Photos: Antigua’s Alfombras, the Beautiful Sacred Carpets of Semana Santa
No one celebrates Easter quite like they do in Antigua. For the month of Lent, processions march through the streets each Sunday, carrying massive platform with statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary. But the real fun begins the Sunday before Easter, when local families and business begin creating alfombras, intricate carpets made out of dyed sawdust, grass, flowers and vegetables. It’s an incredible (and fleeting) sight.
For days and days, people are busy dyeing sawdust — first it’s run through a screen to weed out the rough bits. Then small bags of dye are added and it’s stirred by hand. The color is adjusted as needed and this takes some skill — a seemingly green dye was added to a fresh batch and the mixer explained that the final product would be purple. I was doubtful but he proved right in the end.
The majority of alfombras are created with the use of intricately-carved plywood stencils. I asked the manager of my hotel, Yellow House, whether these were traditional patterns passed down through the family or if each alfombra was different. She explained that they save the stencils each year but that each carpet is unique, mixing and matching designs from the past or being created entirely from scratch.
I do have to give a hearty recommendation for Yellow House in Antigua — I stayed there two weeks over two visits and found it to be the friendliest, cleanest place I stayed in all of Guatemala. The free breakfast was great, showers hot (without being deadly) and the patio had a view of all the volcanos. [Full disclosure -- they did trade me three nights stay for a mention, but I wouldn't have stayed there 2 weeks if I didn't think it was a good value.] I can’t wait to go back.
The amount of detail that people managed to coax from sawdust and sand was stunning. I especially like the one with tiny penitents carrying an anda (wooden platform) and about to walk across an alfrombra of their own.
And that’s their fate — these beautiful, amazingly-detailed carpets have life spans of just a few hours. After being finished, cared for and admired by the crowds, they will soon be trod upon by a procession of thousands of worshipers.
Sawdust wasn’t the only material of choice, however. Many alfrombas were created from large blankets of grass, covered in flowers, fruits and other natural goodies. Some of the most popular carpets, judging from the huge crowds that hovered nearby, where made entirely of fruits and vegetables. The one you see here was at least 50 feet long and 10 feet wide — 500 square feet of fresh produce, stacked high and awaiting destruction.
This goes on for days and most groups will build several alfrombas over the course of the week. But the big night is the Thursday before Good Friday, when everyone stays up most of the night to assemble the most intricate, flamboyant carpets you can imagine. They race through the night to finish their creations before the procession rolls through in the early morning and destroys it all. Thankfully, the hotel provided snacks, coffee and rum to keep us going through the night.
And when the procession rolls through, you’d best step away. Thousands of hooded penitents roam the street with 80 of them carrying a 5,000 pound anda, moving lock-step through the cobblestone streets. A band follows close behind and more thousands of pilgrims, penitents, families and tourists follow in their wake. It’s a wave of humanity.
And after they’ve all passed by, a small crew of men scrape up the remains and shovel them into a small bulldozer that follows the procession. Within moments, the street is clean with only a few splashes of colorful dye showing that anything happened here at all.