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An Easter Experience in Guatemala

By Anna, Ciao Bella Travel’s Central & South American Correspondent

My love affair with Latin America began over fourteen years ago, when, as a somewhat naïve seventeen year old, I landed in Guatemala for the start of a twelve month exchange program. And just like that I was hooked. The sights, the smells, the sounds and most of all the people continue to draw me back to this really magical place. I write this from Costa Rica, where I have lived for the past 10 months, but it’s Guatemala that continues to hold a special place in my heart.

This time of year, Easter, or Semana Santa is of particular importance in a country where Catholicism continues to dominate, and it is when the villages, towns and cities come alive with colour, and where the dedication and spirit of the Guatemalans is perhaps most evident. Preparations begin weeks in advance when communities get together to dye literally tonnes of sawdust which they will eventually turn into spectacular alfrombras or carpets to cover the streets. It is testament to the strong sense of community that exists here that arrangements such as who pays, who does the work and where the heck do you keep all this sawdust are done seamlessly and with little fuss.

Making the alfrombas took our neighbourhood a solid three days. First the base is laid, followed by layer upon layer of intricate stencils and designs. For these 3 days we boarded up our street and took it in turns to work around the clock filling in the stencils or standing vigil, protecting our precious creation from stray dogs, mules and horses that tend to wander the streets.

The alfrombras are made in honour of a procession which I awaited with anticipation, figuring that the procession must be pretty impressive given all the preparation. When the big moment finally arrived I have to admit it was more than an anticlimax for me. The procession is made up of a somewhat simple float of Jesus on the cross, carried on the shoulders of a group of around 20 men. I clearly remember having to physically resist the urge to run in front of it to stop it from trampling on our precious alfrombra. But just like that it passes, pausing for prayers before heading on its way to cross over the several kilometres of alfrombras that were created in my village alone. And before you know it, those same people who spent countless hours creating this masterpiece, are sweeping it up and burning it off.

Travelling to Guatemala is not without its risks. High crime rates particularly in the city and bigger towns means extra precautions should be taken. As a single female traveller you can expect to hear a lot of cat calls and general heckling from the macho local males. Ignoring, dressing conservatively and smiling vaguely are some of the tactics I use, sometimes successfully. For the most part it’s just something you will have to deal with. In terms of highlights and must sees – without bias there are so many – Tikal – the Mayan ruins, Antigua – the old capital, Volcan Pacaya – takes you to the top of the world and places you in touching distance of real lava, Panajachel and Lake Atitlan, Chichicastenango and the list goes on.

Helpful websites:

www.bateaux-mouches.fr/

www.chateauversailles.fr/fr/

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