Last updated: 11:00 PM ET, Tue February 16 2016

Opinion Home | Far-Sighted Field Notes

  • Rosalind Cummings-Yeates | February 16, 2016 11:00 PM ET

    From Mayan Kings to Christian Processions: Guatemala’s Easter Carpets

    From Mayan Kings to Christian Processions: Guatemala’s Easter Carpets

    Photos by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates

    Sometimes when you stay open to the unexpected during travel, you experience more luck than when you plan out every little detail.

    That’s what happened to me last year when I landed in Guatemala a week after Easter. This Central American nation is famous for the colorful, temporary carpets or alfombras that cover the cobblestone streets of most towns during Semana Santa or Easter Week. But I was thrilled to arrive in Guatemala City long after the Easter festivities to find that there was still some carpets left.

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    Churches were still hosting processions and these carpets are an important feature. The first one I saw was dedicated to Saint Francisco, known as Francis of Assisi in English. The alfombra displayed a simple arrangement of yellow petals and grass, and there were still students nearby who had just created the piece.

    Although the Easter week procession rituals date back to 14th century Spain, the carpets are actually a Mayan tradition, created from local materials for kings to walk upon.

    Today, colored sawdust is typically used to create the more elaborate carpets but flowers, grass, berries, leaves and fruit are also featured, which is what I mostly saw in Guatemala City. 

    Traditionally, the carpets line the streets during Holy Week, which is the last week of Lent (March 20-26 for 2016). Huge processions of floats or andas with statues of Jesus on the cross are carried by purple-robed men and a float with the Virgin Mary is escorted by women in black. All the participants walk on the carpets during their journey to and from the church.

    There are two kinds of carpets that are made for Guatemala’s Semana Santa. The first is the winding carpets that cover the processional route, which are designed by residents, and the second are the carpets inside the churches that are made for the holy vigils held by the brotherhoods. Cardboard molds are laid out to craft the carpet images and colored sawdust and flowers and plants are arranged inside the molds.

    It was exciting to see schoolgirls finishing up a carpet and standing by to join the procession. I watched them sprinkle the last few flower petals on their carpets and pat the arrangement down on the cobblestone street. They were clearly proud of their work and it was wonderful to actually witness the process of creating the carpets. Down the street, some boys were squirting water on the carpets outside the church where the procession would end. The water keeps the carpets fresh and the materials from flying away in a breeze.

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    I also spotted carpets outside a church when I visited Santiago Atitlan, located a few hours outside of Guatemala City. These towns didn't display the long, complex carpets that Antigua is noted for but it was still a memorable experience to see the care supplied to creations that would be destroyed by hundreds of feet only a few hours later.

    The parties and revelry of Carnival always get the focus for Easter travel but if you have the chance to visit Guatemala during March, don’t miss the more serene excitement of the Easter carpets.

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Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Far-Sighted Field Notes

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Rosalind Cummings-Yeates is a journalist, author and blogger who specializes in travel and culture topics. She loves guiding readers through the richness of various cultures and discovering the essence of a destination. Her travel and culture blog, Farsighted Fly Girl, offers travel insights through the music, food, art and history of various countries and cultures. Join her on the journey at www.Rosalindcummingsyeates.
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