Start: Saturday, March 3, Antigua
Finish: Sunday, March 4, Antigua
Religious Processions Observed: 1
Hours Spent Wandering Around Antigua: 14
Street Tacos Consumed: 9
After a month, we finally had a chance to explore Antigua! It's hard to believe that our time in Antigua is almost at an end. Until last weekend we have not had a chance to explore the city, even though we walk across it twice a day.
It turns out that we once again happen to be in the right place at the right time. The holiday of Lent began roughly ten days ago, marking the start of many cultural activities and religious observances leading up to Easter. Not only did we see the best the city had to offer, but we were able to witness one of the most amazing yearly events held in Antigua.
Our weekend started with a Saturday morning visit to the central market in Antigua. Every turn of the corner brought new kinds of fruits, veggies, flowers...everything anyone could possibly want to buy, at dirt cheap prices. Produce you'll never see in a supermarket in the US.
Luckily, our Spanish school teachers agreed to accompany us on the two hour trip. It was officially the first field trip I've been on in a decade or two. Our teachers explained to us what the unidentifiable produce was used for, and took us to some of the outlying areas we probably would have missed if we'd been by ourselves.
Also accompanying us are our two friends from Seattle - Whitney and Amanda. They arrived a few days ago, and will be staying with us and attending Spanish school until we leave Antigua.
There are three "market days" in Antigua: Monday, Thursday and Saturday. The market is open every day, however on market days special areas are opened to allow villagers from outlying towns to sell their produce and other goods. As you can see, Saturday is a crazy day at the market. By 10 o' clock it was packed.
This is one of the outside, market-day-only areas. The women on the ground are selling the produce they've grown in small gardens and farms around Antigua. It's not only produce on display, many arrive with baskets of freshly made tortillas, tamales and tostadas to be sold as snacks for hungry market-goers.
The central market may be the largest market in town, but it is far from the only place to shop for trinkets and souvenirs. Textiles are one of the main exports of Guatemala, and are marketed heavily in tourist areas. This small market, setup daily outside a ruined church, shows a typical scene in Antigua - women working with backstrap looms to create tapestries in every color imaginable.
For lunch we stop off at a local eatery with an array of slow-cooked, ceramic-potted meat dishes. Service includes one meat, two sides, tortillas and a tamale. The choice is chicken, lamb, beef, pork, tripe, cow tongue or seafood. I went with a spicy mix of beef, pork and chicken and was not disappointed.
After lunch on Saturday we headed to Jocotenango, a town just north of Antigua, to tour a coffee plantation and learn how professionals taste and grade coffee. But that's a story that will have to wait for another day...
Sunday we hopped on the chicken bus and headed back into town before lunch time. The street near the bus stop was lined with trucks selling fish, clam and shrimp ceviche. We stopped by the Hugo's truck (thrice recommended by others as the best in Antiqua) to sample fish ceviche and a beverage made from beer, lime, salt, vinegar and probably some other stuff I don't need to know about.
The ceviche was awesome, very different than others we've had in the past, made more with vinegar than lime. The beer drink (called picolito, translated: little bite) tasted like your typical hangover cure, almost like a bloody mary. It confuses your taste buds to the point where your stomach doesn't know what to do and just throws in the towel.
Next stop: central park. What better to follow picolitos and tangy ceviche than a cup of Guatemalan coffee? We walk past this park every day on our way to Spanish school, but we've rarely stopped to enjoy scenery, let alone sit and people watch while sipping a delicious cup of Guatemalan brew.
Antigua is famous for its churches, monasteries, and convents. Many, like the ruins of old San José above, stand empty. Abandoned after a huge earthquake leveled Antigua in 1773, or simply closed after years of neglect. These are now preserved sites, protected as part of the city's distinction as being a UNESCO world heritage site.
Sights such as this stucco wall are common as you walk through the streets of Antigua. The struggle of maintaining the city in its current (centuries old) form, and financing the proper reconstruction of both private and public buildings is an ongoing struggle for residents of the city.
With rising real-estate prices and cost of living expenses, it's difficult for many life-long residents to pay the bills, let alone reconstruct a 300 year old wall in such a way that it does not violate the UNESCO stipulations that the city be preserved in its current state.
Up next on our tour of Antiguan churches is San Francisco. Our language school is a half block away and this is the first time we've been inside the walls. Parts of this church date back to the 1500s, which may make it the oldest structure in Antigua. The church as it stands today was completed in 1702, and was partially destroyed and rebuilt during four major earthquakes in the 18th century.
The church courtyard was filed with street vendors selling fruits, souvenirs and delicious street tacos. The lady pictured above is making tortillas by hand on a wood-fired griddle. Served with a side of steak, salad, beans, guacamole and hot sauce for the unbelievable price of $2.
Back out into the streets of Antigua, we start to see signs of the main attraction. People are beginning to make alfombras (carpets) in preparation for the procession that will wind its way through the streets of Antigua beginning around noon and ending after midnight.
The Catholic holiday of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (a week or two ago) and ends with Good Friday, followed by Easter on Sunday. During the five weekends of Lent and Easter one church in Antigua is chosen to organize a procession on Sunday.
Along the procession routes, residents of Antigua construct carpets to provide a beautiful walkway for the floats (andas) and bearers carrying a statue of Christ with the cross.
Planning the carpets can begin months in advance. They are painstakingly assembled over many hours using fruits, vegetables and colored sawdust. The final goal is to have the carpet completed just in time for the procession to pass over it, destroying the carpet in the process.
The carpets range in size, shape and building materials. The obvious common theme is that they are all made as brightly colored as possible. The toy trucks on the corners of this carpet hold cashew fruits. They look a bit like sweet peppers, the little green stem being the raw cashew nut.
Sawdust or sand is used to create a level platform on which to build the carpet. As you've seen, the streets of Antigua are anything but flat. Carpets typically express religious messages and symbols, but more contemporary designs are also found - the carpet above was clearly made by a local "five star" hotel.
Rewinding a couple days to Friday, we visited the church Santa Inés with our Spanish teachers, a twenty minute walk east of Antigua. Santa Inés was chosen church of the week, hosting a special alfombra and velacióne (vigil). Unlike the carpets constructed in the hours before the procession, this carpet was built by the members of the church during the week leading up to the procession.
The velacióne stands in the church above the carpet in the days leading up to the procession and usually takes the form of a a sculpture depicting a biblical story or specific message chosen by the members of the church. In this case, the story depicted is Mary Magdalene showing penance by washing the feet of Jesus.
Back to Sunday, and we head up the main street leading out of Antigua towards Santa Inés and the start of the procession. As you can see, some Antiguan drivers didn't get the memo, traffic was a complete mess.
We picked out an empty spot in front of a lengthy alfombra to await the procession. The men dressed in purple who walk the procession route are called cucuruchos. The purple robes signify the penitent, displaying their repentance and willingness to change.
As the floats draw nearer, it becomes obvious that they've done this sort of thing before. Along either side of the float you can see two long purple poles. Their purpose? To push power lines up and out of the way.
The float, which can weigh up to 7000lbs, is carried by ranking members of the church in a symbol of penance and sacrifice. The altar holding Christ accompanies every procession during the Lent celebrations, with the remainder of the statues depicting stories chosen by the church organizing the procession.
Following the procession is another parade, this one consisting of brooms, a dump truck and a bulldozer. Once the procession walks over the carpet the offerings of fruit and flowers are collected by the street audience, and anything remaining is quickly swept away.
Up Next: One more week in Antigua and it's back to Lanquin and a few sights we missed in northern Guatemala before heading back south to El Salvador and Nicaragua for the Easter holiday.