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Stories from our Travelers

Semana Santa in the Old and New Worlds

Brotherhood, © Robert Paul van Beets

Incense, © inmapryor

Penitentes, © Robert Paul van Beets
by Cynthia Pearson

[From Fall 2008]

Torches flicker in the dark street and candles glow on the float. Pressed against a wall on the narrow sidewalk, I can almost touch some of the kneeling men resting beneath their burden. Their faces are dripping with sweat. In a moment the drums begin again, their leader counts off the signal to rise and they resume carrying the float down the street. Another float comes into view in the opposite direction. It is the night of Holy Thursday in Popayán, Colombia.

Beginning in 1492, the city of Sevilla on Spain’s Atlantic coast was the point of embarkation for explorers and conquistadores headed to the New World. The elaborate observances of Holy Week (Semana Santa) have been among the most enduring of the customs those voyagers carried with them. While processions in the Roman Catholic world are common, the Semana Santa processions of southern Spain and certain areas of Latin America are in a class by themselves. They typically feature a large number of hand-carried platforms with statues and scenery that depict scenes of the Passion of Christ. These float-like objects (pasos) can be small enough to be carried by only a half-dozen men but some weigh several tons and require up to 50 men to bear them. They travel city streets on prescribed schedules and routes that end either at the local cathedral or their home church. Drums alone or marching bands provide the cadence. One need not be a devout Christian or a believer of any stripe to appreciate the spectacle of the processions or the religious impulse that drives the participants.

The processions occur each day during Semana Santa in the larger cities and on Thursday, Friday and Sunday in the smaller ones. They begin in the late afternoon and continue until the early hours of the next morning. Huge numbers of people turn out as spectators, although the family groups tend to go home by ten or eleven o’clock. The marchers carry torches and there are sconces for torches in the streets. The most important of the pasos start after dark has fallen and may have hundreds of candles burning on them. Applause is often heard for the most spectacular, such as those with the Virgin, elaborately gowned, bejeweled and sitting on a throne.

Semana Santa processions are held many places in southern Europe but those of real magnitude occur in the cities of Andalucía in southern Spain. Sevilla’s are the largest, but Granada, Cádiz, Córdoba, and Málaga also are host to elaborate processions. Cities all over Latin America hold these processions but Antigua, Guatemala and Popayán, in southern Colombia, perform the most extensive observances. In addition to the processions and multiple church services in Popayán, excellent concerts are held throughout the week with musicians brought in from Europe and North America for the purpose. In Antigua, people make elaborate designs on the streets from flower petals and pine needles.

The common features of both Old and New World processions are the themes of the pasos and the role of the brotherhoods. Each paso is particular to a brotherhood or order, membership in which is often hereditary. The members are variously called confriades, penitentes or nazarenos. They maintain their respective paso and either carry it or march in front of it during the processions. Each paso also has a marshal who controls the cadence and the rest stops. Those members who march in front of the pasos are dressed in variously colored robes and wear tall pointed hats that, to a North American eye, are uncomfortably similar to the dress of the Ku Klux Klan. However, the hats are supposedly ancient symbols of a reach toward heaven, like a church spire. The men who carry the pasos, sometimes called portadores, consider the backbreaking work to be both an honor and a religious obligation.

There are several differences between the Old and New World. In Spain, the bottoms of the pasos are usually curtained so that the bearers are not seen and they truly seem to “float.” In Popayán, the bearers are visible and their sweat and strain is apparent. (One cannot escape the similarity of their expressions to those of the statues of Christ carrying the cross.) Some places in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, penitentes mortify themselves as they march. In Central America, there is a flavor of the indigenous cultures. Most different of all, there is a festival atmosphere during the Spanish processions. Street vendors sell balloons and ice cream, bars and pastry shops remain open for the evening and there is a lot of chatter among the viewers. In Latin America the atmosphere is quieter and more somber.

Practical Notes:
Tourist Information Offices in most cities publish procession guides with the schedules and descriptions of the pasos for each day. Hotels in the major cities during Semana Santa are booked well in advance. Apartments and villas within walking distance are available for rentals of a week or more and are a good choice for larger parties.

If you want to drive in from outside the city for the evening, consider hiring a taxi or local car and driver as procession routes are closed off by early afternoon and parking anywhere near them can be a severe problem. Most restaurants are closed during the processions so eat early or get by on pastries or bar snacks. All businesses, including grocery stores, close from Thursday through Sunday.

Holy Week 2009: April 5 (Palm Sunday) – April 12 (Easter Sunday)
To learn more about Semana Santa in Sevilla, visit
For information on Semana Santa in Antigua, Guatemala, visit

Travel Documents:
U.S. travelers to Spain, Colombia and Guatemala need only a valid U.S. passport. Visas are not required for entry. For current travel conditions or U.S. State Department alerts, visit the country-specific sites at the U.S. Department of State: Colombia, Guatemala, Spain

Getting There:
Many U.S. carriers (American, Delta, Continental) fly to gateways in these countries. For Colombia, check also with Avianca ; for Guatemala, Taca; and for Spain, Iberia.

Photo Credits: top and bottom: © Robert Paul van Beets/Fotolia, home page and middle: © inmapryor/Fotolia

Cynthia Pearson traveled for many years on business for a major airline and, after her retirement, for years as an enthusiastic tourist ["Semana Santa in the Old and New Worlds"]. She has logged in 32 countries on seven continents. She says she lacks the Indian subcontinent as a major destination and plans to go there this next winter. Also on her agenda are Greenland and the western countries of the Silk Route. "So many places, so little time." When at home, she is a volunteer lawyer for many causes and a dedicated helper for refugees.

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