A Gringa (Partially) Does Holy Week in Antigua

Easter Sunday
Tijax Marina
Fronteras, Guatemala

Nuestra Senora de la Merced

If we Americans are guilty of pageantry and associated gluttony at Christmas, we are only outdone by the magnitude of Holy Week (Semana Santa) in Guatemala in general, Antigua in particular.

Monday I took a shuttle van with our boat buddies Rosie and Don from Chickcharnie for the 6-hour trip to Antigua. The drive was amazing and relaxing in that someone else had to be responsible for negotiating the potholed mountain road and building holiday traffic. We arrived in Antigua at about 2:30 in the afternoon, and checked into a triple room at a private, restored 17th century colonial house run by the charming, outgoing Karla, who spoke no English but greeted us like long lost family.

Roof Garden

View from the Roof Garden










The home was completely nondescript from the street – just a yellow plaster building with a big heavy black door. But once through the door, we found a typical Spanish home, complete with interior courtyard and wildly flowering three-story garden. Don, Rosie and I shared a triple room on the second floor, and just steps outside our door was a comfortable outdoor parlor and garden terrace that continued up to the roof, where there was a spectacular view of one of Antigua’s three volcanoes. The cost of the room was an outrageous $20 per person per night, and included afternoon coffee and kitchen privileges!


Her home is two cobblestone blocks from the signature church in Antigua, Nuestra Senora de la Merced (Our Lady of Mercy), a large yellow church with a white plaster lace façade. In the church square, food vendors were crowded together with boiling pots of oil for deep frying churros, grills for hand-making tortillas, mangos carved into beautiful orange flowers on sticks, and riotous displays of sweets.

After a stroll through town and some preliminary shop scouting, we returned to the church to tour the inside with the other Holy Week pilgrims and were treated to a concert featuring solemn funeral music from a full on concert orchestra with a marimba section, and hymns sung by a children’s choir. We were pressed along by the crowd toward the church’s ritual “alfombra,” a mosaic “carpet” made with flower petals, colored sawdust, fruits, vegetables, and plants.

Opting for dinner among the masses, we chose do-it-yourself tacos from a Mayan family stand, complete with gyro-like beef, homemade guacamole and salsa, and beans – and ate sitting on the steps as we watched the hundreds of faithful chow down. – unlike the other tourists who seemed wary of street food. Heck – at less than $2.00 apiece for dinner, what was there to be wary about? We finished dinner off with a stop at the sweets stand for “angel tongues” (literal translation of the Spanish, actually marshmallows) and some candy made from condensed milk that felt like reeeeeaaaaaaly sweet squishy caramel or penuche.

Tuesday was reserved for heavy shopping that included visits to the National Geographic Mayan jade store and to the House of Weaving, an independent museum completely run by Mayans – actually one of the only Mayan-run businesses in Antigua (http://casadeltejido.org/index.html). I have looked at Guatemalan weaving many times, dismissing it as cheap and gaudy – but that’s what we do with our uneducated eyes. The museum taught me great respect for Guatemalan fabrics, as well as traditional Mayan costuming entirely woven by hand using a backstrap loom, each garment taking at minimum weeks, at maximum six months to complete. Like in many indigenous cultures, the educated eye can look at a piece of weaving or an element of costuming and identify the exact region and village of the wearer. I’m not yet educated.

Tuesday evening, I opted to taste the local rum – Botran – the 12-year-old sipping rum is every bit as good as Havana Club Reposada – and at $7.50 per bottle, may replace the Bombay Sapphire martinis at cocktail hour chez Emma Jo. Hey, family, guess what you’re getting as a souvenir…

Wednesday morning, while Rosie and Don negotiated brass and pewter conchas for the door to the house they are building, I wandered toward the central square and the Church of San Ignacio, where there was another alfombra, and a helpful walking tour guide. He  ingratiated himself enough to escort me through the ruins of San Ignacio, then further into the city to the Cathedral of San Francisco for yet another alfombra and the staging area for the Good Friday procession. Two city blocks were taped off to gather the icons and relics, and the Stations of the Cross were arranged in ghoulishly realistic order, ready to be hoisted onto the shoulders of purple-clad bearers for the big deal on Good Friday. The Mayans were moving their food streets to this staging area and the square outside San Francisco, where I guess the really crowded stuff goes on for the rest of the week..

I had read in an English-language magazine about a new shop in Antigua featuring the artistry of the area’s only chocolatier, so I had the tour guide drop me off for rosemary-infused dark chocolate and the remaining 3 chocolate bunnies in the store (might have been the only chocolate bunnies in Guatemala, for all I know!) A short visit to a dress shop earned me two sundresses made of handwoven cotton for $20 apiece (you can go broke saving money here), then it was back to the van for the long trek back to Fronteras and the Rio.

We caught some holiday traffic in Guatemala City (not a place I care to see much of – traffic, pollution, and crime) and our 5-1/2 hour trip back ended up taking 8-1/2 hours. We found a roadside eatery (comedor, as opposed to restaurante) with a couple of police vans out front and a dozen cops inside, and counting on the donut syndrome, ordered up the special of the day, cheerfully cooked by mom and auntie, and served by daughter or niece. I’ll give it a week – if I don’t get Montezuma’s by then, I probably never will.

I arrived back at Tijax to find the place jammed full of holidaymakers from all over the world, and quickly reconsidered a quiet afternoon by the pool when I discovered about 20 kids squealing and playing with inflatables (including a blow-up 747) that took up half the space in the water. Back on the boat, it wasn’t much better, as several of the city folk had towed their jet skis and speedboats with them on vacation, and the stern of Emma Jo only about 100 feet away, was not the most stable of relaxing spots.

Part of the Easter celebration here also included a procession of relics and statuary, complete with palm fronds and funeral music – but on boats that cruised both sides of the river. I didn’t quite get the penance involved in loading Jesus and his friends up onto Cayucos with 25-horse Yamahas on the back, but hey – I never was too Catholic.

Easter Sunday came and went quietly – with most of the vacationers from Tijax. Spent the evening with friends enjoying barbecue at Bruno’s across the river. Tomorrow holds the possibility of a cold, quiet beer by the pool and some reflection about holiday excess.






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