the same time, making your trip even more enriching and enjoyable.
To learn more about Guatemala and to book a holiday adventure of your own, contact Thecla Vis at Thecla.Vis@atlastravel.com or by phone at 508-488-1109.