Truth be told, Guatemala has plenty of sights that leave me thinking, “Well, that was nice…” but not something I’d recommend anyone pay hundreds of dollars on travel to see. Take Lake Atitlán, where I live.
Aldous Huxley, author of the book Brave New World, has been overwhelmingly, annoyingly, and pervasively misquoted in brochures, books, blogs, websites—pretty much anywhere you look—as having said that Lake Atitlán is the “most beautiful lake in the world.” Now, Mr. Huxley did compare Atitlán to Italy’s Lake Como in his book Beyond the Mexique Bay, adding that it has “several immense volcanoes,” but this “most beautiful lake in the world” remark was one he did not make. And still, people have embraced and lauded this misquote while often adding their own two cents. Atitlán is also described as mystical, magical, and magnetic.
You know what the lake is? It’s a freaking lake. It’s a body of water surrounded by a bunch of hills—and, yes, it’s home to three giant volcanoes, but a volcano is kind of like a mountain, and we’ve all seen mountains before, haven’t we, folks??
Ahem. Sorry about that. And my apologies to Lake Atitlán. You’re a perfectly fine lake, but please, let’s take it down a notch.
Anyway, the point that I’m trying to make (circuitously) is that while I’m often sort of wowed by places, events, and the utter lack of half-and-half in Guatemala, I knew that when it came to celebrating Semana Santa (the Holy Week leading up to Easter) in Antigua, I should adjust my expectations. I had been told it was incredible and not to miss, and I assumed it would be fun and certainly different, but I was also prepared for it to not live up to the hype. And so I was completely bowled over when I realized that I was enjoying it so much. Indeed, so much that I would recommend anyone with a handful of vacation days and a nominal interest in Easter come experience it for themselves. Here are a five reasons why:
1. You’ll finally get Easter. I was raised Catholic and have a reasonable understanding of what the holiday is all about: Jesus died for our sins, rose from the dead, and appointed a rabbit to bring us Peeps and Cadbury cream eggs to remind us how thankful we should be for mass-produced sweets. It’s pretty straightforward.
In Antigua, however, the holiday takes on a whole new depth. Indeed, if you want to truly understand this idea of Jesus suffering—and even attach some kind of emotional value to it (even if you’re a nonbeliever like me)—there is absolutely nothing like watching 80 men with eyes closed and pained faces slowly marching a more-than-6,000-pound depiction of a cross-bearing Jesus along a craggy cobblestone street beneath a hot, tropical sun. You get the idea of suffering and sacrifice because people are suffering and sacrificing before your eyes. No reading of the bible could make it quite as real. And this is just one part of Semana Santa. There are special events for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and all throughout the Lenten season. You’ll see men on horseback dressed like Roman soldiers, ceremonies for the washing of Jesus’s feet, and celebrations of the resurrection. I certainly didn’t see everything, but I still took away more from three days of Semana Santa than I ever did years of Sunday school. The only odd part about it all was there were no bunnies.
2. There’s so much to see—and at all hours of the day. Case in point: On Thursday, we saw a handful of religious processions in the afternoon, grabbed dinner, and then took a nap. We woke at 10:00 p.m. and headed out to watch carpets being made for the next day’s processions. We returned to our hotel at 1:00 a.m., took another nap, and got back up at 3:30 a.m. to see the first procession of Good Friday leave from a church called La Merced. We roamed around, admiring more carpets (while shivering in the cold), until 6:00 a.m. and then went back to bed. By noon, we were out on the streets for more. And we weren’t the only ones following this crazy schedule; both Shon and I saw friends and coworkers on the streets at all hours of the day and night. It’s intense and exhausting but totally fun. And it’s what you make of it. You can try to see it all or choose events a la carte. But be sure to check out plenty of carpets—they’re the best part.
3. It’s incredibly well-organized, which is impressive considering the influx of thousands of people to a very small city. Despite the giant crowds, the entire holiday felt friendly and utterly civil. We were as comfortable walking around seeing the sights at midday as we were at midnight (when there were events going on) and not once did the large quantity of people seem unbearable or out of control. Of course, for some, the presence of police and national guardsmen with fat machine guns on nearly every other corner might be an unnerving sight, but the presence of so many fatigue-clad and weapon-touting men and women clearly instilled a sense of fear in anyone with malicious intents. (I feel obligated to note here that pickpocketing is a problem during Semana Santa, though our wallets remained ours.)
I was also impressed by the handy supply of information. Booths were set up in Antigua’s central plaza with free maps and schedules printed in both English and Spanish. Police carried maps to help you try to find your way around. There were also free public toilets and plenty of trash cans everywhere. Indeed, the city was incredibly clean. We saw dozens of people apparently employed solely to roam the streets and pick up trash, and even processions were followed by a group of men who swept up destroyed street carpets, leaving streets pristine.
4. It’s cheap. Yes, prices for hotels, restaurants, and other services do go up around Semana Santa, but travel in Guatemala is inexpensive to start. So, while Antigua may not be as cheap at Easter as it is during other parts of the year, it can still make for a very economical trip.
5. It’s not just about Easter. Not only do you get to witness Antigua’s take on Easter during Semana Santa, but you’ll also see plenty of traditional Mayan dress, get to taste endless amounts of typical food (street vendors galore sell delicious eats), and have the opportunity to watch local families come together to celebrate the holiday. What’s more, with so much going on, it’s easy to take a day trip or two outside of the city without missing much. Plan a volcano hike, take a trip to the Tikal ruins, visit Lake Atitlán (it’s the most beautiful lake in the world!), or play a round or two of golf (there’s a Pete Dye-designed course just 30 minutes away). Guaranteed, another procession will be waiting for you when you return.