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Guide to Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Guatemala

Semana Santa or Holy Week in Guatemala is one of the most important celebrations of the year in this tiny country. Although it’s predominantly a celebration for Catholics, travelers of all religions and beliefs can experience this great opportunity to see art and religion in a very particular way.

This tradition was brought to America during the Spanish conquest. It is meant to represent the passion of Jesus Christ by taking beautifully crafted images of Jesus and Mary out on processions. 

woman and kid sitting  in front of a flower carpet during holy week in guatemala
As part of Semana Santa cities and towns are adorned with intricate carpets made from colored sawdust, flowers, and other natural materials. These carpets are known as alfombras.

Semana Santa is such a significant cultural heritage event that it has been recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This UNESCO designation highlights the importance of Semana Santa in preserving Guatemala’s cultural heritage and promoting intercultural dialogue and understanding.

And while Semana Santa is celebrated all over the world, in Guatemala, it is the colonial city of Antigua that is known for the most stunning celebration of Holy Week. It is the most important and busiest week in the whole country and also the best time to visit Antigua.

Antigua is a small city that looks as if time stood still for the last two hundred years. It was once the Capital of Central America and is now a must-visit for travelers from around the world. This place comes alive with smells, colors, food, music, and processions during the holy week in Guatemala.

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How is Semana Santa celebrated in Guatemala?

Holy Week is a hugely significant event in Guatemala and includes processions, vigils, funeral marches, special foods as well as the creation of alfrombras or carpets, orchards, and altars. Below are some of how Semana Santa is celebrated in Guatemala which makes it an event not to be missed for many travelers.

Religious Processions

One of the most notable aspects of Semana Santa in Guatemala is the elaborate processions that take place throughout the week, particularly in Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala City, Quetzaltenango, and other cities and towns across the country. These processions feature large floats (andas) depicting scenes from the Passion of Christ, carried by men known as cucuruchos. 

Beautiful Decorations 

Cities and towns are adorned with intricate carpets made from colored sawdust, flowers, and other natural materials. These carpets, known as alfombras, line the streets along the procession routes and are meticulously crafted by communities as a form of devotion and artistry. They often feature religious symbols and motifs.

Traditional Foods 

As mentioned earlier, traditional Guatemalan foods play a significant role during Semana Santa. Families gather to prepare special dishes and share meals, often including fish-based dishes and sweet treats unique to the holiday.

Religious Practices

Throughout Holy Week, there are various religious services, including Masses, processions, and reenactments of biblical events such as the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. Many Guatemalans attend these services as part of their observance of Semana Santa.

Family Gatherings

Semana Santa is also a time for community gatherings and socializing. Families and friends come together to participate in religious activities, share meals, and enjoy each other’s company.

What Makes Holy Week in Guatemala Special? 

For many years to the present, La Semana Santa in Guatemala has attracted many international believers from all over the world, and that’s because of the way the locals celebrate it here. Each country celebrates it differently but nothing like Guatemala, from alfombras to the cucuruchos and many more cultural traditions that make this celebration particularly unique in Guatemala.

Los cucuruchos y las devotas

They are the pennant devotees, taking care of carrying out the processions and the many steps of the Via Crucis. Las devotas are the female version of the devotees, also taking care of the Holy Week processions. There are many types, from several organizations and different brotherhoods, but commonly they wear robes in white, black, or purple

They take turns carrying the giant floats, why do they do this, the reasons are personal, many of them just want to thank God for something, or redeem their sins, and for tradition.

cucuruchos in procession during holy week in guatemala
One of the most notable aspects of Semana Santa in Guatemala is the elaborate processions that take place throughout the week.

Las Alfrombras

This literally means “carpets” in English, the planning of las alfrombras starts months before Holy Week, and they should be done 24 hours before the procession takes place. The real purpose of those carpets is to be a colorful path for the profession and as an offering. It is well known that many Guatemalan families have been making alfombras for generations, many years.

Las alfombras are usually made with dust of different colors, fruits, and flowers. The pattern is a bit complicated, people usually use catholic symbols and Mayan images, also many have Guatemalan icons or natural elements. The carpets come in many sizes, from many meters to even a mile long.

The Processional Floats

Most of those structures are made of wood, they are used to carry Catholic images of Jesus Christ and different saints across the streets during Holy Week. Las andas procesionales are decorated by the devotees according to the church and organization selected theme. Since the Good Friday processions take place in the nighttime, some of the processional floats are illuminated, giving them a different touch!

The size varies a lot, some are small and some are huge, the biggest one is located in El Calvario Church, used to carry the Cristo Yacente, with 25 meters in length and almost 2.5 tons in weight it needs to carry 140 cucuruchos. 

people carrying a processional floats during holy week guatemala

The Catholic Images

What makes Semana Santa in Guatemala amazing are the floats and the catholic images, some of the ones used for the processions are 600 years old or even more. Most of them arrived in Guatemala from Spain and other countries in Europe. They are very antique and have a lot of history with them.

