Sawdust, incense and electric candlelight

Strolling down bright cobbled terraces past intricate fountains and facades, we could have landed in a Renaissance Mediterranean town rather than poverty-stricken Guatemala.

Once a booming cultural capital, Antigua was crippled by a great earthquake. But beneath its crumbling plasterwork the city still beats with grandiose colonial pride, and its Semana Santa celebrations rank amongst the best in Central America.

Before long the bustling centre was packed with vibrant costumes, thudding drums and swirling purple silk. And the rich, ceremonial aroma of Frankincense filled the air whenever an intricately-sculpted effigy slid solemnly past to the tune of its own brass band.

Hours of delicate stencil work were poured into the colourful palm-and-sawdust carpets that lay on the cobbles, through which the processions had to trample – only for the designs to be painstakingly rebuilt for the next, and the next. Before that Thursday night was done we would soak up the infectious spirit and lend a hand ourselves, scraping knees and staining fingers bright festive shades in the early hours.

Good Friday saw jubliant purple give way to sombre black, and besuited men marched mournfully through the curling wisps of Frankincense that still lingered in the air. As evening drew in the finale was a great white tomb of Christ, flickering by electric candlelight and borne by forty men. Attendants hoisted telegraph wires out of its path while another trundled behind with a portable generator to power the piercing flames.

Antigua, Guatemala – 28th March 2005

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