It is early morning, a few days before Good Friday. Low clouds hang over the mountains, a mist-white halo forming the backdrop to the narrow, cobblestone streets of Antigua, Guatemala. It is Holy Week – Semana Santa – and the city is alive with spiritual fervour. Outside the rows of pastel-coloured houses, hundreds of residents—men and women, children and the elderly—kneel as if in prayer, meticulously laying out colourful sawdust to create vibrant, patterned carpets that will, eventually, stretch over miles of the city’s historic stone streets.
These carpets, known by their Spanish name, alfombra, play an integral role in Antigua’s week-long Easter celebrations. The tradition was brought to Antigua during colonial times by Spanish missionaries from Seville, and commemorates the Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. During the week, which falls between March 22 and April 23 – depending on where Easter falls in a particular year, thousands of travellers flood the city’s labyrinthine byways to witness the creation of these intricate masterpieces.
To make the alfombra, sand is spread over the cobbled streets to create a flat workspace. Next, the elaborate designs are created by using cardboard or carved wooden stencils and sawdust dyed in vibrant shades of indigo, blue, green, violet, black, red, and golden yellow. Many of these stencils have been passed down from generation to generation and depict Bible stories or religious scenes. However, new stencils are created every year, making each carpet a unique, unparalleled visual feast. From nature scenes to designs inspired by Mayan traditions, and even carpets depicting popular soccer teams, each alfombra is created painstakingly, a single spoonful of sawdust at a time, making the process a deeply meditative experience.
Since there are no official guidelines to creating these stunning works of art, residents are free to experiment; some scatter flower petals and pine needles over the sawdust, others spend hours meticulously placing coloured dust to achieve fine edges and complex designs. Bottle caps, seeds, vegetables, and even tea bags are used to accentuate these splendid works of art, and watering cans are used to keep the sawdust damp and compacted, preventing the carpets from being swept away prematurely by the chill spring wind. The effect is breathtaking—an expanse of dazzling rainbows stretching for blocks and blocks, sometimes as much as a mile long.
But Semana Santa is a festival honouring the Crucifixion of Christ, and the act of carpet-making is sacrificial in nature. Soon after these exquisite creations are finished, dozens of parade floats will make their procession over them, trampling the delicate designs underfoot. It’s strange to imagine toiling so long only to see your creation destroyed, but it is this symbolic act that makes the alfombras all the more beautiful; just as Jesus Christ sacrificed himself for mankind, so too do the residents of Antigua offer up these gorgeous works of art to honor Christ’s death and pay penance. Within hours of their demolition, work begins on a new design. This process of creation and destruction continues throughout Holy Week, with the finest and most intricate carpets lovingly crafted in the cold, moonlit hours before the sun rises over the volcanoes to usher in the dawn of Good Friday.
Our Treasures of Central America tour stops for three days in Antigua, allowing you plenty of time to immerse yourself in the rich spiritual history of this beautiful city, a recognized UNESCO World Heritage site. From the bougainvillea-covered walls to the picturesque volcanic backdrop, Antigua Guatemala and its Semana Santa offers travellers an experience they will not soon forget.