For Costa Rica, and almost every other country in Latin America, la Semana Santa (Holy Week) is the most important week of the year. It begins on Palm Sunday and culminates one week later with the holiest day of the year in Catholicism: Easter Sunday. Each country has a slightly different way of celebrating, but certain traditions are widespread, including the procession through the city streets on Good Friday.
At 9:30am we were on our way to the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Jose when we encountered a street staged with people in costume. About twelve men staggered in lines of two or three were dressed in ancient Roman centurion garments, gold-colored armor, and helmets fringed with palm-like fronds. We joined the crowd on the sidewalk, pacing the block to find a good viewing spot. Behind the centurions was a line of priests, and further back we could see the life-size figure of Jesus carrying an ornate cross set on a platform heavily adorned with crimson flowers.
Everyone in the procession remained still and waiting; people on the sidewalk were chatting quietly and watching the street expectantly. Suddenly, the marching band at the tail end of the group began to play—a slow, solemn melody—as four assistants hoisted the platform onto their shoulders, stepping in synchrony so that the Jesus figure swayed from side to side, giving the illusion of walking. On this cue, the rest of the procession began to walk forward in a rhythmic sequence of steps, with a drum major keeping the beat. The first step was up and to the left, then up to the right, then straight, and a rest on the fourth beat before repeating the sequence.
We followed the procession down the sidewalk—past the Soda (general name for restaurant with typical Costa Rican food such as rice, beans, and plantains), the MacDonald’s, the bank—shuffling amidst the crowd of people, a mix of old, young, tourists and ticos. The procession turned a corner and arrived at a small scene set up on top of a little stage: a woman dressed in elegant robes, clutching a cloth to her chest and facing the oncoming assembly with a mournful expression. It was one of the Stations of the Cross (Veronica wipes the face of Jesus). When the men carrying the platform reached the stage, one of the priests began to narrate and we watched the scene while his voice echoed through the streets over loudspeakers.
The parade of personages continued in this way, with the cast of each Station joining in the procession as it went. A little before 12:00 we rounded the corner to the Cathedral. The final station was performed just outside its gates, and once concluded the platform supporting the Jesus figure was carried inside as the band played for the last time.
By this point, the small crowd of people we first encountered on the sidewalk had grown into a mass congregation that filled the central plaza and surrounding streets. The main event had ended, and although the mood was still solemn, the gathering resembled a large community get-together as people engaged in friendly conversation and reunited with neighbors. Groups took up benches in the park, found their way into the Cathedral, or strolled pensively down the sidewalks on this reflective holiday.