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TRAVELING IN STYLE : PASSION CITY : A Beautiful Town in the Guatemala Highlands Celebrates Holy Week With World-Famous Flair and Drama

March 07, 1993|MIKE MCINTYRE | Mike McIntyre is a writer from California now living in Antigua. He is finishing a book on his travels around the world, to be titled "All Over the Map."

BEFORE SUNRISE ON GOOD FRIDAY IN ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA, LOcal citizens dressed as Roman soldiers storm through the city on horseback to announce the sentencing of Christ to death. Residents hurry to finish their alfombras , carpets of flowers and dyed sawdust that will blanket the cobblestone streets. Celebrants gather outside the baroque facade of the church of Nuestra Senora de la Merced, waiting to witness the procession that re-enacts Christ's progress to his crucifixion.

Shortly after dawn, 80 men in purple tunics surround a portable platform inside the church doors. The anda , as it is called, bears a wooden image of Christ that was sculpted in 1650. The platform is solid cedar and weighs 7,000 pounds. The penitents, called cucuruchos ("cornets," after the cone-shaped headgear they sometimes wear), hoist it onto their shoulders with considerable effort. They want to be punished. They want to be forgiven. They want to be blessed.

When the statue of Christ appears in the doorway, the crowd outside falls quiet and kneels. The procession begins: Pontius Pilate, incense carriers, the anda , a band playing a death march, a smaller platform holding a 17th-Century statue of the Virgin Mary (this one carried by women), another band. They move at funereal speed. Besides the 80 men who bear the anda , an additional four men push from behind, while a fifth man steers and keeps the penitents in lock step. Several other volunteers raise utility wires overhead with trident poles to prevent them from snagging the cross. The procession often continues through the city well into the night. After dark, lights powered by a portable generator illuminate the anda .

The story of the Passion of Christ is an old one, a story often told--a story that always ends the same way. But during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, here in this Guatemalan city, it is a story charged with such passion and drama that it seems as if it is being told for the first time.

There may be Semana Santa celebrations bigger than Antigua's, but there is surely none more solemn or more spectacular in Latin America. Antigua and Holy Week are virtually inseparable. The city may have led a chaotic existence over the past four centuries, but Semana Santa remains a constant, an immovable feast. What the hajj is to Mecca, Semana Santa is to Antigua.

When I first arrived in the city last year, it was Holy Week--or at least its prelude--that welcomed me. Although Semana Santa officially lasts from Palm Sunday to Easter, a procession wends its way into town from one of the surrounding villages each Sunday in Lent (which begins about six weeks before Easter). On one such Sunday, I watched a stream of hundreds of penitents walking out of town, toward the mountains, to join the procession at its source. The streets were clogged. The line of faithful seemed to stretch out forever.

A COLONIAL CITY FOUNDED BY THE SPANISH IN 1543, ANTIGUA IS SET IN A VOLCAno-rimmed valley in the Guatemalan highlands, about 30 miles west of Guatemala City, the capital. It has a population of about 25,000--though this swells to more than a quarter million during Semana Santa.

As important as Semana Santa is to Antigua, though, the city is known for something else as well--an activity far less spectacular, but one that lasts all year, with effects reaching far beyond the local community: the teaching of Spanish. Thousands of students--U.S. undergraduates, military personnel, European backpackers, Japanese businessmen and retirees--arrive here each month to study the language. It is difficult, in fact, to find a foreigner who has come to Antigua--for the first time, anyway--for a reason other than to study Spanish. The price is certainly attractive: One-on-one instruction, plus room and board with a local family, costs about $85 a week. The tourist office lists 30 language schools, but there are probably twice that many. A new shingle seems to be hung every week--and there are scores of private tutors. To put it simply, Spanish is the local industry. You could say that Antigua is a factory town without smokestacks.

A factory town, yes, but what a lovely one.

The sun shines almost every day here, but the temperature in these cool highlands rarely climbs above 80. Bougainvillea spills over the tall colonial facades. Majestic purple volcanoes define the landscape. (One of these, known locally as Fuego, meaning fire, still belches smoke and throws off a red glow at night.) Gaze down any street and you'll see what looks like a doctored photo in a tourist brochure --except that it's all real. Antigua has no time-share condos just outside the frame to spoil the pretty picture.

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