The cofradias, brotherhoods, or organizations must dress the images in expensive clothing, also, they take care of the restoration and cleaning.

These images are clothed in expensive robes and clothing. The cofradias (brotherhoods) are in charge of their restoration and cleaning.

📖 Recommended Reading: If you’re looking for more useful information, check out 21 Best Festivals and Celebrations in Central America

Holy Week in Guatemala

The celebrations start 40 days before the day when the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated. This period is called lent. On each Friday, there will be an altar in different churches (Velaciones), and on Sundays, there will be a procession, each representing a different passage of the bible.

Also, make sure to check out the carpets. They are made with sawdust of bright colors and intricate designs, and others are made of flowers, bringing about beautiful combinations. They take hours and lots of work, and get destroyed in seconds as the procession passes by. These are just some of the best things to do in Antigua during this season.

a carpet made with flowerrs in guatemala during holy week
The alfombras (carpets in English) serve as a form of devotion, artistry, and hospitality. They are laid out to honor and welcome the processions carrying religious images, particularly on Good Friday. 

Itinerary of Activities of Holy Week in Guatemala:

1. It all starts on Palm Sunday – Everywhere you look you’ll find beautiful bouquets of palms and flowers. Then during the afternoon, there is a procession from the famous La Merced Church.

2. Monday – Go for a visit to La Merced church again. There will be a huge exposition of an image on the altar – each year is different. You can also find tons of Guatemalan street food stands outside the church.

3. Tuesday – Visit the San Francisco church, you will find another of these artistic representations featuring an image of Christ carrying a cross. As I mentioned before, they are all completely different.

4. Wednesday – This is a busy day! First, there is a procession from one of the nearby towns. They are floating pieces of art. Then visit Escuela de Cristo Church. You will have another velacion, but this time the image being featured is the one of the dead Christ.

people carrying a religious figure during holy week in guatemala
During Holy Week participants, often dressed in purple robes, accompany the floats through the streets, while others play music and chant prayers.

5. Thursday – You get two different processions. Try to catch them as they go through the cathedral. They do a short dramatization in colorful outfits and even horses, with the full moon as the background.

6. Friday – This is the busiest day of the whole week and where you see the largest processions. Thousands of people come to Antigua to see or carry on their shoulders one of the four processions. One leaves La Merced church at 6 am. At 3 pm, the city changes from purple to black. This is when three more processions leave the Cathedral, Escuela de Cristo and San Felipe. This time they all represent the dead Christ, they are huge and solemn.

Locals don’t sleep the night of Thursday, they spend the night looking at Thursday’s processions, partying, or manufacturing carpets for Friday’s processions. Then spend the whole day walking, eating, and chasing the processions. This is when the best carpets are made so it is a good idea to start the day walking the streets at 5 am looking at the finished carpets, just 30 minutes before the morning procession destroys them.

7. Saturday – During the afternoon you will find two more processions on the streets of Antigua, this time featuring only the images of the Virgin Mary wearing black, representing her loneliness after Jesus Christ died.

8. Sunday – It all ends with a modest yet popular procession announcing the resurrection has happened. This is a day of celebration among Catholics.

people watching a religious procession in holy week guatemala
Not only about religions, but also traditional foods hold cultural significance during Semana Santa and families often come together to prepare and share special dishes that are part of Holy Week traditions.

What food is eaten during Semana Santa in Guatemala? 

There are tons and tons of restaurants in Antigua. But during this time of the year, many little parks around town have food stands. I know this might look scary, sometimes, but it is worth giving this food a chance. It is all part of the experience! All you have to do is choose carefully the stand you buy from.

During Semana Santa in Guatemala, the tradition of food is highly significant. It’s a time when families come together to prepare and enjoy special dishes that hold cultural and religious significance. Many traditional Guatemalan foods are prepared during this time, such as fish dishes like “subanik” (a fish stew) or “molletes” (a fish-based soup), as well as sweet treats like “torrejas” (similar to French toast) and “huevos de leche” (milk candy). 

These foods are often shared with friends and neighbors, and there’s a sense of community as people gather to eat and celebrate together. Certain foods are associated with specific days of Semana Santa, adding to the richness of the culinary tradition during this important religious observance.

Semana Santa is one of the best times to sample the wonderful and diverse types of foods that Guatemala has. 

What to Avoid during Holy Week in Guatemala

During this week you will find people on the streets all night, especially close to the churches open for a velacion. Antigua is also a pretty safe place, but avoid the streets if it is too late. Also avoid the areas close to the market, and the ones on the outer edges of Antigua. It can be dangerous since thieves go crazy during this season.

If you are planning a vacation to Guatemala, this is the season you want to be in. The weather is warm, it doesn’t rain, and you get to experience one of the main aspects of the culture of the locals.

NOTE: Semana Santa 2024 starts on the 24th of March.

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Last Updated on March 2, 2024

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