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Apr '12

Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Popayán, Colombia

“Where should we stay during Semana Santa?” This was a question Aaron and I had been asking ourselves often before heading to Colombia.  We had heard that prices could double or triple during Semana Santa and that reservations were absolutely necessary.

We quickly decided that we should find one city to stay in for all of Holy week rather than risking not being able to find any (or at least any decently priced) hostals as we travelled.

So,we looked at a map of Colombia,and knowing that we had to be in Bogota a few days after Easter, picked a city half-way between the border and Bogota. Popayán would be the city we would stay in for Holy Week.

Before booking our hostal in Popayán, we knew very little about this town. But,after a very small amount of research, we were suprised to discover that we would be celebrating Semana Santa in what could be considered the “bible belt” of an already fiercely Catholic country (Popayán has more churches per capita than any other place in Colombia).  Popayán, it turns out, is one of the most popular destinations for Colombians to spend Semana Santa. For the past 400 years, the citizens of Popayán have celebrated Semana Santa with a series of processions to remember and commerate the last days of Jesus’s life.

Long, slow and somber processions.  If you stand in one spot, it will take close to 2 hours to see the entire procession even though if they walked at normal “parade” speed, I would guess it would take less than 30 minutes to pass by. They begin around 8pm and normally end after midnight so it led to some late nights.

The processions are an interesting mix of military marching bands, candlelight vigils and religious effigies (can you imagine this mixing of government and religion in America?!).  The main “event” of each procession is a series of “pasos,” basically life-size wooden representations of various events of Semana Santa that are carried by 8 men (called cagueros). The right to carry a paso is passed down generation to generation.  Carrying the weight of the paso throughout the procession can leave softball sized welts on their shoulders for weeks.


There was a procession each night during Semana Santa. To our untrained eye, it was the same procession each evening, but as we continued to watch and learn, we discovered the tradition and deep symbolism.  Each night, the procession began at a different church, featuring some new pasos, with the theme of each night represented by a different colored flower.

While we enjoyed watching each of the processions, our favorite had to be Wednesday night, when the children of Popayán imitated the processions of the adults.

Through pouring rain and helicopter parents to rival even the richest US suburbs, these children walked the entire length of the procession re-creating each aspect of the regular processions.

Saturday night was the culmination of the processions: after the Saturday Easter vigil, they held a resurrection procession! The pasos used Saturday night now represented the risen Jesus, with everyone wearing white, the people walking slightly faster, and the band playing happier music.  It was a neat celebration to be apart of as everyone clapped while the resurrected Jesus paso passed by. It is hard to appreciate how wonderful this last procession was unless you experienced the slow solemnity of the previous nights.

He's back!

We really enjoyed being able to see this cultural tradition in action and felt lucky we decided to stay in Popayán for Semana Santa.

What interesting Easter traditions have you been a part of?  We’d love to hear!

1 Comment »

1 Comment » to “Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Popayán, Colombia”

  1. Shelley Says:

    Enjoyed reading this journal entry and learning that you are experiencing a part of Columbian culture and history while in that country. I’m sure these processions were quite meaningful and interesting to watch.

    Have a wonderful time exploring the area with John and Claire…I know you will all be happily reunited in a few days!

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