The Flower Carpets of Antigua Presage Easter in Guatemala
Every year during Holy Week, amazing carpets composed of flowers, vegetables, fruits and dyed sawdust adorn the streets of Antigua, Guatemala– a lovely Colonial city home to Latin America’s most famous Easter celebration.
Antigua is a small city of 35,000 people defined by cobblestoned streets and surrounded by three volcanoes, just an hour’s drive from Guatemala City. In a tradition as unique as Antigua’s geography, floral carpets, called alfombras, are created anew each day by locals in the days leading up to Easter. The petals and produce are trampled on by processions of the devout that take place day and night, many of whose participants are clad in deep purple robes with hoods, who carry floats of life-sized religious statues and icons. Carpet patterns can depict flowers, birds, geometric shapes, religious symbology, and any other designs that arise in the fertile imaginations of their volunteer creators.
“There is no annual theme– every group does their own thing. My favorites are the organic-looking carpets handcrafted with fruits and vegetables, though the sawdust ones are quite beautiful and colorful,” says Ann Flower, president of Ann Flower Communications, a Los Angeles public relations firm, whose client is Bella Guatemala Travel (BGT).
“Flowers I’ve spotted include bird of paradise, roses, calla lilies, bougainvillea, hydrangea, heliconia, chrysanthemums, daisies, sunflowers, and sea lavender,” adds the aptly-named Flower. “Vegetables and fruits I’ve seen range from pineapples, corn, mangoes, watermelons, papayas, cabbage, carrots, red bell peppers, potatoes, beans, oranges, broccoli, beets to green onions,” she adds.
Antigua’s Easter carpets and festivities are so popular that over one million visitors come to see them annually. As a result, solo travelers are advised to book Antigua hotels months ahead, or to travel from Guatemala City to see the iconic floral display.
“Holy Week in Antigua, called Semana Santa, is a truly unique cultural experience in staunchly Catholic Guatemala, and reflects the religious fervor imported from Spain 500 years ago,” says Elsie YiDonoy, CEO of BGT.
Excitement in Antigua reaches a peak on Good Friday (April 14, in 2017), when morning processions leave from La Merced, a 17th-century church and ruined monastery, formally called Iglesia y Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Merced. Lily designs adorn the entrance arch of the yellow church, and the huge fountain, 80 feet wide, inside the ruins is shaped like a water lily (a symbol of power to ancient Mayans). Another procession in late afternoon departs from Escuela de Cristo, and crucifixion enactments sometimes take place in the green Parque Central.
Even if you’re not lucky enough to see Antigua at Easter, processions and vigils take place each weekend during Lent in the 40 days before Easter Sunday. Other cities also have street carpets at Easter: the Guinness World Record for longest sawdust and floral carpet was set in 2014 in Guatemala City, the capital. Over a mile long at 6,600 feet (over 2,000 feet longer than the previous record-holder), it took over 5,000 volunteers and over 50 tons of dyed sawdust to produce it.
Local scholar Elizabeth Bell has written a booklet that explains the celebrations in detail, including Lent and Holy Week in Antigua, plus a book, Antigua Guatemala: The City and Its Heritage. For an up-close-and-personal look at past floral carpet Easter displays, check out the gallery, below.