They work all night. Then, on Good Friday as sun rises over Antigua, Guatemala, the most beautiful streets in the world stand revealed. Yearly during Holy Week, boulevards of the ancient city are transformed into vibrant canvases where resourceful residents create unique and beautiful carpets of flowers or coloured sawdust - some vast, all pulsating, fashioned with care only to be destroyed brief hours later.
Men and women, ten thousand strong, solemnly engage in processions to honour and commemorate Christ and the Virgin at the most sacred time in the Christian calendar. Events
here constitute the largest celebration in the Americas, second only worldwide to that of Seville, Spain.
Dozing, I sensed that we had dropped from the highlands close to my destination; the airport bus had transported me from Guatemala City in less than two hours. Had we driven into a huge film set? Antique street lamps illuminated the cobbled roads, house lamps revealed ancient carved doors, fairy lights twinkled in trees in the city squares and floodlights bathed the soaring cathedral, churches, palaces and historic ruins.
Welcomed by friends, in their historic house, candles flickered from every nook and cranny while vases with white lilies caught the soft light. Martinis in hand, seated on their moonlit patio in the warm and fragrant evening air, we exchanged news, hard to believe that Toronto, from where I had left, was now in the grip of a spring ice storm.
Next day, we set out on a walking tour of the amazing city in gentle spring weather with surrounding mountains, hills and volcanoes rising all around, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We viewed the Stations of the Cross and the ruined façade of the church, Nuestra Senor de Los Remedios, which, along with many images of Antigua's Cathedral, was featured in Rolof Benny's old but famous book, The Pleasure of Ruins.
I was fascinated by the wonderful clothes local women and children wore, men with elaborate costumes also, but less frequently worn. I anticipated the beautiful weavings and embroideries and headdresses, but did not expect them as everyday attire, the vivid costumes a spectacular show every minute of the day. (Bring your camera!)
I soon learned why the city lights shine early ... there are no suburbs. The streets abruptly end, and surrounding coffee plantations begin.
Palm Sunday, the day after my arrival, we gathered for a Domingo de Ramos tour conducted by local historian Elizabeth Bell, who introduces participants to the history and pageantry of the renowned Antigua processions.
The streets busy, we noticed that against the ochre and terracotta walls of homes, hotels and restaurants, vast pails of flowers: chrysanthemums, carnations, roses, magnificent lilies and many I did not recognize, were being fashioned to create flower carpets or alfombras on the cobblestone streets.
Elizabeth declared "You haven't seen anything yet! Wait until Good Friday." We walked to the city's beautiful La Merced Church, the forecourt crowded with women and children dressed in their multi-hued traditional clothes, seated beside piles of palm leaves and flowers, fashioned into elaborate crosses, sold for a few quetzales (cents) to those coming and going to church.
The city offers striking, small hotels and restaurants, many with charming courtyards. I recommend dinner on the candlelit verandah of the Mesón Panza Verde. Also, spend time to explore the many ruins, magnificent churches and historic houses. There is a Jade Archaeology Museum with a large gift shop. A cultural centre produces English language plays, well-attended by expatriates and where I caught Yasmine Reza's amusing and thought-provoking play, Art.
Local tour operators offer several out-of-town trips including a pleasant afternoon in La Azotea, a small coffee plantation not far from the city limits. In April, the plantation is resplendent with white flowers from the coffee bushes. La Azotea, a cultural
centre, offers a group of superb small museums. Casa K-Ojom Musica Maya contains a fine collection of traditional Mayan musical instruments, artifacts, costumes and paintings. Another, Rincon de Sacatepequez, exhibits local customs, life style and costumes, displayed by artifacts and dioramas. Be sure to tour the coffee-producing complex and its museum with generous coffee samples and a fine gift store.
Another outing transports visitors into surrounding hills to view villages, churches and convents and to meet a prize-winning weaver, who poses for photographs in her splendid costume and sells woven goods. The popular trip to the famous market in Chichicastenango takes three hours. Our mini bus passed through farms and plantations, rising over decent roads into the pine covered mountains, and we stopped halfway at a rest house for coffee, hot chocolate, clean washrooms and to browse vendors' stalls.
Chichicastenango is noted not only for its spectacular market and the wonderful clothes, but also as an entirely Mayan town, with Mayan mayor and Mayan police force. The church steps are the focal point where flower sellers gather and tourists jostle for the perfect photograph.
On Good Friday, we rose early before the sun and took to the streets where again, flower and coloured sawdust alfombras were being fashioned. Elizabeth Bell was right: they were more splendid that those seen on Palm Sunday. Every inch of the city's cobbled streets seemed adorned. There were four block-long carpets designed by associations of shopkeepers. Prosperous families dressed in Sunday best, assisted by maids, erected flower shrines and charming small carpets outside their walled houses. Groups of tourists (following instructions from hotel staff) swept and sprayed a mist of water on the flowers and - when lucky - placed a few blooms themselves! Mass activity continued as the sun rose to bathe the city in its luminous light, revealing the stunning alfombras. People everywhere took in the artistry, city streets filling as good spots from which to watch the processions were staked out.
Floats represent the treasured possessions of churches, each boasting its own procession route so once a procession passes, it's possible to duck into the side streets and proceed to another. Men carrying the massive floats, the largest weighing 7,000 pounds, wear purple robes and white headdresses until 3 p.m. (the hour of Christ's death), then change to black robes while women wear white and beautiful black lace mantillas. Other costumes include Roman soldiers outfitted in red and white tunics, green plumed hats and golden armour with long spears; Pontius Pilate and Roman officials; musicians, incense carriers, priests and monks, the grand total involving 10,000 participants!
Most processions consist of two lavishly decorated floats, the first borne by male carriers, containing various statues of Christ during and after the events of Good Friday, while the woman carry the slightly smaller float depicting the Virgin, often as Queen of Heaven decorated in splendid robes, surrounded by flowers.
A mixture of excitement and solemnity envelops procession leaders - musicians, soldiers and holy people - who separate and march beside the carpets while the float bearers walk across the carpets, destroying the elaborate designs and crushing the flowers. There are also children's processions and crucifixion ceremonies. Streets swell with thousands of costumed participants, locals and tourists, as well as musicians, balloon sellers and food vendors. Children dart about, collecting posies of flowers rescued before teams of street cleaners clean up while sombre visages of a dozen or more cross-bearing Christs and Virgins peer down from massive floats, a bizarre yet amazing spectacle. After all of this, not surprisingly, on Easter Sunday, not much transpires except the usual church service. The town finally falls quiet, but I will remember every Good Friday hence for the rest of my life.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine www.thetravelsociety.com.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/