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Guatemala: Easter Festival, ChiChi and a chicken bus

Usually independent travelers, they toured with Montana-based Adventure Life Journeys, joining seven other travelers to experience the nine-day Easter Festival and much more.

Christ carries his cross on a 5,000- to 6,000-pound float, or anda, which is carried through the streets of Antigua.

Pastel-colored homes, cobblestone streets, purple banners and looming volcanoes were our first glimpses of Antigua, home of the world-famed Easter Festival.

After a 45-minute ride from Guatemala City, my husband and I passed through an intricate wrought-iron door into Hotel Aurora. Its plain façade belied the lovely courtyard brimming with aromatic roses, chrysanthemums and bougainvillea circling a stone fountain.

Usually independent travelers, we decided to tour with Montana-based Adventure Life Journeys. Joining seven other travelers, we experienced the nine-day "Easter Festival," ChiChicastenango and Solola Markets, Lake Atitlan, a macademia plantation, indigenous markets, villages and Maximon (a Mayan deity). We journeyed on tuk tuks (open air taxis), a flatbed truck, lancha (motorboat), van and chicken bus.

The first morning we met Hugo, our Guatemala-born guide. He led us to the best curbs for procession viewing, shared legends, history and tales with humor and a twinkle in his coffee-brown eyes.

Holy Week or Semana Santa unfolds

Antigua swells with thousands of national and international travelers wanting to experience this extraordinary Catholic celebration commemorating the Passion, Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Arriving midweek, we spent Wednesday and Thursday chasing processions, admiring alfombra carpets on cobblestone streets and visiting nearby villages.

Good Friday processions began at 3 a.m., when participants dressed as Roman soldiers or Pontius Pilate in preparation for a mock trial and sentencing of Christ. Hugo met us early as we hurried to meet the 7 a.m. sculpture of Christ carrying his crucifix and shouldered by his devotees. Purple robes and hoods were exchanged for black later in the day.

On Holy Saturday, women dressed in mourning while shouldering the sculpture of a sorrowful Virgin Mary. Sunday, people dressed in white to commemorate the Resurrection of Christ.

Anda floats and Alfombra carpets

Hugo whispered to me, "Get on the street before the Anda turns the corner. Photographers are allowed to do this." I made my way excitedly through a four-deep crowd.

Camera ready, striding backward to get the best photo, I had my first view of the 5,000- to 6,000-pound float lumbering side-to-side on the cobblestones. Shouldering its weight were 50 to 100 curcuruchas or carriers. Solemn expressions on faces, the purple-robed and hooded men stepped in rhythmn down the street.

Preceding the float, the marching band’s funeral music crashed through the air. Thick incense created a haunting, ghost-like fog. Crowds hushed with occasional gasps and tears.

Between processions, alfombras received final touches by families and friends. Striking in designs, colors and stunning in beauty, they appeared to be luxurious carpets. In reality, sand is spread to level the cobblestones. Pine needles or dyed sawdust of brilliant reds, blues, greens, yellows and black are pressed into a patterned stencil. Creative motifs include biblical designs, flowers, birds and fish. Sprayed water is the final touch to keep them fresh.

Short-lived, the carpets become prey to the Roman Centurions and processions that passed over it. Remaining are grains of sand, bits of sawdust, pine needles and petals. Another carpet will replace it overnight. Labors of love, the carpets’ creators find pride in their beauty and contribution to Jesus.

ChiChi Market to Posada de Santiago

We wound through sharp-forested ridges, small towns and, three hours out of Antigua, we arrived at Chichicastenango or "ChiChi" (locals’ name). Perched on a hillside in the western highlands, it is referred to as the "most famous market in the Mundo (Maya World)."

The scent of flowers; banter of bargaining; woven textiles, bright-colored clothing, weavings, carved-wooden masks and beaded jewelry filled vendor's stalls in the central plaza.

Adjacent to the market is the 400-year-old Church of Santo Tomas. Respectfully, we entered through the right side door. Originally, the steps led to a pre-Hispanic Mayan temple. Each of the 18 stairs represents a month in the Mayan calendar. Copa, pine needle incense, permeated the air as Shaman and believers occupied the stairs. Inside are Catholic and Mayan altars with yellow, white and rose colored candles lit for protection.

After several hours, we left ChiChi and headed for volcanic Lake Atitlan. Many hairpin turns later, we came to the crest of a hill overlooking the cerulean-colored lake that Aldous Huxley named "the most beautiful lake in the world."

Lakeside, we took a boat for 30 minutes to the dock of Posada de Santiago. "Casa Luna" was our stone cottage for three nights. Subtropical 2-foot ferns, birds of paradise, palms, chirping birds and a hammock filled our terrace.

Hugo met us early the next morning. We hopped a flatbed truck and headed for the nearby town of Santiago de Atitlan. Meandering through old town, we viewed a silk scarf-draped Maximon statue in the dark room of a house. Every year, he is taken in by a different family and decked out with food, rum, cigarettes and lit candles. Devotees pray for help such as receiving rain, good crops and other requests.

After visiting Maximon, we decided to take a tuk tuk back to the Posada. Hopping in, I looked at the driver and asked, "How old are you?" Smiling, he said, "Eleven years old."

With that, we sped through narrow streets with glimpses of women washing clothes on rocks of the lake. Cost of the ride: about 50 cents.

Solala, a chicken bus and back to Antigua

Winds were wild, causing 3-foot swells as we crossed Lake Atitlan on a “bucking” lancha. We caught a chicken bus to Solola, a hillside local produce market filled with squawking chickens, textiles and household goods. After fleeing aggressive hawkers, we returned to the lake by bus.

Once basic U.S. yellow school buses, now they are painted with vivid primary colors. Our descent down the steep road from Solola was thrilling. About 52 of us sat "cheek by jowl" in aisles and seats, along with a peeping chick.

The next day, we returned to Antigua. Heading into town, it felt as though I only dreamt of an energy-filled city in the western highlands of Guatemala. People were going about their regular business. The crowds, processions, andas, curcuruchas, purple banners, alfombras, music and incense were gone – until next year.

(Sandra Kennedy is a freelance writer living in Tualatin who has experienced cultures in 31 different countries.)

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